angry chef made me angry – processed foods

I stepped upon “The Angry Chef” e-book couple times in my local library, and eventually decided to borrow it, simply because other I wanted to borrow were unavailable. The whole title is: “The Angry Chef: Bad Science and the Truth about Healthy Eating” and it’s written by Anthony Warner – blogger and a chef with 20 years of experience. I’ve never heard about him before, so I was curious about why his anger is so big?

If you’ve never heard about Angry Chef I will briefly outline what the book is about, so you can see what we are talking about. I will use a description from the back of the book:

“Never before have we had so much information available to us about food and health. There’s GAPS, paleo, detox, gluten-free, alkaline, the sugar conspiracy, clean eating… Unfortunately, a lot of it is not only wrong but actually harmful. So why do so many of us believe this bad science?”

So basically author tries to debunk nonsensical pseudoscience that diets are based on. I’m not going to talk about the style or form of how it’s been written, because that’s not the point. The point is that Angry Chef made me thinking about some things, which is good, but also made me angry about others. But we will get there. I would really like this post to be the start for discussion rather than the way to unbosom my frustration. Because I feel like there’s a lot to discuss, and Angry Chef rises a lot of important issues in this book, although I cannot agree with lots of his opinions. I have an impression, but maybe I’m wrong, that the book is dominated by the author’s opinions, not facts established by scientific research. Because as Angry Chef claims established scientific research should be the only source of knowledge and opinions of sensible and intelligent people. So it’s going to be a lot of reading, if you’re ready for it, grab yourself a cup of tea or coffee and dive in.

Actually it’s very good that I don’t agree with Angry Chef’s opinions, because at this point we can discuss (not in the conversation though but still) all the different points of view. I have this strange trait, that I always try to look on a given situation or person’s behaviour from a different (than others) point of view.

Angry Chef vs processed foods vs me

Processed foods, are widely discussed in the book and it’s quite sensitive subject as Angry Chef is employed by one of the food manufacturers. The author praises processed foods, as a rescue from diseases, lack of hygiene and poorness. As if processed foods would not exist we would still be sitting at the table next to the gutter with rats and poo as our entourage.

Photo by hitesh choudhary on Pexels.com

Don’t confuse the processes thanks to which food can be kept and transported in a safe and hygienic way, with processes in which couple different chemical substances are joined together to become something that looks like food. But Angry Chef likes extreme examples to prove his theory.

As one of the book reviewers from Good Reads (yes, I read the reviews to see if it’s me or the book) noticed that it’s “incredibly naive in his thinking that governments wouldn’t allow something into the market that wasn’t good for us. He greatly underestimates the phenomenal power and influence that the lobbyists of these multi-billion conglomerates employ.”

I’m the most naive person I know, but even I know that in global food industry (in every big industry actually) the only thing that counts is money. The same Good Read reviewer Keen gives a perfect example of tobacco industry: “remember that big tobacco claimed for decades to have health benefits in moderation, using images of babies, Santa and it was endorsed by athletes, and doctors in the US who publicly advocated the health benefits of smoking. They were doing this for years and this was still happening in the second half of the 20th century. These are not the rantings of conspiracy theorists, or paranoid extremists. These are highly educated people with power and influence.” Sadly I have to agree, even though I would like to think, that governments, manufacturers and simply people who runs this world wants only our own good. I think 2020 showed us in what a mess we live in, like monkeys in the circus. But obviously “The Angry Chef” was published in 2017, so the author haven’t experienced 2020 yet.

Money, money, money as ABBA sings

When I started digging deeper after Keen’s review I stepped upon New York Times article (link is down below) from 2016 about documents that has been discovered by a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, and published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine. According to them a trade group called the Sugar Research Foundation, known today as the Sugar Association, paid three Harvard scientists the equivalent of about $50,000 in today’s dollars to publish a 1967 review of research on sugar, fat and heart disease. And they were not some kind of scientist that nobody knows. One of them become the head of nutrition at the United States Department of Agriculture, another one was the chairman of Harvard’s nutrition department. You might say: that was over 50 years ago, that was an incident.

Here you have: another New York Times article (again link down below) revealed that Coca-Cola, the world’s largest producer of sugary beverages, had provided millions of dollars in funding to researchers who sought to play down the link between sugary drinks and obesity. Even though Sugar Association still claims that sugar “does not have a unique role in heart disease.” In June 2016, The Associated Press reported that candy makers were funding studies that claimed that children who eat candy tend to weigh less than those who do not. Can you believe it?

