It makes total sense why food manufacturers would like us to focus on the good aspects of their products. We have more choice than ever before: a supermarket in 1980 might have carried 8,000 products; a modern supermarket could stock 25,000 different foods. Tesco alone lists four dozen different sliced loaves.
Our palates have never been more adventurous: 50 years ago, spaghetti was a curiosity. Now we compare brands of pomegranate molasses, squirt Thai sriracha on our noodles, and order Peruvian-style ceviche from street-food stalls. British food laws are among the strictest in the world, making our food some of the most thoroughly regulated. We ban growth hormones, have tight rules on antibiotic use and have cleaner milk than the US.
Plentiful, diverse, safe – that should mean healthy. Except we aren’t – far from it. According to statistics released in 2021, one in four adults in Britain are obese, and nearly two thirds of adults and one in three children are overweight. The cost of this to the NHS is more than £6 billion a year, with a wider cost to society estimated at £27 billion. But this isn’t – and shouldn’t be – about the money. The ill health, cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes caused by being overweight leads to misery and heartbreak, and it needs to be addressed.
This isn’t a problem people have brought upon themselves, nor is it a simple need for a national pulling-up of socks. Obesity is a disease of poverty and deprivation. According to the National Food Strategy, highly processed foods – those high in salt, refined carbohydrates, sugar and fats, and low in fibre – are on average three times cheaper per calorie than healthier foods. Yet these are the foods that are aggressively marketed to us, the buy-one-get-one-free regulars with the cheery (and slender) ex-footballer or comedian in the advertisements. They’re hard to avoid.
“The food supply system doesn’t exist to supply food,” argues Dr Chris van Tulleken, TV presenter and MRC clinical research fellow at University College London Hospital. “It’s a food value chain that exists to extract profit from commodities. Your health, other than as it affects profits, is of no interest to the people supplying your food.” It’s a stark view, but convincing.
More than half of our calories come from ultra-processed foods, a category first described by the Brazilian Nova system as “industrial formulations... including flavour enhancers, colours, and additives used to make the product hyper-palatable.” Low in nutrients, easy to over-eat, it includes many ready meals, packets of biscuits, crisps, fizzy drinks, and countless other favourites.
Why do so many food products include additives?
They can make food last longer (including preventing food poisoning); they can also create food that looks or tastes more the way we expect, and they can ease manufacture, by stopping dough from sticking to the blades of a mixer, say. Some are even a legal requirement: the Bread and Flour Regulations 1998 requires all flour to have iron, thiamin (vitamin B1) and nicotinic acid added, and white flour must have calcium carbonate added – to make up for the nutrients stripped out of it during the milling process.
But I still don’t know what all these additives are. I asked Andrea Sella, professor of chemistry at University College London, what does potassium sorbate (used as a preservative in cakes, soft drinks and all manner of things) or hydrolysed carboxymethyl cellulose (a thickener in ice cream) even look like? “All of these things look like white powders,” he explained. “Some of them are a bit stickier, some of them are a little bit greasy, but they don’t look like much.”
Not that appetising, then. But they do allow us to transport food across the globe, as well as tackle the issues of scaling up recipes for food manufacture. “If you’re making biscuits at home, you’re not going to make more than a kilo or two of cookie dough. When you’re talking about industrial production, they are making hundreds of kilos at a time. And their batches have got to be reliable. If your batch of cookies doesn’t work out, you shrug your shoulders and eat some slightly funny biscuits. But for commercial operation, they can’t afford to be chucking out 500kg of cookie dough. The margins they are operating to are really tight.” This is why emulsifiers and acidity regulators are used to help products stay consistent.
The problem, according to Van Tulleken, is that food additives are a key part of Ultra Processed Foods (UPFs), a category of heavily manufactured, highly refined and low-nutrition food that has come to dominate the marketplace. It’s now thought that 60 per cent of the calories consumed by children come from UPFs. “Whether or not xanthan gum is actually bad for you, or as bad as dimethylpolysiloxane, is complicated,” Van Tulleken explains, but seeing additives listed on a label is “a signal that the food is UPF.” That, he is adamant, is a bad thing. “If you eat it, it will hurt you. And it’s not really food. But avoiding it is nearly impossible for almost all of us.”
And there’s the rub – most of these products have been designed to be so delicious that we keep eating them even when we are no longer hungry. As the Pringles ad famously said: “Once you pop, you can’t stop.” So how are we meant to stick to the recommended serving size of just 13 crisps?
Van Tulleken, who presented BBC One’s What Are We Feeding Our Kids? in May 2021, which made a strong case that UPFs are addictive, is adamant that there is a simple driver for the industry to use additives: money. “For the most part, the reason they are in your food is because they’re useful to the manufacturer or marketer of the food. So their purpose is not to be nourishing,” he explains. Van Tulleken has no truck with arguments that manufacturers are making food more affordable. “It’s not about making low-cost food, it’s about finding a price point where you can extract the maximum profit from the largest number of people in the shortest period of time.”
