Soledad Barruti: “Ultra-processed foods are not real food, but products that create addiction and damage our health”

Soledad Barruti: “Ultra-processed foods are not real food, but products that create addiction and damage our health”

We need to “go back to family recipes, connect with the foods that are produced close to where we live, to go back to the geographical root” and “to understand that the problem begins in the supermarket”. “Real food is the basic ingredient we use when we cook” and “the next step is to go back to cooking, to be the ‘makers’ in charge of our most crucial need,” argues Soledad Barruti, pictured.

(Alejandro Guyot)

Argentine journalist Soledad Barruti has devoted her career to the world of food for more than a decade. Her keen investigative work has already yielded two pivotal books: Malcomidos. Cómo la industria argentina nos está matando (Planeta, 2015) [Badly Fed. How Argentine industry is killing us] and Mala leche: El supermercado como emboscada. Por qué la comida ultraprocesada nos enferma desde chicos (Planeta, 2018) [Sour Milk: The supermarket trap. Why ultra-processed food makes us ill from an early age].

Her analysis of the agri-business system insists on one key point: the industry has made us confuse food with things, as the ultra-processed items we buy in supermarkets are not, in fact, food, but edible products designed to make us addicted to them and to provide huge profits for the large multinationals that control our diet. We spoke to her by video conference, in the midst of the quarantine decreed by the Argentine government to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What led you to take an interest in food-related issues?

I started from a place of great curiosity and a need for answers to my questions. During 2008 and 2009, I came across a number of studies about food in the United States that made me question whether the same thing was happening in Argentina, where we had the idea that we were a food-producing country. When I started working on the subject, I realised that the nature of the system can be explained through its food; it has always been that way, but more so now than ever before. It also tells us about our private lives, as I try to explain in my book Mala Leche, which takes a more personal approach.

In what sense?

The chain that links us to food is broken, in two ways. The link with the countryside is broken, because supermarkets present us with products as if they had fallen from the sky, and we lose sight of the fact that there are plants and animals behind them.

And the link between us is also broken. This happens from the very beginning of our lives: when a company like Nestlé offers a product that replaces a mother’s milk, the first food of any human being, and not only replaces it but also tells us that it is better, we are accepting the idea that a company can feed us better than a person, that the things these companies manufacture are better than real food. And this idea is sold to us by experts, by scientists. The result is to cut us off from our roots.

Many people of my generation have no one to tell them about how to breastfeed or how a carrot grows. And that ignorance leaves us helpless in the face of any form of advertising presented as information. We lose touch with our inner power and our culture. And we are left at the mercy of what the system has to offer us, which are products that cause illness and the loss of our sense of taste. It is all part of one and the same problem: the lack of connection with the human body.

You describe the formula milk designed by a multinational like Nestlé (and others who later joined the trade) as a “sinister” invention. Why?

Because they had to conduct a massive experiment involving babies in order to carry out this substitution of food for things. They exported it to places where they left babies dead or crippled for life. And it was thanks to that macabre experiment that they were able to improve the product, but it is still nowhere near as good as breastmilk. A large part of humanity is still being deprived of its first food: a mere 38 per cent of babies are breastfed until they are six months old.

The worst thing is that a whole system was created around the formula scam: labour laws are promoted that do not accommodate breastfeeding, even though the WHO says we should encourage it. For many poorer women, breastfeeding is impossible: we have reached a level of absurdity where breastfeeding has become a class privilege, when it should, by its very nature, be a source of equality, of absolute democracy, as something we all need as human beings. It is a genetic code, it contains all the information the baby needs to survive. It also protects women against cancer, diabetes and uterine prolapse. And yet, no one defends it.

Baby formula is sinister because a whole business has been built around a totally superfluous product that is based on a fallacy, because there may be babies who, under certain circumstances, need certain types of formula, but that’s not where the business is; the business is based on the lie that all babies can and should be fed this industrial product. Breastfeeding a child up to the age of two has become a real odyssey and a privilege. For me, these companies are just as bad as the tobacco companies, the agrochemical multinationals like Monsanto, or arms manufacturers.

