In the contemporary culinary landscape, ultra-processed foods have become a staple for many, appreciated for their convenience and long shelf life. Ultra-processed foods are common in many households and include products like breakfast cereals, muffins, snack bars, sweetened yogurts, soft drinks, and energy drinks. However, a growing body of research suggests that these foods may come with significant health risks.
Defining Ultra-Processed Foods
Ultra-processed foods encompass a wide range of products. From the carbonated fizz of soft drinks to the quick comfort of instant soups and the crunchy allure of chicken nuggets, these foods are characterized by their high content of additives, preservatives, and often, a lack of genuine nutritional value.
The term “ultra-processed food” comes from the NOVA classification scheme, created by researchers in Brazil.
- In 2009, Brazilian researchers classified food on a scale from unprocessed to ultraprocessed.
- Ultraprocessed foods contain ingredients rarely used in homemade recipes, such as high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, protein isolates, and various chemical additives.
- 70% of packaged foods sold in the U.S. are considered ultraprocessed.
- They are designed to be highly palatable and are formulated to be almost addictive.
Note that some convenience foods, like canned beans or frozen vegetables, can be part of a healthy diet if they don’t contain harmful chemicals. Processing foods enough to preserve their freshness is not necessarily dangerous.
The Research Landscape
Ultra-processed foods are linked to higher rates of obesity, heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and colon cancer. Here are some representative studies.
One study of over 22,000 people found that high consumption of ultra-processed foods increased the risk of early death by 19% and heart disease-related death by 32%.
A collaborative study involving Imperial College London, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, University of Sao Paulo, and NOVA University Lisbon examined the diets of nearly 200,000 middle-aged adults in the UK over a decade. The findings were stark: a higher consumption of ultra-processed foods correlated with an increased risk of cancers, notably ovarian and brain cancers. Out of the 197,426 participants, 15,921 developed cancer, with 4,009 succumbing to it. There is also a strong correlation between these foods and an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes.
Another research effort from Spain, involving almost 20,000 university graduates, found that those consuming more than four servings of ultra-processed foods daily faced a 62 percent higher risk of mortality during the study. Each additional serving raised the risk of death by 18 percent.
Some good news too
A study based on data from 4,635 people showed that adults who consumed the most fiber-rich carbs had a 15-31% reduction in various health risks compared to those who consumed the least.
This is likely because high-quality carbs promote satiety, nourish the gut microbiome, reduce inflammation, and improve blood sugar control and cholesterol levels.
A study in JAMA found that overweight people who reduced their intake of added sugar, refined grains, and highly processed foods lost weight without counting calories, pointing again to the importance of food quality, not just calorie counting.
Beyond the Ingredients
Mark Lawrence, a professor of public health nutrition, argues that focusing on individual harmful ingredients might be missing the point. The real issue is the dominance of these ultra-processed foods in our diets. Moreover, the speed at which we consume these foods and their impact on our hormones might be leading us to overeat, as highlighted by David Katz, director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center.
Unraveling the Causes
While these foods are typically high in saturated fats, sugars, and salt, and low in essential nutrients, the health risks they pose might extend beyond their nutritional profile. Chemicals like acrylamide, formed during high-temperature cooking processes, and bisphenol A from packaging, have been flagged as potential health hazards. Eszter Vamos, the lead senior author of the Imperial College study, highlighted the possible interference of some of these agents with hormonal effects, which could influence hormone-related cancers.
Obesity’s rapid increase, especially since the 1980s, is increasingly attributed to the rise in production and consumption of ultra-processed foods, which are both lower cost to the consumer and higher in profit for the food companies. As incomes are squeezed by low wage growth, housing, health, energy, and other costs, consumers are increasingly looking to cut expenses, and foods such as these appear to save both time and money. But ultra-processed foods may increase the rates of obesity not just because of sugar, salt, or fat, but due to synthetics, chemicals, and stabilizers that can influence food preferences, appetite, cravings, and lead to weight gain. Fresh foods are more expensive, and the wide variety and low cost of ultra-processed foods naturally causes increased consumption by triggering many of our food instincts, such as variety, availability, and calorie density.
The Global Perspective
The consumption of ultra-processed foods isn’t just a Western phenomenon. Countries ranging from England and Canada to Lebanon and Japan have seen these foods account for 25 to 50 percent of total caloric intake. With a global rise in their consumption, high-income nations, particularly the U.S. and the U.K., emerge as leading consumers. Some countries, like Brazil, have taken steps to curb their influence, banning their marketing in schools. Meanwhile, France and Canada have sought to limit such foods in national dietary guidelines.
Brain and body
A 2022 study found that the more UPFs participants ate, the more likely they were to report mild depression or feelings of anxiety. Another 2022 study found a correlation between UPF consumption and worse cognitive function. Consuming a healthy diet, like the MIND diet, can offset the detrimental effects of UPFs.
Charting a Healthier Path
For those seeking to reduce their intake of ultra-processed foods, here are some expanded strategies:
- Ingredient Awareness: Prioritize products with recognizable ingredients. Even seemingly healthy options like energy bars or plant-based milk drinks can be ultra-processed.
- Embrace Homemade Alternatives: Simple recipes, like homemade salad dressings or baking from scratch with whole grains, can offer healthier, unprocessed alternatives to store-bought versions.
- Strategic Shopping: Fresh produce, dairy, meats, and fish, often located on the supermarket’s perimeter, should predominate in your shopping cart. Canned or frozen fruits and vegetables can also be good choices, as they typically lack the harmful additives found in ultra-processed foods, while still being convenient.
- Anticipate Snack Attacks: Prepare in advance with homemade snacks to stave off hunger without resorting to processed options.
The evidence is clear: while ultra-processed foods offer savings and convenience, evidence of their potential health risks are mounting. As researchers continue to explore their impact, consumers would do well to approach them with caution and prioritize natural, whole, and/or less-processed alternatives.