How [not] to talk about [ultra-high] processed food

Bee Wilson took the Association of UK Dietitians (aka the BDA) to task last week on twitter about  their ‘position statement’ on processed foods.


It came only a few days after our last blogpost: The food supply chain: What does it actually do? in which I outlined two overlapping, mutually exclusive ways of thinking about the food supply chain:

  1. ‘structure space’; i.e. any physical entity in it, from lettuce leaf to supermarket shelf
  2. ‘function space’; i.e. what that entity does

I also produced this info-graphic of what the food supply chain does; i.e. what the function is of its different elements:

(Notice there is a qualitative different between the elements itemised above the red line, and those below. Note, too, that any individual company operates within many of these ‘functions’.)

I also pointed out that people often conflated these two ‘spaces’. And that it was sometimes useful to separate them out.

I also said ‘mapping’ between function space and structure space, and vice versa was a useful thinking tool.


The phrase ‘ultra-high processed (UHP) food is always used pejoratively. So what is it that people are so disparaging about?

Is it about ‘processing’ or about something else?

We can separate out function space and structure space when it comes to ultra-high processed food, and map from one to t’other,

Thinking of the phrase in terms of function space:

  • How much processing has to happen before it is labelled ‘ultra’? Is it the number of them? The type of them?

Or is it the effect of certain processes on the structure of the foodstuff upon which the processing is happening?

  • And if it is the effect on the foodstuff, can we identify the new structure space by what it now contains or doesn’t contain?


Notice how a flip from function space to structure space allows us to have a far more precise analysis of what’s undesirable in the so-called UHP foods.*

Precise definitions are needed for effective laws, regulations and policies.

Our take is that we can be precise about two ‘structure’ elements, using the definitions given in the info-graphic below:

  1. Food and beverage products that carry UK standard-rate VAT; i.e. drugfoods;  for more on that topic, see this Rapid Response to a Spector & Gardner BMJ article on nutrition: It’s time to act agains drug-foods, for the health of the population and the planet.
  2. Specific chemicals can be banned from the food chain; e.g. synthetic products (e.g. those originating in the petroleum or fossil fuel industries), some additives.


*Definitions of the NOVA groups are in the left-hand column of this info-graphic, taken from Annex Two of our report on last summer’s scenario exercise on how the UK could be better prepared for future food system shocks: One Scenario: Buffer Contingency Stocks.



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