Consuming a lot of ultra-processed foods can have several adverse health impacts. Ultra-processed foods currently make up 50% or more of caloric intake in countries including the US, UK, and Canada.
According to two sizable studies published in the medical journal BMJ on Wednesday, these foods have been connected to many different health issues, including a higher risk of obesity and several chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, dementia, and even early mortality.
What are ultra-processed foods?
The term “ultra-processed food” refers to food products that have undergone several production procedures combined with numerous industrial substances (such as thickeners, emulsifiers, and artificial flavors).
Examples include sugary beverages, breakfast cereals, and more recent inventions like the various “plant-based” burgers, which are often constructed of protein isolates and other chemicals to make the products taste good.
Ultra-processed foods are created by extensive industrial procedures that disrupt the natural structure of the food ingredients and remove numerous healthy nutrients like fibre, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.
The detrimental effects of highly processed foods on human health are well known to many of us. But it’s not obvious if this is merely a result of the low nutritional value of these foods.
Two recent studies have revealed that the health risks may not be entirely attributable to the inadequate nutritional value of such foods. This implies that other criteria could be required to account for their health concerns completely.
The part inflammation plays
The first study, which examined more than 20,000 Italian individuals, discovered that those who consumed the most ultra-processed foods had a higher risk of early mortality from any cause.
The results of the second study, which examined more than 50,000 US male health professionals, revealed a link between a high intake of ultra-processed foods and a higher risk of colon cancer.
The most intriguing aspect of this research is that the health concerns associated with consuming a diet high in ultra-processed foods persisted even after considering how poorly nutrient-dense their diets were. This implies that other factors have a role in the adverse effects of highly processed foods.
It also means that the correct nutrients may not be enough to compensate for the disease risk associated with eating highly processed meals.
Similar to these, the food industry’s efforts to boost the nutritional worth of highly processed foods by including a few extra vitamins may be obfuscating a deeper issue with these items.
What factors might account for why highly processed meals are so bad for us?
According to the Italian study, people who ate the most highly processed foods had higher inflammatory markers, such as a higher white blood cell count.
For instance, if we develop a cold or get cut ourselves while chopping onions, our systems may begin to produce an inflammatory response. Our immune cells, such as white blood cells, get signals from the body to combat any incoming invaders (such as viruses or bacteria).
Our inflammatory reaction usually subsides relatively soon, but in rare cases, some people may experience chronic inflammation all over their bodies. This is a factor in many chronic conditions, including cancer and cardiovascular disease, and can lead to tissue damage.
Several studies have revealed that eating poorly can make the body more inflammatory, which raises the chance of developing chronic diseases.
Given that those in the Italian study who consumed the most ultra-processed meals showed evidence of inflammation, this may indicate that inflammation plays a role in how and why ultra-processed foods raise disease risk.
By altering the gut microbiome, some dietary additives included in ultra-processed meals (such as emulsifiers and artificial sweeteners) also cause an increase in intestinal inflammation.
Some studies have hypothesized that ultra-processed foods create more inflammation because the body perceives them as foreign—much like an invasive bacterium.
As a result, the body launches an inflammatory response known as “fast food fever,” which causes more inflammation throughout the body.
Inflammation is closely associated with an increased risk of colon cancer, even though the US colon cancer study did not establish if there is increased inflammation in men eating the most highly processed foods.
According to the research, other mechanisms may possibly contribute to the hazardous health issues caused by ultra-processed foods. These may include toxins in packaging and impaired kidney function.
Since inflammatory responses are hard-wired in our bodies, the best way to avoid this is never to eat ultra-processed foods.
It has also been demonstrated that some plant-based diets rich in organic, unprocessed foods—like the Mediterranean diet—are anti-inflammatory.
This may also describe why plant-based diets free from ultra-processed foods can prevent chronic diseases. The effectiveness of an anti-inflammatory diet in reducing the adverse effects of highly processed foods is currently unknown.
It could be difficult to just cut back on your intake of highly processed meals
Due to their extreme palatability and compelling marketing, ultra-processed foods can be challenging for some people to avoid.
Some foods are not identified as such on food packaging. Checking out the labels for ingredients is the best way to identify them. Emulsifiers, thickeners, protein isolates, and other industrial-sounding ingredients frequently indicate ultra-processed food.
The best way to avoid the harmful effects of ultra-processed foods is to prepare meals from scratch using natural ingredients.
Richard Hoffman is a lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire, specializing in nutritional biochemistry.