In the last decade several scientific publications have highlighted concerns over ultra-processed foods (UPF’s) and cancer, cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality. Clearly the evidence is growing but it does hinge on how we define UPF’s given that most of the food we eat (from porridge and bread to pizzas and ready meals) have undergone some form of industrial level processing. In a paper published last year in the British Medical Journal (using data from the French NutriNet-Sante cohort) the authors reported that high intakes of UPF’s were associated with higher overall cancer and breast cancer risk (1). Interestingly, these findings remained after controlling for key nutrients
(e.g. salt, fat) associated with poorer health outcomes. The authors used the NOVA processing classification system, and this widely recognised approach enables further investigations in this otherwise challenging area. Overall, sugary products contributed 26% of all ultra processed foods with drinks and highly processed fruits and vegetables contributing a further 20% and 15% respectively.
More recently an editorial in the BMJ (2) on this topic leads us to think again about whether food reformulation provides an entirely healthy option and whether at the end of the day there are some foods that are actually just best avoided. Whilst we ponder this over, there has been an even more compelling piece of research by Hall and colleagues, published in Cell Metabolism (3). This study has demonstrated in
a randomised control trial that diets offered as ultra-processed food can account for weight gain more so than a diet composed of unprocessed foods (all matched for nutrient composition), which raises questions about appetite control and other impacts of UPF’s.
Current guidance on cancer prevention highlights wholefoods, fruits and vegetables and focuses on plant based diets… emerging evidence suggests we also need to be cautious about uptake of ultra-processed foods, both in plant based products (including Vegan labelled foods) and animal products (4,5).