In your book Mala Leche [Sour Milk] you not only talk about mother’s milk but also about dairy consumption in general. Why do you think consuming too much dairy is a problem?

There are cultures that revolve around pastoralism where milk plays a fundamental role; but the expansion of the dairy industry on the pretext that milk is absolutely essential for the bones is something quite different. Cow’s milk has become synonymous with calcium, it is virtually seen as a human right. It is taken to indigenous communities where it is not wanted, because they cannot digest it and it isn’t part of their culture. The ingenuity of this global industry is that it has turned the most perishable product on earth into an imperishable one. It is denaturalised, homogenised, stripped of its fat and other elements and replaced with others. It is a formula, but is sold as something natural. It strips us of our ability to think about what we want and what is good for us. And then there’s where it comes from: industrial farms, factories that torture animals.

A fundamental idea runs through your books: ultra-processed goods are not food, but edible products. In what sense?

Preparing and processing is not the same thing. These companies do not cook, they ultra-process. They take out the most expensive part, the food, and put in the cheap stuff: flavours, additives and fillers such as poor quality soybeans or corn. When you walk along the supermarket aisles, all the labels have real food in the pictures, fruit and vegetables, but the actual ingredients are in fact starch, flavourings, sugars, oils and salt. We all fall for it: if it tastes like tomato and the label says it’s tomato, you believe it. And most of the experts behind it are part of the establishment, because it has become essential to our work culture.

All the policies developed around food are not made with food and nutrition in mind but work and profit. It’s the perfect pathway to disaster. We have lost our healthy relationship with food and, with it, our ability to listen to our bodies and to understand what is good for us. Because ultra-processed food is addictive and dulls the senses; we end up being so used to the excess stimuli that when we try vegetables they taste of nothing.

What makes these products addictive?

These companies have the same mission as those that sells sports shoes: to make us buy more and be better customers. That’s how they have managed to make us carry on eating when we’re no longer hungry. They have studied the weaknesses of the brain, the evolutionary processes of the human being, to design products that are addictive and harmful to our health. They are not designed by cooks but by marketing executives, engineers and even psychologists.

To expand their businesses, companies such as Coca-Cola or Nestlé have moved into rural or indigenous areas, where the food system is different, and have flooded them with advertising and products that are addictive. There are coffee producing areas in Brazil where people drink Nescafé; communities that produce cassava but their children want bread, and so they go out and buy products that are more expensive and flood them with plastic, which they throw on the ground because that is what they have always done with food, because real food is totally organic, it is not refuse.

So, what can we do in the face of such a complex problem? Where do we start?

It is, above all, a process of deconstruction: of understanding that what we have been told is not true, that it is a narrative created by a system that does not look to our well-being but undermines our health. When you start eating well, your body tells you it’s right. But eating ultra-processed foods is addictive and dulls the senses. Once you’re on the right track, however, you find that it’s not that difficult, not that expensive, and not that traumatic.

We need to go back to family recipes, to connect with the foods that are produced close to where we live, to go back to the geographical root, to understand that the problem starts in the supermarket, in confusing food with things. It is about understanding that ‘real’ food is the basic ingredient we use when we cook [from scratch]; because the next step is to start cooking again, to be the ‘makers’ in charge of our most basic need. We need to lose our fear of the kitchen, which is not the realm of experts. Anyone can cook. And if we really don’t want to cook, there are businesses that prepare homemade food, although it works out more expensive.

But we also need public policies to ensure that producers have access to land and have a stable future. We need to be participants in a more active democracy. Limits need to be placed on industry, by forcing it to be honest or by taxing its products more than healthy food. We have to support the demands of growers. And we can also grow something ourselves, on a terrace or balcony, to reconcile ourselves with the very notion of food, to observe the seed that flowers and gives fruit. We need to leave the supermarket and turn to agroecological networks, to reconnect with our idea of power, of value as societies. We need to listen to our bodies.

This article has been translated from Spanish.