What the evidence says about ultra-processed food

Ultra-processed food is a commercially manufactured product that contains ingredients you would not cook at home. This processing can make foods more appealing, increase shelf life, and even make them more affordable. Wholemeal supermarket bread is a good example.

Scientists have known for a long time that foods with high saturated fats, salt, sugar, and calories, or those with too little whole grains, fiber, and other nutrients, increase the risk of certain health conditions, such as obesity, hypertension, and heart disease.

Many ultra-processed food products will not have these nutritional profiles, but some do. The idea that ultra-processed foods are dangerous is a new one.

Van Tulleken’s books argues that the problem is not nutrition, but the ultra-processing. In a musing about why some pizzas aren’t good for our waistlines, he writes that “the only thing to consider is whether or not it is ultra-processed.” Van Tulleken claims that ultra-processed foods are linked to more deaths and early deaths globally than tobacco.

A great deal of what is being said here is wrong.

Myths examined

No scientific study has ever shown that ultra-processed food is the leading cause of death worldwide.

This bold but misleading claim is, in my opinion, a misinterpretation of research that suggests poor diet is a leading cause of death. In this study and others, the majority of deaths that are attributed to poor nutrition are caused by factors like not eating enough fruits and vegetables, oily fish, and wholegrains.

There is no strong evidence to suggest that the ultra-processed status of a food will affect its health.

Many studies show people with diets high in ultra-processed foods have a poorer quality of life than those who consume less ultra-processed foodResearch indicates that some specific kinds of ultra-processed food foods are linked to poorer health.

It includes sugary beverages and processed meats, which have been known to be bad for your health for a long time. It is not true that eating other foods classified as ultra-processed will lead to a worse. Some studies even show that they predict better health. Brown cereals and bread are examples.

“observational” studies are the basis of most scientific studies that show harm from ultra-processed food. Researchers don’t alter a person’s eating habits to observe their health. Instead, they look at what people report to eat to determine how they feel.

Not all ultra-processed food is associated with poorer overall health. Dar1930/Shutterstock

In this way, observational studies cannot account for the differences between people who consume a lot or fewer ultraprocessed food.

It is important to understand that ultra-processing is not harmful. There are factors unmeasured about the person or diet which can cause health problems. This is perfectly captured in a recent study.

It was, as shown in other a href=” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/37087831/#:%7E:text=Conclusion%3A%20In%20conclusion%2C%20the%20available%2C%20breast%2D%20and%20pancreatic%20cancer.”>studies/a>. As demonstrated by further research, it was. It also examined whether ultra-processed foods were associated with an outcome that should not be possible: accidental death. People who consume a lot of ultra-processed food are more likely to be involved in accidents such as car crashes, falls, and other types of accidents.

No plausible explanation exists for why processed foods could cause death. It’s more likely that something else has been overlooked or mismeasured, a factor known as “confounding factors”.

People with poorer mental health are also more likely to die in an accident. People with lower backgrounds and worse health are more likely to consume ultra-processed foods.

It is possible to measure an individual’s income. However, it is very difficult to accurately measure the effects of poverty and mental illness on physical health. These factors may, therefore, be confounding and make it appear that ultra-processed foods are associated with worsening health like cancer.

You’d expect that, given the fear and dread surrounding food processing, there would be convincing evidence that demonstrates how food processing can harm human health. There is no evidence. Scientists from the US, UK, and Australia (with and without food industry funding histories) all agree.

There’s a good reason for more research on ultra-processed foods and their health. This is far from Van Tulleken’s claim that we eat “food that isn’t food” and that ultra-processed foods are worse for our health than tobacco.

The hype around ultra-processed foods is problematic, as it can cause unnecessary anxiety in people who are already struggling with their eating habits or worried about their health.

The ultra-processed foods hype can confuse the public about what foods are healthy and which ones are not. It may also divert attention away from the government’s need to take action against the food industry for marketing and selling foods that we know have bad health effects – those high in sugar, sodium, saturated fat, and calories.

In the future, convincing evidence will show that certain types of food processing may cause serious health problems. Until then, however, misleading and shocking claims about ultra-processed foods are a real problem.

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