Ultra-processed food linked to 32 different health problems including cancer, heart disease, diabetes and early death

29 February 2024, 08:07 | Updated: 29 February 2024, 08:35

Ultra-processed foods have been linked to a wide range of negative health outcomes including early death
Ultra-processed foods have been linked to a wide range of negative health outcomes including early death. Picture: Alamy

By Asher McShane

Ultra-processed foods have been linked to 32 harmful health effects including a higher risk of heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, adverse mental health and early death, according to the largest ever review of its kind.

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In the UK and US, more than half the average diet now consists of ultra-processed food, especially in younger, poorer people or those from disadvantaged areas.

Findings published in the BMJ say a diet high in UPF can be harmful to health in multiple different ways.

The food, often high in fat, salt, sugars and low in vitamins and fibre, are associated with up to a 50pc higher risk of dying from a heat attack or stroke.

Ultra-processed foods that are harmful include:

  • Supermarket bread
  • Ready meals
  • Breakfast cereal
  • Biscuits
  • Cakes
  • Crisps

The review is the biggest ever analysis of UPF to date involving 10 million people.

Researchers found those eating the most had between a 40 and 66 per cent increased risk of dying from heart disease. Obesity, lung conditions and sleep problems were also associated with a high UPF diet.

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The review involved experts from many leading institutions including Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the US, the University of Sydney and Sorbonne University in France.

Writing in the BMJ, they concluded: “Overall, direct associations were found between exposure to ultra-processed foods and 32 health parameters spanning mortality, cancer, and mental, respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and metabolic health outcomes.

“Greater exposure to ultra-processed food was associated with a higher risk of adverse health outcomes, especially cardiometabolic, common mental disorders and mortality outcomes.

“These findings provide a rationale to develop and evaluate the effectiveness of using population-based and public-health measures to target and reduce dietary exposure to ultra-processed foods for improved human health.”

Ultra processed foods contain  colours, emulsifiers, flavours and other additives and undergo multiple industrial processes in their production. These products also tend to be high in added sugar, fat, and/or salt, but are low in vitamins and fibre.

The results of the major study show that higher exposure to UPF was associated with an increased risk of 32 adverse health outcomes, The BMJ reported.

Higher UPF consumption is associated with about a 50% increased risk of cardiovascular disease-related death, a 48 to 53% higher risk of anxiety and common mental disorders, and a 12% greater risk of type 2 diabetes.

It is also associated with a 21% greater risk of death from any cause, a 40 to 66% increased risk of heart disease related death, obesity, type 2 diabetes and sleep problems, and a 22% increased risk of depression.

Links were also found between UPF and asthma, gastrointestinal health, some cancers and cardiometabolic risk factors, such as high blood fats and low levels of ‘good’ cholesterol.

Dr Chris van Tulleken, an associate professor at University College London and one of the world’s leading UPF experts, said the findings were “entirely consistent” with a now “enormous number of independent studies which clearly link a diet high in UPF to multiple damaging health outcomes including early death”.

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