So what it tells us? That documents published in very prominent and popular scientific journals does not give us any guarantee, that what is written in them is true. Not because scientists might be wrong, or make a mistake, they might be wrong on purpose.

As Angry Chef writes: “facts produced by science will always change, sometimes fundamentally”…”because they are based on evidence-based scientific research and the sort of systematic reviews of evidence that get us as close to the truth as possible”. What I can say: follow the money. If facts produced by science changes frequently and fundamentally, that should ring us a bell that something might be wrong in that science business. And the word “business” is the key.

Bring your papers

That’s why it’s hard for me to understand why Angry Chef puts so much trust in titles. Having MD or PhD before your name doesn’t make you last instance of knowledge. And not having a history of writing for medical journals or being approved by some kind of authority does not mean that your knowledge is less valuable. Even though author plays down medical doctors he mention in his book and glorifies the ones with titles or registered with authorities: “All registered nutritionist I have met over the years have a passion for rising evidence-based to improve people’s health through diet”.

It’s like you would say someone is not an artist because his art work wasn’t shown in National Gallery. It’s like not holding the title of a well-known university excludes having great knowledge and passion in helping people. Obviously it should be controlled somehow, since you cannot harm anyone with art, but you can with bad treatment. But such claims are grossly unfair for those doctors whose diploma has not been approved in a given country (he gives example of a Russian doctor practising in UK), as well as for those who have great knowledge, very often from many different fields but doesn’t have a diploma of a prominent university.

McDonald’s again?

I know I still didn’t start talking about processed foods but, believe me I’m getting there. It’s just that highly unfair opinions like that (not scientifically proven by the way) makes me feel sad and angry.

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on Pexels.com

OK, lets get to the point. This should be written on every McDonald’s happy meal bag ( if happy meal still exists). After Angry Chef:

“As I write these words I am sat in McDonald’s on a bright Summer’s evening toward the end of Summer school holidays. I am watching the succesions of families returning from action-packed busy days, many irreplaceable and fractious, yet all full of irreplaceable and joyous memories of time well spent. They are rounding of their day with the unhealthiest of convenience foods: burgers, fries and sugar-laden drinks. They are doing this for pleasure and because they want to be filled without having to think about it. They are willing to trade away the healthier option of a scratched-cooked meal because the memories they have created today are vastly more important. This is not an illogical choice, it is more than worth a trade. Conveniences foods enhances lifes because it frees people to live them how they choose.”

That should be an ad of McDonald’s – don’t use your head, just fill up your belly. Seriously Angry Chef? Maybe I’m the only weird person who value more sitting in the park on the grass with homemade sandwiches? Through the whole book Angry Chef tries to prove us that we should not draw conclusions from random situations, and secondly, the fact that something happened (accidentally) does not mean that it always happens:

  1. Anecdotes are not evidence – his almost idyllic McDonald’s story is just an anecdote. His subjective assessment of this situation, unless he interviewed whole family to prove that his image of that situation was actually truth.
  2. Correlation is not causation – Angry Chef keeps saying this million times – end of Summer holidays and family visiting this “restaurant” does not mean that it’s their special day “full of irreplaceable and joyous memories of time well spent”. Maybe they come there every second day, because parents don’t want to be bothered to cook? We don’t know that unless we make a research and ask at least a hundred families about their reasons and frequency of visiting McDonald’s. At his point it’s the only facts we have, is that it was end of Summer school holidays and that the family visited McDonalds, the rest is a story imagined by the author. There’s no science there.

And one more thing “Conveniences foods enhances lifes because it frees people to live them how they choose” – I’m really glad that when I was a kid there was no McDonald’s and no conveniences foods (in the 80’s and beginning of 90’s there was no such thing as ready meals and first McDonald’s was built in my home town last year) and my grandma was making sandwiches for my school trips. They were wrapped in paper that become greasy from the butter, but they were delicious and made with love – butter tasted like butter not margarine and tomatoes smelled from far away with their red juiciness. So Angry Chef if you let them eat in McDonald’s, also give me a freedom to eat paleo, GASP, no sugar or any other, OK? Without judgement.

BTW don’t you think that we’ve been modified to this impatient and demanding society that wants everything right now and right here? Like burger from McD. Meanwhile cooking from scratch is not only time consuming activity that’s only purpose is to fill our stomach. But it also socialize people, teach them how to care about each other. Cooking is spending time together and bonding relations.

