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June 16, 2024

Ultra-processed foods under fire as new research links them to disease and early death

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Jan 22, 2024

A wave of new research is building the case against ultra-processed foods, linking them to higher risks of chronic diseases and earlier death. As public health experts sound the alarm, governments around the world are taking a closer look at these ubiquitous products.

New studies pile on evidence against ultra-processed foods

Over the past several years, multiple large-scale studies have found associations between high consumption of ultra-processed foods and poor health outcomes. The term “ultra-processed” refers to industrial formulations made with ingredients like hydrogenated oils, high-fructose corn syrup, flavoring agents, emulsifiers, and other additives.

Examples include mass-produced breads, sweet or savory packaged snacks, soda and sweetened drinks, frozen microwaveable meals, instant noodles and soups, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, and other reconstituted meat products.

While ultra-processed foods are designed to be convenient, affordable, and hyper-palatable, they tend to be nutritionally deficient while dense in calories, and their processing methods may generate compounds that interact with the body in harmful ways.

A 2022 study in JAMA Internal Medicine made waves by reporting that each 10% increase in ultra-processed food intake was linked to a 7% higher mortality risk. An earlier large European study found a 26% increase in cardiovascular disease and 13% increase in cancer for those eating the most ultra-processed items.

Other research has connected these foods to weight gain, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and metabolic syndrome. Experts compare their growth to that of tobacco and asbestos before the confirmation of health risks led to regulation.

Scientists appeal for policy change as consumers lack adequate information

Public health scientists argue that systemic policy changes are needed, as expecting individual consumers to voluntarily improve their diets has failed. In an open letter published in The BMJ, they contend:

“The dramatic increase in UPF consumption represents an uncontrolled global experiment with negative health outcomes, indicating that the current laissez-faire approach to food policy is not serving the public good.”

They point out the asymmetry of information available to consumers about ultra-processed versus unprocessed items:

Food category Front-of-pack info Ad claims Health warnings
Ultra-processed foods Misleading; e.g. “healthy”, “natural” Heavy marketing of supposed benefits None
Cigarettes Prominent addictiveness & disease warnings Banned Extensive

“People are nudged into overconsuming UPF through omnipresent advertising, misleading packaging, and deceptive health claims,” they write. “We have better protections around the marketing of tobacco than we do around UPF. This needs to change.”

Canada considers “high in” warning labels while UK and Brazil move to restrict junk food ads

Spurred by accumulating research, policymakers in several countries are now exploring restrictions on ultra-processed food and beverage products.

Health Canada recently sought feedback on a proposed “high in” food label for items excessively dense in sugar, sodium, or saturated fat. The measure aims to help consumers identify less healthy options. The food industry has pushed back, arguing they are already taking voluntary steps to improve formulations.

Meanwhile, the UK government has laid out plans to ban TV and online advertising of foods high in fat, sugar, and salt before 9pm. Rules could take effect by 2025. Brazil has moved to prohibit ads for several categories of ultra-processed foods altogether.

Nutrition experts offer tips for transitioning to less processed diets

As policy debates continue, nutrition professionals advise individuals to begin transitioning their diets by cooking more whole foods at home, planning ahead to avoid impulse purchases, and reading labels with a critical eye.

Stocking up the pantry with basic whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, eggs, vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices facilitates easy, nutritious home cooking. Meal prepping batches of simple dishes also helps.

When eating packaged items, examining the ingredients list can clue consumers into relatively more or less processed options. Ingredients like whole grains, nuts or fruit should feature first, while long lists containing unrecognizable additives indicate higher processing.

Experts concession that completely eliminating ultra-processed items may not be realistic or necessary. But scaling back to such foods only occasionally while emphasizing minimally processed whole foods is likely the healthiest approach.

Outlook: Movement building to rethink food systems that push ultra-processed items

The case against ultra-processed foods may never be as clear-cut as with smoking. But many experts now view heavy processing as a fundamental driver of interlinked epidemics of malnutrition and chronic disease.

Rather than demonizing specific ingredients like sugar or fat, scientists argue today’s highly commercialized, globalized food systems incentivize the proliferation of low-quality calories.

This perspective situates changing individual behavior as only one piece of improving public health. Policy-level supports to make whole foods more available, affordable and convenient matter enormously too.

As research advances, watch for growing calls to restructure food systems to nurture both people and the planet. The ultra-processed debate links deeply to wider discussions around reforming agriculture, reversing climate change, and revitalizing regional foodways.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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