Ultra-processed foods: not all are harmful, study says

In a new study backed by the World Health Organization (WHO), researchers have discovered that while certain ultra-processed foods (UPFs) can increase the risk of developing cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, others actually have health benefits. The findings challenge the notion that all UPFs are detrimental to human health.    

The study, titled "Consumption of ultra-processed foods and risk of multimorbidity of cancer and cardiometabolic diseases: a multinational cohort study," was published in The Lancet Regional Health - Europe. It sheds light on the relationship between UPFs and the development of chronic diseases, providing valuable insights for individuals and policymakers alike.    

The extensive international study analyzed the dietary habits and health outcomes of 266 666 individuals across seven European countries. It revealed that regular consumption of meat products and sugary drinks was associated with a higher likelihood of developing these diseases. Conversely, the study found that ultra-processed breads and breakfast cereals, despite being classified as UPFs, can reduce the risk of these diseases due to their fiber content.    

The research also indicated that sauces, spreads, and condiments were not as harmful as animal products and soft drinks but still negatively impacted human health. However, previously deemed harmful UPFs such as sweets, desserts, ready meals, savory snacks, and plant-based alternatives to meat products were not associated with an increased risk of multimorbidity, which refers to the co-occurrence of multiple chronic diseases at the same time, such as cancer and heart disease.    

Experts caution against labeling all UPFs as uniformly detrimental to health, as the study provides a more nuanced understanding of specific UPF products and their impact. While UPFs, overall, were linked to heightened health risks, the study highlights the importance of differentiating between various types of UPFs.    

The rising concern surrounding UPFs stems from the fact that many high-income countries rely on them for 50% to 60% of their total energy intake, rather than consuming freshly prepared meals. However, the researchers stress that completely avoiding UPFs is unnecessary, and instead, their consumption should be limited in favor of fresh or minimally processed foods.    

While UPFs do pose risks to human health, the study's findings indicate that not all UPFs are created equal. The research challenges the broad assumption that all UPF foods are universally harmful and underscores the significance of discerning between different types of processed foods.      



The Lancet