Take Pulpiz. You won’t see Pulpiz, one of around 100 modified starches produced by Tate & Lyle (yes, the sugar people) for industry, on an ingredients list. It’ll just say “modified starch”. But the purpose is clear from the press release: “PULPIZ™ can replace at least 25 per cent of tomato paste … [and] significantly reduce production costs in tomato-based soups and sauces without compromising taste or texture.” Pulpiz, it says, “offers an innovative and effective solution for manufacturers dealing with rising recipe costs and the volatility of the tomato paste market… but still retains its particulate nature through harsh processing conditions.”
Handy for the manufacturer then, as using it can trick our palates into thinking a soup or sauce has got more tomato in than it actually has. What it does have more of, however, is refined carbohydrate and water. Nutrition? Who cares?
So how can we fight this insidious industry? Understanding it is the best start. Be informed. Not so much a miracle, but a step in the right direction.
How thoroughly do you read the ingredients list?
It’s arguably the most important thing you’ll read all day, so why is it so irritatingly small? Incredibly, the minimum size for lettering is only 1.2mm high for an “x”, and on small packages it can be 0.9mm. As ultra-processed foods have longer and longer lists of ingredients – not to mention the allergy information – they have to be printed small simply to fit. But manufacturers know that keeping it tiny means that it’s effectively illegible to a large portion of the population, and most of the rest of us can’t be bothered – especially when it’s hidden behind the join on the wrapper.
Legally, any prepacked food has to bear a label listing its ingredients in order of weight, starting with the largest; be aware of sugar or salt in the top three (likely to be in a high quantity) and for any other added sugars such as concentrated fruit juice, syrups, or ingredients ending -ose, such as glucose, fructose or dextrose – all are “free” sugars which contribute to obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Many lists seem like they are written in a foreign language. Here’s a decoder:
They link fat and water together, which naturally repel. Lecithin, usually extracted from soy but also abundant in egg yolk, is a common additive and gives chocolate a smoother texture. Mono and diglycerides of fatty acids (usually manufactured from soy oil) are used in breads, cakes and baked goods to keep doughs evenly mixed.
These keep emulsions from splitting, stop water leaking out of a product (improving its shelf life), and stop the fruit from sinking to the bottom in jam. Glucose is used in ice cream to prevent the formation of ice crystals so it tastes smoother. Other common stabilisers are hydrocolloids, which create gels, like agar-agar, carrageenan and pectin, or gums like xanthan gum.
These include starches such as flour in a white sauce, gums, or proteins like egg in a custard – all increase viscosity (and some act as stabilisers too). Common thickeners include carboxymethyl cellulose, aka cellulose gum, made from plant matter including wood pulp, and modified starch (see below).
A starch that has been extracted from grains and vegetables and treated to suit its purpose better, either using heat, enzymes or chemical processes. This may be to give the final product a more glossy or matt appearance, or to help it survive being frozen or heated without changing.
Oxygen attacks food, causing it to go rancid or stale. Antioxidants counter this, extending shelf life, and may also help maintain nutritional levels in food products. Ascorbic acid is a common one, aka vitamin C – but don’t imagine it comes from lemons. In fact it is synthesised from glucose by a complex chemical process involving bleach, acetone, microorganisms and something called “ring-closing lactonisation”.
These also lengthen shelf life, by destroying bacteria or preventing mould growth. We’d use salt or sugar at home; benzoates, sorbates, propionates and nitrites are used in the food industry. Potassium sorbate (E202) is commonly used in soft drinks, cheese and baked foods to prevent mould and yeast growth.
Colourings and flavourings
We all add flavouring when we cook, whether it’s a pinch of mixed spice, a sprig of thyme or a vanilla pod. And when we add turmeric to rice or a handful of spinach to a smoothie it’s as much about colour as it is about flavour. So should we be worried when manufacturers add colour and flavour to their products?
Yes, when it tricks our minds into thinking we are eating something we aren’t, so that sugar water tastes and looks like fruit juice, or a relatively low-protein beef substitute tastes satisfyingly meaty.
There are more significant reasons, too. A study by Southampton University in 2007 concluded that eating six artificial food colourings, including yellow tartrazine (E102) and allura red (E129), alongside a preservative (sodium benzoate), result in increased hyperactivity in some children. The European Food Safety Authority subsequently said “evidence does not substantiate a link”, but UK food containing any of the six colourings named have to carry the warning: “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children”.
Under pressure from consumers, manufacturers have been moving towards using natural colourings (and flavourings) extracted from vegetable, animal or mineral sources.
Unhealthy things not on the food label
Strangely enough, not all ingredients have to be declared on the packet...
Waxes and spray-on protectors
These act as a preservative on fresh fruit and vegetables by preventing them from drying out
These are already in an ingredient that is then used in the product but “serve no technological function in the finished product” (say, for example, ascorbic acid used in pre-chopped onions for a ready meal)
Solvents and carriers
These are for the additives.
These are added during production and should have vanished by the time the product hits the shelf. It might be a filter, an antifoaming agent, or an alkali which converts an acid to salt. Enzymes count as processing aids and include transglutaminase, which helps meat hold water, bulking up cheap sausages.
