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On Ultra-Processed Content

When I visited London last month, a large marketing push was underway for the paperback edition of Chris van Tulleken’s UK bestseller, Ultra-Processed People: Why Do We All Eat Stuff That Isn’t Food…and Why Can’t We Stop? It seemed to be prominently displayed in every bookstore I visited, and, as you might imagine, I visited a lot of bookstores.

Unable to ignore it, I eventually took a closer look and learned more about the central villain of van Tulleken’s treatise: ultra-processed food, a term coined in 2009 as part of a new food classification system, and inspired by Michael Pollan’s concept of “edible food-like substances.”

Ultra-processed foods, at their most damaging extreme, are made by breaking down core stock ingredients such as corn or soy into their basic organic building blocks, then recombining these elements into hyper-palatable combinations, rich in salt, sugar, and fat, soaked with unpronounceable chemical emulsifiers and preservatives.

As Chris van Tulleken points out, the problem with ultra-processed foods is that they’re engineered to hijack our desire mechanisms, making them literally irresistible. The result is that we consume way more calories than we need in arguably the least healthy form possible. Give me a bag of Doritos (a classic ultra-processed food) and I’ll have a hard time stopping until it’s empty. I’m much less likely to similarly gorge myself on, say, a salad or baked chicken.

I was thinking about this book recently as Scott Young and I were prepared to re-open our course, Life of Focus, for new registrations next week. One of the three month-long modules of this course focuses on implementing ideas from my book Digital Minimalism to help you regain control of your attention from the insistent attraction of screens.

It occurred to me that in this concept of ultra-processed food we can find a useful analogy for understanding both our struggles to disconnect, and for how we might succeed in this aspiration going forward.

To elaborate this claim, I want to be more specific in analogizing food to media content. To start, we can connect passive text-based media, such as books and articles, to minimally processed whole foods. Linguistic encoding was the first information-bearing media our species developed; something we’ve been working with for over 5,000 years.

This timeframe, of course, is too short for evolutionary forces to apply, but it’s plenty long for us to have culturally adapted to this format. As with whole foods, consuming writing tends to make us feel better, and we rarely hear concerns about reading too much.

We can next compare twentieth-century electronic mass media — that is, radio and television — to moderately-processed food like white bread, dry pasta, and canned soups. As with processed foods, we weren’t prepared for the arrival of new mass media forms that where much easier to consume and much more superficially palatable.

As a result, for the first time in our species’s interaction with media, over-consumption became a problem. (In the 1960s, the average household television viewing jumped past five hours per day.) Many social critics and educators began to rightly lament this sudden intrusion of electronic media into our cultural landscape (see, for example, this and this and this).

Many of the new media forms built on the consumer internet that subsequently emerged in the late 1990s can be similarly classified as moderately-processed. These include podcasts, newsletters, and blog posts. As with television and radio, the content itself can be valuable, but often times it’s not, and the ease of its delivery requires vigilance to protect against over-consumption.

This then brings us back to ultra-processed foods, which as the twentieth century gave way to the twenty-first, began to increasingly dominate our diets with their lab-optimized hyper-palatability. The clear analogy here is to digital information offered through the social media platforms that vaulted into cultural supremacy in the 2010s.

As described, ultra-processed foods are created by first breaking down cheap stock foods into their basic elements, and then recombining these ingredients into something unnatural but irresistible. Something similar happens with social media content. Whereas the stock ingredients for ultra-processed food are found in vast fields of cheap corn and soy, social media content draws on vast databases of user-generated information — posts, reactions, videos, quips, and memes. Recommendation algorithms then sift through this monumental collection of proto-content to find new, hard to resist combinations that will appeal to users.

A feedback loop soon develops in which the producers of this stock content (that is, those posting to social media) adapt to what seems to better please the platforms, simplifying and purifying their output to more efficiently feed the algorithms’ goal of hijacking the human desire mechanisms.

In this way, the users of social media platforms simulate something like the food scientist’s ability to break down corn and reconstitute it into a hyper-palatable edible food-like substances. What is a TikTok dance mash up if not a digital Dorito?

This analogy between food and media is useful because it helps us better understand responses to the latter. In the context of nutrition, we’re comfortable deciding to largely avoid ultra-processed food for health reasons. In making this choice, we do not worry about being labelled “anti-food,” or accused of a quixotic attempt to reject “inevitable progress” in food technology.

