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Not all ultra-processed foods associated with negative health outcomes, study finds

Article-Not all ultra-processed foods associated with negative health outcomes, study finds

iStock / Traitov multimorbidity-UPF.jpg
Certain ultra-processed foods (UPF) are more likely than others to lead to the development of chronic diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular illness, new research shows.

A new study published in The Lancet journal has shed light on the complex relationship between UPF consumption and the onset of multimorbidity, the simultaneous co-occurrence of at least two chronic diseases.

While certain foods such as sugar-sweetened beverages and sauces were linked to a higher risk of multimorbidity, others including ultra-processed breads and cereals were not.

Link between UPF consumption and chronic illness varies across food groups

The study, which drew upon data from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) cohort and involved more than 266,000 women from across Europe, was carried out over an eight-year period and required participants to submit regular questionnaires to monitor the rate of UPF consumption and multimorbidity.

UPF consumption was measured in line with the NOVA food classification system, according to which UPFs are defined as industrial formulations of food substances that typically combine five or more ingredient groups.

The findings showed a significant link between increased consumption of UPFs and the accumulation of chronic morbidity and multimorbidity, which in this research includes cancer, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes. Notably, certain UPF subgroups, including artificially and sugar-sweetened beverages, animal-based products, sauces, spreads, and condiments, showed a clear association with an increased risk of multimorbidity.

On the other hand, ultra-processed breads and cereals showed a negative association with the risk of contracting such diseases. For other food groups - sweets and desserts, savoury snacks, plant-based alternatives, ready-to-eat/heat mixed dishes and other unspecified ultra-processed food - no relationship was found.

This research suggests that a more nuanced analysis of UPFs is needed in understanding the impacts of consuming these products on health outcomes.

UPF consumption traditionally associated with negative health outcomes

This study builds on previous research that has mainly focused on associations between UPF consumption and individual diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer. With approximately 50 million people in Europe alone affected by multimorbidity, according to the Academy of Medical Sciences, the implications for public health and dietary recommendations resulting from these findings are profound.

Across Europe, UPFs account for over a quarter (27%) of the average daily calorie intake of the population, rising to more than half in the UK, US, and Canada.

These food products have also recently been found to be addictive for some consumers. Research published in The British Medical Journal that analysed 281 studies in 36 countries, by scientists from the US, Spain, and Brazil, found that around one in seven (14%) adults and one in eight (12%) children are currently addicted to UPFs.

Consumers will pay a premium for UPFs that contain nutritious ingredients

A recent survey conducted by plant cell culturing startup and healthy ingredient manufacturer, Ayana Bio, revealed that US adults are more likely to purchase UPFs that offer health benefits.

Approximately three quarters (74%) of respondents are willing to try UPFs that offer one of several health benefits such as heightened brain function, increased immunity, improved sleep, and better cardiovascular function, according to the research.

As awareness of the link between diet and health rises, consumers are increasingly seeking healthier alternatives to their favourite products. However, when making food purchasing decisions, price remains the top consideration for most consumers.

Cost cutting is growing in popularity amongst US consumers, with close to eight in 10 (78%) stating that price highly impacts their food and beverage purchases, the results of a survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) show. This figure represents an eight-point rise from last year, indicating a growing concern and demand for affordability, especially amongst female consumers and baby boomers (those aged from 59 to 68 years old).

Yet regardless of household income, two thirds (67%) of US shoppers are prepared to pay a premium for UPFs that contain nutritious ingredients and deliver health benefits, with 68% willing to pay as much as $3 more, the researchers at Ayana Bio found.