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How to Tackle the the Adverse Effects of Ultra-Processed Foods?

French researchers has summarized where we are in our understanding of the adverse health effects related to ultra-processed food. It’s bad.

A recent study published in BMJ by researchers at Université Sorbonne Paris Nord and Université Paris Cité, France, sheds light on the concerning link between ultra-processed foods and cardiometabolic health.

The paper, titled “Ultra-processed foods and cardiometabolic health: public health policies to reduce consumption cannot wait,” emphasizes the need for stronger public health initiatives to address the rising consumption of ultra-processed foods, despite existing evidence demonstrating their negative health impacts.

Consumption of ultra-processed foods has been increasingly linked to a variety of health problems:

  • changes in lipoprotein profiles
  • obesity
  • type 2 diabetes
  • cardiovascular diseases.

Traditionally, dietary studies have focused on individual nutrients like total fat, saturated fat, dietary cholesterol, calories, sugar, salt, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

This conventional approach fails to consider the processing intensity of food formulations, essentially overlooking a significant health risk factor in data collection.

The study emphasizes a critical oversight in nutritional research. When comparing vegetable soups, for example, traditional methods might classify homemade and commercially processed varieties – even those containing additives and artificial flavors – as nutritionally equivalent.

This creates confusion for both healthcare professionals and consumers. Distinguishing healthy dietary choices from seemingly healthy, yet highly processed, options becomes difficult.

The paper cites over 70 long-term epidemiological studies demonstrating a consistent link between ultra-processed food consumption and weight gain, with an increased risk of various diseases, particularly those affecting the cardiovascular and metabolic systems.

The authors propose these foods could be labeled as addictive substances under criteria similar to those used for tobacco products. A warning label on commercially processed vegetable soup could empower consumers to make informed dietary decisions.

A multi-pronged approach is recommended to address this issue. Government policies and regulations are needed to encourage the production and accessibility of minimally processed foods. Additionally, limitations on marketing ultra-processed products and consumer education regarding their negative health effects are crucial.

The paper emphasizes the need for further research, particularly publicly funded studies independent of the food industry, to identify specific processing methods and ingredients contributing to these adverse health effects.

Certain toxins are known to be present in ultra-processed foods.

  • Furans
  • heterocyclic amines
  • polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons
  • acrolein
  • advanced glycation end products
  • industrial trans-fatty acids
  • acrylamide.

While ultra-processed foods often boast extended shelf life, a benefit for reducing food waste, this can come at a cost. Contaminants such as phthalates, bisphenols, mineral oils, and microplastics may leach from packaging or can linings. Studies suggest these contaminants alone might possess carcinogenic properties, potentially increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes.

The multitude of food additives in ultra-processed foods also raises concerns.

The paper cites several studies in animal models and humans suggesting negative health effects associated with some of the 330 additives currently approved for use in Europe. Observed issues include inflammation, DNA damage, and the triggering of gut microbiome dysbiosis.

Microbiome dysbiosis refers to a disruption of the gut microbiota ecosystem, characterized by a loss of beneficial bacteria or an overgrowth of harmful ones. This can lead to intestinal inflammation and a compromised gut barrier, facilitating unwanted interactions between gut constituents and the immune system.

The study calls for consumer education regarding the negative impacts of ultra-processed foods. Authors urge governments to take decisive action, implementing immediate public health initiatives to help citizens identify and limit their exposure to these products. The paper concludes with a powerful statement, “Everyone’s health is at stake,” highlighting the urgency for action.


Incomplete understanding of the multiple mechanisms underlying the link between ultra-processed foods and cardiometabolic health should not be an excuse for inaction argue Mathilde Touvier and colleagues

The effect of diet on health has historically been considered from a nutrient based perspective—for example, excess total fat, saturated fat, dietary cholesterol, calories, sugar, or salt and lack of dietary fibre, vitamins, and minerals.1 More recently, this approach has been complemented by extensive evidence supporting health effects of dietary patterns (eg, the Mediterranean diet), characterised by various dietary scores such as the Alternative Healthy Eating Index (AHEI), or DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet.2 However, the degree of processing and formulation of foods was not taken into account. For instance, all vegetable soups were considered similar, regardless of whether they were homemade, industrial canned, or industrial dehydrated and contained food additives and flavours.

The potential health effect of food processing and food formulation, beyond their food ingredients, nutrient composition, and energy content, is now being widely researched. An important milestone was the 2009 publication of the NOVA classification,3 which categorises foods according to the type, intensity, and purpose of food processing (box 1). The ultra-processed group includes all foods and drinks made using intense physical or chemical processes or containing cosmetic food additives and other industrial ingredients (eg, artificial flavours, hydrogenated oils, glucose/fructose corn syrup).4 These foods are generally convenient, affordable, highly palatable, and often intensively advertised.

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