Ultra-processed foods tied to cancer, diabetes, dementia, depression and early death

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Research shows ultra-processed foods are linked to several serious health risks. (Photo credit: Frank Chamaki/Unsplash)

Hundreds of scientific studies provide strong evidence that consuming ultra-processed foods is linked to early death and serious diseases, including cancer, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, depression, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and chronic kidney disease.

Food companies heavily market (and profit from) ultra-processed foods, and they also formulate these foods addictive – with added sugars, fat, chemical additives, and other attributes that make the foods highly palatable and easy to overeat.

Over the last 20 years, Americans have continued to increase their consumption of ultra-processed foods (UPFs). Today, more than half of our calories come from UPFs. In this post, we provide an overview of ultra-processed foods – what they are, how much we eat, and key news coverage.

We are producing a series of fact sheets on the most serious health risks from consuming ultra-processed foods. The first fact sheets in the series cover early death, increased risk of cancer, and obesity and weight gain.

What is ultra-processed food?

Ultra-processed foods are hyper-palatable, and often contain sweeteners, added salt, and food chemicals. (Photo credit: Current Obesity Reports)

“Ultra-processed food” describes food products that have been created or altered from their natural state with added sugars or artificial sweeteners, salt, additives, preservatives, or other chemicals. Added sweeteners in particular, including high-fructose corn syrup, sucralose, and aspartame, are common in ultra-processed food.

They also often contain additives and preservatives, like food dyes (including Red 40, Yellow 5, and titanium dioxide), sodium benzoate, sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite, brominated vegetable oil (BVO), potassium bromate, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT). 

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization defines ultra-processed foods (UPFs) as “formulations of ingredients, mostly of exclusive industrial use, typically created by a series of industrial techniques and processes (hence the term, ‘ultra-processed’).” 

Common ultra-processed groceries include cookies, sodas and energy drinks, fruit-flavored yogurts, margarine, packaged pastries, plant-based meats and milks, canned soups, frozen meals, sweetened breakfast cereals, granola and energy bars, hot dogs, deli meats, and potato chips.

Brands like Nestlé, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Unilever, Frito-Lay, Kraft Heinz, and Kellogg’s are among the world’s largest manufacturers of ultra-processed foods.

Some researchers, like Brazilian nutritionist Dr. Carlos A. Monteiro, do not believe UPFs are foods. Monteiro told Healio that they are instead “formulations of substances derived from foods, often chemically modified and exclusively for industrial use, containing little or no whole foods and typically enhanced with colorings, flavorings, emulsifiers and other cosmetic additives to make them palatable or hyper-palatable.”

The NOVA food classification system

The NOVA food classification system is a commonly used framework around the world to categorize processed foods. Created by researchers at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil in 2009, the system considers the “physical, biological and chemical processes that occur after foods are separated from nature, and before they are consumed or used in the preparation of dishes and meals.” In this framework, food is broken into four categories: 1.) Unprocessed or in its natural form; 2.) Processed with culinary ingredients; 3.) Processed foods; 4.) Ultra-processed foods. 

How much ultra-processed food do Americans eat?

Research shows that Americans are among those who eat the most ultra-processed food in the world. In 2018, 57% of calories that the average American ate came from ultra-processed foods, up from 53.5% in 2002. 

According to a cross-sectional study published in BMJ Open, non-Hispanic white and Black Americans eat the most ultra-processed food in the U.S. Hispanic adults eat less of these foods than other racial demographics. Younger people, those who are less educated and/or have a lower income tend to eat the most ultra-processed foods.

American children also eat a significant amount of ultra-processed food. A large study published in JAMA found that, in 2018, 67% of the calories that kids eat came from ultra-processed food. This was an increase from 61.4% in 1999. “The estimated proportion of energy intake from consumption of ultra-processed foods has increased among youths in the US and has consistently comprised the majority of their total energy intake,” the study authors wrote.

Graph Source: The BMJ

Books:

Ultra-Processed People: The Science Behind the Food That Isn’t Food, by Chris Van Tulleken, 2023

Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions, by Michael Moss, 2022

Metabolical: The truth about processed food and how it poisons people and the planet, by Dr. Robert Lustig, 2021

The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth about Food and Flavor, by Mark Schatzker, 2015

Articles:

Ultra-processed foods: what they are and how to identify them, by Dr. Carlos A. Monteiro, Public Health Nutrition, Feb, 12 2019

Why many ultra-processed foods are so unhealthy, by Anahad O’Connor and Aaron Steckelberg, Washington Post, June 27, 2023

What happened when a doctor only ate ultra-processed food for a month, by Allison Aubrey, NPR, July 25, 2023

Fat, Sugar, Salt … You’ve Been Thinking About Food All Wrong, by Matt Reynolds, Wired, Feb. 22, 2023

Look for these 9 red flags to identify food that is ultra-processed, by Anahad O’Connor, Washington Post, Jan 2, 2024

What Are Ultraprocessed Foods, And Are They Bad For You? by Tanya Lewis, Josh Fischman, Lori Youmshajekian, Carin Leong, Elah Feder, Scientific American, Nov. 1, 2023

How ultra processed food took over your food basket, by Bee Wilson, Guardian, Feb. 13, 2020  

Ultra-processed foods: the 19 things everyone needs to know, by Rachel Dixon, Guardian, Sept. 6, 2023

Is it Time to Scrap Ultraprocessed Foods? by Kelli Whitlock Burton, Medscape, Oct. 24, 2023

What we know about the health risks of ultra-processed foods, by Maria Godoy, NPR, May 25, 2023

We are producing a series that reports on the science behind the health risks of ultra-processed foods. Learn more about ultra-processed foods and their health risks at our other fact sheets on all-cause mortality, obesity, and cancer. These fact sheets are works in progress and will be updated. Please feel free to email mikaela@usrtk.com with any important research or articles that you feel should be included.

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