Ultra-processed products are everywhere. During recent decades, they have become more available and affordable, first in high-income countries and then in the rest of the world. In the United States and the United Kingdom, around 60% of caloric intake comes from ultra-processed foods. In Spain, the proportion of calories obtained from these products has also increased.
Messages about these products also proliferate. News stories indicate them as the cause for increases in obesity and Type II diabetes. Plenty of influencers advocate against consuming them. But what are ultra-processed foods? And what is the scientific evidence about their effects on health?
What are they?
Donuts, sodas, cookies, nuggets, pre-cooked dishes, dairy desserts: all these products are elaborated mostly or completely from industrial ingredients. They contain few natural foods, if any. They tend to have a high caloric density, because of their quantity of sugars and fats, and a low nutritional quality, with very little protein or micronutrients. They give our bodies almost nothing but calories.
The term “ultra-processed” was first used by Carlos Monteiro in 2009. There are no regulations that establish a legal definition, and the most accepted definition is that of Monteiro and his colleagues. They define ultra-processed foods as “industrial formulations produced with substances obtained from food or synthesized from other organic sources.” They continue: “Normally, they contain little or no intact foods; they are prepared to consume or heat; and they are rich in fat, salt or sugars and little dietary fiber, protein, micronutrients and bioactive compounds.”
In summary, ultra-processed products are edible industrial preparations made with substances derived from other foods. They are formulated to be attractive to the palate and easy to consume in any time or place.
Added to that is their enormous profitability. Ultra-processed foods have a prolonged shelf life and a low production cost. The production of ultra-processed foods — such as sugary beverages — has become one of the most lucrative and fast-growing commercial activities. They are cheaper than fresh or processed foods. Advertisements offer deceptive messages (“rich in vitamins”), seeking to conceal potential harm, in order to increase consumer demand.
What is their effect on health?
Thanks to health safety systems, it is rare for foods, ultra-processed or otherwise, to cause immediate harmful health consequences. (The exceptions are certain low-quality fats and sugars, which do cause direct harm but remain unregulated because of industry lobbying.)
Scientific data about ultra-processed foods’ negative effects are clear. Hundreds of studies have observed an association between the consumption of these products and a higher risk of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and premature death.
A recent study in almost 200,000 adults in the United Kingdom concluded that ultra-processed foods also increase mortality rates for certain types of cancer, particularly ovarian cancer in women. And last year, a study in the United States found a relationship between ultra-processed foods and colorectal cancer. Discoveries about mental health also join this growing evidence. A longitudinal study, conducted over a decade, associated the consumption of ultra-processed foods with cognitive decline in more than 10,000 adults in Brazil.
Several hypotheses exist about their mechanism of action. On one hand, the damage could be due to the aforementioned low nutritional quality of the products’ common ingredients: free sugars, refined flour, unhealthy fats and salt. At the same time, the consumption of ultra-processed products can replace other, more nutrient-rich foods. Studies suggest additional hypotheses related to alterations in satiety signals, imbalances in the composition and diversity of the intestinal microbiota, and the inflammatory and oxidative effects of ultra-processed foods.
Their effects are clear, and we now understand them at a biological level. It remains necessary to implement fiscal measures, such as taxes on sugary beverages, and regulations that limit children and teenager’s exposure to these products.
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