Review and Summary: Ultra-Processed People

Ultra-Processed People Book Cover

In today’s world, getting food is super easy. But this convenience might be a bit alarming. Think about it: you can grab food from a supermarket shelf that stays good for two years. Compare that to fresh home-cooked meals that barely last a week. It makes me wonder, how does store-bought food last so long? What do manufacturers do to make this possible?

Ultra-Processed People talks about the systems behind our food supply and highlight on what we’re encouraged to eat nowadays. The book doesn’t just focus on weight issues linked to ultra-processed foods. It explores various other problems caused by these foods, which aren’t related to weight at all. The author conducted an interesting experiment: for one month, he avoided ultra-processed foods, documenting his health and body changes. The following month, he switched to a diet where 80% of his calories come from ultra-processed foods—a diet common in the UK and USA.

The book reveals some startling facts, like how food manufacturers manipulate smell and texture to influence our eating habits and even how our jaws have evolved. I hoped for more in-depth science about ultra-processed foods, especially since the title hints at a deep dive into “Ultra Processed PEOPLE.” While it didn’t fully meet my expectations in that area, the book still offers valuable insights into the widespread and growing presence of processed foods in our lives.

I recommend this book for anyone looking to understand more about the everyday foods we encounter. It’s an eye-opener and definitely worth a read.


What is Ultra-Processed Food (Ultra-Processed Food)?

  • It is wrapped in plastic and has at least one ingredient that you wouldn’t usually find in a standard home kitchen.
  • Mostly known as as junk food, but there’s plenty organic, free-range, ‘ethical’ ultra-processed food too, which might be sold as healthy, nutritious, environmentally friendly or useful for weight loss
  • Most of us think about the physical things done to the food. But ultra-processed food also includes other, more indirect processes—deceptive marketing, bogus court cases, secret lobbying, fraudulent research—all of which are vital for corporations to extract that money.

Ultra-Processed Food Divided Using the NOVA System

NOVA is a categorization system proposed by Monteiro, a professor of nutrition in Sao Paulo. It divides food into 4 groups:

  1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods: foods found in nature like meat, fruit, and vegetables, but also things like fluor and pasta.
  2. Processed culinary ingredients: oils, lard, butter, sugar, salt, vinegar, honey, starches–traditional foods that might well be prepared using industrial technologies.
  3. Processed foods: ready-made mixtures of group 1 and 2, processed mainly for preservation: think tins of beans, salted nuts, smoked meat, canned fish, chucks of fruit in syrup and proper freshly made bread.
  4. Ultra-processed food: formulations of ingredients, mostly of exclusive industrial use, made by a series of industrial processes, many requiring sophisticated equipment and technology.

Is Ultra-Processed Food Really A Problem?

  • It is the ultra-processing, not the nutritional content, that’s the problem.
  • It is perfectly possible for someone to eat a high-ultra-processed food diet that is actually relatively low in fat, salt, and sugar. Such a person’s diet would be healthy according to the guidance, while according to the evidence it would probably cause health problems.

The Three Ages of Eating

  1. First age of eating: living organisms began to eat stuff that has never been alive, like rocks and metal. If you find the idea of metal as food challenging, don’t worry. It’s all to do with atoms.
    • Bacteria are still eating rocks.
  2. Second age of eating: living organisms started to eat other living organisms, perhaps after some processing. This has been going on for hundreds of million of years (and for around 2 million years of humans).
    • The age of eating food
    • Continues all around us
    • Obesity is rare in human population that still live in the second age of eating, even when food is abundant, and wild animals (also part of the second age of eating) don’t seem to develop obesity either. Of course, human obesity did exist during the second age, and it is ancient.
  3. Third age of eating: a single species (and their pets and livestock) started to eat ultra-processed food, which is manufactured using previously unknown industrial techniques and novel molecules. By comparison, this age is just a few decades old.
    • The consumption of ultra-processed food the third age of eating because it is such a recent change from our evolutionary past.

Two Categories of People with Obesity

  1. Those who have a biological or genetic condition, and who are therefore not to blame.
  2. Those who have simple made bad choices. This idea is routinely promoted in the press. So, let’s inspect it:
    • Obesity is somewhat heritable. There are 2 broad kinds of genetic obesity. There are rare defects in single genes, which lead to cases in which weight gain is essentially unavoidable no matter the environment. But the vast majority of people who live with obesity have many minor genetic differences compared with people with lower BMI.
    • Giles Yeo: genes affect eating behavior, including the speed at which people eat and the foods the choose.
    • While almost everyone living with obesity will have genetic risks, some people who live at a so called ‘healthy weight’ also have genes for obesity, which could suggest that they are exerting willpower over their genes. The difference between people with the same genes and differing weights is the environment they live in, not their willpower.
    • Heritability is dependent on that food environment.

How Ultra-Processed Food Hacks Our Brains?

