Individuals who regularly eat some ultra-processed foods are more likely to develop health problems compared to those with a lower intake, a new study reveals.

Latest research has found that artificially sweetened or sugary drinks, and animal-based ultra-processed foods (UPFs) such as processed meat can trigger the development of cancer, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

However, the study shows no connection between plant-based substitutes, savoury snacks, sweets, desserts, breads, cereals and ready meals and an increased risk of developing these health conditions.

UPF is an industrially formulated edible substance derived from natural food or synthesized from other organic compounds.

The resulting products are designed to be highly profitable, convenient, and hyperpalatable, often through food additives such as preservatives, colourings, and flavourings.

In the UK, the most common UPFs include ready meals, mass-produced bread, breakfast cereals, sweets, reconstituted meat products such as ham and shop-bought cakes, buns and biscuits.

During the study, the team of researchers analysed the food consumption of 266,000 participants.

They found that on average the male participants consumed 413 grams of UPFs per day, while the female participants ate 326 grams per day.

At the 11-year follow-up, approximately 4,461 of the participants had developed both cancer and type 2 diabetes or heart disease.

According to the results, the participants who had a higher UPF intake were nine per cent more likely to develop two health conditions compared to those who consumed less.

The researchers said: “Other subgroups such as ultra-processed breads and cereals or plant-based alternatives were not associated with risk.

“The study provides evidence of a differential relationship of subgroups of ultra-processed foods.”

They added: “Artificially and sugar-sweetened beverages, animal-based products and sauces, spreads and condiments, but not other subgroups, were associated with increased risk, suggesting that more nuanced subgroup analyses of ultra-processed foods are warranted.”

First author Reynalda Cordova said: “With each average portion of UPF per day, the risk increases by nine per cent.

“The risk is higher for a person who eats many portions of UPFs daily than for a person who eats very little.”

Co-author Heinz Freisling said: “The 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.”

Dr Helen Croker, Assistant Director of Research and Policy at the World Cancer Research Fund – an organisation which helped fund the study – said: “What is particularly significant in this large study is that eating more ultra-processed foods, in particular animal products and sweetened beverages, was linked to an increased risk of developing cancer along with another disease such as a stroke or diabetes.

“Our cancer prevention recommendations include limiting processed foods high in fat, starches or sugars, avoiding processed meat and eating plenty of wholegrains, vegetables, pulses and fruits.”

Nutrition researcher Dr Ian Johnson said: “The researchers recognised that the definition of UPF covers a very broad and diverse range of foods.

“They therefore broke the classification of UPF down into subdivisions and explored the contributions of the various different food types to the risk of developing multimorbidity.”

He added: “The ultra-processed foods most strongly associated with risk were found to be artificially sweetened and sugar-sweetened beverages, processed animal products, and sauces and condiments. However, a very wide range of other products, including ready-to-eat dishes, savoury snacks, and sweets and desserts were not shown to be associated with increased risk.

“Importantly, ultra-processed bread and cereal products showed an association with a reduction in risk.

“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 effects is probably wrong.

“Furthermore, ultra-processed cereal products may be beneficial to health, perhaps because some provide convenient and palatable sources of dietary fibre.”

Professor Kevin McConway, from the Open University, said: “About 17 in a group of 1,000 people like those in the study would have a diagnosis of at least two of the three conditions involved (cancer, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease) during the average 11-year follow-up.

“That 17-in-1,000 figure would go up to about 18 in 1,000 (for higher UPF intake). So, we’re not talking about a large increase in risk.”

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