It all started with the Alpen, but things didn’t really come to a head until the night of the Aldi pre-prepared lasagne.
That evening, after a full day of work, I’d rushed home, running late as usual. Knowing there was practically no time between collecting my daughters from school and nursery and getting them bathed and to bed, I’d picked up the lasagne en route, knowing it would appeal to adults and children alike.
Yet when it arrived at the table, bubbling and golden, my husband refused to take a bite. He said he’d rather go without than eat something he wouldn’t call food, and he didn’t think the girls should be eating it either.
I’m a generally easy-going person, but my first reaction was tell him to ‘make the bloody dinner yourself then’. Choices are limited when I have 30 minutes from getting through the door to starting the bedtime routine.
The even more infuriating thing was that I recognised he had a point.
Dr Chris van Tulleken’s wife, Dinah, revealed that her husband refused to take a bite of an Aldi pre-prepared lasagne
My husband is Dr Chris van Tulleken, whose book on the dangers of ultra-processed food (UPF) was serialised in the Mail last week. I’m married to the man who will apparently ‘change the way we think about what we eat for ever’.
His book isn’t about losing weight (although it does seem to have that effect on everyone who has read it so far) but about food and the system that supplies it to us.
The more digging he did, the more he found — and the more disturbing the food culture in Britain started to look. And the harder it became to feed our family.
In a nutshell, what he discovered is that the problem with the growing obesity crisis in this country isn’t simply that our food is fatty or sugary or salty. It’s that it is industrially processed.
Most of our diet comes from products known as Ultra-Processed Food (UPF). There is a long, formal scientific definition but it boils down to this: if it’s wrapped in plastic and contains an ingredient you don’t typically find in a domestic kitchen, then it’s UPF.
And the cult of UPF includes not just the weird and wonderful additives that everything seems full of, but the ways food is aggressively marketed to us.
Now, I’m incredibly proud of what he has achieved and delighted he’s trying to improve the nation’s health. But I will confess it has taken me a while to be won over.
It’s also fair to say that living with someone fired with the zeal of a new convert has its own challenges.
First, I was OK with not changing the way I thought about food. With a full-time job as this newspaper’s fashion editor and two small children — Lyra, five; and Sasha, two — I had enough going on my life.
When Chris is away, I turn immediately to chicken nuggets
When you’re frazzled from trying to get through each day with home, work and sanity intact, if there is a time-saving option to make your life easier, you’ll take it.
I also think we’ve always eaten pretty healthily. Cereal in the morning, a sandwich for lunch and a decent evening meal, with perhaps a couple of sensible snacks in between. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been to a restaurant since the children arrived and we rarely get takeaways.
I had a brief love affair with McDonald’s cheeseburgers while I was pregnant with my first, but otherwise I eat well.
I’m married to the man who will apparently ‘change the way we think about what we eat for ever’
I’ve never dieted but, like most people my age, I pay attention to food fads: cut carbs, try fasting, avoid sugar, eat fats etc.
But writing the book had such a profound effect on Chris that he now doesn’t touch ultra-processed food. It’s not that he resists it. It’s that he finds it repulsive. The change began slowly.
The man who would add sugar to his Alpen in the morning stopped having Alpen at all. Yes, Alpen! The muesli with pictures of mountains on the packet that’s marketed at people like me who wouldn’t dream of putting Frosties and the like into my shopping basket.
Turns out it’s full of milk whey powder — not harmful in itself but a sign that it has been ultra-processed, and possibly why it’s so damn delicious: I can never stop at one bowl.
Chris didn’t ban me or the children from having it. He just refused to eat it. And it started to become less enjoyable for me. Eating less junk at breakfast is inevitable when you’re watching someone smugly stirring unsweetened porridge at the hob.
Then he came for my peanut butter. The discovery of palm oil in our favourite brand resulted in a 20- minute lecture on the loss of the world’s tropical forest for palm plantations, delivered to our baffled toddler Sasha over breakfast. But I listened and felt suitably duped by the food companies. I switched to Meridian peanut butter, a brand without palm oil.
It took us all a few days to get used to it — we’ve become so accustomed to weird ingredients making things creamier or smoother that the real stuff seems odd. Several rounds of toast later, we barely notice.
I started to think it was the xanthan gum that had been holding our marriage together
Next it was the supposedly ‘healthy’ snack bars. Chris had previously been a big fan of the type that come with marketing slogans to promote how wholesome and natural they are. In fact, it turned out our favourite Eat Natural almond and apricot bars contained a host of less- than-ideal ingredients such as palm kernel oil, milk whey, sunflower lecithin and glucose syrup.
‘These bars are incredibly energy-dense,’ Chris would explain while I chewed away. ‘476 cal per 100 grams. That’s more than a Mars bar, by the way. You’re going to eat a huge number of calories before your body tells you that you’re full.’
Writing the book had such a profound effect on Chris that he now doesn’t touch ultra-processed food. It’s not that he resists it. It’s that he finds it repulsive. The change began slowly
He had a point. At the end of a bar I’d had more than 200 calories, but all I wanted was another one. And it’s definitely a lot harder to enjoy those bars when being told ‘I hope you’re enjoying your soy lecithin, because your microbiome (the bacteria that live in our intestines) isn’t.’
