Bread bakery shelf aisle

We at Modern Baker are big fans of Henry Dimbleby’s work so far – and equally frustrated that it has yet to be allowed to make the difference it should. We decided we wanted to write him an open letter. So here is our message to Henry…

The UK and its food industry are at an incredible crossroads of three converging factors: political will, the maturity of the UPF debate, and evolved technology. This convergence presents an irresistible opportunity to reposition UK plc as a global leader in UPF innovation. We believe you are the only person who can make this happen.

Let’s take them one by one. 

  1. Labour’s manifesto and the war on UPFs: The Labour manifesto’s imminent declaration of war on UPFs will represent a huge validation of your National Food Strategy, but their good intentions must be directed by someone who actually understands all the moving parts. That’s you.
  2. The maturity of the UPF debate: Ignited by you, the UPF debate in the UK has matured to the point where real action is now actually possible. While the food industry’s voice is “missing in action” on the topic, the media and the public are very much mobilised – setting the stage for transformative policies that for once have a chance of succeeding in making a material difference to public health.
  3. Technological Advances: You have acknowledged the role of specific technologies in transforming the food system for good. AI, machine learning, and in silico research can now achieve in minutes results that would take food scientists decades. Thanks to pioneering scientists like Albert-László Barabási, vast datasets of bioactive compounds are becoming available to the nutrition industry. Alongside rapid advances in precision fermentation and seminal research on the effects of food processing on dietary fibres, recent developments point to a potential that’s set to be genuinely game-changing for humanity.

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This all represents a unique moment for the UK food industry to reinvent itself. It’s an opportunity to lead the global field, generate valuable exports and deliver some much-needed post-Brexit good news.

However, as one might expect, there is one large elephant in the room. It requires your unique experience and credibility to address: the definition of what constitutes ‘healthy’.

The UPF debate has highlighted the intrinsic limitations of the ‘HFSS’ nutrient profiling model (NPM). Three-green-traffic-light Coke, anyone? If the government doubles down on the existing NPM rather than start again with a new model that emphasises broader nutritional quality, 10 years from now we’ll be stuck in the same Orwellian doom-loop of worsening public health and failing health systems.

Demonising UPFs as if they’re all as unhealthy as each other would be as counterproductive as the US experiment with alcohol a century ago. What works is a nuanced approach.

Henry Dimbleby at the House of Lords Food, Diet and Obesity Committee inquiry

Source: House of Lords 2024 / photography by Roger Harris

Henry Dimbleby at the House of Lords Food, Diet and Obesity Committee inquiry

You’ve written that the UPF is “both a miracle and a disaster”. It’s within our grasp to tip the balance in favour of ‘miracle’. The problem is not that you process, it’s what and how you process, and with what motive. It’s perfectly possible to use the same machines that make unhealthy UPFs to create food that’s just as palatable and profitable, but actually good for us.

By working with ‘Big Food’ rather than attempting to turn around a ship that’s sailed, rapid strides can be made in creating foods that combine mainstream appeal with respectable nutrient delivery – and the mission-critical affordability that comes with scale.

Henry, we urge you to consider these points as you consider whether to guide our future food policy. Let us all work together to harness the potential of UPF to play its part in creating a healthier, more sustainable food system, with the benign application of AI on our side, establishing the UK as a centre of excellence for nutrition science on a global stage.

We have the technology. We have the moment. Do we have the will?