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Ultra-processed food linked to 32 different illnesses

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Ultra-processed foods are strongly tied to risk with early death, heart disease, cancer, mental health disorders, overweight and obesity, and Type 2 diabetes, researchers said. Photo by FotoshopTofs/Pixabay

Ultra-processed foods can cause dozens of terrible health problems among people who eat them too often, a new review warns.

Researchers linked diets high in ultra-processed foods to an increased risk of 32 separate illnesses. In particular, these foods are strongly tied to risk with early death, heart disease, cancer, mental health disorders, overweight and obesity, and Type 2 diabetes, researchers said.

For example, ultra-processed foods are associated with a 50% increased risk of heart-related death, a 48% to 53% increased risk of anxiety and common mental disorders, and a 12% risk of Type 2 diabetes, researchers said.

And the more of these foods people eat, the higher their overall health risks, results showed.

Ultra-processed foods include packaged snacks, sugary drinks, instant noodles, sweet cereals and ready-to-eat meals.

The products undergo multiple industrial processes to make them tasty and shelf-stable, and contain additives like emulsifiers, coloring agents and chemical flavors.

Unfortunately, ultra-processed foods now account for up to 58% of total daily energy intake in some high income-countries, and are proliferating in low- and middle-income countries, researchers said in background notes.

"Notably, over recent decades, the availability and variety of ultra-processed products sold has substantially and rapidly increased" in countries around the world, wrote the research team led by Melissa Lane, an associate research fellow with the Deaken University Institute for Mental and Physical Health in Victoria, Australia.

These highly processed foods contain loads of sugar, salt and fat, as well as other ingredients that can be harmful to many systems within the body, researchers said.

For this analysis, researchers reviewed pooled data from 14 review articles published within the past three years involving nearly 10 million participants. None were funded by food companies that produce ultra-processed foods.

The evidence also linked ultra-processed foods with a 21% greater risk of death from any cause, a 55% increased risk of obesity, a 40% increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, a 41% increased risk of sleep problems and a 22% increased risk of depression.

The findings were published Feb. 28 in the BMJ.

The research team noted that these poor health effects aren't necessarily fully explained by the products' lack of nutrition and heavy calorie loads.

Alterations in the food made during manufacturing "may affect digestion, nutrient absorption and feelings of satiety," the researchers wrote.

Emerging evidence in humans also has linked some additives used in the foods -- non-sugar sweeteners, emulsifiers, colorants and nitrates or nitrites -- with poor health outcomes, researchers said.

Intensive industrial processing of food might also produce harmful substances that contribute to chronic inflammation, and even packaging materials can contain contaminants, they added.

Researchers said that manufacturers can be pressured to reformulate these products, but that rejiggering the ingredients won't necessarily eliminate harm.

Further, profit motives discourage food makers from switching to nutritious products.

In fact, manufacturers push their products using marketing strategies that "involve visually captivating packaging with eye-catching designs and health-related assertions," promoting "excessive consumption," researchers said.

Because of this, researchers recommend a crackdown on these foods by regulators and policymakers, including:

  • Front-of-back nutrition labels.

  • Restricting advertising.

  • Prohibiting sales in or near schools and hospitals.

  • Promoting the accessibility of fresh, unprocessed or minimally processed foods.

More information

The Cleveland Clinic has more on ultra-processed foods.

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