Hey there, it's Susan Peirce Thompson, and welcome to the Weekly Vlog. Oh, I'm so excited to tell you about this book. I read a book recently that blew my mind, and once in a rare while, a book comes along that I predict will revolutionize our community, that people will break into small study groups to go through it together. The last book, I think that I felt this way about was Atomic Habits. I remember I put out a vlog about that, and I was right. Our community gobbled that book up, no pun intended. The book I want to tell you about this week is called Ultra-Processed People by Chris van Tulleken. This book is incredible, and I would've thought that I knew most of the stuff that there was to know about ultra-processed foods, and I do not. I did not. Now I do.
Oh my gosh, this book educated me so, so, so much. In this vlog, I'm going to share with you some key takeaways that I learned from the book, so that if you never buy the book, you will come away from listening to this vlog with your mind already blown wide open, such interesting stuff. I also set about to see if I could contact Chris van Tulleken to talk with him, and I succeeded in that. At the end of the vlog, I'll share with you a really sweet surprise about what came out of that.
In particular, I really, after reading this book, wanted him to be a keynote speaker at the conference in London on the international consensus around ultra-processed food addiction that's coming up in May 17th. I reached out to the organizers of the conference, and I asked if they'd invited him, and they said, oh, we're inviting him as often as we feel as polite. I guess that they hadn't heard back yet. I thought, well, maybe I could get to know him a little bit if I reach out to him, if he would talk to me and help to make that happen. I've got a whole story to tell you about that. Let's start off with this book.
Takeaway number one is I never realized fully until reading this book how much the explosion of ultra-processed foods is really driven by economics, really driven by economics. Let me give you a good example. One of the, I think most horrifying, most grim, most appropriate illustrative in the context of what ultra-processed foods have done to our society, stories that the book tells is the story of the first ever fully synthetic processed food that was available for mass consumption and how it came about.
It came about in Germany during World War II. In Germany during World War ii, the Nazi regime had the motive to become economically independent from all other nations and empires. They did not want to be dependent or beholden in any way, but they had some issues with that. One was fuel. They don't have an oil source in Germany that can provide for the fuel that they needed for their planes and their tanks and their cars. But they do have a huge supply of very, very poor-quality coal. In Germany, it's about 30% carbon. In the late 1930s, manufacturers figured out how to take this crappy coal, this low-grade coal, and through an intense process with lots of steam and pressure and oxygen and lots of steps, turn it into a liquid fuel that could fuel their cars and tanks and planes. This long process had some major byproducts, one of which we would call paraffin, like a waxy, fatty substance. It was made in voluminous quantities as a byproduct of making this oil out of coal, this liquid fuel out of coal. A man named Arthur Imhausen who, right at that time in Germany, was a member of the Nazi party and was a soap manufacturer, was interested in getting this paraffin because it's a short step from there to soap. He was like, oh, I can use that stuff. Let me get my hands on it. He was also aware because he was a member of the Nazi party, that they had another ambition in their aim to be independent from other nations, which was to find alternate sources of fat.
Germans at that time were consuming 1.5 million pounds, tons, pounds, whatever, of fat lots and lots of fat, and they can only get about half of that from their local sources. They were importing a lot of fat. They were importing linseed from South America soybeans for soybean oil from Asia, and whale oil from the Antarctic. They were importing all this fat to supplement their native fat supply. And Arthur Imhausen thought to himself, well, this waxy stuff is actually largely fat, and I wonder if we could make this stuff edible. Through adding the chemical that actually is still used today in microwave popcorn and some salt and some yellow coloring and so forth, they were able to turn this waxy white fatty substance into an edible butter coal butter, like the first fully edible product. Now, Hitler wanted to make this a huge propaganda victory, right? That they were now independent both in terms of fuel and in terms of their food supply from other nations. The problem was that Arthur Imhausen s mother was Jewish. What Hitler did was he made him Aryan, I can't laugh. He gave him a certificate to make him Aryan. He said, you made this stuff. Well, it went through one of his in-betweens, right? But the story goes, Hitler said he made this stuff, we'll make him Aryan. Then a certificate was issued saying, we officially hereby make you Aryan. Then they got their propaganda play, right? That was the first ever mass produced ultra-processed food, fully synthetic, ultra-processed food. It's an example of how often ultra-processed foods take the byproducts of things that are happening.
