‘Ultra-processed’ is part of what’s known as the NOVA system of food classification first developed by researcher Carlos A. Monterio and his team in Brazil around 2009. Rather than understanding food through macronutrients like fats, protein and carbohydrates, the NOVA system categorises foods based on their level of processing. This system distinguishes between ‘minimally processed’ foods (frozen peas), ‘processed culinary ingredients’ (butter), ‘processed foods’ (some breads and cheeses) and those foods which are ‘ultra-processed’. As Monteiro et al write in the journal Public Health Nutrition, ultra-processed foods are created by ‘the fractioning of whole foods into substances’ and contain ingredients rarely used in the kitchen, such as ‘high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated or interesterified oils, and hydrolysed proteins’, and additives such as ‘flavour enhancers, colours, emulsifiers […] and glazing agents.’ Once confined largely to treats and snacks, it is now estimated that UPF makes up more than half of the dietary energy consumed in the US, UK, and Canada, and an ever-increasing amount in middle-income countries.
The damage that widespread consumption of UPF causes to human and environmental bodies has been receiving increasing media coverage recently (particularly in the UK from scientist Dr Chris van Tulleken) along with calls that people should reduce their consumption. However, as the French theorist Roland Barthes recognised, food is more than just nutrition; it is ‘a system of communication, a body of images, a protocol of usages, situations, and behaviour’.
So, what are UPFs communicating? What situations, behaviours and social worlds do they cater to? If the anthropologist Levi Strauss proposed in The Culinary Triangle (1966) that ‘boiling’ was a more cultural way of cooking than ‘roasting’ because boiling uses a pot, what would he make of a company using IFF’s GRINDSTED® POWERFRESH® blend of emulsifiers and enzymes to help improve product softness?
One core value of UPF is its perdurability, its sheer reluctance to break down. This gives these products their long shelf lives and in turn enables their geographic expansion to all corners of the globe. Beyond these practicalities, however, we can also see how these products are appealing to a culture intensely anxious about organic processes of death and decay, where images of perpetual youth proliferate and reminders of mortality are kept out of sight. We see this in our obsession with evergreen lawns; our aversion to deadwood and carcasses in the countryside; the expanding anti-aging industry and, at the far fringes, the immortalists and anti-death activists who campaign for a world where bodily breakdown is consigned to history.
Such lively appearances often require lots of deathly intervention to maintain.
Moreover, whether it’s an old jar of hotdogs or a re-discovered chocolate Easter egg that still looks surprisingly tempting, UPFs provide us with a reassuring, stabilised product where organic change has been effectively mastered. Of course, such lively appearances often require lots of deathly intervention to maintain – whether it’s the relentless mowing and spraying of lawns, or the cocktail of preservatives, antimicrobials, and stabilisers found in many UPFs. While the food industry might claim that this kind of processing increases food safety, such claims elide the devastating long term health effects increasingly associated with UPF diets. As public health professor Nicholas Freudenberg notes in At What Cost (2021), a 2019 report from The Lancet found that suboptimal diets are now the leading cause of premature deaths worldwide (11 million in 2017) and that more than half of these deaths were due to ‘too much sodium (i.e., salt) and too little unprocessed whole grains and too few fruits and vegetables’. Freudenberg further shows that this is a typical profile of UPFs which often are made from heavily processed soy or grains, contain high amounts of salt, and rarely contain unprocessed fruit or vegetables.
It’s a paradox that foods which persist as long as UPFs also market themselves as being quick and easy. Unlike other traditionally preserved foods – unpasteurised cheese, wine, vegetable ferments like kimchi – there is no sense of time in UPFs. Instead, they appear uncannily pre-formed, while their smooth, hyperpalatable textures soon melt away, leaving little trace of their existence.
The food industry exalts these qualities, saying that this kind of food is what busy, working people need, and in a way they’re right: these foods are perfectly calibrated to what theorist Lauren Berlant has described as ‘capitalized time’s shortened circuit […] where making a life involves getting through the day, the week, and the month’. In his 2019 book Hired journalist James Bloodworth recalls his time working at an Amazon warehouse where each morning before his shift he’d begin with ‘a hideous ready meal’, before then returning home at midnight and collapsing onto the bed ‘with a bag of McDonald’s and a beer’. As he later reflected, ‘regularity of dietary habit is simply incompatible with irregularity of work and income’. UPF has arguably enabled the growth of these kinds of pathological working lives which would not be possible without them – an administrator can continue answering emails while eating a supermarket sandwich; a delivery driver can consume a pre-packaged pasty and energy drink while travelling to another address.
