How Bad Are Ultra Processed Foods?

According to a recent study published in the British Medical Journal, ultraprocessed foods are associated with high health risk, including health complications including cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Harvard health describes processed or untraprocessed foods contain “many added ingredients such as sugar, salt, fat, and artificial colors or preservatives. Ultra-processed foods are made mostly from substances extracted from foods, such as fats, starches, added sugars, and hydrogenated fats. They may also contain additives like artificial colors and flavors or stabilizers. Examples of these foods are frozen meals, soft drinks, hot dogs and cold cuts, fast food, packaged cookies, cakes, and salty snacks.”

Ultra-processed foods are industrially produced using a variety of processing techniques. They typically include ingredients that can’t be found in a home kitchen, such as preservatives, emulsifiers, sweeteners and/or artificial colours.

Common examples of ultra-processed foods include packaged chips, flavoured yoghurts, soft drinks, sausages and mass-produced packaged wholegrain bread.

The Conversation

Dr. Mingyang Song, author of the 30-years study, and a associate professor of clinical epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health, told CNN Health, “Processed meats and sugary foods and drinks aren’t correlated with the same risks as ultraprocessed whole grains”.

Commenting the study, health experts wrote in the Conversation, “while there was some support for limiting consumption of certain types of ultra-processed food for long-term health, not all ultra-processed food products should be universally restricted”.

In a AMA’s Doctors Wish Patients Knew series, Stephen Devries, MD, a preventive cardiologist and executive director of the educational nonprofit Gaples Institute in Chicago, said, “Ultraprocessed foods are industrial creations made with little—if any—whole foods that often contain large amounts of added sugar and salt, noting ultraprocessed foods are typically infused with artificial colors and additives. ultraprocessed foods are better at preserving shelf life than human life.”

According to CNN Health, some ultraprocessed foods contain ingredients that are never seen in our kitchens.

Ultraprocessed foods have been linked to a higher risk of cancer, heart disease, obesity and early death, yet estimates say 71% of the food supply in the United States may contain ingredients created in a laboratory.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, ultraprocessed foods contain ingredients “never or rarely used in kitchens, or classes of additives whose function is to make the final product palatable or more appealing.”

The list of additives* includes preservatives to resist mold and bacteria; emulsifiers to keep incompatible ingredients from separating; artificial colorings and dyes; anti-foaming, bulking, bleaching, gelling and glazing agents; and added or altered sugar, salt and fats intended to boost flavor to a “bliss point” that is hard to resist.

Additives often boost the number of ingredients, but food and drink can still be ultraprocessed with only a few components. Why? It’s likely due to industrial techniques such as extrusion, molding and prefrying — which some experts say make the food “predigested.”

CNN Health

In the following video from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health video, health experts discuss the dangers of ultra-processed foods in our diet.

Video credit: Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health

Below are links to additional information about the dangers of ultra-processed foods and how to limit their daily consumption for a healthy lifestyle.

Related Resource Links