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Numerous health issues linked to ultra-processed food, study review reveals

Numerous health issues linked to ultra-processed food, study review reveals

A comprehensive review of numerous recent studies, including health data from over 10 million individuals, indicates that excessive consumption of ultra-processed food could result in numerous health issues. These range from obesity and heart disease to cancer, diabetes, and early death.

 

Recently published in BMJ, the British medical journal,1 this comprehensive analysis reports that diets rich in ultra-processed food could have detrimental effects on various bodily systems. Compiled by an international team of researchers from Australia, France, Ireland, and the United States, the study identifies 32 health indicators spanning mortality, cancer, as well as mental, respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and metabolic health outcomes, all potentially impacted by high consumption of ultra-processed food.

 

According to the researchers, ultra-processed foods encompass a wide array of ready-to-eat products, including packaged snacks, carbonated soft drinks, instant noodles, and pre-packaged meals. These products are characterized as industrial formulations primarily made of chemically modified substances extracted from foods, along with additives that enhance taste, texture, appearance, and shelf life, with minimal to no inclusion of whole foods.

 

In an editorial accompanying the BMJ study, a group of international academics argued that ultra-processed foods are not simply modified foods. Typically, these foods contain little to no whole food and are made from cheap, chemically altered ingredients such as modified starches, sugars, oils, and fats.

 

The team discovered convincing evidence of direct associations between consuming high quantities of ultra-processed food and all-cause and heart disease-related mortality, Type 2 diabetes, overweight and obesity. Eating lots of ultra-processed foods was also linked to anxiety and other common mental health issues. 

 

On the other hand, evidence of its association with asthma, digestive system health concerns, certain cancers, and specific heart-health risks was less conclusive, highlighting the need for further research.

 

How ultra-processed is our diet?

 

According to the BMJ study, there is a significant disparity in the prevalence of ultra-processed food within the diets of different countries, ranging from 10% in Italy to 58% in the United States. 

 

The study highlights that over recent decades, there has been a substantial and rapid increase in the availability and variety of ultra-processed products in countries worldwide, particularly in many densely populated low and middle-income nations. Historically, these countries had not consumed as many highly processed products compared to more developed, high-income nations.

 

 

The report concluded that across the aggregated analyses, greater exposure to ultra-processed foods, whether quantified as higher versus lower consumption, additional servings per day, or a 10% increment, consistently correlates with an increased risk of adverse health outcomes.

 

Recent criticisms of ultra-processed food have surfaced from various sources. The Wall Street Journal2 reported on a study in Cell Metabolism linking ultra-processed foods to changes in learning, memory, and mood. Researchers suggest that these foods can mimic addictive substances, prompting some scientists to propose a new mental health condition termed “ultra-processed food use disorder.” Diets rich in such foods may increase the risk of mental health and sleep disorders.

 

Furthermore, the Deseret News has covered several studies associating ultra-processed foods with various ailments. One of its reports,3 on a study featured in BMJ’s special edition, Food for Thought,4 suggests that ultra-processed food rich in refined carbohydrates and added fats may be as addictive as cigarettes. Other studies we’ve covered have found links between ultra-processed food and conditions such as sleep apnea, obesity, decreased life expectancy, reduced cognitive function, and other potentially severe health issues.

 

A need for government intervention

 

However, the recent comprehensive analysis also suggests governments and other stakeholders need to promote the consumption of healthy, minimally processed foods and beverages. 

 

This notion is currently being considered in the United States. The committee responsible for formulating the federal government’s dietary guidelines is exploring potential links between obesity and ultra-processed foods. According to a recent article by The Washington Post,5  the committee’s findings could potentially make Americans look beyond the basic nutrients in foods and consider how their food is made and the processes involved before it reaches their table.

 

The article noted that ultra-processed foods have unexpectedly entered programs like the National School Lunch Program. The program permits schools to offer meals comprising items like Domino’s pizza, Lunchables, Cheez-Its, and other ultra-processed foods that meet government standards for fat, protein, sodium, and whole grains. However, many of these processed foods are loaded with additives. An example is the turkey in a Lunchables box has 14 different ingredients, including additives for texture, flavor, and shelf life.

 

However, industry groups argue that these processes in producing these foods contribute to their extended shelf life, reducing food waste and cutting costs. In a letter addressed to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Institute of Food Technologists stated that stabilizers and other chemical additives ensure food and nutrition security, particularly when fresh foods are unavailable or accessible.

 

References

  1. Lane M M, Gamage E, Du S, Ashtree D N, McGuinness A J, Gauci S et al. Ultra-processed food exposure and adverse health outcomes: umbrella review of epidemiological meta-analyses BMJ 2024; 384 :e077310 doi:10.1136/bmj-2023-077310
  2. Peterson A. (2024). The New Science on What Ultra-Processed Food Does to Your Brain. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved March 19, 2024, from https://www.wsj.com/health/wellness/ultra-processed-food-brain-health-7a3f9827 
  3. Collins L M. (2023). Ultra-processed foods as addictive as cigarettes, study says. Deseret News. Retrieved March 19, 2024, from https://www.deseret.com/2023/10/19/23923954/ultra-processed-foods-addictive-cigarettes-study-carbs-fats/ 
  4. Gearhardt A N, Bueno N B, DiFeliceantonio A G, Roberto C A, Jiménez-Murcia S, Fernandez-Aranda F et al. Social, clinical, and policy implications of ultra-processed food addiction BMJ 2023; 383 :e075354 doi:10.1136/bmj-2023-075354
  5. Bernstein L, Weber L, & Keating D. (2023). How Lunchables ended up on school lunch trays. The Washington Post. . Retrieved March 19, 2024, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/interactive/2023/lunchables-school-lunch-ultraprocessed-foods/ 

 

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