Anyway, let me give you another example. Cottonseed oil, right? Well, cotton production was in full swing in the United States, and cotton gins mills used to happen on the river so that the cotton seeds could just flow down river because nobody had anything to do with them. But then someone discovered, oh, you could take those seeds, gather them up and press them into oil, and then refine them and make them into an oil that can then be a raw ingredient for all kinds of foods, thus was born cottonseed oil. Just another example of the economics at play, I hadn't really ever thought about, I mean, I knew about preservatives for shelf life and stuff, but there's a great example toward the beginning of the book that talks about ice cream, and it talks about how if it's not ultra-processed, what happens is that it gets made somewhere and then it gets shipped somewhere or driven somewhere on a truck to an outlet to be sold, and it melts on the way. If it's not an ultra-processed food, it refreezes and forms those crystals, the crystals on the top of the ice cream. Well, people don't like that so much. It's expensive to have good refrigeration on the trucks. If it's not an ultra-processed food, you must have multiple manufacturing plants manufacturing it all over the country, and then expensive refrigeration units on the trucks, and it's all just very expensive.
If you make it ultra-processed food, you puff it up with, it's more like Styrofoam, right? You add all these things to it that keep it from mattering, whether it thaws and then refreeze because it doesn't form ultra-processed food. Ice cream doesn't refreeze into crystals. It's just all air and Styrofoamy. The economic impact of that is that it's way cheaper. It's way cheaper to distribute from one manufacturing plant to anywhere you want to anywhere in the country or the contiguous wherever. The profits are way higher. The price to the end consumer is way lower, and it lasts way longer, and they can make it taste equally good. I mean, that might be debatable by taste test blindfolded, but really a lot of these things taste just as good, if not better as the raw ingredient products. Economics, right? It's driven by economics.
I also got a huge takeaway from the book around I knew that ultra-processed food companies were addicting us intentionally. I knew that. I knew that, but I learned more about how focused they are on brand loyalty and where some of that brand loyalty comes from. Let me give you a good example of this. It turns out that the way the taste buds and the stomach and the brain wire together when we're eating is that when we eat a bolus of extra intense calories meet intense meaning ultra-rewarding and calorie dense, like where the brain goes, oh, yeah, that'll keep us alive for a good long time.
Of course, that's what the brain is worried about. What happens then is the brain wires to prefer that flavor. This isn't just addiction, this is brand loyalty, which of course, if you're an ultra-processed food manufacturer, you're not just concerned that people are addicted to sugar and flour foods, in general. You're concerned that they're addicted to your specific flavor profile of whatever type of food. Here's an example of how this works in the domain of soda pop. Well, it turns out that soda pop when it's warm and flat is actually way too sweet for anyone to tolerate. This is why we don't drink flat cold, or sorry, warm flat, warm room temperature soda pop. It's disgusting, it's nasty. No one likes it. Well, it turns out that making it very, very cold, and carbonated, those two things, extreme cold and carbonation, trick the taste and the taste buds and the brain into not noticing the sugar quite as much. With cold and carbonation, they can pack more sugar into that soda pop and bypass the sensors in our system that actually signals a yucky aversive amount of sugar, and they can pack that much sugar into it with their particular flavor profile, giving the intensity to the brain that signals, oh, this is an amazing delivery of extra calories. We need to remember this particular flavor combination, an imprint on it. This is why people are so crazy particular about their soda brand. When I first met and married my husband, he was a Diet Pepsi guy. He didn't like Diet Coke, Diet Pepsi only. We would go out and literally, if they didn't have Diet Pepsi, he wouldn't order a diet soda. He just didn't like it had to be Diet Pepsi. He doesn't drink diet soda anymore. I never realized, and this is why in movie theaters, they emphasize the ice cold, get your ice-cold beverage. They need to make sure that you understand it's got to be ice cold because they know if it's not ice cold, you're going to hate it. It's actually way, way, way too sweet for you otherwise. So interesting. So interesting.
