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Ultra-processed foods linked to over 30 health issues, from diabetes to heart trouble to cancer, research finds

Highly processed foods may be addictive
Highly processed foods may be as addictive as tobacco or alcohol, according to new research 05:26

Who hasn't been tempted by supermarket aisles full of cookies, chips and other snackable treats, or lured by the ease of prepackaged meals? But those highly processed foods come at a cost to your health. Consistent evidence shows diets high in ultra-processed food are associated with an increased risk of 32 damaging health outcomes, according to a new review of 45 meta-analyses.

The research, published in The BMJ journal Wednesday, found higher exposure to these foods can be harmful to health in a variety of ways, including higher risk for cancer, major heart and lung conditions, gastrointestinal issues, obesity, type 2 diabetes, sleep issues, mental health disorders and early death.

Ultra-processed foods, which "undergo multiple industrial processes and often contain colors, emulsifiers, flavors, and other additives," a news release explains, include products such as:

  • Packaged baked goods and snacks
  • Carbonated soft drinks
  • Sugary cereals
  • Instant noodles
  • Other ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat meals

"These products also tend to be high in added sugar, fat, and/or salt, but are low in vitamins and (fiber)," the release notes.

Just how much do these foods increase your health risk? It depends. The authors organized their findings based on the strength of evidence for different issues. 

For example, they found "convincing" evidence that higher intake of ultra-processed foods was associated with 50% increased risk of cardiovascular disease-related death, a 48% to 53% higher risk of anxiety and common mental disorders, and a 12% greater risk of type 2 diabetes. "Highly suggestive" evidence indicated a 21% greater risk of death from any cause; a 40% to 66% increased risk of heart disease-related death, obesity, type 2 diabetes and sleep problems; and a 22% increased risk of depression.

However, evidence of a potential connection to asthma and gastrointestinal health, for example — while still showing a association between ultra-processed foods and adverse health outcomes — remains more limited.

Previous research has pointed to the negative health affects and addictive quality of processed foods, but this research provides a broad review of evidence in this area by incorporating the findings of dozens of studies all published in the past three years with nearly 10 million participants total. 

"Undertaking such a comprehensive review has the potential to enhance our understanding of these associations and provide valuable insights for better informing public health policies and strategies," the authors write. 

The findings could also serve as a wake-up call for consumers in the United States and other high-income countries, where ultra-processed foods account for up to 58% of total daily calorie consumption, the review points out. 

"Notably, over recent decades, the availability and variety of ultra-processed products sold has substantially and rapidly increased in countries across diverse economic development levels," the authors write.

They urge officials to prioritize public health through steps like front-of-the-pack food labels and economic policies that make fresh and minimally-processed foods more accessible and affordable.

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