It’s right ultra-processed foods get bad publicity – there are 32 ways they harm our bodies

Ultra-processed foods (UPF) are getting a lot of bad publicity and rightly so. Some experts say they’re worse for our health than smoking.

So what is it with UPFs? Put simply they are bad for us because they’re directly linked to heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, poor mental health and early death. And what are they? Think any ready meals and any fast food, fizzy drinks and sugary foods like cereals.

According to the latest study, and the biggest involving almost 10 million people, UPFs have a staggering 32 harmful effects. And we’re eating more of them. We must act on these results. More than half our diet already consists of ultra-processed food. Worse, for people who are younger, poorer and from disadvantaged areas, a diet that’s 80% UPF isn’t unusual.

The collaboration between experts from the US Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, Sydney University and Sorbonne University in France concluded: “Overall, direct associations were found between exposure to ultra-processed foods and 32 health parameters spanning mortality, cancer and mental, respiratory, ­cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and metabolic health outcomes.”

Their message is clear. Greater exposure to ultra-processed food is linked to a higher risk of adverse health outcomes, common mental disorders and mortality.

The experts, nonetheless, came up with solutions, concluding that: “These findings provide a rationale to develop and evaluate the effectiveness of using population-based and public-health measures to target and reduce dietary exposure to ultra-processed foods for improved human health.”

UPFs tend to be high in added sugar, fat, and salt, but low in vitamins and fibre and undergo many industrial processes, often containing colours, emulsifiers, flavours and other additives. Overall, the results of studying 9.9 million people show without doubt that higher intake of UPF is linked to an increased risk of 32 types of harm to our bodies.

It’s a catalogue of disaster – a 50% increased risk of cardiovascular disease-related death, a 48% to 53% higher risk of anxiety and 22% of depression. There’s also a 12% greater risk of type 2 diabetes, a 21% greater risk of death from any cause, obesity, type 2 diabetes and sleep problems.

But that’s not all – there are connections between UPF and asthma, gastrointestinal health, some cancers, high blood fats and low levels of “good” cholesterol. The worst of it is that UPFs are “often chemically manipulated cheap ingredients” and “made palatable and attractive by using combinations of flavours, colours, emulsifiers, thickeners and other additives”.

It’s also estimated that we could save more than 9,000 lives in England from heart disease over the next two decades if all establishments serving food displayed calories on their menus. So what are we waiting for?