In April 1994, the CEOs of the US’s seven biggest tobacco companies swore on oath before a Senate committee that nicotine was “not addictive”. At the time it was estimated that 3,000 American children were being induced by said companies to start smoking every day.
Last Monday, the BBC’s Panorama programme came close to repeating that scene with Britain’s food manufacturers. The products at issue are ultra-processed foods (UPF). Their makers’ denial of the harm these products may cause is as adamant as those tobacco execs’ once was, and the consequences could be equally lethal.
As the amount of UPF we eat rises, so do rates of cancer and diabetes. Riddled with additives that are crammed into tiny print on the sides of packs, such food constitutes 57% of Britons’ energy intake. This is the highest in Europe, comparing with 14% in France and 13% in Italy. Being overweight or obese affects 63% of adults in England, among the highest percentage in Europe. There now appears to be incontrovertible evidence that such a diet heightens the risk not just of diabetes and cancer but cardiovascular disease and dementia.
I have in front of me four books on the subject, all just published and, I am told, widely read. They are Henry Dimbleby’s Ravenous, Chris van Tulleken’s Ultra-Processed People, Tim Spector’s Food for Life and Kimberley Wilson’s Unprocesssed. All say the same thing unequivocally about UPF. The epidemiologist Spector is blunt. “This is a timebomb, a disaster, and we’re walking into it.” Added to Panorama, that makes four readings and a funeral.
Panorama charted research into emulsifiers, sweeteners such as aspartame and a chemical, PBA, that leaches from plastic containers. In an uncanny replay of the tobacco saga, the programme revealed that while independent research reviewed by the government’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) was overwhelmingly alarming, evidence gathered on the other side was somehow funded by the companies themselves. More glaring was that half the professional members of the committee on toxicity, which provides advice to the FSA, had past or present links to advising food companies. This crucial committee had apparently not advocated banning any food additives in Britain for the past 10 years.
The Panorama documentary did not cover the no-less-vexed issue of trans fats, a food ingredient now banned by many countries, including by the US Food and Drug Administration, as “not generally recognised as safe”. It is estimated that 90,000 Americans a year have been spared an early death as a result of this ban. In 2010, Britain’s then health minister, Andrew Lansley, refused to ban them. (Both he and his special adviser, it was revealed by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, had worked for public relations companies that had represented the food industry.) The nearest a British government has come to action on diet is the modest tax on sugared drinks introduced by David Cameron’s government in 2016.
However sceptical we may be of apocalyptic hysteria, to neglect so glaring a failure of preventive care seems mad. This is not a nanny state issue. It is more like making seatbelts voluntary or encouraging smoking in schools. Ultra-processing – making food last longer or feeding a craving for more – clearly raises the risk of chronic illness. Health treatment in Britain is under severe strain. Yet the courses of action that may diminish the strain, quite apart from averting chronic sickness, is handicapped by government succumbing to the persistence of self-interested lobby groups. All are now emboldened in a post-Brexit environment where the calls are for less not more regulation.
Britain’s health outcomes are passing from a national shame to a scandal. These studies show that the fault – what separates Britain from most comparable systems abroad – is not the state of its health service but rather the state of its national diet. If nothing else makes this point, it is that the healthy life expectancy of England’s poorest people diverges more sharply from that of richer people than in almost any major OECD country. So, too, diverges the intake of ultra-processed food.
There should be a mass campaign against ultra-processing. Campaigners such as Jamie Oliver and Henry Dimbleby have been crying out in this wilderness for years. As long as this continues, there is no way the nation’s physical and mental health will improve and no way to rescue the NHS.
Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist