Ultra Processed Food

Cover images of the books about ultra-processed food mentioned in the article

Something that I’ve become more concerned about in our household is our consumption of so-called ‘ultra-processed food’. My wife has had a few health issues over the past 18 months, including an elevated risk of developing type two diabetes which has seen her cut her sugar intake. But this coincided with the publishing of several books related to ultra-processed food, and has seen us made some changes to reduce our exposure to them.

The books

Before I go into much detail, here are the books I’m talking about:

  1. Ultra-Processed People by Dr Chris van Tulleken
  2. The Way We Eat Now by Dr Bee Wilson
  3. Ravenous by Henry Dimbleby

Note: these are sponsored links, but feel free to purchase these books from your local independent tax-paying bookshop, or borrow them from a library.

If you only read one of these, read Chris van Tulleken’s Ultra-Processed People. Chris is probably better known as ‘Dr Chris’ from the CBBC show Operation Ouch, which he presents with his twin brother Dr Xand (and later Dr Ronx). He’s a triple-threat: a GP who is also a research scientist and a TV presenter, and it shows. He’s able to digest some academic research into an easily readable format, which isn’t surprising when you consider that this is what he does for his patients and his TV audience. But it also means that there’s academic rigour behind this book.

Dr Xand pops up quite a bit in this book; Chris and Xand are identical twins but have different physiques. Chris puts this down to Xand’s time in the USA, where he was exposed to higher amounts of so-called ‘ultra-processed food’, and so he’s ended up higher on the BMI scale than his brother (although Chris acknowledges that BMI is discredited). When they both contracted Covid-19 in 2020, Xand was more seriously ill than Chris.

Over the course of the book, we discover that there’s increasing evidence that ultra-processed food is linked to obesity, and how the food industry tries to downplay it.

How do we define ultra-processed food?

Chris acknowledges that it can be hard to define what ultra-processed food is. The best model that we have is the Nova classification, developed by Prof Carlos Augusto Monteiro at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil. Essentially, this splits food into 4 groups:

  • Nova 1 – wholefoods, like fruit, vegetables, nuts etc that can be eaten with little to no processing
  • Nova 2 – culinaries, like vinegar, oils, butter and salt that require some processing
  • Nova 3 – processed food. This is basically anything that’s been cooked, so home-made bread would fall under here. Foods from the Nova 1 and 2 categories are combined to create the foods in the Nova 3 category.
  • Nova 4 – ultra-processed food, which is made from formulations of food additives that may not include any ingredients from the Nova 1 category.

Probably the easiest way to work out if something fits into the Nova 4 category is by looking at the list of ingredients. If there are one or more ingredients listed that you can’t expect to find at a typical large supermarket, then it’s probably ultra-processed food. Things like emulsifiers, artificial sweeteners, preservatives and ingredients identified only using those dreaded E numbers that my mum used to be wary of back in the 1980s.

And there’s a lot of food that fall into the Nova 4 category. Almost all breakfast cereals, and any bread that is made in a factory, are examples.

Why are ultra-processed foods so common?

Fundamentally it’s to do with cost and distribution. For example, a tin of tomatoes that contains some additional ultra-processed ingredients may be cheaper than a tin just containing tomatoes (and perhaps a small amount of acidity regulator). It’s a bit like how drug dealers cut drugs with, for example, flour, to make more money when selling their drugs on.

Distribution is also a factor. A loaf of bread that is baked in a factory may take a couple of days to reach supermarket shelves, where it also needs to be ‘fresh’ for a few days. So the manufacturers will add various preservatives and ingredients to ensure that bread remains soft.

You can bake your own bread using only yeast, flour, salt, olive oil and water. But Tesco will sell you a loaf of Hovis white bread that also contains ‘Soya Flour, Preservative: E282, Emulsifiers: E477e, E471, E481, Rapeseed Oil, and Flour Treatment Agent: Ascorbic Acid’. These are to keep the bread soft and extend its shelf life, as a homemade loaf may start going stale after 2-3 days. This means that a shop-bought loaf may go mouldy before it goes stale.

Other common examples

Breakfast cereals brand themselves as a healthy start to the day, but often contain worryingly-high amounts of sugar. And there’s evidence that their over-use of ultra-processed ingredients interferes with the body’s ability to regulate appetite, leading to over-eating.

