The Impact of Ultra-Processed Foods on Health

In high-income countries like the USA, Canada, and the UK, more than half of the dietary energy consumed comes from ultra-processed foods. These foods are made through industrial processes and contain sugars, fats, oils, salt, and additives. Examples include snacks, soft drinks, margarines, bread, cookies, pastries, breakfast cereals, cakes, desserts,and soups. Studies consistently show that ultra-processed foods are high in sugar, energy-dense, unhealthy fats, and salt, while lacking in fiber, vitamins, protein, and minerals. Experimental research suggests that these foods lead to high glycemic responses, little satiety, and contribute to inflammation in the gut associated with diseases. Due to their manufacturing processes and the displacement of healthier options, ultra-processed foods are inherently unhealthy.

UPFS and Health

The Link Between Ultra-Processed Foods and Negative Health Outcomes

Researchers examined the connection between ultra-processed food consumption and health outcomes. Most studies found negative effects associated with UPF consumption, while prospective studies that considered covariates and follow-up did not reveal significant positive outcomes. Conversely, diets rich in minimally processed foods (MPF) were linked to positive outcomes.

Obesity, Overweight and Cardio-Metabolic Risks in Adults: While certain studies demonstrated noteworthy connections between UPF consumption and adverse health outcomes, other studies yielded mixed results.

Disease and Mortality: Few studies on disease or mortality found significant associations with adverse health outcomes.

Other Disorders and Conditions: Some studies on various disorders and conditions showed significant associations with adverse health outcomes.

Obesity, Overweight, and Cardio-Metabolic Risks in Children and Adolescents: Some studies found significant associations with adverse health outcomes, others reported mixed results.

Consuming ultra-processed foods (UPF) is consistently linked to negative health outcomes in adults, including obesity, higher BMI, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, and mortality. Similar associations are found in children and adolescents, with UPF consumption linked to increased waist circumference, asthma, and metabolic syndrome. However, some studies do not consistently find associations between UPF consumption and certain outcomes such as inflammatory bowel disease, and certain cancers. Conversely, diets higher in minimally processed foods (MPF), combined with partially processed foods, are associated with lower odds of overweight and metabolic syndrome. It's important to consider factors like dietary assessment methods, UPF definitions, and confounding variables when interpreting study results, as they may differ between studies. 

Ultra-processed foods negatively affect cardiometabolic health through various mechanisms, extending beyond individual nutrients. Research indicates that these foods have direct and indirect effects, introducing low-quality ingredients and displacing healthier options like vegetables and fruits. Compounds from aggressive food processing may contribute to cardiovascular diseases. Ultra-processed foods impact health through increased energy intake, changes in gut-brain signaling, gut microbiome alterations, and hormonal effects, leading to atherosclerosis and key processes involved in cardiovascular diseases. Prospective studies support the idea that consuming these foods harms cardiovascular health, emphasizing the need for understanding underlying mechanisms and providing dietary guidance in preventive cardiology. Reducing UPF intake and choosing diets higher in MPF can positively impact health outcomes.

Examples of Ultra-Processed Food

Ultra-processed foods examples can vary, leading to confusion in categorization. Some terms used include "breads," "cereal bars.", and "breakfast cereals". Cocoa drinks, yogurt drinks, soft drinks, fruit and milk drinks, , and instant coffee have also been included at times. Definitions differ in national food-consumption databases, causing subjective categorization.

Studies may exclude artisanal and homemade breads from the ultra-processed category, while others use sales proportions as a proxy for consumption. "Artisanal bread" can refer to  premix-based breads, small-scale production, or breads made in-store at restaurants or supermarkets.

Expanding the definition of highly or ultra-processed foods without precise terms can create confusion. The nutritional composition of bread varies based on factors like flour type, and there is no evidence supporting claims that processing alters the nutritional composition or satiating properties across bread categories or production methods.


Ultra-processed foods: what they are and how to identify them

Ultra-Processed Foods and Health Outcomes: A Narrative Review

Ultra-Processed Foods: Definitions and Policy Issues

Ultra-processed Foods and Cardiovascular Diseases: Potential Mechanisms of Action

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