Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: 'Ultra-processed foods are making us ill'

·4 min read
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall gives evidence to the Health and Social Care Committee at Portcullis House in Westminster, London.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall gives evidence to the Health and Social Care Committee at Portcullis House in Westminster, London. (PA)

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall says there are 'no easy solutions' to getting families to eat more healthy diets in the face of supermarket shelves loaded with 'ultra-processed' food, which he claims are making people 'very ill'.

Speaking on White Wine Question Time the River Cottage chef — who has campaigned on issues from fishing quotas to childhood obesity — told host Kate Thornton that companies using more processed foods, such as white flours, refined fats and sugars, made their foods harder to resist.

The campaigner said ideally everyone should be able to cook an affordable and healthy meal for their family, but that supermarkets, takeaways and cheap food had taken away the 'drudgery of cooking in our kitchens'.

He said: "Those super processed, sometimes called 'ultra-processed', foods that now comprise more than half our diets — I'm afraid we can't dodge this — they're making many of us very, very ill.

"They are the cause of the obesity epidemic and they are one of the reasons that the NHS is under tremendous strain."

WATCH: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall on gut health; food education and eating healthy on a smaller budget

Fearnley-Whittingstall said food had to be our 'first port of call' in terms of getting healthy but that trying to feed a family on a tight budget could make it very hard to eat healthily, often pushing people towards cheap calories which didn't tend to be the healthiest calories.

Of how our eating habits started to change, he said: "When that first started to happen, and convenience foods, frozen foods, microwave foods became a new way of eating, for many people it felt like a release and an escape from time spent in the kitchen and a liberation.

Listen to the full episode to hear Hugh talk about the importance of choosing healthier food, his early career changes and all about his new book

"Unfortunately, what's happened with a lot of those foods that are made for us and actually pushed at us very hard through advertising by very powerful companies is they've started to become less and less healthy," he said.

The TV chef and author campaigned with Jamie Oliver to call for tighter measures on junk food and to tackle childhood obesity.

Jamie Oliver (left) and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall on College Green, London, after giving evidence to the Health and Social Care Committee about child obesity. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images)
Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall after giving evidence to the Health and Social Care Committee about child obesity. (PA Images via Getty Images)

He added there was a need to 'push back' against big businesses marketing these foods, and questioned politicians who tried to 'deflect' the conversation by saying we shouldn't be a 'nanny state' telling people what to eat.

Read more: Jamie Oliver says he felt threatened by the food industry when making Sugar Rush

"The problem is big business does tell people what to eat and it tells them to eat foods that aren't good for them," he said.

"And it offers them those unhealthy foods at very cheap prices, so we do have to push back."

He said two things that needed to be done were educating people about healthier foods and making even the most processed foods a little healthier, with less sugar and with 'wholer' ingredients.

AXMINSTER, UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 15: (EMBARGOED FOR PUBLICATION IN UK NEWSPAPERS UNTIL 48 HOURS AFTER CREATE DATE AND TIME) - (EDITORS NOTE: This image was processed using digital filters.) Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall stands in the vegetable garden of River Cottage HQ following a visit by Prince Charles, Prince of Wales and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall on July 15, 2014 in Axminster, England. (Photo by Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images)
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall stands in the vegetable garden of River Cottage HQ, 2014. (Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images)

"We are in a fix, and we are in a bit of a bind. And there are no easy solutions," he admitted.

Another choice families had to make was around the impact our shopping choices have on the planet, with Fearnley-Whittingstall saying even if we 'duck out' of the conversation, 'you can't duck out of the issues underpinning the conversation'.

"The planet is changing, the climate is changing, our numbers are growing. The challenges of feeding eight plus billion people, as it will be, don't get any easier and very, very difficult decisions have to be made," he said.

While he said the decisions weren't all in our hands, we could influence them as shoppers in the food choices we make.

EDITORIAL USE ONLY Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall during the filming for the Graham Norton Show at BBC Studioworks 6 Television Centre, Wood Lane, London, to be aired on BBC One on 31 December.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall during the filming for the Graham Norton Show. (PA)

"We have a voice too," he said, "and our strongest voice is the choices we make when we go shopping, and the choices we make as consumers.

"Sometimes it doesn't feel like we've got a choice. But we do. If you go into a shop, and you choose one kind of food, it's like a vote.

"You're voting for the system of farming that produced that food, if you choose organic meat, you vote for the organic system, if you choose wholemeal flour over white flour, then you're saying make more of that and less of the other.

"Collectively as consumers, we can change things, we absolutely can."

WATCH: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall talks about how politicians and big businesses could do more to encourage healthier eating