I think my biggest overall takeaway from the book actually has to do with the reality that I think and speak in terms of sugar and flour. Sugar and flour are not ultra-processed food per se. Sugar's been around for a long time. Flour's been around for a long time. The kind of food system that creates mass obesity at the levels that we're seeing today is ultra-processed food. It's not sugar and flour, it's ultra-processed food. This book educated me about the difference. It opened my eyes to what the difference is between sugar and flour and ultra-processed food. I started to learn the difference of the food systems. It turns out that actually, for example, research shows that in homes where they buy sugar and flour, they're healthier. I'm going to say that again. In homes where they buy sugar and flour, they're healthier. In homes where nobody's buying a sack of sugar and a sack of flour, they're only eating ultra-processed food. In homes where people are buying a sack of sugar and a sack of flour, they're also buying a bunch of broccoli and a bunch of carrots, and they're making a salad from scratch, and they're grilling chicken on the grill. In other words, they're eating real food. Someone only buys a sack of sugar and a sack of flour if someone in the house is actually baking. In other words, they know how to use a kitchen. They know what a measuring cup is. You know what I'm saying? Right. That person is also making stew. That person is also making chili. That person is also making oatmeal in the morning. The widespread population research, the epidemiological research is showing that homes where people eat sugar and flour are the healthier homes today in this day and age.
That wouldn't have been the case 200 years ago, I bet, right? There would be the homes where people ate sugar and flour, and then the homes where people didn't eat sugar and flour, and the places where they didn't eat sugar and flour would've been the healthier ones. There were no Doritos for people to eat then. But today it's actually flipped around, which is really interesting. In my interview with Chris van Tulleken...I did get a hold of him. We're segueing now to the sweet surprise here. I did get a hold of him. We did talk for quite a long time. I recorded it for you to see. I recorded it. One of the main things I wanted to talk to him about was this difference between ultra-processed food, and sugar and flour, because I know that you can't just abstain from ultra-processed food and still eat sugar and flour and recover and lose your excess weight, right? It also seems to me that sugar and flour should be considered ultra-processed foods. I mean, certainly white sugar and white flour are, they have all the hallmarks of ultra-processed food, right? They're put in a factory, they're extracted, they're refined, they're purified. It's the whole point of it, right? Poured into a plastic or paper bag it, it's ultra-processed food. I really wanted to parse this out with him.
We had a long conversation about that. We also started off the conversation, I had to do my fan girl moment, so I was so excited to talk with him. Chris van Tulleken is an MD, PhD, BBC star in the UK, and he's got an identical twin brother, Zand, who they're identical twins, and Zand was living with obesity and Chris was not. It's quite the fascinating story. If you get the book on Audible, you'll hear some of that story because the book is interlaced with interviews with Zand where Chris and Zand, identical twin brothers, talk to each other. It's how Chris got turned on to writing this book, is he was doing a BBC documentary with his identical twin brother on ultra-processed foods, in part because of this interesting thing of they're both physicians and one was living with obesity, one was not, but they're identical twins. It just raised the whole genetic, environmental interplay discussion. If you want to know how that happened, Zand traveled to the United States. Of course, the United States is at fault here for, I think it was medical school and gone through a very stressful time and had put on his weight here in the United States while Chris was still living in the UK. Anyway, I had to do my fan girl moment. You'll want to see in the interview what Chris does at that point is very, very sweet moment in the interview after I told him I had to fan girl for a second. It was very sweet. What happened next? Also, you'll want to see in the interview what happens when around the whole thing of wanting him to come to London to be the keynote speaker or one of the keynote speakers at this conference, because that all got caught on videotape as well. I think finally through the book and also the interview between me and Chris, you'll see he has a very different idea about how you might recover, about how you might quit eating ultra-processed foods, what that process might look like. It's very different than the Bright Line Eating® process.
