Ultraprocessed foods are 'harmful to EVERY part of the body'

The academic journal article behind this report is


The title is:

"Ultra-processed food exposure and adverse health outcomes: umbrella review of epidemiological meta-analyses"

The BMJ tends to be rather opinionated

I suppose I should see this report as a brave endeavuor but I am instead inclined to find it hilarious.  It is a meta-analysis of meta-analyses.  The big flaw with meta analyses is what is excluded.    In one analysis of a topic that I had often written on, only two of about 100 of relevant papers by me were included in the analysis.  Which two?  The only ones that had something favourable to say about the conclusions the aurhors drew!  Huge bias towards confirmatory research is well known.  I am glad that I have survived to age 80 so that I can continue to point that out

And the present report  quite properly admits that they gave more weight to some reports than others.  But to which reports did they give most weight?  Ones that they found most "convincing".  So the selection of what to rely on had a clear and admitted subjective element.  And since their conclusions are very  congenial to the conventional wisdom about diet, we can be pretty sure that they were more easily convinced by reports that were  congenial to the conventional wisdom about diet. They simply joined the crusade about the evils of highly processed food.  Their article probably tells us more about what they believed than what is the case.  

For many years I have had the pernicious habit of reading journal articls right through rather than adopting the academic vice of relying only on the abstract.  And it is amazing how often the conclusions correspond much more closely to the initial hypothesis than to what was actually found as reported in the "Results" section.  Reports relying on extreme quintiles in their analysis are almost all suspect  of that.

So a wagon of sodium chloride could well accompany any reading of this report

Diets high in ultra-processed food may be harmful to every part of the body, a major review of research found.

Eating a lot of foods such as ready meals, sugary cereals and mass-produced bread is linked to an increased risk of 32 health problems including cancer, type 2 diabetes and mental health disorders.

Often high in fat, salt and sugar and low in vitamins and fibre, researchers found 'convincing' evidence higher consumption was associated with a 50 per cent greater risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke.

In the biggest analysis of evidence to date involving 10million people, researchers found those eating the most had between a 40 and 66 per cent increased risk of dying from heart disease. 

They were also significantly more likely to be diagnosed with obesity, lung conditions and sleep problems.

Likening it to tobacco, they said 'public policies and actions are essential' to curb intake and called on public health officials to urgently develop guidelines and 'best practice' for ultra processed foods.

In a linked editorial, they suggest foods are clearly labelled when 'ultra-processed'.

UPFs refers to items which contain ingredients people would not usually add when they were cooking homemade food.

These additions might include chemicals, colourings, sweeteners and preservatives that extend shelf life.

Restrictions should be placed on advertising and sales 'prohibited in or near schools and hospitals,' they say.

Governments need to adopt national dietary guidelines recommending varieties of minimally processed foods, they say, while taking steps to make freshly prepared meals cheaper and more accessible to all.

The UK is the worst in Europe for eating ultra-processed foods, making up an estimated 57 per cent of the national diet.

They are thought to be a key driver of obesity, which costs the NHS around £6.5billion a year.

Often containing colours, emulsifiers, flavours, and other additives, they typically undergo multiple industrial processes which research has found degrades the physical structure of foods, making it rapid to absorb.

This in turn increases blood sugar, reduces satiety and damages the microbiome - the community of 'friendly' bacteria that live inside us and which we depend for good health.

Food additives like non-nutritive sweeteners, modified starches, gums and emulsifiers also seem to affect the microbiome, levels of gut inflammation and metabolic responses to food which may also increase risk of heart attack and stroke.

An umbrella review conducted by academics in Australia analysed 14 review articles published in the last three years which associated consumption with poor health outcomes.

Evidence was graded as convincing, highly suggestive, suggestive, weak or no evidence.

There was convincing evidence higher intake was linked to a 50 per cent greater risk of death from cardiovascular disease, a 12 per cent greater risk of type 2 diabetes, and a 48-53per cent greater risk of developing anxiety.

There was 'highly suggestive' evidence that eating more ultra-processed foods can increase chances of dying from any cause by a fifth, according to findings published in the BMJ.

This was also the case for when it came to obesity, type 2 diabetes, sleep problems and dying from heart disease, which all showed between a 40 to 66 per cent heightened risk.

Researchers from Deakin University, Australia, also found a 22 per cent greater risk of developing depression and a 21 per cent greater risk of death from any cause.

The evidence between UPF intake and asthma, gastrointestinal health, some cancers, and intermediate cardiometabolic risk factors remains limited, they said.

In an accompanying editorial, academics from Sao Paolo, Brazil said: 'Overall, the authors found that diets high in ultra-processed food may be harmful to most—perhaps all—body systems.'

They wrote: 'No reason exists to believe that humans can fully adapt to these products. 

'The body may react to them as useless or harmful, so its systems may become impaired or damaged, depending on their vulnerability and the amount of ultra-processed food consumed.'

They added: 'It is now time for United Nations agencies, with member states, to develop and implement a framework convention on ultra-processed foods analogous to the framework on tobacco.'

Further research to determine the different mechanisms by which these foods impact health is also vital, they said, but should not delay policymakers from making urgent changes.

Scientists said there were limitations to the study, including inconsistent data collection methods in the original research.

Commenting on the findings, Gunter Kuhnle, Professor of Nutrition and Food Science, University of Reading, said: 'Many studies also show that people who consume a lot of ultra-processed foods also have an unhealthy lifestyle and therefore a higher risk of disease.

'Although many studies attempt to adjust for this, it is virtually impossible to do so completely.'

A government spokesperson said: ‘We are taking strong action to encourage healthier food choices and to tackle obesity – recognising that it is the second biggest cause of cancer and costs the NHS around £6.5billion a year – while respecting the importance of individual choice.

‘We have introduced calorie labelling on food sold in restaurants, cafes and takeaways to empower people to make informed personal choices about their lifestyle, and thanks to our salt reduction programme, the amount of salt in food has fallen by around 20 per cent.

‘Pre-packed foods are required to set out a variety of information to aid shoppers – including a list of ingredients and nutritional data.’



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