Ultra-processed are everywhere. Over the past few decades, their availability and affordability have grown explosively and purposefully, first in high-income countries, then elsewhere. In the United States, and also in the United Kingdom, approximately 60% of caloric intake already comes from ultra-processed products. In Spain, the proportion of calories derived from these foods has also increased.
The messages about these products are also increasing. Many press reports attribute them to the rise in obesity or type 2 diabetes. There is also no shortage of influencers who advocate quitting their consumption. But what are ultra-processed foods? And what is the scientific evidence of its effect on health?
Pastry, soft drinks, cookies, nuggets, ready meals, dairy desserts. All are primarily products made from industrial ingredients and contain some natural food ingredients. These define ultra-processed products as “industrial formulations produced from substances obtained from food or substances synthesized from other organic sources”. And they continue: “Typically, they contain little or no intact food, ready to eat or reheat, and no fat, salt or sugar and little dietary fiber, protein, various micronutrients. and are high in other bioactive compounds.”
A recent study of nearly 200,000 adults in the United Kingdom concluded that ultra-processed foods also increase mortality from certain types of cancer, especially ovarian cancer in women. And it’s not the first. Last year, an investigation conducted in the United States linked ultra-processed foods to colorectal cancer. Adding to this growing evidence are findings on mental health. A longitudinal study with a decade of follow-up linked the consumption of ultra-processed foods with cognitive decline in more than 10,000 adults in Brazil.
In short, ultra-processed foods are food industrial products made from substances derived from other foods. They are superior products to be appealing to the palate and are very comfortable as they can be consumed at any time and place.
What is its effect on health?
Thanks to traceability and food safety systems, it is very difficult for food, ultra-processed or not, to cause immediate harm to health. With the exception of some poor-quality fats and sugars, which directly cause harm but remain unregulated due to industry interference.
The scientific data is clear on the harmful effects of ultra-processed foods. Hundreds of studies have found links between consumption of these products and an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases and premature death. An editorial, recently published in the Gaceta Sanitaria by Miguel Ángel Royo-Bordonada and Mara Base-Rastrolo, summarizes this evidence (which also exists in Spain).