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Updated Thursday, February 29, 2024-09:48

A diet high in

ultra-processed foods

is associated with an increased risk of 32 harmful health outcomes, including cancer, serious heart and lung conditions, mental health disorders, and premature death.

That is the main conclusion of a study published this Thursday in the magazine

'The BMJ'

, which highlights the need to adopt measures that reduce dietary exposure to these products.

Ultra-processed foods, such as sweetened or salty snacks, soft drinks, instant noodles, meat products, pre-prepared pizzas and pasta dishes, cookies and confectionery products, are made by assembling food substances, mostly basic ingredients, and additives

' cosmetics'

(in particular flavours, colorants and emulsifiers) thanks to industrial processes.

These types of foods are usually high in sugar, fat and salt, and are low in vitamins, protein and fiber.

However, it can account for up to

58% of total daily energy intake

in some rich countries and has increased rapidly in many low- and middle-income nations in recent decades.

Many previous studies and meta-analyses have linked highly processed foods to poor health, but no comprehensive review has yet provided a comprehensive assessment of the evidence in this area.

To close this gap, researchers conducted an overview of 45 separate pooled meta-analyses of 14 review articles that associated ultra-processed foods with adverse health outcomes.

All review articles were published in the last three years and involved almost

10 million participants


None were funded by companies involved in the production of 'junk' food.

Estimates of exposure to ultra-processed foods were obtained from a combination of food frequency questionnaires, 24-hour dietary recalls, and dietary history.

The researchers rated the evidence as compelling, highly suggestive, suggestive, weak, or no evidence.

They also assessed the quality of the evidence as high, moderate, low or very low.


Overall, the results show that greater exposure to ultra-processed foods was consistently associated with an increased risk of

32 adverse

health outcomes.

Compelling evidence showed that higher intakes of ultra-processed foods were associated with a 50% higher risk of cardiovascular disease-related death, a 48% to 53% higher risk of anxiety and common mental disorders, and a 12% higher risk of type 2 diabetes.

Highly suggestive evidence also indicated that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods was linked to a 21% higher risk of death from any cause, a 40% to 66% higher risk of death related to heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and sleep problems, and a 22% higher risk of depression.

Evidence on associations of exposure to ultra-processed foods with

asthma, gastrointestinal health, some cancers, and cardiometabolic risk factors

, such as high levels of blood fats and low levels of 'good' cholesterol, remained limited.

Ultra-processed foods harm health and shorten life, researchers say in an editorial linked to the article.

Therefore, they propose front-of-package labels, restricting advertising and prohibiting sales in or near schools and hospitals, and fiscal and other measures that make unprocessed or minimally processed foods and freshly prepared meals are as accessible, available and cheaper than ultra-processed.

In addition, they point out that the United Nations should develop a framework convention on ultra-processed foods similar to that on tobacco, and promote examples of best practices.