Chris van Tulleken: "My Coco Pops hell"
The ultra-processed food scare reaches its absurd conclusion
It’s nearly 20 years since Morgan Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald’s meals for 30 days. Unsuprisingly, he put on weight. He was also found to suffer from liver dysfunction, although that was more likely due to the fact - undisclosed at the time - that he was an alcoholic.
Spurlock filmed his experience and released it as Super-Size Me in 2004. The take-home message was that fast food makes you fat. A science teacher later lost 56 pounds eating nothing but McDonald’s, thereby proving that a calorie is a calorie, although that experiment received less attention.
Dr Chris van Tulleken recently carried out a pound shop version of Spurlock’s experiment on himself. For 30 days, he ate a diet consisting of 80% ‘ultra-processed food’. Today, he wrote about it for the Daily Mail.
His story begins with him opening a box of Coco Pops in front of his three year old daughter. By a stroke of luck, the child has an uncanny knack of speaking and behaving in a way that perfectly suits his narrative.
As I opened the cereal packet, my three-year-old daughter Lyra said: ‘Is it for me?’ No, I told her — she was having porridge.
‘I want the Mickey Mouse cereal!’ Lyra cried, pointing at Coco Monkey.
The packet had clearly been designed with a three-year-old in mind. Lyra had never had Coco Pops before, but Kellogg’s already had her hooked.
Opening a box of Coco Pops in front of a child who has only ever known porridge and then refusing to give her some before eating it yourself seems rather cruel to me, but apparently it is all Kellogg’s fault.
It is interesting that he chooses Coco Pops since this was one of the brands that capitulated to Public Health England’s sugar reduction scheme. In 2018, it was reformulated with barely half as much sugar as the classic recipe, much to the annoyance of loyal customers.
Kellogg’s must now be thinking what many of us are thinking, that it is pointless trying to appease the ‘public health’ lobby.
Again, I told her no, so she collapsed on the floor crying and screaming with rage. Then, while I was seeing to her porridge, she crawled out from under the table, filled her bowl and started to eat great fistfuls of dry Coco Pops, wide-eyed and ecstatic.
I suppose we just have to take his word for this. I’m sure he wouldn’t embellish this story in any way for the purposes of writing an article for the Daily Mail.
Defeated, I poured some milk into her bowl, then read out the UPF ingredients on the packet: glucose syrup, cocoa mass and flavourings.
And barley. And rice. And Niacin, Iron, Vitamin B6, Riboflavin, Thiamin, Folic Acid, Vitamin D and Vitamin B12.
The cereal also contained 20 per cent more salt per gram, I noted, than a typical microwave lasagne.
Why is lasagne suddenly the benchmark against which all salty food is measured? And why is he measuring it by the gram rather than by the serving? A typical microwave lasagne contains 1.8 grams of salt. A serving of Coco Pops contains 0.2 grams of salt. The recommended daily limit is six grams.
Tucking in myself, I found the first spoonful delicious. The texture of the first chocolatey mouthful is extraordinary, some of the ‘pops’ becoming chewy while others remain crisp.
The implication is that he has never had Coco Pops before. How is this posssible? They were around when I was a kid and he’s younger than me.
Just three spoons in, however, the joy was gone: what remained was a brown sludge. Yet Lyra and I continued to crave our next mouthfuls, just like smokers crave the next drag.
This is one of several references to smoking in the article, just in case the reader doesn’t get the hint that food is the new tobacco.
Her eating wasn’t just mindless: it was trance-like. She carried on until her belly was drum-taut. By the time she stopped, she’d consumed two adult servings: most of her day’s-worth of calories.
How has he gone from refusing to give her any Coco Pops to allowing her to eat as many as she wants?
My own consumption was even worse: instead of the recommended one portion, I’d effortlessly hoovered up five.
Five portions? Greedy guts! The whole family seems to have terrible self-control issues. Still, even after this binge - assuming it actually happened - he had only consumed 575 calories and one gram of salt. Not too bad for breakfast.
Sugar, along with salt, is the additive most likely to drive appetite. That’s why you’ll find both additives, in substantial quantities, in nearly all ultra-processed food.