Ice cream is also often ultra-processed, if you buy it in a supermarket. The extra additives ensure that it can survive being stored at varying temperatures whilst in transit. It’s notable that most UK ice cream is manufactured by just two companies – Froneri (Nestlé, Cadbury’s, Kelly’s, Häagen-Dasz and Mövenpick brands) and Unilever (Walls and Ben & Jerry’s). There are many small ice cream producers, but the challenge of transporting ice cream and keeping it at the right temperature means that they have limited reach.

I’m also worried about a lot of newer ‘plant-based’ foods that are designed to have the same taste and texture as meat and dairy products. You can eat a very healthy plant-based diet, but I would argue that some ultra-processed plant-based foods would be less healthy that the meat and dairy products that they’re mimicking.

What we’re doing to cut our intake of ultra-processed food

We now bake our own bread in a bread machine. Not only do you avoid ultra-processed ingredients, but freshly-baked bread tastes so much nicer than a loaf bought in a shop. It takes a little more planning, but most of the ingredients don’t need to be kept fresh.

We also buy more premium products where we can. Rather than refined vegetable oils, we buy cold-pressed oil for frying, and I’ve mentioned chopped tomatoes above. Of course, these products cost more, and it’s something that both Chris and Henry mention in their books. It should come as no surprise that there’s a link between obesity and poverty, if people on low incomes cannot afford good food.

And we’ve had to give up Pringles. Chris devotes practically a whole chapter to them, and how they trick the brain into wanting more.

You can download the Open Food Facts app to help decipher food labels. It includes a barcode scanner, and will warn you if what you’ve scanned is ultra-processed food. The good news is that there are still plenty of convenience foods which are not ultra-processed – there’s some suggestions in this Guardian article.

Whilst I haven’t yet given up on artificially-sweetened soft drinks, we reckon that we’ve cut our sugar intake and our exposure to artificial additives. In many cases, we don’t know the long-term health effects of these additives, although we do know that some people struggle to lose weight despite eating a supposedly ‘healthy’ diet and exercising regularly.

Asking your friends a question every day

An illustration of a question mark appearing from a wizard's hat. Generated by Bing AI Image Generator

A couple of years ago, I asked my Facebook friends a question – what animal do you think our child wants as a pet? And as an incentive, whoever guessed correctly could nominate a charity to receive a £5 donation. The post got around 60 comments before the correct answer – a parrot – was guessed, and the £5 went to the Bradford Metropolitan Food Bank.

We didn’t buy our child a parrot as a pet – they’re expensive to buy and insure, and can out-live their humans – but it gave me an idea.

So for the whole of 2022, I asked a new, unique question to my Facebook friends. I wrote most of these in an Excel spreadsheet over the course of Christmas 2021, and then added to it over the year. Questions were usually posted in the morning, and all got at least one comment – but some many more.

I have around 300 friends on Facebook and so I tried to come up with questions that were inclusive, or hypothetical, so as not to exclude people. For example, not all my friends drive, so asking lots of questions about cars would exclude people. I also wanted to avoid any questions that could be triggering for people, so most were framed around positive experiences.

I suppose I was taking a leaf out of Richard Herring’s book – I suppose literally because he has published several Emergency Questions books – but it’s something I enjoyed doing. It also meant that I found out some more facts about my friends and got to know some of them better. It also reminded me of the really early days of blogging with writing prompts like the Friday Five.

This year, I’ve asked the same questions, but included my answers in the posts, as I didn’t usually get a chance to answer my own questions in 2022. This has also required some re-ordering of questions, as some related to events like Easter which were on different days this year.

And for 2024? Well, I’m slowly working on some brand new questions, although I’m only up to March so far. And I keep thinking of great ideas for questions, only to find that I’ve already asked them before.

Maybe I’ll publish them as a page on here someday.

I wear glasses now

A photo of me, taken in July 2021, wearing glasses

There’s a few life developments that have happened in the years since I stopped blogging regularly, and one of those was in July 2021 – I started wearing glasses.

I hadn’t noticed that my vision was deteriorating, but it was picked up at a routine eye test. I had a suspicion that the optometrist had found I needed glasses as he tweaked the lenses, and suddenly the last couple of lines on the eye chart got much more clear. Oh well, I managed 37 years without needing to wear them.

I’m fortunate that I can just wear one pair of glasses for both near and distance vision, so I don’t need to take them on and off for different tasks, or wear bi-focals. And they make a difference – as someone who uses screens all day at work, my eyes aren’t as tired at the end of the day as they were before.

