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Researchers say foods such as cheeseburgers can lead to a number of health issues. hapabapa/Getty Images
  • Ultra-processed foods undergo numerous industrial processes and include foods such as instant noodles, ready meals and hot dogs.
  • Researchers say a high intake of ultra-processed foods is associated with 32 adverse health outcomes.
  • Experts note that ultra processed foods are a common part of the diet in the United States with many people unaware of the health dangers associated with them.

High intake of ultra-processed foods is being associated with increased risk of more than 30 damaging health conditions.

Research published this week in The BMJ reports that diets high in ultra-processed foods increased the risk of major heart and lung conditions, cancer, mental health disorders, and other negative health outcomes, including early death.

“Greater exposure to ultra-processed food was associated with a higher risk of adverse health outcomes, especially cardiometabolic, common mental disorder, and mortality outcomes,” the study authors wrote.

The researchers conducted an umbrella review of 45 meta-analyses from 14 articles that showed an association between ultra-processed foods and adverse health outcomes. In total, the studies involved nearly 10 million participants.

Food frequency questionnaires, dietary history, and 24 hour dietary recalls were used to measure exposure to ultra-processed foods.

The researchers reported that high intake of ultra-processed foods was consistently associated with an increased risk of 32 negative health outcomes.

The researchers said they found an association between ultra processed foods and all causes of mortality, breast cancer, colorectal cancer, pancreatic cancer, adverse sleep outcomes, adverse anxiety outcomes, asthma, hypertension, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, obesity, metabolic syndrome, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and hyperglycemia, among other diseases and conditions.

They reported a 50% increased risk of deaths related to cardiovascular disease, a 12% higher risk of type 2 diabetes, and a 48% to 53% higher risk of anxiety and mental disorders.

High intake of ultra-processed foods was also found to be associated with a 21% increased risk of death from any cause and a 22% increased risk of depression.

The researchers argue their findings suggest that ultra-processed foods could be harmful to numerous body systems, highlighting the need for urgent action to reduce dietary exposure to ultra-processed foods.

“Coupled with existing population-based strategies, we recommend urgent mechanistic research and the development and evaluation of comprehensive population based and public health strategies, including government led policy frameworks and dietary guidelines, aimed at targeting and reducing dietary exposure to ultra-processed foods for improved human health,” they wrote.

Ultra-processed foods include items such as instant noodles, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, ready-to-eat meals, sugary cereal, packaged baked goods, snacks, and soft drinks.

These foods often undergo numerous industrial processes and may be made up of chemically modified substances that are extracted from foods.

Additives may be used to enhance the appearance, texture, taste, or durability of the food, along with added colors, flavors and emulsifiers.

Often, ultra-processed foods are high in salt, sugar, and fat, low in vitamins and fiber, and have minimal or no whole foods.

“An ultra-processed food is a food that resembles nothing of its component parts/ingredients. An ultra-processed food has been stripped of its nutritional value (essentially). It also has many ingredients, including food additives (i.e. hydrogenated fats, modified starches) that are not used in home cooking. These foods are mainly of industrial origin and can be stored for long periods of time,” Dana Hunnes, PhD, a senior clinical dietician at the UCLA Medical Center who was not involved in the research, told Medical News Today.

“Unfortunately, ultra-processed foods are inexpensive to purchase [but] expensive in terms of health,” she added. “Individuals need to look at what they can afford in their diet and make incremental changes. Our brains become addicted to these hyperpalatable flavors and ingredients, and like a drug, we need to wean off these ultra-processed foods and exchange them for healthier, whole-food items.”

About 73% of the food supply in the United States is made up of ultra-processed foods.

Research suggests that more than 60% of daily energy intake in the United States comes from ultra-processed foods.

Experts say part of the appeal of ultra-processed foods is they are often cheap and convenient.

“There’s a whole category of foods that we eat that are not the most nutritious. Why do we choose them? Because they’re convenient, they’re tasty, they don’t cost very much, they’re accessible 24/7,” Christopher Gardner, PhD, a nutrition researcher at Stanford University in California who wasn’t involved in the research, told Medical News Today.

However, Gardner argues that in some cases, some ultra-processed foods may be a healthier option than other available options.

“Some of the people choosing these foods are because they are maybe healthier and cost less than some other foods that they have access to. So, what if you had gone in and saw the ultra-processed food label on some tomato sauce, or some yogurt, which is quite plausible, because there are some tomato sauces and yogurt that meet the Nova qualification of being ultra-processed. And so instead of that, you went to a fast-food restaurant and got a burger and fries?,” he said.

Experts say there are steps people can take to improve their diets and reduce the risks associated with eating ultra-processed foods.

“Ultra-processed foods have been such a staple of the American diet that many do not know the potential harm they are doing to their health. People often turn to ultra-processed foods because of lack of time, but convenience can be unhealthy,” Lauri Wright, PhD, the president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics who was not involved in the research, told Medical News Today.

“Try switching out minimally processed foods rather than ultra-processed foods,” she suggested. “Eat out less and make healthier choices when you do. For example, a grilled chicken sandwich, fruit cup and water or low-fat milk instead of a burger, fries and soda.”

“Finally, make more foods at home,” Wright added. “This requires advance planning, some batch cooking, and taking advantage of some convenience methods such as an instapot or slow cooker. Try making your own kale chips, roasting chickpeas or snacking on nuts as an alternative to chips. For a sweet tooth, sprinkle berries on Greek yogurt, freeze grapes for a flavor blast, or make your own trail mix.”