After idyllic McDonald’s scene I’ve been even more motivated to dig deeper and deeper. And I stepped upon another article, this time The Guardian (link down below).

Over half of Britons eats highly processed foods

Cambridge University Press in 2017 published a research about “Household availability of ultra-processed foods and obesity in nineteen European countries”. Estimates of highly processed foods was calculated from national household budget surveys conducted between 1991 and 2008, so quite a long time ago. And I’m really curious how it looks right now, I hope that someone will make that research so we could compare it with this one.

Photo by RF._.studio on Pexels.com

This article leaded me to professor Carlos Monteiro from the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, who led the research team. Professor Monteiro used a method of food classification called NOVA. This puts foods or ingredients in to one of four categories depending on their level of processing:

  1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods (e.g. fruits, grains, meat, milk) – natural products which may have been processed in some way but have had no sugar, salts, fats or oils added.
  2. Processed culinary ingredients – ingredients derived from nature usually used in combination with ingredients from the group above – examples are salt, sugar, honey, vegetable oil.
  3. Processed foods – ‘relatively simple’ products made by adding ingredients from category 2 to category 1 – usually two to three ingredients. Examples include canned vegetables, fruits in syrup, cheese, freshly made bread, salted/sugared nuts or seeds, smoked fish and cured meats (preserved, pickled, fermented or salted foods).
  4. Ultra-processed food and drink products – described as ‘industrial formulations’ with five or more ingredients: for example, ice-cream, chocolate, sweets. This also includes foods from category 3 which have had ‘cosmetic/sensory additives’ added. Ingredients from category 2 are now transformed through colours, emulsifiers, flavourings and other additives to become more palatable. They contain ingredients unfamiliar to domestic kitchens such as soy protein isolate (in cereal bars or shakes with added protein) and “mechanically separated meat” (turkey hotdogs, sausage rolls). Examples include yoghurt with added sweeteners and non-artisanal bread. 

Anyway, what they discovered? Half of all the food bought by families in the UK is highly processed (exactly 50.4%), made in a factory with industrial ingredients and additives invented by food technologists. After the research:

“A significant positive association was found between national household availability of ultra-processed foods and national prevalence of obesity among adults. After adjustment for national income, prevalence of physical inactivity, prevalence of smoking, measured or self-reported prevalence of obesity, and time lag between estimates on household food availability and obesity, each percentage point increase in the household availability of ultra-processed foods resulted in an increase of 0·25 percentage points in obesity prevalence.”

Researchers concludes that the consumption of highly processed foods is associated with an increased risk of diet-related non-communicable diseases. And that there’s need for public policies and actions to promote consumption of unprocessed or minimally processed foods and make highly processed foods less available and affordable.

However British Nutrition Foundation has found a number of issues because of “correlation is not causation” statement:

  • cross-sectional study, it can only show that there is a relationship between these variables; it cannot show whether availability of ultra-processed foods actually caused an increase in levels of obesity,
  • looking at averages within populations, it cannot show that individuals within countries who consume the ultra-processed foods are most likely to be obese,
  • for many of the countries studied the data on obesity and food availability were not from the same year, in fact they were sometimes 5 years apart. While the authors stated that they used methods to account for this time difference, this means that the paper only provides a theoretical snapshot of these factors in time,
  • most of the data on obesity was self-reported and so likely to be inaccurate,
  • NOVA classification does not take the nutrient content of foods into account,
  • study suggests an association between ultra-processed foods and obesity, it cannot tell us anything about why this association might exist, as it provides no information about the levels of macronutrients or energy in the foods within the different categories.

These doubts are obviously logic, but it doesn’t mean that we should throw the whole study to rubbish and go for happy meal.

Everything comes from China 😉

I would like to mention about China Study. “The China Study” book is based on “China-Oxford-Cornell Study on Dietary, Lifestyle and Disease Mortality Characteristics in 65 Rural Chinese Counties,” In 1983 two villages were chosen at random in each of 65 rural counties in China, and 50 families were chosen at random in each village for a total of 6,500 people. The dietary habits of one adult member of each family were examined—half male, half female—and the results compared to the death rates in those counties from around 48 forms of cancers and other diseases during 1973–75. The study compared the health consequences of diets rich in animal-based foods to diets rich in plant-based foods among people who were genetically similar. You’ll find lots of different statements about if this study conclusion is truth or not, and lots of debunking opinions. And I’m not going to debate about is the plant – based diet the healthiest in the world or not. But I want to mention about other things, that I noticed in that book, because by accident I read it couple years ago, that is in my opinion can refer to highly processed foods.