They’re not really additives, are they? The word he’s looking for is ‘ingredient’. And if you try living without one these ingredients, it won’t be long before you go into a coma and die.
And there’s another property in most UPF that drives weight gain. Texture. Take Coco Pops: they’re branded as crunchy, and a few do stay crunchy for a while.
But, as Lyra and I discovered, the milk and Coco Pops quickly form a kind of textured liquid, and each successive mouthful feels more like a slick of wet, starchy globs.
Little does he know that this is a common complaint about the reformulated version of Coco Pops. Sugar provides texture in a way that cocoa powder - which is what replaced it - doesn’t.
The marketing primes us to register an initial crunch of batter, the pop of a puffed rice crisp, the snap of a reformed crisp — but everything yields to the slightest bite. In short, the foods are cleverly textured, which disguises the fact that, within seconds, we’re eating mush.
For CVT, a breakfast cereal getting softer while you eat it is not a predictable consequence of it being soaked in milk, but a red flag that it is ultra-processed food.
Ultra-processed food (UPF) is the latest bogeyman in diet quackery. The concept was devised a few years ago by the Brazilian academic Carlos Monteiro who also happens to be in favour of draconian and wildly impractical regulation of the food supply. What are the chances?!
Laura Thomas has written some good stuff about UPF. The tldr version is that, aside from raw fruit and veg, the vast majority of what we eat is ‘processed’. That’s what cooking is all about. Ultra-processed food involves flavourings, sweeteners, emulsifiers etc. that you wouldn’t generally use at home, often combined with cooking processes such as hydrogenation and hydrolysation that are unavailable in an ordinary kitchen. In short, most packaged food sold in shops is UPF.
Does this mean a cake you bake at home (‘processed’) is less fattening than a cake you buy from Waitrose (‘ultra-processed’)? Probably not, so what is the point of the distinction? This is where the idea breaks down. All the additives used by the food industry are considered safe by regulators. Just because the layman doesn’t know what a certain emulsifier is doesn’t mean it’s bad for you. There is no scientific basis for classifying a vast range of products as unhealthy just because they are made in factories. Indeed, it is positively anti-scientific insofar as it represents an irrational fear of modernity while placing excessive faith in what is considered ‘natural’. There is also an obvious layer of snobbery to the whole thing.
Taken to an absurd but logical conclusion, you could view wholemeal bread as unhealthy so long as it is made in a factory. When I saw that CVT has a book coming out (of course he does) I was struck by the cover. Surely, I thought, he was not going to have a go at brown bread?
But that is exactly what he does.
During my month-long UPF diet, I began to notice this softness most starkly with bread — the majority of which is ultra-processed. (Real bread, from craft bakeries, makes up just 5 per cent of the market…
His definition of ‘real bread’ is quite revealing, is it not?
For years, I’ve bought Hovis Multigrain Seed Sensations. Here are some of its numerous ingredients: salt, granulated sugar, preservative: E282 calcium propionate, emulsifier: E472e (mono- and diacetyltartaric acid esters of mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids), caramelised sugar, ascorbic acid.
Let’s leave aside the question of why he only recently noticed the softness of fake bread if he’s been eating it for years. Instead, let’s look at the ingredients. Like you, I am not familiar with them all, but a quick search shows that E282 calcium propionate is a ‘naturally occurring organic salt formed by a reaction between calcium hydroxide and propionic acid’. It is a preservative.
E472e is an emulsifier which interacts with the hydrophobic parts of gluten, helping its proteins unfold. It adds texture to the bread.
Ascorbic acid is better known as Vitamin C.
Hovis Multigrain Seed Sensations therefore qualifies as UPF but it is far from obvious why it should be regarded as unhealthy. According to CVT, the problem is that it is too easy to eat.
The various processes and treatment agents in my Hovis loaf mean I can eat a slice even more quickly, gram for gram, than I can put away a UPF burger. The bread disintegrates into a bolus of slime that’s easily manipulated down the throat.