Of course, July 2021 was around the time when we still needed to wear facemasks on public transport, so I got the lovely experience of my glasses steaming up.

You may also notice that I’m overdue for my next eye test, so I promise that I’ll book another one soon. I’ve contemplated getting contact lenses next time, but it depends how much my glasses cost. And I don’t mind wearing glasses too much.

2022 in review

Seeing as it’s the afternoon of the 31st December, I suppose it’s time to do a review of the year.

Overall, it’s been a good year. As Covid-19 restrictions have eased, we’ve been able to go out and do things, and at home we have a brilliant new kitchen.

Speaking of which…

The kitchen

I wrote in more detail about our new kitchen earlier this month, and now that our new fridge-freezer has arrived, it’s complete. It’s the first time either of us have had a kitchen that has been designed around our needs, and whilst we had to make some compromises due to the available space, it’s a massive improvement.

The kitchen was probably the biggest thing about 2022 for us; we broadly agreed the design in December 2021 but paid the deposit in February 2022, with work starting in earnest in May. This of course meant that April was spent preparing – moving everything we wanted to keep out of the kitchen and stripping wallpaper (I mean, who puts wallpaper in a kitchen? It was disgusting after years of grease and grime).

Work continued for several months and it wasn’t until September that we had our washing machine back; it then took over a week for our decorators to finish painting it. It’s done now, so we can start 2023 with a completed kitchen.

The holiday

In 2022, we had our first overseas holiday since 2019. 2020, and the pandemic, put paid to any holiday plans, and last year we decided to have a holiday in England rather than travel internationally. Note – I refuse to call this a ‘staycation’, which is a holiday you have based at home. Calling a holiday in your home country a ‘staycation’ is demeaning to those who can’t afford an overseas holiday.

We went back to France again, but to Brittany this time. Apart from driving through, I haven’t been to Brittany for many years, and it was Christine’s first time. We stayed at a static caravan site near Carnac on the west coast, and from there explored the area. We benefited from the on-site kid’s club to have some child free time, and a highlight was a visit to Parc zoologique du château de Branféré which is one of the best zoos we’ve ever visited.

We also came across the Museum of the Junkyard Poet, somewhat accidentally when looking for something else on TripAdvisor, and it’s a wonderfully whimsical place made of reclaimed junk and building materials.

It was a good break, and we’ve already booked another trip to France for 2023 – this time staying near Tours.


Work has been busy this year – like most universities, we’ve experience a huge increase in applications from international students and they all need processing by admissions officers such as myself. I’ve had some changes to work – I’ve been able to delegate some responsibilities elsewhere but taken on others.

Whilst we started the year working at home full-time, thanks to scares around the Omicron variant, we were back to hybrid working within weeks and so I now spend a minimum of two days each work in the office. It’s an arrangement that works well for me; being at home some days is helpful as I can do washing or prepare dinner in the time that I would spend commuting, but some aspects of my job are easier in a formal office environment.

Things haven’t been universally positive – I applied for a couple of promotion opportunities and didn’t get them, although those that did are already showing that they’re a good fit for the roles.

I attended the AUA Annual Conference in Manchester in July, and this included graduating from my PG Certificate in Higher Education Administration, Management and Leadership in front of many of my industry peers.


This year our child (who has a name and a gender but it’s not public knowledge, sorry) turned seven, and is now in year two (top of the infants). This meant a bigger role in this year’s Nativity play, which we actually got to see in person for the first time.

They’ve also started more extra-curricular activities; swimming, dancing and more recently karate. Considering that myself and Christine are borderline sloths, it can be a little exhausting having such an active child but we’re happy to support them in their own interests.

Days out and weekends away

As we have an annual National Trust membership, and because I’m from Yorkshire and therefore naturally tight with money, I keep a list of where we’ve been so that I ensure that we get our money’s worth. This year, we visited six properties:

  • Dunham Massey
  • Beningborough Hall
  • Tatton Park
  • Speke Hall
  • Hare Hill Gardens
  • Nether Alderley Mill

Dunham Massey, Hare Hill and Nether Alderley Mill were new properties, and Christine went to Speke Hall near Liverpool for the first time. Overall, we almost got our money’s worth from our annual family membership – just down by £6.70. It’s renewed for 2023 although we have visited almost every property within an hour’s drive of home now.

Other days out included the Yorkshire Wildlife Park, The Deep in Hull, the Blue Reef aquarium in Portsmouth (on the way to catch the ferry to France), the Tropical Butterfly House near Sheffield, Magna, Knowlsey Safari and our first visit to the Great Yorkshire Show since 2016.

