No wonder the National Health Service can hardly stay afloat.
It's a well-known fact that Britons love their cakes and chocolates, but just how addicted to a treat-filled diet they are has become especially clear in light of a recent study. Researchers led by Professor Carlos Monteiro of the University of São Paulo, found that half of all food purchased by UK families is "ultra-processed." This means it has been designed to look appealing and taste good, yet lacks nutritional value. Or, as Monteiro puts it more poetically, ultra-processed foods are "essentially new creations of the food industry with very low cost ingredients in a very attractive product.”
The study, published in a special issue of Public Health Nutrition, gathered data from national household budget surveys between 1991 and 2008. It divided all food purchased into four categories. In a typical British diet, they found:
"More than a quarter of food (28.6%) was unprocessed or minimally so, 10.4% was processed cooking ingredients such as vegetable oil and 10.2% was ordinarily processed, such as cheese or cured meat. Ultra-processed food amounts to more than all the other groups combined." (via The Guardian)
The UK was by far the worst when it came to buying ultra-processed foods. Germany came in second place, at 46.2 percent, and Ireland in 3rd, at 45.9 percent. Interestingly, the northern and western European nations (Poland, Belgium, Finland, etc.) have significantly higher percentages of ultra-processed foods than Mediterranean nations do. Italy, Greece, France, and Portugal measured less than 15 percent.
Keep in mind that these numbers are already ten years old, at minimum. It's hard to know how updated numbers would compare. There has been a surge of interest in healthy eating in recent years, but along with that the processed food industry has boomed, offering ever more snacks and convenience foods as people's lives speed up and they have less time than ever for cooking from scratch.
There are two main concerns about ultra-processed foods, according to Monteiro. The first is what's lacking:
"People are missing out not only on vitamins and minerals but also bioactive compounds found in natural foods such as phytoestrogens and fibre."
The second is what's in there (and Monteiro doesn't even mention the risk of bisphenol A contamination, commonly found in food packaging):
“You get salt and starch and sugar and fat and all these additives. We are consuming every day an amount of new substances that are these flavours and colours and emulsifiers and we don’t have any idea as to what will be the problem of these items."
Ultra-processed foods should not really be considered foods at all because they contain little of what food is supposed to provide for human bodies. While enjoying sugary, fatty treats once in a while doesn't hurt, many of these products are designed to be highly addictive. They appeal to a primal urge for dense calories that, in a sedentary world, we do not need. In fact, they can cause us harm. The study authors write that "each percentage point increase in the household availability of ultra-processed foods resulted in an increase of 0.25 percentage points in obesity prevalence."
It should come as no surprise, then, that the National Health Service (NHS) is in such dire straits right now. As Nick Cohen wrote for The Guardian last week, Britons are shockingly ill and the NHS can barely provide the services required. However, it shouldn't be the responsibility of the NHS to shoulder this cost. Cohen argues, "If food manufacturers want to dump prematurely sick patients on the NHS, we will say, they can d**n well pay for the privilege."
Or we could sidestep the whole issue by teaching kids how to eat by instilling good eating habits from a young age. A fundamental part of this is stocking the home with whole, fresh, minimally processed ingredients. As Michael Pollan famously wrote in Food Rules, "Eat all the junk food you want, as long as you cook it yourself."