On the contrary, we can see ultra-processed good as its own thing — a bid for food companies to increase market share and profitability. We recognize it might be hard to avoid these products, as they’re easy and taste so good, but we’ll likely receive nothing but encouragement in our attempts to clean up our diets.

This is how we should think about the ultra-processed content delivered so relentlessly through our screens. To bypass these media for less processed alternatives should no longer be seen as bold, or radical, or somehow reactionary. It’s just a move toward a self-evidently more healthy relationship with information.

This mindset shift might seem subtle but I’m convinced that it’s a critical first step toward sustainably changing our interactions with digital distraction. Outraged tweets, aspirational Instagram posts, and aggressively arresting TikToks need not be seen as some unavoidable component of the twenty-first century media landscape to which we must all, with an exasperated sigh, adapt.

They’re instead digital Oreos; delicious, but something we should have no problem pushing aside while saying, “I don’t consume that junk.”

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In other news…

12 thoughts on “On Ultra-Processed Content”

  1. Cal,

    One of the things I’ve noticed is that knowledge seems to be broken down into the smallest, digestible portion as possible, Then all the influencers pick it up and repeat it, redressing it a little to make it their (put their own spin on it, change a piece of it, etc.). It’s repeated so much that it looks like facts, to the point where a true expert might be labeled as not knowing what he’s talking about. This shows up in fiction writing, where advanced craft skills are outright dismissed because they don’t match the common, bite-sized advice being taught Advanced craft cannot be broken into tiny, digestible chunks, so it’s not taught generally. Nora Roberts, who has been writing 40 years and has over 200 books, recently lashed back at these writers when they tried to explain to her how to write fiction as if she didn’t know what she was doing.

    I recently had to fire my fitness coach because she didn’t understand exercise for older adults. So I went online to find exercises and was shocked at the amount of marketing phrases. People did the same thing as fiction writing–apparently someone must have released a batch of exercises that said “These are good for everyone.” Every influencer copied that list as their own (sometimes changing an exercise or making it harder). Many were recommending them for older adults with no actual understanding that certain joints do not age well. And people assume the exercises are what they should do because everyone is repeating that we should do them.

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  2. Dear Cal,

    I wanted to express my gratitude for the insightful articles you’ve been sharing. The food analogy you used really resonated with me. As a software developer, I find myself at a crossroads, yearning to break free from the 9-5 routine and embark on my own venture. Through my research, I’ve learned that gaining visibility and “building in public” is crucial for success.

    Your content and books have been a significant influence in my life. Inspired by your work, I made the decision to quit social media a year ago, and a few months back, I even left LinkedIn, a platform typically used for job hunting. The sense of liberation was truly remarkable.

    Last week, in an effort to attract potential clients and gain exposure for my apps, I created a new Twitter account. However, just one week in, I find myself feeling miserable and already addicted to the platform. It doesn’t align with my values, but I feel compelled to engage in order to succeed.

    I’m at a loss as to what decision to make. I understand the importance of being “so good they can’t ignore you,” but if no one is aware of my existence or my product, I question the ultimate significance of my efforts.

    I would be immensely grateful to hear your perspective on this matter, as I hold you in high regard.

    Thank you for your time and consideration.

    Reply
    • Hi Florin,

      One approach that I’ve heard about, though not experienced personally, is to use social media as a write-only tool. Use it to market yourself and your efforts, and stop it at that. Do not engage with other accounts, do not follow anyone else. Just do your thing and get out of there as soon as you’re done.

      I understand that engaging with your audience is a great way to build a bigger audience and a good reputation. Maybe there is a fine balance in there that would allow you to engage without falling into addiction, but a fine balance it is.

      Good luck!

      Reply
  3. I think this analogy is even more fitting if we consider the latest ultra-processed media product we are pushed to consume at every corner: awful looking and sounding “content” created entirely by AI bros, pushed relentlessly into our collective consciousness, burying the internet in a pile of unpalatable, unreadable, unwatchable junk.

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  4. Yours is a really insightful breakdown of the distinctions among various types of media and how they become increasingly addictive. Just as the food industry created ever more bastardized versions of food which led to obesity, heart disease and auto-immune conditions, I think a similar pattern can be seen with the social, cultural, educational and mental results of over consuming super palatable and junky media. The term “fat head” comes to mind. I can’t help but think that the epidemic of people being unable to concentrate, suffer from ADHD and struggles with anxiety and loneliness are part of this dynamic.