We also had a couple of weekends away. November saw the return of Sci-Fi Weekender after a three year absence and it was good to see some familiar faces after such a long break. The following weekend, we had a weekend in London, including a trip to see Dippy at the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum next door, and the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.


My health has been good this year, and I’ve had the opportunity to be more active. We agreed a minor change to my asthma medication – same drugs but taken differently, which seems to result in my asthma being better controlled.

When I wrote this yesterday (31st Dec), I forgot to mention that I had Covid-19 in March. It was a minor case and I was able to continue working from home. It was probably the second time that I’ve had it, as I’m pretty sure that I had it in April 2020, but there wasn’t sufficient testing available at the time to check. I had my fourth Covid-19 jab in the autumn.

The big change is I’m now a hearing aid user. I meant to blog about this in more detail, but, you know, good intentions and all that. I have ‘moderate’ hearing loss, and have experienced issues with hearing for a few years now, but it took until this autumn to finally have hearing aids fitted. They’re standard issue NHS models, which means that they’re basic (no Bluetooth or phone connectivity) but haven’t cost me anything – even the replacement batteries are free. They’ve made a massive difference, especially when in the office at work.

Christine had her gall bladder out earlier this year, after suffering with gallstones. She’s doing much better now.

Looking forward to 2023

So that was 2022. It was a good year on the whole. I’ll aim to write more about what we have planned for 2023 – you never know, I may even finish it this side of June. I hope you have had a good year as well, and a good new year’s eve if you celebrate it (we’ll most likely be asleep).

Merry Christmas!

A photo of some socks received for Christmas as presents

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to write a Christmas blog post, what with having taken a few years out from blogging.

I received a variety of presents:

  • A bard outfit for future cosplay opportunities
  • A total of 13 pairs of socks (pictured above)
  • A handmade chopping board made by a relative
  • Plenty of chocolate
  • plus plenty of other things besides

We’re staying with my parents in York, as we normally do.

Christmas past

That being said, I was intrigued by Diamond Geezer’s list of places he has spent Christmas over the years, and thought about my own list.

As a child, from as early as I can remember, we would spend Christmas at my grandparents in East Yorkshire. This continued until my early 20s, when my grandparents became too old to host us and so my parents took on hosting duties. In Christmas 2008, we just had my grandfather over as my grandmother was in a care home by that point; she passed away in 2009.

This arrangement continued until 2012, by which time Christine and I had moved into our rented flat together. As a key worker in the NHS, Christine’s work patterns over the festive period meant that we had our first Christmas just as a couple – neither of us could drive back then so a parental visit wasn’t possible. 2013 was in York again but 2014 was back in the flat.

Christmas 2015 was also very different. By now, we had bought out house and I had passed my driving test and bought a car, but Christine was also heavily pregnant and so we didn’t want to stray too far from home.

2016 through to 2019 were back to normal, albeit with the addition of a small person. But then in 2020, the pandemic necessitated remaining at ours, so we had our second Christmas in our house and a scheduled Zoom call to speak to family.

Thanks to the various Covid vaccines, 2021 and now 2022 have been back to normal. However, I was surprised that I’ve only ever spent Christmas in 4 places, in almost 40 years of life.

If you celebrate Christmas, then I hope you have a joyous and merry one in whatever way suits you.

Parenting a six year old

So, the last time I blogged regularly, I had a 2 1/2 year old child who had just had their first trip abroad to France. Now, that child is 6 and is in their last term of their second year at primary school.

It’s been an interesting time, not least because a big chunk of 2020 was spent stuck at home. Days before the UK went into full lockdown in March 2020, our childminder closed and initially I spent time at my parents’ house in York for childcare. When that became an impossibility, I had the joy of working at home whilst trying to keep a four-year-old entertained for four months.

In some respects, I was lucky; my child hadn’t started formal education yet and so home-schooling wasn’t required, but it was hard; taking awkward phone calls for work whilst your child is demanding attention isn’t anyone’s idea of fun. A lot of CBeebies was watched, as were various Netflix and Disney+ shows. Indeed, my child watched so much of Jake and the Never-land Pirates on Disney+ that Jake became their imaginary friend for a while. I had to do this on my own as my wife is a front-line NHS worker, and had no choice but to carry on going into work throughout the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, she contracted Covid-19 in April 2020 and was very ill with it, but thankfully made a full recovery.