I started to dread the moment when Chris would peer at the ingredients list on the back of a packet. As he inevitably did — at home, at friends’ houses, at my mother’s.
Things really got frosty between us when he told me my Pret Mature Cheddar & Pret Pickle sandwich was similar to a Big Mac. What? Pret says it’s ‘a classic combination of mature Cheddar cheese with chunky Pret pickle, sliced tomatoes, red onion, mixed salad leaves and free-range mayo’. It’s nothing like a Big Mac.
But when I looked at the ingredients, there were more than 40 of them, including ‘mono- and diacetyl tartaric acid esters of mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids’. Eh? I looked up the McDonald’s ingredients and sure enough, the same emulsifier is found in their bun.
About half way through Chris’s writing process, which took a year and a half, family dinners became fractured. He wasn’t going to eat the M&S Battered Sweet and Sour Chicken I grabbed on the way home. It contains xanthan gum, soy lecithin and dextrose.
Chris tried to cook from scratch at night. He works long hours as a doctor and broadcaster, so we would all end up eating at 9pm, which didn’t help tempers at the table. Quite simply, neither of us has the time to do this.
As things started to get more tense between us and I tried not to cringe at the arrival of the Ocado order, I started to question whether it was the xanthan gum that had been holding our marriage together.
I started to dread the moment when Chris would peer at the ingredients list on the back of a packet. As he inevitably did — at home, at friends’ houses, at my mother’s
It’s hard not to feel judged when your husband is side-eyeing your supper, not to become defensive when he purses his lips at your bread and chocolate spread.
Chris explained that the food companies were playing me like a fiddle, persuading me not only to buy but to pay more if I thought I was getting a healthy option. Yet, as he pointed out, if it’s a UPF then there is no healthy version.
Once my eyes were opened to their marketing tricks, I felt they were laughing at me even harder about my children’s food.
The Organix crisps are just preparation for Walkers. The Little Jude’s frozen ice-cream pops are full of oligofructose, guar gum and flavouring. I didn’t want to ban all this stuff but I did notice that things that should really be treats had become regular snacks for the children.
I was a child of the 1980s who grew up eating mostly real food, but the reality is very different for my daughters. As we cut down on UPF, I could see the effect it was having. They turned into monsters if they didn’t get it.
It was a weaning-off process but now, with the cartoon-character cereal off the table, they have slowly grown to accept their porridge — as a consolation, they can free-pour the maple syrup.
I’m much more worried about the sugar we don’t know is in our food. Instead of packaged, crappy snacks after school they now have nuts, bananas, etc and I’ve noticed that their palate has changed.
They seem to want less sugar, though not having it in the house certainly helps. They didn’t finish their Easter eggs (worry not, I helped there). It’s easy to sound smug but who knows what will happen as they grow up and get their own money.
They still have sweets, crisps and ice-cream — this stuff appeals to them so much it would be impossible to stop it completely. But I try to limit those things to occasional treats rather than meals.
It’s not about banning certain foods or treating them as taboo. The child of the parent who bans TV is inevitably the child totally hypnotised by the damn thing at their friends’ houses. Controlled exposure is key. Otherwise, you will end up with a child so enthralled by the opportunity to eat UPF at a birthday party, they make themself sick.
Of course, it’s not an easy transition — you need time and money and help. When Chris is away, I immediately and guiltily turn to chicken nuggets and oven chips. I have noticed that the girls don’t enjoy this like they used to and we are all hungry again almost immediately.
I know I’m lucky to be able to set aside money for fresh food. For low-income households the data is clear: eating a healthy diet in Britain in 2023 is impossible. Even if you can afford the food, the cooking and prep equipment is expensive — and there’s the matter of having the time. This is what Chris is making an effort to try to change: not banning UPF but making real food more affordable and accessible for people.
As for me, I’m a changed woman. Hovis is no longer selling me Seven Seed Sensations with emulsifier E472e and wheat protein. Now I’m spending a large percentage of my monthly wage on freshly baked sourdough from a deli, and Sunday afternoons are reserved for batch cooking. To be fair, Chris does most of this, but it’s family fun and the girls get stuck in licking bowls and generally making a mess as we whip up vats of bolognese, chilli and chicken curry.
In the 18 months it took Chris to write the book, the way I eat has changed almost entirely. I’m eating a cheap chocolate bar as I write this, but now I see it as the equivalent of a glass of wine on a Friday night. I know it’s not a food group; rather, it’s a vice to be indulged infrequently. And weirdly, the less I eat it, the less I want it.
Naturally, there is no need to tell my husband he was right. We just need to tell the food industry they are wrong.
- Ultra-Processed People: Why Do We All Eat Stuff That Isn’t Food . . . And Why Can’t We Stop? by Chris van Tulleken, is published by Cornerstone, £22. © Chris van Tulleken 2023. To order a copy for £19.80 (offer valid to May 6, 2023; UK P&P free on orders over £25), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.