What are the health risks of ultra-processed foods?

Published 2 Apr 2023 • By Polina Kochetkova

Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) have found their way into almost every person’s kitchen. Whether you take a candy bar for breakfast, pack the kids’ lunch for school or look for an easy dinner idea, there is a big chance that ultra-processed foods are involved. In this article we explain what UPFs are and what harm they are capable of doing. Keep reding to find out more!

What are the health risks of ultra-processed foods?

What are UPFs?

Ultra-processed food is a generic term to describe foods and beverages that have been heavily processed before being ready for consumption. They can contain additives and preservatives, which give them a longer shelf life and fewer storing instructions. Ultra-processed foods are often high in sugar, fat and salt, presenting less nutritional value and providing fewer vitamins and fiber than minimally or non-processed food. Packaged snacks, frozen meals, sweetened beverages, and processed meats are a few examples of ultra-processed foods.

Are UPFs bad for our health?

Ultra-processed foods or UPFs have always been a subject for debates, especially in the last years.

Ultra-processed foods may be harmful to both adults and children and should be carefully monitored in order to keep a healthy diet. Recent studies show that the overconsumption of UPFs may contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes, possibly due to low nutritional value, high levels of sugars, oils and additional components.

Furthermore, UPFs may negatively affect heart health. Foods that are extremely processed frequently lack fiber, which are crucial for a healthy heart. Natural fiber, which we consume from whole foods, lower cholesterol levels, which decreases the risk of developing heart disease. However, UPFs do not aid with lowering cholesterol, and may even have the opposite effect.

Additionally, since they are frequently high in calories, ultra-processed foods may cause weight gain. UPFs are often more addictive than whole foods, for many reasons. Firstly, they contain more sugar, causing the instant dopamine release in the brain, forming possibly food addictions, stimulating cravings and increasing binge eating. UPFs are usually well-marketed with colorful appealing packaging, which is also convenient for long time storage and fast consumption. Finally, ultra-processed foods can be more budget-friendly than whole foods, initiating a money-saving dilemma. This can lead to overconsumption of these foods, as they are often cheaper than healthier alternatives.

Acne is one of the most common skin issues linked to highly processed foods. Hormones, bacteria, and inflammation all play a role in acne, and highly processed foods may contribute to all three. These foods' added sugar and fat have the potential to raise hormone levels, which can increase oil production and clog pores.

In the United Stated, State of California assemblyman Jesse Gabriel proposed to ban five food additives, which have been suggested to be linked with organ damage, cancer and harmful effects on human DNA. Three of the five additives that would be prohibited—brominated vegetable oil, potassium bromate, and titanium dioxide—are already outlawed in the European Union. In America, one color—Red 3—is prohibited from being used in cosmetic products. The additives mentioned are used in the production of popular snacks and candies, including Skittles, Pez and Sour Patch Kids, according to Daily mail.

Concerning Red Dye 3, research from 2012 indicates that the component is genotoxic, which can cause DNA damage. The Environmental Protection Agency also noted in 2020 that children who consumed the dye were more likely to be hyperactive and inattentive.

How to reduce UPFs in the daily diet?

Reducing UPF intake may positively affect your overall health, increase energy levels and form a healthier relationship with food. Here are some tips on how to reduce ultra-processed food consumption in your daily diet.

Look for natural alternatives.

Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins are referred to as whole foods. Including more of these foods in your diet can help you consume fewer UPFs.

Here are a few ideas, which make whole foods inclusion in the daily diet more accessible and less time-consuming:

  • Buy fruits and vegetables that are in season.
  • Consider farmers' market boxes and "odd" fruits and vegetables that do not fit in the conventional standards for size/shape/color and therefore are cheaper.
  • Batch cook & freeze portioned meals and snacks to make sure you always have home-made foods on hand.

Steer clear of processed snacks.

A lot of processed snacks, like chips, cookies, and candy, have low nutritional value, causing more frequent sense of hunger and possible weight gain as a result. Instead, choose wholesome snacks like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds that will keep you full for longer while nourishing your body with plenty of fiber and vitamins.

Cook meals at home.

A great way to reduce UPFs in your diet is to cook at home. You can choose the ingredients and make sure you're using whole, nourishing foods when you cook at home.

Read labels.

When buying groceries, pay closer attention to the ingredients. Colorful packaging can be quite distracting, however the most important part of it is the simple black and white “Ingredients” label. Carefully inspecting what is inside the food you are purchasing, can help to choose a healthier option.

Overall, UPFs are not something to be scared of and in moderation can be a part of the daily diet. However due to their potentially addictive nature and negative side effects on long-term health, they should be consumed carefully and in specific cases avoided.

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Take care!  

avatar Polina Kochetkova

Author: Polina Kochetkova, Health Writer

Polina is a content creator at Carenity, specialised in health writing. Polina is pursuing her bachelors in fashion marketing from IFA Paris University and in her spare time loves to play tennis and listen to music.

>> Learn more

Who reviewed it: Laury Sellem, Doctor of Nutrition

Laury holds a PhD in Nutrition Sciences (University of Reading, UK) and a master's in Nutrition and Human Health (AgroParisTech, France). She has conducted clinical and epidemiological research projects in Nutrition... >> Learn more


Scotty 2
on 08/04/2023

For years the working mum, struggling with her job, children and home to look after has to use UPF's to save time. This is understandable, what I can not understand is our governments stance on the sub -standard quality of many food items. Milk is so pasteurised one wonders what that has done to the nutritional value of it. Of course they add vitamins, why are they needed? We had the horsemeat scandal. nothing wrong with horsemeat, unless it is labeled beef! Now it seems honey is diluted with sugar syrup, has been for years. There is more, lots more. What is the food standard agency doing allowing this? One look at the nutritional value of food explains why, we develop so many illnesses after years of eating like this.

robjmckinney • Ambassador
on 09/04/2023

I find most of this unproven fad by certain groups, foods seem to fall into and out of favour with these people. Many foods see the so called 'bad ingredients' changed to make them questionably healthier. Sugar replaced by unhealthy substitutes and fats added to replace other perceived unhealthy ingredients. Salt over all makes only small changes to blood pressure so reducing salt makes little overall difference, so more fad than scientific fact. When my wife has her bout of low blood pressure she consumes great amounts of salt to try to improve her blood pressure, it does have a marginal effect. You phone the NHS and they are uninterested in low blood pressure, so altering meds and salt is the only option.

I have to state a little bias as I don't each fresh meat and choose to eat processed meat as I am unable to eat unprocessed meat post cancer. A nice sausage or beefburger rather than a steak that nearly chokes me to death any day.

So called processed foods have ingredients being replaced in most top brands today making them taste awful by order of the government. Our right to choose what we want to eat including forcing bad foods on our children in our school and polluting their minds. We are entitled to free school meals for our grandchild but are forced to provide packed lunches because the awful school dinners provided. Children require a broad range of food to allow them to grow healthy, not restricted diets of so called healthy food. An Australian couple were jailed for forcing their children to go vegie, it caused malutrician and deformaties in the children. Five a day fruit and veg came from a Mid Western wholesaler with a made up sales campaign to boost sales. No scientific basis just silly fads.

So I will stick to processed foods, cancel the big brands who alter their ingredients on government orders to make their foods taste awful. At least some of the cheap brands remain loyal to taste rather than fads!

on 09/04/2023

I dont buy these foods I cook from fresh produce better to buy fresh food than preservative foods

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