Major New Study: The Risks of Ultra-Processed Food Consumption

The authors of a new study published in the esteemed BMJ journal highlight a significant gap in research on the health impacts of ultra-processed food. They point out that despite extensive discussion on the topic, there hasn’t been a thorough umbrella review that synthesizes and evaluates the collective findings of meta-analyses on this issue. To address this shortfall, they examined 45 meta-analyses, encompassing nearly 10 million participants, offering a comprehensive overview of the evidence on the health effects of ultra-processed food.

According to the NOVA classification, ultra-processed foods go beyond merely modified foods. They are complex mixtures primarily made from low-cost ingredients that have been chemically altered, such as modified starches, sugars, oils, fats, and protein isolates. These concoctions contain minimal, if any, whole foods. Their appeal and palatability are enhanced through the use of various additives like flavors, colors, emulsifiers, thickeners, and more, making them highly processed and far removed from their natural state.

Essentially, intensive processing transforms food into a form that is entirely unnatural and at odds with our gastrointestinal systems, which have been shaped by millions of years of evolution. Ultra-processed foods typically lack critical nutrients like flavanols and are instead laden with fats, salt, and sugar to enhance their appeal. The research presented both anticipated and unexpected findings, revealing that consuming high amounts of ultra-processed foods can raise the risk of death from any cause by up to 21% and death due to cardiovascular diseases by 50%.

Research, including clinical trials, has demonstrated that the intake of ultra-processed foods is linked to a heightened risk of obesity and negative metabolic conditions. This study corroborates those findings, indicating that an excessive consumption of ultra-processed foods can lead to a 55% increased risk of obesity, a 25% higher chance of developing metabolic syndrome, and a 40% greater likelihood of being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. Even a modest increase in ultra-processed food intake by 10% is associated with harmful health impacts, such as a 12% rise in the risk of diabetes. Overall, a direct correlation was observed with 71% of the health outcomes analyzed.

Among the most pronounced relationships identified were those connected to different facets of mental health, including the quality of sleep, levels of anxiety, and prevalent mental health conditions. Yet, this connection could stem from reverse causality, where depression and other mental health issues lead individuals to indulge in significant amounts of unhealthy foods. Conversely, the research found only a minimal link between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and conditions like asthma, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and high blood pressure.

The lack of a significant connection between ultra-processed foods and both cancer mortality and incidence was an unexpected finding, particularly as many previous studies have suggested such a relationship. Notably, ultra-processed meats have been so strongly linked to cancer that the World Health Organization has classified them as a known carcinogen. Given that obesity is a well-established risk factor for cancer, it would be logical to anticipate that ultra-processed foods could influence cancer outcomes indirectly through their impact on obesity. However, this absence of association does not negate the possibility of a link between ultra-processed foods and cancer. A potential reason for this study’s findings could be the lack of differentiation among types of ultra-processed foods, which may have obscured the effects of certain categories, like processed meat.

To view the original scientific study click below:
Reasons to avoid ultra-processed foods