In the UK we eat nearly four times as much processed food as we do fresh. And it’s no coincidence that we’re known as the ‘fat man’ of Western Europe: one in four of us are now obese.
According to a recent report, more than 50% of the food going into our shopping trolleys is ultra-processed.
“It implies a manufacturing process, where staples like corn or potatoes have been messed around, turned into mush, given artificial colouring, flavouring, salt, and sugar.”
Ultra processed foods -which can include mass-produced bread, cakes, crisps and shelf-life ready meals- are one of the main contributors to obesity, because they tend to be higher in fat, sugar and salts.
So, why are we so addicted to convenience foods and do we really understand what we are eating when we fill our shopping trolleys with processed food and ready meals?
Tonight invited unsuspecting locals on a Leeds high street - to come and shop in our ‘pop- up’ store.
Members of the public were presented with unmarked boxes, with nothing but a list of ingredients on the back. They were then asked whether they could guess what everyday processed food item was inside from lists of ingredients that included everything from Calcium Acetate to Pea Protein.
Our shoppers were surprised to learn that the three products, which had 60 ingredients between them, were in fact low fat mayonnaise, gluten-free bread and vegetarian sausages.
“There’s research that’s been conducted recently that looked at how people don't actually listen to what they are being told on the front of the packages… I think there’s a lot to be learned from the ingredients list and that’s the advice I would give to anyone, read the labels and make up your mind whether that is something you want to be buying on a regular basis.”
Professor Tim Spector, a leading genetics expert and author of ‘The Diet Myth’, is concerned about the prevalence of ultra-processed food in our diets, because of the unknowns surrounding the artificial additives and preservatives they contain.
“All these chemical are artificial, some of them are very unknown to our bodies, so there’ve been some experiments showing that artificial sweeteners for example, which the government tells us are totally healthy have a major effect on the gut microbes.”
Our gut microbes play a crucial role in the digestion process and it’s thought they can affect our overall health- from our immune system to our likelihood of being obese.
To try to understand the effect ultra-processed food can have on the gut, Professor Spector conducted an experiment on his own son. Four years ago, for a period of ten days, Tom Spector, 23, ate nothing but ultra-processed fast food. At the end of the experiment Tom’s gut was tested and the results that came back were totally unexpected.
“His gut resembled someone who was unwell, someone who had obesity problems, diabetes for example. So it was very bad news really and we hoped it was just temporary.”
In just ten days 40% of Tom’s gut microbes had disappeared. Four years later, despite him eating a normal, balanced diet, they have only recovered by about half.
Professor Spector gave this advice: “I think everyone can have a bit of junk food every now and again but if you go on it continuously, that’s your daily fare, you’re going to do permanent damage to your gut microbes which means permanent damage to yourself and that’s an important lesson.”
Back at the Tonight Pop Up Shop, dietician Nichola Ludlam-Raine highlighted how subtle marketing can often send consumers a confusing message. She asked Tonight reporter Fiona Foster to pour out a portion of cereal that replicated the picture of the portion on the front of the cereal packet. It was nearly four times the size of the manufacturer’s recommended portion size… also on the packet.
“It’s very misleading, because that big bowl is almost telling the consumer that’s how much you should be having.”
The Association of Cereal Food Manufacturers told Tonight:
“Images on packs vary greatly from company to company and are required to accurately represent the composition of a product.The majority of companies voluntarily provide clear, simple nutrition information to help consumers make informed purchasing decisions.”
Processed Food: What Are We Eating? will be on ITV at 7:30pm on Thursday 19th April