Does it?? I’ve never tried this brand but it doesn’t ring true to me. It’s just bread. Either you toast it or you use it for sandwiches. Are there people out there stuffing slice after slice of bread down their throats because it’s so soft?
By contrast, a slice of Dusty Knuckle Potato Sourdough (£5.99) takes well over a minute to eat, and my jaw gets tired.
Far be it from me to tell anyone how to spend their money but, in my opinion, anyone who spends £6 on a loaf of bread is an idiot. Based on his description, the Dusty Knuckle Potato Sourdough is awful anyway. Is that the idea? Is the plan to make eating so jaw-achingly unenjoyable that we do it less? Is the real objection to UPF simply that it tastes nice?
That seems to be about the size of it. CVT mentions a study by Kevin Hall that has become the stuff of legend in the nutritional community. Published in 2019, it already has over 1,000 citations. It was a randomised controlled trial in which one group of people was given an ultra-processed diet and another group was given an unprocessed diet. Importantly, both diets were similar in their overall sugar, fat, protein and salt content. Equally important, the participants were given all the food for free and they could eat as much as wanted.
The people on the ultra-processed diet ended up eating 500 calories more per day than the other group and, after two weeks, had put on nearly a kilogram of weight.
This has been widely trumpeted as killer evidence that ultra-processed food is uniquely dangerous, but I have never understood why. All it seems to show is that if you give people unlimited quantities of tasty food, they will eat more of it than if you give them vegetables. Salted peanuts, for example, are nicer than plain nuts. Of course people will eat more of them.
You can look at the food provided here. The participants were not given ultra-processed versions of the same meals. They were given totally different meals. Here’s what was offered on Day 6 for lunch, for example.
I would be asking more fries but not for more green beans. So what? I’d be asking for more fries even if they were homemade. Why not offer a homemade version of burger and fries to test the UPF hypothesis? Hall didn’t do this because he wasn’t looking at the difference between processed and ultra-processed food, he was comparing ultra-processed food to unprocessed food. The people on the unprocessed diet actually lost weight, but that’s not too surprising when you look at what they were given.
The answer is obviously to not consume too many calories regardless of what kind of food you eat. And, yes, the temptation to overeat is going to be greater if you have a load of Belgian buns on the sideboard than if you have a bowl of celery there. But we kind of knew this, didn’t we? We don’t need to demonise a vast range of foods to make this point, nor do we need to pretend that there is some magical process taking place in factories that makes ultra-processed food fattening per se.
CVT tries to bypass the personal responsibility angle by claiming that UPF is ‘addictive’. He admits that scientists don’t think that food is addictive but he bypasses that by claiming that UPF isn’t really food.
So how do you get round the apparently established fact that there’s no such thing as food addiction? Well, one way is to accept that UPF isn’t real food; instead it’s an addictive edible substance. In other words, it isn’t real food that’s addictive — it’s UPF.
On top of this being transparent sophistry to further an unsustainable argument is that fact that CVT, I assume, stopped eating these foods and went back to porridge after his 30 days were up. If so, there has to be a question mark over how ‘addictive’ they are.
One of the problems with CVT’s argument is that he is talking about food products that nearly everybody is familiar with. Ultra-processed food makes up 51% of the average British diet. Eating breakfast cereals and sliced bread might be a new experience for him, but the vast majority of his readers have consumed such products for years and won’t recognise the sensations he describes.
Sensations like this…
By the fourth week, it had started to have very noticeable physical effects, forcing me to loosen my belt by two notches. And, as I gained weight, so did my family. It was impossible to stop the kids from eating my Coco Pops, slices of pizza, oven chips, ready-made lasagne and chocolate.
I was now consuming a lot more salt, which meant drinking more water and having to get up in the night to pee a lot.
Unable to sleep, I’d go to the kitchen and have a snack, more out of boredom than anything else. I’d also become very constipated because ultra-processed food is low in fibre and water and high in salt. Constipation led to piles — common in people who eat a lot of UPF.
Does this describe the life of a typical Coco Pops consumer, let alone the typical consumer of brown bread? I suspect it doesn’t. Would I recommend the diet CVT subjected himself to? No. No one would. So what’s the point of all this?