A slow unprocess – back to real food

The UK wellness industry is worth over £170bn, but we're sicker than ever. Could Ultra Processed Foods be to blame?

The UK wellness industry is worth a staggering £174bn – but statistics show we’re getting sicker. Why? Following the world’s largest review of its kind, published earlier this year in the British Medical Journal, many experts point to the rapid rise of Ultra Processed Foods (UPFs) which have been directly linked to 32 harmful effects to health, including higher risk of heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes.

Cheap, brightly branded, and convenient, UPFs are everywhere. We eat more of them than any other country in Europe and they make up 65% of our under-14s’ diets. Meanwhile, only 12% of kids get their recommended five a day, almost half of UK low-income households can’t afford fruit or veg, and many of those homes lack access to basic kitchen equipment (1 in 20 don’t have a cooker; 1 in 30, no fridge). It’s easy to talk about choice, but with 1 in 5 families regularly going hungry, a full fruit bowl is clearly a luxury not everyone can afford.

It shouldn’t be this way. Local fruit, veg, beans and grains have traditionally been our most affordable foods, but supermarket dominance and the rapid rise in ultra-cheap UPFs, have thrown off the balance. What I hope is that those of us with the opportunity to vote with our spending power for a fairer and healthier food system, choose to do so. You already do so by opting for a veg box, and perhaps we can all do more by challenging brands, supermarkets, and the government to do better – why not start with honest food labelling? But what I long to see most, is a return to basics. Food that’s good, frugal, natural. As a fellow Riverford customer (16 years and counting!), I imagine you, like me, love real food. I am not here to suggest that anyone gives up all UPFs for good, but as a chef and food writer, I feel it’s my job to come up with recipes that celebrate inexpensive, everyday ingredients.

Delicious and doable is my motto for dinnertimes. My mum taught me the value of leftovers and making the most of what we had. She used to hate me using the word ‘frugal’ to describe her cooking, but I think frugality is precious. I try to think of the true cost of my food, to people and planet – and value it accordingly. Never wasted, and never taken for granted.

Melissa Hemsley is a food writer and volunteer for The Felix Project, School Food Matters & Food Foundation. Real Healthy: Unprocess your diet with easy, everyday recipes, is out now. Photography by Lizzie Mayson.

3 Comments

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  1. Advertising of fast food must be stopped, most of these adverts are tasteless (excuse pun!) Especially the KFC advert – Believe in Chicken, which has a real chicken, using CGI to move to the music at the end of the advert! What message is this giving out? That it is fine to kill millions of chickens that have been bred under dreadful conditions, then processed and put in a bag! NO!

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  2. As usual the response to another crises about individual actions. Unfortunately that isn’t going to take us anywhere. Yes I buy Riverford, yes I cycle, yes I avoid Amazon etc but this is no solution. It just makes me feel better. And anything that does is good for me but isnt an answer to the unfolding crises. It might be a small part of the answer. The bigger part is policy change and political change.

    When you have the elite nations whose recent history is colonial looting and pillage its no wonder the pillage has switched to mother nature and the weak in society. Understand where we’ve come from , how we got here and think about how that shapes our options for getting out of this mess.

    Park personal action statements for another day.

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  3. The billions spent on health care has by some been called ‘sickness care’ In reality that’s what the system does. I agree that we need political and system change in many areas. What made me think as well was a reference to colonial plundering. I confess I haven’t thought much of how we also plunder mother earth and the poor. What lesser amounts of money the poor have is taken from them buying foods that will in reality harm them. When I see my fruit bowl and the veggies in my fridge just after a Riverford delivery it does cause me to reflect and ponder.

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