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Are all ultra-processed foods bad for you?



From obesity to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and depression, ultra-processed foods have been singled out for their harmful effects on health.

Research from France’s Inserm found that the consumption of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) could be associated with “the recurrence of depressive symptoms”.

These findings are supported by research from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, highlighting an increased risk of depression in women, and add to other studies implicating this type of food in the risk of cancer and cardiometabolic diseases (cardiovascular disease, diabetes).

These industrially processed convenience foods containing added ingredients or additives are now the subject of a new large-scale study in Europe by researchers at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a specialist agency of the World Health Organisation (WHO), in collaboration with the University of Vienna.

Research methodology and participant demographics

To conduct their research, the scientists drew on data from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC), involving no fewer than 266,666 participants in seven European countries, 60% of them women, and free of cancer, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes at the time of recruitment.

The authors assessed the participants’ food and beverage consumption over the previous 12 months via a questionnaire, classified items according to their degree of processing, and then analysed the risk of multimorbidity involving cancer and cardiometabolic diseases.

Published in The Lancet Regional Health – Europe, the study reports that 4,461 people, 39% of them women, developed multimorbidity involving cancer and cardiometabolic disease after a median follow-up of 11.2 years.

“A higher consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with an increased risk of cancer and cardiometabolic multimorbidity,” the IARC study overview resumes.

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Varied associations with food types

The study notes that this risk was especially high for animal products and artificially sweetened drinks like sodas. Surprisingly, plant-based meat alternatives and ultra-processed breads and cereals were not associated with this increased risk, according to the researchers.

“Our study emphasises that it is not necessary to completely avoid ultra-processed foods; rather, their consumption should be limited, and preference be given to fresh or minimally processed foods,” said Heinz Freisling, co-author of the paper and IARC expert, speaking to the Guardian.

The British newspaper also interviewed the nutrition researcher Dr Ian Johnson, who adds: “These observations do suggest a role for some UPF in the onset of multiple chronic disease. But they also show that the common assumption that all UPF foods are linked to adverse health events is probably wrong.”

IARC experts conclude: “The findings of this study can inform preventive strategies for reducing the risk of multimorbidity from cancer and cardiometabolic diseases through dietary recommendations, health policies, and other interventions.” Multimorbidity, the simultaneous manifestation of several chronic diseases in an individual, is on the rise in many parts of the world.

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