Reasons to avoid ultra-processed foods

Hundreds of epidemiological studies and meta-analyses have reported associations between ultra-processed food consumption and adverse health outcomes. In a linked paper, Lane and colleagues have now carefully reviewed the evidence from 45 meta-analyses encompassing almost 10 million participants. They found direct associations between exposure to ultra-processed foods and 32 health parameters including mortality, cancer, and mental, respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and metabolic ill health. For instance, a pooled analysis of seven cohorts showed a 10% increase in ultra-processed food consumption to be associated with a 12% (95% confidence interval 1.11 to 1.13) higher incidence of type 2 diabetes.

The quality of the evidence was strong for all cause mortality, obesity, and type 2 diabetes (this evidence was rated as of moderate quality using the GRADE system, which initially considers all observational studies as low quality evidence). Overall, the authors found that diets high in ultra-processed food may be harmful to most—perhaps all—body systems.

Reduce production and consumption

What can be done to control and reduce production and consumption of ultra-processed food, which is rising worldwide? Reformulation does not eliminate harm, and profitability discourages manufacturers from switching to make nutritious foods. Moreover, the investment management companies that increasingly dominate corporate shareholdings would likely resist any such change.

Therefore, public policies and actions are essential. These include national dietary guidelines that recommend varieties of unprocessed or minimally processed foods and freshly prepared meals and avoidance of ultra-processed foods19; institutional food procurement that aligns with these guidelines; front-of-pack labels that clearly identify ultra-processed foods; restricting advertising and prohibiting sales in or near schools and hospitals; and fiscal measures that make unprocessed or minimally processed foods and freshly prepared meals as accessible and available as, and cheaper than, ultra-processed foods.

Link to the research

This reasearch was published via thebmj website on 28 February 2024.
Read the full paper here.