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Huel’s James Collier speaks out on UPFs, nutrition, and ‘protopian’ food systems

Article-Huel’s James Collier speaks out on UPFs, nutrition, and ‘protopian’ food systems

© Vitafoods Europe 2024 Huel.png
If an ultra-processed food (UPF) product offers complete nutrition, it can be 'a great plan B' when making food choices based on convenience, according to nutritionist and Huel co-founder James Collier, speaking at Vitafoods Europe in Geneva.

Collier, co-founder of meal kit and meal powder brand Huel, is known for being outspoken on the subject of UPFs, and he didn’t disappoint on this front – challenging the vilification of this controversial class of foods during his presentation on sustainable nutrition and the food system at the Vitafoods Insights Theatre.

“What you have is some academics who have done some brilliant work and gone on high-profile podcasts saying that UPFs are bad, then you have these social media influencers. […] They come out with this stuff; they grab hold of that term; they aren’t from academia; they don’t know what they are talking about; and they run away with this thing. That is fear-mongering,” he told a live audience.

It isn’t just social media influencers Collier has an issue with – it is the NOVA system of classification for processed foods.

“The data seems to indicate that UPFs are bad for the health; studies are showing a correlation between UPFs and non-communicable diseases. You can’t refute the evidence, but I have a real problem with the NOVA classification of foods,” he said.

“I think the people saying this are very very privileged. We have 8.1 billion people to feed on this planet and without UPFs there wouldn’t be enough to go round, especially with the agricultural methods we use.” 

His criticisms of the NOVA framework mainly relate to the limitations of its definitions.

Boxed and branded as bad

“Should we be cutting down on UPFs? Absolutely, but there is a better term. What we have is a bunch of researchers who have just come up with a definition and stuck everything in a box with the word ‘bad’ rubber-stamped on it. That is just not good enough,” Collier said.

“I am going to argue that this is as much a problem of language as it is of nutrition science.” 

© Vitafoods InsightsHuel’s James Collier speaks out on UPFs, nutrition, and ‘protopian’ food systems

He cited the example of potato crisps and fabricated potato crisps; only the latter would be considered a UPF under NOVA – a distinction that Collier questioned, saying: “Nutritionally, is your body going to suffer if it chooses these?”

His other issue with the NOVA framework is that there is much confusion around how this classification relates to healthfulness.

He referred to a study published in The Lancet which found that certain breads, plant-based foods, and cereals – all of which would be classed as UPFs under NOVA – were not associated with a risk of multimorbidity (the co-occurence of at least two chronic diseases).

Dismissing all UPFs as bad for health undermines the role that they could play in fixing our food system, he argued.

“We need UPFs to combat what we are confronted with… we have got a fibre crisis. Currently, only 9% of adults in the UK are getting the recommended amount of fibre. We need UPFs to get a diverse range of fibres into the diet,” he said.

UPFs can contribute to sustainable nutrition

Collier highlighted his own brand, Huel, as an example of a food that could be considered ultra-processed, yet has the potential to make a positive contribution to fixing some of the problems in our food system.

“Huel is a great plan B where you are making food choices based on convenience. It offers complete nutrition, which means it provides all the essential micronutrients, vitamins and minerals, fibre, essential fats, essential amino acids and not too much of the stuff we are meant to be cutting down on,” he explained.

Importantly, he said, Huel also provides “sustainable nutrition”.

“We’re plant-based, we minimise food waste, and we measure the carbon footprint of our meals. We are on course to be in line with the Paris Agreement targets for all of our products but one, which we are working on,” he added.

He described how complete foods could be part of the “protopian” food system society should be moving towards, and said that there was a place for UPFs, GMOs, novel fats and proteins, and foods produced by cellular agriculture and precision fermentation in this system.

“If you are involved in the food industry and you stand by what you are producing not just because you want to make money but because you feel it will generally do good in the world and you can quantify that with objective evidence then you are going some way to improve the food system,” he said.