Nicole Avena, associate professor at Mount Sinai:

  • Some ultra-processed food may activate the brain reward system in a way that is similar to what happens when people use drugs like alcohol, or even nicotine or morphine.
  • Most ultra-processed food is reconstructed from whole food that has been reduced to its basic molecular constituents which are then modified and re-assembled into food-like shapes and textures and then heavily salted, sweetened, colored, and flavored → without additives, these base industrial ingredients would probably not be recognisable as food by our tongue and brain.
  • Energy-dense hyper palatable food (ultra-processed food but probably also something a really good chef might be able to make) can stimulate changes in many of the same brain circuits and structures affected by addictive drugs. We have this reward system to ensure we get what we need from the world around us: mates, food, water, friends.

Fernanda Rauber, a member of Carlos Monteiro’s team:

  • The plastics from ultra-processed food packaging, especially when heated, significantly decrease fertility (and according to some experts, may even cause penile shrinkage).
  • The preservatives and emulsifiers in ultra-processed food disrupt the microbiome, how the gut is further damaged by processing that removes the fibre from food, and how high levels of fat, salt, and sugar each cause their own specific harms.
  • Most ultra-processed food is not food. It’s an industrially produced edible substance.

Two Categories of Addiction

  1. Substance addiction: a neuropsychiatric disorder characterized by a recurring desire to take a drug depsote harmful consequences—which covers tobacco. alcohol, cocaine, and so on.
  2. Behavioral or non-substance addiction: covers things like eating, pathological gambling, internet addiction, mobile phone addiction.

Ultra-Processed Food and Addiction

Considering parallels between ultra-processed food and addictive substances can be informative. Ashley Gearhardst, an associate professor of psychology at the Uni of Michigan, has outlined the evidence in a series of papers:

  • Ultra-processed food is consistently associated with higher scores on food addiction scales compared to real food.
  • Ultra-processed food seems to be more addictive for more people than many addictive drugs.
  • Drugs of abuse and ultra-processed food share certain biological properties. Both are modified from natural states so that there is rapid delivery of the rewarding substances.
  • Drug addiction and food addiction share risk factors like family history of addiction, trauma, and depression, indicating that ultra-processed food may be performing the same function as the drugs in those people.
  • People report similar addiction symptoms with ultra-processed food and other addictive substances, including craving, repeated unsuccessful attempts to cut down and continues sue despite negative consequences.
  • Neuroimaging has shown similar patterns of dysfunction in reward pathways for both food addiction and substance misuse.

Ultra-Processed Food is Soft

Kevin Hall identified ‘softness’ as one of the characteristics of nearly universal quality of ultra-processed food.

Spongy, rubbery, crunchy—but really it’s all just as soft as down. As a result, the author can inhale a burger in well under a minute. And then I’m going to have another because I’m still hungry. Why?

The signals that tell you to ‘stop eating’ haven’t evolved to handle food this soft and easily digested, so soft that it’s essentially pre-chewed. Rather than being digested slowly along the length of the intestine in a way that stimulates the release of satiety hormones, it may be that ultra-processed food is absorbed so quickly that it doesn’t reach the part of the gut that send the ‘stop eating’ signal to the brain.

For example, sourdough breads. Sourdough breads should have just water, salt, yeast, and flour as the ingredients, but even products claiming to be sourdough in supermarkets are often in fact ‘sourfaux’ with up to 15 ingredients, including palm oil and commercial yeast.

  • You won’t get jaw fatigue with ultra-processed food bread, and the fact that it takes so little chewing may explain many of our contemporary dental problems. Evidence from skulls shows that pre-industrial farmers who were eating increasing levels of carbohydrate have plenty of cavities and dental abscesses. The reason for this is that our modern faces, especially our jaws, are much smaller than those of our ancestors. The reason for this facial shrinkage is: bones are not stones, they’re living tissues that are constantly being remodeled, broken down and built up according to the stresses applied to them. the face and jaw bones are no exception: if you chew, they’ll grow.
  • This softness may also be a problem when it comes to calorie intake. Based on Kevin Hall’s observation, people ate the ultra-processed food much more quickly. And, as well as being soft, most ultra-processed food is dry, which means that it’s calorie-dense. Water dilutes everything, including energy. Meat, fruit, and vegetables typically have a very high water content. Eating more quickly → increases the risk of eating more, gaining weight, and having metabolic disease. The speed at which you eat is partly to do with what you eat: foods that that longer to process in the mouth make you feel fuller. But is’s also partly determined by genetics (the researchers descirbed this as an ‘obesogenic eating style’): this eating style is geentic and is associated with higher BMI. Genes for ‘fast eating’ are likely to make some people especially vulnerable to the softness of ultra-processed food.

Author: Chris van Tulleken

Publication date: 27 April 2023

Number of pages: 384 pages


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