Fortunately, in September 2020, my child was able to start school, and settled in well. The school wasn’t our first choice – indeed, it was actually our third. Our top two choices where schools that were more convenient for us, being as they were on our commute to work; this third choice of school was further away in the opposite direction to our workplaces. However, whilst it may not have been our first choice, in retrospect, it was probably the best choice for our child as it has much smaller class sizes due to it being comparatively under-subscribed. We were also fortunate to get a place in the out of school club.

We were also blessed with good fortune in January 2021, when the country went back into lockdown and the schools closed. This time around, the government widened the categories of key workers, meaning that I qualified as well (and our HR department responded very quickly to my request for a letter confirming as such) so we were able to get a key worker place and avoided two months of home schooling. Thankfully, apart from short periods due to possible exposure and ‘having a cough’, there’s not been so much disruption to their education this year.

Despite a rough time in 2020, I’m still enjoying being a parent and we have a lot of fun as a family. We have regular days out, and our child now has regular out of school activities on Saturdays too. Most importantly, they’re happy and healthy, with a group of friends.

We still only have the one child at present; that could change in future but we’re still waiting for my wife to take her driving test before we consider having another.

What’s this? A blog post?

Well, hello. This is my first blog post in almost four years.

I last wrote a post on here in September 2018, and then took an un-planned break from blogging. This was exacerbated at the end of 2018, when I attempted to upgrade the server that this web site runs on, and ended up wiping everything. And I mean, everything, including the backups that I thought I’d saved elsewhere but hadn’t.

Just like that, 16 and a half years of blog posts were gone, along with all the comments. Now, it’s possible that I could have re-built most of the blog posts, using things like the Web Archive and help from others, but between working full-time and being a parent, I just didn’t have the time or the inclination to do so.

Furthermore, I was beginning to become uncomfortable with how much I had shared about my life over the years. Back when I started the blog, aged 17, I had a tendency to over-share. Over time I reigned that in; I was in a relationship with someone between 2005 and 2009 where I agreed not to share her real name on here, and though we’ve both moved on I’m keeping that commitment – not least because we’re still in touch and actually met up recently.

But I also wanted to reign in how much I talk about my child, who is now six. I’m happy to share their age, but I’m afraid you won’t be knowing their name or seeing recent photos, and I’m even keeping their gender off here now too. It’s about consent and privacy – as a parent, I want to protect my child, and they’re too young to really know what a blog is, never mind have lots of information about their life made public.

I am hoping to get back into the habit of blogging regularly, though not on a daily basis as I had aimed for in the past. Initially I’m aiming for twice a week, as there are four years of news to catch up on, but my minimum aspiration is for one new blog post per week.

Why now? Well, I’ve wanted to get back into writing for pleasure again. I’ve written a few things on Medium, but it feels like writing for a magazine; I’d rather stick to somewhere more personal that’s just about and run by me. I feel like I have things to say now, and hopefully the time to put those things into written words.

If you’re an old-time reader of my blog, welcome back, and I hope that this wasn’t too much of a surprise when it popped up in your RSS reader. And if you’re a new reader, hello. You can read my very dry ‘about me‘ page which is more focussed on my work, but I hope you’ll stick around and will get to know me better.

Baby update

It’s been a few weeks since I wrote about Christine’s pregnancy. We’re now into week 33 of (up to) 40, so the baby is due to arrive in less than two months time.

Christine has had quite a lot of scans and tests, due to her being deemed ‘high risk’, but so far there have been no major issues. Her latest scan was yesterday and thankfully there was very little to report. Her hospital bag is packed and ready, just in case our little bundle of joy decides to make an early entrance into the world.

We’ve also got most of the things we need at home. We picked up the car seat last weekend – quite important as hospitals won’t let you drive the baby home without one. We also have a pram, a moses basket, changing mat and some clothes. In other words, we should have most of what we need, at least for the first few days. Hopefully.

20 week scan

A 20 week ultrasound image of our baby

Last week, Christine had her 20 week ultrasound scan. Our baby is developing normally, it would seem – everything seems present and correct, and he or she is growing at the correct rate. And the image is much more clear than it was at the first scan at approximately 11 weeks.

We did found out the gender of the baby and have told some people (mainly family), but we’re not making it widely known. This is mainly because the sonographer wasn’t very confident about whether the baby is a boy or a girl, but also because we don’t want to end up with lots of pink or blue clothes in case we have another child later on.

Christine is still due to give birth in early January.