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To start a revolution, bake a biscuit

By The Rev Ian Dewar, Lead Chaplain, University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust

Would you like emulsifier with your tea, or would you prefer a biscuit?

Well, the question may be meaningless. This is because additives of all sorts are a common feature of our food intake.

I have on my desk, as a write this, a packet of biscuits from a well-known brand. Alternatively, you could say that I have a collection of recognisable ingredients such as oats, chocolate, along with things that aren’t so familiar to me such as soya lecithin, E476, palm shea... all of which I need my reading glasses to get to, given the small print. Both are the same product.

This leads me to an interesting thought. How much do I understand about what I put into my body? Okay, I’m happy to admit that the cellular structure of oats is a bit beyond me. But I’m not thinking about that level of knowledge. I am thinking about the level of knowledge that says that I recognise that, because it's been eaten for a very long time.

To move on with the biscuits, or the recognisable and not so recognisable ingredients list, I have done a quick search on the internet for items such as E476. The description is ‘Polyglycerol polyricinoleate (PGPR), E476, is an emulsifier made from glycerol and fatty acids’ and that: ‘An emulsifier is a substance that stabilizes an emulsion by reducing the oil-water interface tension.’

This is getting a long way from a biscuit with a cup of tea. But that’s the point. I had a quick look at E476 and, apparently, I am allowed 25 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day, according to the European Food Safety Authority. But why do I want it in the first place? You see, the addition of the emulsifier is of no nutritional benefit to me. It is to make the manufacturing process easier and, presumably, give a better appearance to the product, making it more attractive and easier to sell.

There has been a bit of press recently about Ultra Processed Foods. This does not mean foods that are processed, all foods are processed: wheat is turned into flour (processed). What is meant by Ultra Processed Food (UPF) is food that may have gone through two or three additional processes and created a product that may add ‘benefits’ to the food – emulsifiers – but which our bodies are not designed to digest. They can deal with them, but we do not know what long term impact this will have on us in respect of health.

Chris van Tulken, in his book: ‘Ultra-Processed People: Why Do We All Eat Stuff That Isn’t Food … and Why Can’t We Stop?’ and his documentary: ‘What are we feeding our kids?’ claims that the over consumption of UPF’s is causing serious health issues and even addictive behaviours. It’s a big claim and one that deserves a little consideration. After all, we have a population health crisis and pressure on the NHS.

What is that makes me think that that it deserves a little consideration? The British Nutrition Foundation has a response to van Tulken's’ documentary on its website that states: ‘the ultra-processed definition also includes foods that can be included part of a healthy diet such as wholemeal sliced bread’.

This is what a magician might call a sleight of hand: if UPF is potentially harmful, it shouldn’t be added to foods just to benefit manufacturers. Wholemeal bread is good for you, so you can eat it, but if wholemeal bread contains 'UPF’ surely you are just smuggling in the bad with the good?

I do not know if van Tulken or the BNF is right. I’m not sure that I am clever enough to decide.

What I do know, is that a major cause of ill health and health inequality in our country is linked to food and that an open transparent conversation around the issue is long overdue.

So, here’s a little challenge for the Christmas period. Find a recipe for making biscuits that contains nothing that you don’t recognise.

Make the biscuits, enjoy them and then look at a packet of biscuits in a supermarket and ask yourself, what do the additives add?

If we start asking different questions, we might start getting different answers and different answers might lead to different outcomes.

Merry Christmas!

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