I just invite you to engage. I don't know where he would be on the Susceptibility Scale , probably something like a seven or something like that, a six or a seven, never with a significant weight problem, but he definitely identifies as having some addictive pull toward ultra-processed food. This book is mind blowing. If you have ever wanted a clear scientific explanation for all the things that you've known about ultra-processed foods, vaguely, but wanted to know in specific, what about those additives? What is xanthan gum? It's going to blow your mind. Oh my gosh. How do they process oils and what are the key words to signal that an oil is, okay? I'll tell you right now. It's either virgin, extra virgin or it's cold pressed. It doesn't say one of those two things. There's a description of the process by which they make all the other oils in the book. Yuck. Ew. Ugh. It's horrifying. I don't have it memorized, so I can't just rattle it off to you here, but it's a long process and it is gruesome. What about the flavorings? What about the emulsifiers? What is an emulsifier? Anyway, it turns out that an emulsifier is like soap. Soap is an emulsifier, and it turns out our body's full of emulsifiers in the cell membranes. An emulsifier is something that's lipoic and hydrophilic on opposite ends. It's like, it's what mixes oil and water together. They put it into salad dressings and stuff, but why are ultra-processed emulsifiers so bad for us? And what are they doing to our digestive systems? What are they doing to our gut? If you wanted to know about the flavorings, the colorings, how it's like pre-chewed, it's like ultra-processed food is softer than other food.
Why is that? What are they doing there? Here's an interesting one. They're actually out to make the food flavor incredibly intense, explode in your mouth, but then disappear as fast as possible. They make the flavors go away quickly so that you need to eat another bite right away. They issue flavors that last too long. That's not a good ultra-processed food because they need the flavor to be gone in time for you to need the next bite. Oh, gosh.
If you want to see this interview that I did with Chris van Tulleken, here's what you do. You get your copy of the book, so you can get it hardcover audible or audiobook eBook. I don't care how you get it. You go to the following website, ble.life/upp for Ultra-Processed People. If you're on the podcast, I'm just going to say it again, BLE for Bright Line Eating, right, ble.life/upp. There's a link right down below. If you're watching this video anywhere where it's posted, there's a link down below for you to click to go to that website. That's where you can watch the video. All you have to do is put in where you bought the book and your order number. There'll be a receipt number or an order number, and anytime you buy something, you get a receipt. There's always a number on it. Just type that number in there and where you bought the book, and you will get to access the video right on that website. You'll find out in that video whether Chris van Tulleken will be in London. You'll find out what he said when I was fan girling him, and you'll find out the whole deal on the relationship between sugar flour and ultra-processed foods.
I'm telling you, this is a big deal for us moving forward, us as a Bright Line Eating community, because the international consensus is congealed already. Really, it's formed around the appropriate framing being ultra-processed food addiction, which calls to question, what's the definition of ultra-processed food and where do sugar and flour stand in relation to that? This is a moment where we need to get educated folks. It's about ultra-processed food. I'm now thinking differently, for example, about Beyond Burgers, and I've been looking through what I eat. I don't eat much ultra-processed food, but Beyond Burgers are ultra-processed food for sure.
I'll just leave you with this nugget, which Chris van Tulleken proposed, which I think is one of the most interesting, wisest things I've ever heard in this domain. He said, if you're ever wondering whether something is ultra-processed food, it can be hard to tell sometimes. He said, just think about the motive behind the food. Is the motive to hook you, to make money off of you, to exploit you for profit? Or is the motive to feed you, to nourish you, to provide you sustenance? And even though every company is going to need to mind its balance sheet, there are companies that are making food with the motive to nourish you. There are, and you can feel it and you can see it. Then there are companies that are making food with the motive to hook you and exploit you and get you to buy the next one. Given how much, I think in my recovery journey, my life about the motives that I bring to any situation, when I'm examining a restaurant meal, for example, or a traveling situation, and I think about my eating, I often think, well, what was the motive there? Was the motive, an addictive motive to get a little more food, to get sexier food, to get to work the angles and get a hit somehow? Or was the motive to do the best I could to protect my Bright Lines in a treacherous situation, in a challenging situation? Motives matter and the motives behind our entire food supply have changed dramatically over the last a hundred years, and I have never ever read a better exposition on that than this book here, Ultra-Processed People by Chris van Tulleken.
Go get your copy and then click the link below to submit and watch that interview, or go to ble.life/upp and check out the interview. You're going to love it. He is amazing. I am very, very, very fond of this guy. He's a really, really cool guy. The consummate scientist, MD, PhD. Really, really smart guy. Ultra-Processed People. Let's read it. Let's discuss as a community. I'm really looking forward to it. All right, that's the weekly vlog. I'll see you next week.