Bookmarks–October 29, 2023

In this edition of Bookmarks: the troubles with ultra-processed foods and a not-so-brief history of pasta. 

Nutritional psychiatry professor Felice Jacka: ‘The global food system is the leading cause of early death’

This headline may seem a bit sensational, but it speaks an urgent truth: ultra-processed foods (UPFs) and the conglomerates that make them and market them are causing myriad health problems among often unsuspecting consumers. Like most people, I haven’t sworn off UPFs entirely but have always tried to keep whole foods front and centre in my family’s diet. The UPF issue is complex, as noted here–these foods tend to be affordable and widely available, which is something that cannot necessarily be said about “whole” foods. I hadn’t heard of nutritional psychiatry but I can see why it is an up and coming field. 

What the tobacco industry had done for a long time was to confuse people by saying correlation doesn’t equal causation. Now, they do exactly the same thing with food. Think of the billions of dollars that are generated in profits through the industrialised food system every year, and the power of those industries to get people, including scientists, to muddy the waters.” (The Guardian)

Ultra-processed diet increases risk of depression, study suggests

More on the potential dangers of UPFs, this time looking at the effects on mental health rather than physical. 

“…the current study adds to growing evidence that eating lots of UPF increases the risk of depression…Previous research has suggested ways in which UPF can affect mental health...A diet high in UPF may negatively influence gut microbes, resulting in a less diverse microbiome. This, in turn, can contribute to chronic inflammation…It’s thought that inflammatory-immune compounds communicate with the brain, affecting mood and energy levels…There’s also evidence that artificial sweeteners can impair the synthesis and release of serotonin and dopamine, brain chemicals that influence mood. (The Globe & Mail)

Talking junk with Chris van Tulleken

Chris van Tulleken recently published a book on the UPFs called Ultra-Processed People. I’ve had it on hold at the library since July (!) and I’m still nowhere near getting it. I just might go out and buy it. Based on this interview on the Food with Mark Bittman podcast, the book will be well worth it. The interview aired in August but I just got a chance to listen to it recently. Highly recommended.

“From the very get-go, ultra-processed food has been about repurposing waste. It’s about taking stuff that is just garbage that humans wouldn’t typically eat and wrapping it up and repackaging it into something we will…That’s a benign enough agenda…What happened in the 60s, 70s, and 80s is this process of financialization…One of the things we’re studying is the extent to which the corporations that make our food–and there aren’t many of them…are highly financialized companies. Their only interest–not their primary interest–their only interest is shareholder value and dividend payments…So the journey starts with a sort of benign intention to make fake cheap butter and it becomes about delivering financial growth in a market where we already have enough food. So that’s the logic about how it becomes addictive…Once you have enough food, you’ve got to keep selling more. If you’re obliged to have quarterly growth, which the companies all are, you’ve got to make food that people will eat to excess.” (Food with Mark Bittman)  

The causes of nutrient deficiencies 

I stumbled upon Nutrivore on Threads, through a video posted by the founder, Dr. Sarah Ballantyne. I was immediately struck by her “nourishment, not judgment” perspective. The Nutrivore mission is to “improve scientific literacy surrounding public health topics, in order to empower the general public to make healthier day-to-day choices, outside of any specific dietary framework or the guilt cycle propelled by diet culture.” There are a lot of marketing pushes on the site, but it’s a fair exchange for the valuable information they provide. I’ve linked to an article below that touches on the issue of hyperpalatability of UPFs, among other things. The website is loaded with information and their social media seems very informative too.  

Why do almost all of our diets fall short of meeting our body’s nutritional needs? The complex reasons include: ultra-processed and hyperpalatable foods displacing more nutritionally valuable options; dietary guidelines historically focusing on nutritionally underwhelming foods; and, weight-loss and fad diets propelling diet myths, healthism, and restrictive eating patterns. Basically, it’s harder than ever to choose healthy foods, and most people are confused about which foods those even are.” (Nutrivore)


I love learning about a food’s history, creation, and uses and this article goes deep–very deep—on pasta. I was halfway through it before I realized it was written in 1986. (The tip-off for me was the reference to Laura Shapiro’s excellent Perfection Salad having been “recently” published.) I’m not sure if the section on trade spats between Italy and the US still applies, but the rest of the article is very interesting, covering everything from the origins of pasta, the many ways it is manufactured, how to cook it to which sauces go with which shapes of pasta. One of my favourite parts was the discussion of Martelli pasta and their more traditional ways of doing things, a bit of which I excerpted below. 

Mixing and kneading take from thirty to forty minutes at Martelli, as opposed to the twenty usual in other factories; the Martellis say that long kneading improves flavor. The dough is forced at great pressure through holes in one of four dies, each of which is shaped like a big hockey puck; the choice of die determines the shape of the pasta as it is extruded…The Martellis use only bronze dies, because the rough, porous surface these create makes for better sauce absorption. Teflon-lined dies, which most manufacturers use today, produce pretty, polished surfaces that don’t hold sauce well. The Martellis are careful not to apply too much pressure or to allow the temperature of the dough to rise too high during extrusion, lest the proteins in the semolina be denatured, making the cooked product soft. (The Atlantic)

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