Dr Campbell and his team discovered couple very interesting facts:

“Atlas of cancer and morality in the People’s Republic of China. An aid for cancer control and research.” was created in the 1970s and contained information on mortality from more than 60 different diseases. Thanks to this data, Campbell team was able to distinguish two groups of diseases:

  • diseases that usually occur in more economically developed areas (diseases of civilization) like cancer (anus, lung, breast, brain, stomach, liver), diabetes, heart disease
  • and diseases that usually occur in rural areas (poverty diseases): pneumonia, digestive disorders, peptic ulcers, tuberculosis, parasitic diseases, rheumatic fever, birth complications, etc.

The results were interesting enough because the differences in numbers turned out to be huge. The provinces with the highest cancer rates had over one hundred times more cancer than the provinces with the lowest cancer rates. For comparison, in the USA, the incidence of cancer in different regions of the country will not exceed two or three times.

Study also showed that when over the years the more civilized cities of eastern China began to include highly processed western diet, it caused an increase in the so-called civilization diseases. Chinese consumers prefer the imported products than the local ones due to the impression of the product’s reputation of foreign brands. I fully understand it, because in the country I come from, for many years there there was a belief that everything that comes from the West is better (and this belief still exists unfortunately). On a China Highlights website you can find an information that there are now more KFCs in China than even in the USA and more get built every week. We can read there: “only few Chinese have ever been to a Western country. While having dinner at a “Western restaurant”, they might happily eat something no Westerner has ever seen…”, “McDonald’s is a big chain in China. They’ve had about 25 years to experiment with their food. Younger people especially like their hamburgers. It is said to be made with real beef patties, and it tastes authentic”. So we should not be surprised to see that in China, one in five children is classified as obese. This is even more shocking when you consider that back in 1995, that number was only 1 out of 20 children.

What’s wrong with this food?

Photo by Mehrad Vosoughi on Pexels.com

OK, so let us go back to ultra-processed foods. I found an article related to Dr. Monteiro’s research, the author Bee Wilson, just wrote everything I’ve been thinking about in this subject. Author recalls the times of her childhood full of toasted bread, Pringles and breakfast cereals. The guilt she had after eating with no limits made her thinking there must be something wrong with her. Today she asks: what’s wrong with this food?

“As I ate my Pringles and my white bread, I felt like a failure for not being able to stop. I had no idea that there would one day be a technical explanation for why I found them so hard to resist”. Do you recall anything like that in your life? I do.

We eat processed food every single day, cooking is a process, fermenting is a process, peeling is a process. And it just came into my mind, so please don’t feel offended, but that’s a comparison that popped into my mind. It’s like you have two beautiful woman, one is full of her natural beauty, the other one is…uhm…spiced up here and there by plastic surgeon. Hyaluron lips, silicon breasts, maybe silicon bum, one pair of ribs less to make waist thinner, maybe some extension hair and glam make up for nicer finish. Honestly, which one would you like to spend your time every day until the rest of your life?

After Bee: what characterises ultra-processed foods is that they are so altered that it can be hard to recognise the underlying ingredients. These are concoctions of concoctions, engineered from ingredients that are already highly refined, such as cheap vegetable oils, flours, whey proteins and sugars, which are then whipped up into something more appetising with the help of industrial additives such as emulsifiers”.

And lots of these ultra processed products are existing in our everyday life. I just ate Quorn mince for my dinner and have long life plant milk in my fridge. It’s really difficult to eliminate all the processed foods from our diet. The question is what happens with the body when these foods replace unprocessed foods like vegetables, fruits and meat? Question number two that Bee asks is: “consumers may blame themselves for overindulging in these foods, but what if it is in the nature of these products to be overeaten?” Moreover, there’s “adage repeated constantly by the food industry and adopted by politicians – that there’s no such thing as bad food, just too much food – Bee said. It’s like with alcohol and cigarettes – they are strongly addictive, but politicians, health care providers tells us it’s our fault that we drink and smoke too much. The truth is that no one cares about you, the only one who should truly care about you is YOU.

Life is difficult

And here we are going back to Dr Monteiro. He had started off in the 70’s treating poor people in rural villages, and was startled to see how quickly the problems of malnutrition were replaced by those of tooth decay and obesity, particularly among children. When Monteiro looked at the foods that had increased the most in the Brazilian diet – from cookies and sodas to crackers and savoury snacks – what they had in common was that they were all highly processed. And what’s even wore they are advertised as a replace to freshly made regular meals and dishes, with snacking any time, anywhere.

