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Biscuits, cakes and sweets should be treated like cigarettes

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Highly processed diets may be harmful to the entire body, as per a major research review. Consuming a large amount of ultra-processed foods such as ready meals, sugary cereals, and mass-produced bread is associated with an increased risk of 32 health issues, including cancer, type 2 diabetes, and mental health disorders.

High consumption of food that is high in fat, salt, and sugar and low in vitamins and fibre is associated with a 50% greater risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke, according to researchers. In the largest analysis to date involving 10 million people, researchers found that those who consumed the most of these foods had a 40% to 66% 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, it is suggested that foods should be clearly labelled as “ultra-processed”. UPFs (ultra-processed foods) refer to items containing ingredients that people do not usually add when cooking homemade food. These additions might include chemicals, colourings, sweeteners, and preservatives that are added to extend shelf life.

The experts recommend implementing restrictions on advertising and sales near schools and hospitals. They also urge governments to establish national dietary guidelines promoting a variety of minimally processed foods and to make freshly prepared meals more affordable and accessible to everyone.

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 to degrade the physical structure of foods, making them rapid to absorb.

Excessive consumption of certain food additives such as non-nutritive sweeteners, modified starches, gums and emulsifiers can lead to increased blood sugar, reduced satiety, and harm to the microbiome – the community of beneficial bacteria in our bodies that are crucial for good health. These additives also appear to impact the microbiome, gut inflammation, and metabolic reactions to food, potentially increasing the 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 48-53 per cent greater risk of developing anxiety.

Researchers from Deakin University in Australia found “highly suggestive” evidence that consuming more ultra-processed foods could increase the risk of dying from any cause by around 20%. The study, published in the BMJ, also revealed higher risks for obesity, type 2 diabetes, sleep problems, and death from heart disease, ranging from 40% to 66%. Additionally, the research showed a 22% greater risk of developing depression and a 21% higher 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.’ UPFs refer to items containing ingredients people would not usually add when cooking homemade food. These additions might include chemicals, colourings, sweeteners and preservatives that extend shelf life

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.’ While observing multiple increased health risks due to ultra-processed diets, the study cannot prove that consumption of these foods caused any of the health problems identified.

Part of the problem is that people who eat large amounts of ultra-processed food tend to be both unhealthier in general and poorer, factors that may worsen their health independently and influence or exacerbate the results. Another factor is the potential that ultra-processed foods may not directly damage health but instead lead people to eat less nutritious foods which could be driving the results.

The other factor is how some ultra-processed foods might be worse than others. Experts have previously complained about how nebulous the term ‘ultra-processed food’ is and that it doesn’t distinguish between a ready meal packed with fat, salt and sugar and a wholemeal loaf of bread.

Quality of evidence linking diets high in ultra-processed foods to health issues is also an issue. The BMJ review graded the quality of the evidence behind observed rises in health problems on a scale of ‘very low’, ‘low’, ‘moderate’ and ‘high’. Only a few of the health issues observed reached a ‘moderate’ quality of evidence, the vast majority were ‘low’ or ‘very low’.

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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