There is no evidence that they are dangerous in the minuscule quantities they are used, though more work needs to be done; it is a constantly changing market as laboratories battle to produce new ways to increase shelf life and profit.
Using the traffic light system on food labels
Introduced in 2013, the red, yellow and green label that sets out whether a product has high, medium or low amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt is recommended but not legally required. It might show the absolute amount in grams (per 100g or per portion) as well as a percentage of the “reference intake” (RI), which is what used to be known as our recommended daily allowance.
Its proponents say it provides at-a-glance nutritional information to time-pressed shoppers and drives manufacturers to reduce fat, sugar and salt in order to avoid “red lights”. But critics point out that the labelling doesn’t help shoppers choose foods with higher beneficial nutrients such as calcium, protein or fibre.
Sadly, there’s no evidence that the traffic light system is stopping us buying high sugar, fat or salt products – indeed, as a nation we’ve got heavier since their introduction. Listing both kilocalories and kilojoules is weirdly confusing, and less than half of us understand what the RI is. It’s widely felt that the system has had its day. While the government is keen to throw off the shackles of European labelling laws, health campaigners favour the French Nutriscore system, which highlights positive nutrients as well as ones that need limiting. There is even talk of moving to a cigarette-style health warning on “red” foods, a hardline option which has been successful in Chile.
The fight against fat: how to identify good from bad
We all need fat, I’m glad to say. It’s essential for the absorption of vitamins A, D, E and K, and where we find essential fatty acids like omega-3s. We also need fat for a multitude of other functions such as building cell walls and muscle movement.
But fat is the most calorie-dense food we can eat, and most dieticians agree that if you’re trying to lose weight while maintaining a balanced diet it’s necessary to limit your fat consumption. It’s especially important to watch the amount of saturated and “trans” fats (usually listed as “partially hydrogenated oil” and used in solid margarine, biscuits, cakes and fried food) as they raise our “bad” LDL cholesterol, which is linked to heart disease. And yes, we all know someone who swears by a high-fat keto diet – but the vast majority of health professionals dismiss these as at best not a long-term solution and at worst downright dangerous.
Unsaturated fat is liquid at room temperature and includes polyunsaturated and monounsaturated oils. Sunflower oil and rapeseed oil are high in polyunsaturated fat, as is oily fish. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are found in polyunsaturated oil, and a balance of the two is essential for good health, although most Westerners get too much omega-6 (found in cooking oils) and not enough omega-3 (found in algae and oily fish). Monounsaturated fats (in olive oil, nuts and flaxseed), are central to the Mediterranean diet, which is linked to low rates of heart disease.
Saturated fat (generally a solid) is found in high levels in meat as well as butter, cheese and coconut oil. It’s not bad in itself, but most doctors agree that too much saturated fat tips the balance of cholesterol in our blood from “good” high-density lipoprotein (HDL) to the “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL); we should limit intake to less than 10 per cent of our daily calories – an 8oz steak or a couple of matchboxes of cheese, but not both.
Trans fat, meanwhile, is the baddie of the fat world. A small amount occurs naturally in meat and dairy, but almost all of it is manufactured by combining hydrogen and vegetable oil to make a solid, or “partially hydrogenated” fat. These are cheap and improve the shelf life of foods but are also linked to heart attacks, strokes and type 2 diabetes. The World Health Organisation has labelled them “toxic” and is campaigning to remove trans fats from the global food chain by 2023. They’re banned in Denmark, Austria, Iceland and parts of the US, but the UK relies on voluntary reduction by manufacturers. Why? It’s a very good question and seems a bizarre approach since it would require food companies to choose to reduce their profits. How to spot trans fats? Look for “partially hydrogenated oil” on the label.
‘Healthy’ labels and what they really mean
Contains less than 0.5g fat per serving, but ask yourself what is replacing the fat to make it taste and feel similar to a full-fat product? It’s probably either sugar or refined carbohydrate, both of which are implicated in obesity. Or it may be a gel-type thickener such as carrageenan – a seaweed extract that may cause gut problems, particularly for people with Crohn’s disease.
Has 3g or less of fat per 100g. It may also contain additives to compensate for the reduction in fat.
Has less than 0.5g per serving of free sugar or intrinsic sugar, but will probably have artificial sweeteners and flavouring as it can’t (for example) contain any milk or whole fruit as that would contain intrinsic sugar. May also have added thickeners to give it a better “mouth feel”.
Less than 5g of sugar per 100g. Low-sugar products like baked beans and ketchup have artificial sweeteners added.
No added sugar
No “free” sugar is added, but there may be naturally occurring “intrinsic” sugar in the food.
Reduced fat or sugar
Contains at least 30 per cent less fat or sugar than the standard version of the product. Not necessarily healthier, however, and may have almost as many calories along with extra additives.
High in protein
Legally, a product can claim it is high in protein if at least 20 per cent of the calories in the food are provided by protein, which has four calories per gram. But that doesn’t mean it’s as high a source as alternatives. So a vegan pork substitute can claim to be high in protein with 12.5g protein per 100g, but it is still much less than the 30g in the lean pork mince it mimics.
This article is kept updated with the latest information.