Soon after the arrival in Nepal of brightly coloured packages that, as Victor Aguayo, chief of nutrition at Unicef describes them, “look like food for children: the cookies, the savoury snacks, the cereals”, aid workers started to see an epidemic of “both overweight and micronutrient deficiency” including anaemia among Nepalese children under the age of five. That’s another example.

But as I already mention lots of people decided that Monteiro’s classification makes no sense. Bee reminds a story of Kevin Hall of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland who was very sceptic about ultra-processed foods theory. Just because people who eat a lot of ultra-processed foods are more likely to be obese or get cancer does not mean that obesity and cancer are caused by ultra-processed foods. At the end of 2018, Hall and his colleagues became the first scientists to test whether diets high in ultra-processed foods could actually cause overeating and weight gain.

For four weeks, 10 men and 10 women agreed to be confined to a clinic under Hall’s care and agreed to eat only what they were given. For two weeks, Hall’s participants ate mostly ultra-processed meals and for another two weeks they ate mostly unprocessed food. The subjects were told to eat as much or as little as they liked. It turned out that, during the weeks of the ultra-processed diet, the volunteers ate an extra 500 calories a day, equivalent to a whole quarter pounder with cheese. Blood tests showed that the hormones in the body responsible for hunger remained elevated on the ultra-processed diet compared to the unprocessed diet, which confirms the feeling I used to have that however much I ate, these foods didn’t sate my hunger. Over just two weeks, the subjects gained an average of 1kg. Came out that after publication of Hall’s study results, Monteiro’s study started being treated more seriously.

I think I know why my perception of processed foods is so different that Angry Chef. I grew in a country where highly processed foods started being sold in the 90’s, so in the culture of my country homemade, cooked from scratch meals are the one that we love, the one that are our soul food. In Britain or USA highly processed foods where normal from the 60’s, so their food memories are much different than mine. So when Bee dreams about Iced Gems (ultra-processed cookies topped with ultra-processed frosting), I dream about juicy, red tomatoes that had a smell and taste as real tomato. Not wrapped in plastic tomato-looking veg that taste like absolutely nothing. Or little wild strawberries and blueberries that grandma was bringing from the forest.

Surprise!

What was a surprise when at the end of Bee Wilson’s article I stepped upon the information that Angry Chef, the same Angry Chef from my book, argued that Nova was stoking fear and guilt about food and “adding to the stress of already difficult lives” by making people feel judged for their food choices (it’s like he’s not judging everyone in his book about their food choices). Moreover after having read Kevin Hall’s study, Angry Chef wrote an article in May 2019 admitting: “I was wrong about ultra-processed food – it really is making you fat.”

Ta! daa! What can I say?

And what do you think about processed foods and this luckless McDonald’s? Shall we eat whatever we want, because we have only one life and it’s already hard? I know people from both sides of the spectrum, some of them are surprised that I don’t go to McDonald’s, they eat whatever they want and complain how bad they feel. But that’s their thing. Thanks God in the subject of food we still have freedom of choice 😉

Source of knowledge:

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/13/well/eat/how-the-sugar-industry-shifted-blame-to-fat.html

https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/08/09/coca-cola-funds-scientists-who-shift-blame-for-obesity-away-from-bad-diets/

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/feb/02/ultra-processed-products-now-half-of-all-uk-family-food-purchases

https://www.theguardian.com/food/2020/feb/13/how-ultra-processed-food-took-over-your-shopping-basket-brazil-carlos-monteiro

https://www.nutrition.org.uk/nutritioninthenews/headlines/ultraprocessedfoods.html

https://news.cornell.edu/stories/2001/06/china-study-ii-western-diet-might-bring-western-disease

https://biuletyn.servier.pl/38977/wysoko-przetworzone-produkty-zywnosciowe-pierwsze-badanie-oceniajace-wplyw-na-wskazniki-umieralnosci

https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/public-health-nutrition/article/household-availability-of-ultraprocessed-foods-and-obesity-in-nineteen-european-countries/D63EF7095E8EFE72BD825AFC2F331149

https://daxueconsulting.com/processed-food-industry-in-china/

https://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/chinese-food/article-western-food-in-china.htm

https://edition.cnn.com/2019/03/19/health/china-obesity-kids-intl/index.html

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