A focus on satisfying the immediate needs of busy, productive workers is convenient for makers of UPFs too as it helps keep the often unglamorous origins of foods away from consumers’ minds. As Monteiro et al note, UPFs ‘are often obtained from a few high-yield plant foods (corn, wheat, soya, cane or beet) and from puréeing or grinding animal carcasses, usually from intensive livestock farming’. That the production of this raw material relies heavily on industrial, monocultural farms often associated with deforestation and soil depletion hardly improves this image. To counteract this, marketing departments try to inject UPFs with new stories and meanings ranging from the banal (a cereal box cartoon character) and aspirational (health promises), to the manipulative, as seen in the UK McDonald’s adverts which position the fast-food chain at the emotional centre of family life. Such new narratives are doubtless not as convincing as marketers might like to believe, but they provide enough of a gloss to help obscure the provenance of products for the brief time it takes to eat them.
Nonetheless, faux-naïve adverts showing families bonding over encounters with fast food can be seen as having some truth in them. For those of us with palates accustomed to them, UPFs remain a site of reliable pleasure. However, as with the question of ‘convenience’, it is worth interrogating why lives might demand this kind of pleasure in the first place. As Lauren Berlant notes, it is only through such ‘counterabsorption in episodic refreshment, for example, in sex, or spacing out, or food’ that individuals ‘get by’ under late capitalism. It’s a sentiment echoed by Bloodworth, who recalled: ‘The sheer misery of the work [at the Amazon warehouse] left you craving cigarettes and alcohol and everything else that offered the promise of any kind of emotional kick’.
When living on unstable, constantly threatened ground, it’s ultimately the quick, the dependable, the stabilised pleasures that are turned to.
The more structurally vulnerable and precarious people’s lives are, the more such episodes are relied on and Berlant reports how, for economically threatened families, food can become ‘one of the few stress relievers and one of the few sites of clear continuity between children and parents.’ When living on unstable, constantly threatened ground, it’s ultimately the quick, the dependable, the stabilised pleasures that are turned to.
Of course, the pleasures afforded by UPF are never the imaginary of complete satisfaction promised by marketers; rather, these foods are often characterised by a low satiety and, as anyone who’s grazed through a large bag of crisps knows, one can eat large quantities without being aware of what’s happening. This temporary floating, or ‘self-abeyance’, provides enough of a respite to go on – to get through the next hour, day – but often leaves one with a strange hollowness (and often a bit of a headache).
In a statement last year to the BBC’s ‘The Food Programme’, the Food and Drink Federation Chief Scientific Officer Kate Halliwell said: ‘We do not believe it’s helpful to classify foods according to their level of processing but think it increases confusion as it does not relate to advice on how to achieve a healthy diet.’
Her statement shows an unusual defensiveness about an industry whose sales are increasing every year. Indeed, processed food manufacturers have shown themselves to be highly competent at re-formulating products to soothe consumers’ concerns – whether it’s through low fat products, palm oil-free products, or the rise in vegan alternatives. And yet, it does seem that the rising concerns about UPF – and particularly now that nations like Brazil and France have begun to include the term in dietary guidance – represent more of an existential threat to the industry, whose raison d’être, after all, is adding value through processing.
Contrary to Halliwell’s claims, there is emerging evidence that many people do have a reasonably good lay understanding of what ultra-processed foods are and the risks they pose to health. That so many of us continue to eat them is not evidence of a lack of understanding or self-control; rather, it would seem that we’re enmeshed in a culture in which UPF is completely baked in. While increased awareness and new guidelines are welcome, it seems that only by challenging this wider cultural ecology – one of time-poor individuals, disconnected from natural processes, for whom food has been emptied of all meaning except as a fuel for or a ballast against the world of work – will sustained change come about.
IMAGE: Graeme Walker
Ink, pencil crayon on cartridge paper
This image honours the terrestrial order of Oligochaeta, its some 7,000 extant species, and their notable contribution to the creation of topsoil, in which we grow our food. When I consider how my own stomach breaks down what I eat into its constituent molecules, which my body then uses for its physical activities and energy needs – how the food I eat literally sustains me – I remember the worm – how it eats those who have died, excretes the medium on which our lives are dependent. To the worm I am born, to the worm I will return.
Graeme Walker is an artist who makes contemplative objects, paintings, poetry, stories; philosophical prompts; paradoxes on our relationship between life, mortality, and nature; questions around the cultural inhibition and release of agency. His work calls humanity to resist nihilism by entering into aliveness, meaningfulness and potency. graemewalker.art