Ultra-processed food raises risk of cancer and heart disease, review finds

Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are directly linked to 32 harmful effects on health (File picture) (PA Archive)
Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are directly linked to 32 harmful effects on health (File picture) (PA Archive)

Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are directly linked to 32 harmful health effects including an increased risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and early death, according to the world’s largest review of its kind.

Researchers said that strategies must be developed to reduce consumption of UPFs to improve human health.

UPFs are usually higher in fat, sugar and salt and contain chemicals, colourings, sweeteners and preservatives that extend shelf life. They include packaged baked foods, fizzy drinks, sugary cereals and ready meals.

In the UK, around half of the average diet consists of ultra-processed food – more than any country in Europe.

Campaigners including former government obesity star Henry Dimbleby have previously called for tobacco-style restrictions to be introduced on UPFs.

For the study, academics in Australia, the US and France analysed 14 review articles published in the last three years which associated UPFs with poor health outcomes. These included 9.9 million people who answered questions on their dietary habits.

A higher UPF intake was associated with a 50 per cent greater risk of death from cardiovascular disease, a 12 per cent greater risk of type 2 diabetes, and a 48-53 per cent greater risk of developing anxiety.

There was also “highly suggestive” evidence that eating more UPFs could increase the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, sleep problems and dying from heart disease by 40-66 per cent.

Writing in the BMJ, the researchers 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.”

They added: “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.”

Eating UPFs also increased the risk of depression by over a fifth (22 per cent), the study found.

In a linked editorial, academics from Brazil said “no reason exists to believe that humans can fully adapt” to UPFs, which they say are “often chemically manipulated cheap ingredients” and “made palatable and attractive by using combinations of flavours, colours, emulsifiers, thickeners, and other additives”.

They added: “It is now time for United Nations agencies, with member states, to develop and implement a framework convention on ultra-processed foods analogous to the framework on tobacco.”

Standard front-of-package food labels in the UK do not include information about food processing, but there have been calls for more to be done to provide consumers with information about how their food is made.

Experts on the Government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) have previously said there are “uncertainties around the quality of evidence available” on how UPFs cause harm to human health.

While they note that associations between health risks and UPFs are “concerning”, they have called for more studies to thoroughly investigate the link.