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  5. I really liked this article. I quit social media a few years ago and recently (a year ago) quit eating processed food for good. I think everybody should consider doing the same, but I am the only person I know who does this. People think I’m extreme and that I should find a balance like they do, but my view is that we shouldn’t engage in activities that not only don’t provide any value but also harm us.

    Finding balance is very hard; it takes a lot of willpower, and our minds become battlefields every time we try to resist our urges. That’s why I focus on finding a balance only among the things that truly matter to me, not those that offer just empty pleasure.

    I used to be addicted to online competitive video games, and at first, I tried to balance studying and playing. By the time I “found” some balance, I realized that games weren’t worth my time, so I quit playing and was finally free.

    If you, random person, are like me, consider quitting activities that don’t provide any value to your life instead of trying to find a balance. Find a balance among activities worthy of your time.

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  6. I like this analogy, but it misses the broader social context in both cases. Food insecurity means plenty of Americans don’t have access to reasonable healthy alternatives, can’t afford them, and/ or don’t have time to cook them. The most visible part of this problem is downstream – heart disease and diabetes – but its root causes and solutions are upstream. For most of the country, it isn’t about simply choosing not to buy the Oreos. It can be fixed with the right policy and community investments in things that protect and foster population health, not worsen it. In Finland for instance, most of the grocery store is healthy foods, and UPFs are hard to find rather than making up most of the center of the store. Even grocery carts are designed to contain produce, not boxes of processed foods. Healthy foods can be more affordable and accessible for everyone. It’s about making the healthy choice the easy choice.

    It seems there is also a parallel in the digital distraction world. For many young people, having an active social life requires digital engagement. My sister-in-law said she’d love to not be texting all the time but in the hour she didn’t look while we were walking together she missed 150 messages. I am glad I am not living in that world, but for those who are, escaping it is much more than having willpower. A new (or old?) social universe needs to exist outside of digital distractions for people who are young and social and don’t want to be isolated from friends and family. We need to figure out how to make the healthy digital choice the easy choice. For a population-level shift, this is going to have to involve more than individuals with better alternatives simply choosing not to consume UPFs.

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  7. I so appreciate this analogy, but I see a flaw in its foundation: The amount of processing a food undergoes is not indicative of its nutritional value. Sticking with your theme, criticizing food just because it’s processed is like calling out a piece of writing just because it’s been edited numerous times. Editing can either make or break something. It’s what the editing does that matters, what it adds or takes away, and how it ultimately delivers a piece of real value, meaning, and import. Putting all ultra-processed foods in one category as “bad” is inaccurate and misleading. For example: The process of making plant-based meat (considered an ultra-processed food) enables more fiber, less fat and calories, and zero cholesterol as compared to what it strives to replace — conventional, animal-based meat. According to a recent study (linked below) that distinguished among the health benefits of various processed foods, multimorbidity of cancer and cardio metabolic diseases were associated with the consumption of animal-based products (classified as minimally processed) and artificially, sugar-sweetened beverages. “Ultra-processed” plant-based alternatives to conventional meat were not associated with increase risk.

    Again, it’s what the end product offers us, not who produced it or the platform it’s offered on, that matters.

    Study cited: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanepe/article/PIIS2666-7762(23)00190-4/fulltext

    Reply
    • Sheila, I too wonder if “hyperpalatable* media” is the better analogy. For the uninitiaited, hyperpalatable food is high in either sugar and fat (e.g. cake), fat and salt (e.g. bacon), or carbs and salt (e.g. crackers). If we were to stretch this analogy, hyperpalatable media is any media, on any medium, which is chiefly designed to over-stimulate our reptile brains. Some books may be hyperpalatable (e.g. conspiracy theory books repeating cheap and inaccurate claims) whereas some Youtube videos are not (e.g. long video essay explaining some academic theory).

      Reply
    • The meat products discussed in the study are ultra-processed meat products not minimally processed ones. This is made abundantly clear multiple times in the article even in the beginning when they explicitly say that they are only discussing ultra-processed foods which is category 4 and then again in the results when they say that these meat products are a subcategory of ultra-processed foods.

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  8. Cal – You had me at “”Digital Dorito”.
    I literally laughed so hard, my side hurts!
    Hash tag – Digital Dorito.
    (my new “hashtag” for the social media account(s) I have never had).
    -Scott

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