- A large new study found that ultra-processed food consumption raised the risk of multiple comorbidities, including diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
- The greatest risk was linked to processed animal-based products and artificial sweeteners.
- Other ultra-processed foods like breads, cereals, and plant-based products had no health risks, the researchers found.
It’s no secret that ultra-processed foods are unhealthy and no shortage of studies detailing their impact on human health. Ultra-processed foods are usually mass-produced and include packaged breakfast cereals, cookies, reconstituted meat products, instant noodles, and sweetened sodas.
Lesser known is the association between specific ultra-processed foods and the risk of multiple health conditions or multimorbidities.
A large new study examined ultra-processed food consumption and the co-occurrence of two or more chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
High consumption of certain ultra-processed raised the risk of cancer and cardiometabolic multimorbidity, the findings show. But not all of the foods had the same effect — breads, cereals, and plant-based products were not associated with a higher risk.
“It is already a substantial burden for the patient, and for health professionals, handling one disease, but having a disease along with another disease makes it much harder,” study author Heinz Freisling, PhD, a scientist with the Nutrition and Metabolism Branch (NME) at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), told Healthline.
“Identifying risk factors that can inform the prevention of multimorbidity involving diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, is what motivates our work.”
The results of the study, co-funded by World Cancer Research Fund International and other cancer research groups, were published on November 13 in The Lancet.
Ultra-processed foods linked to heart disease and cancer
The large cohort study examined data from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study of 266,666 participants (60% female) across seven European countries.
Participants were free of cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes at the time of recruitment.
Using questionaries, researchers assessed participants’ food and drink consumption over a baseline period of the previous 12 months. After a median of 11.2 years of follow-up, 4,461 participants (39% females) developed multimorbidity of cancer and cardiometabolic diseases, such as stroke and diabetes.
The results show the strongest association of multimorbidities and consumption of ultra-processed animal-based products and artificially and sugar-sweetened beverages.
“Our study highlights the importance of ensuring universal access to fresh and less processed foods,” said lead study author Reynalda Córdova, a PhD student at the Vienna Doctoral School of Pharmaceutical, Nutritional and Sport Sciences, in a statement.
A unique finding of this study shows that not all ultra-processed foods were deemed unhealthy.
“Plant-based UPFs [ultra-processed foods] or breads and cereals were not associated with an increased risk,” Freisling said. “Although it is challenging to separate such subgroups from an overall dietary UPFs pattern, I think it is worthwhile to consider a more nuanced subgroup analysis of UPFs in future studies.”
Freisling also noted that a key takeaway of the study is that it is unnecessary to avoid all ultra-processed foods. “Their consumption should be limited, and preference be given to fresh or minimally processed foods,” he said in a statement.
Still, many people opt for ultra-processed foods out of convenience, to meet nutritional requirements, or for economic reasons.
Kelsey Costa, a registered dietitian nutritionist and nutrition consultant for the National Coalition on Healthcare, said when choosing “healthier” ultra-processed foods, you should consider their nutritional content and level of processing.
“Read food labels to avoid hidden sugars, excessive sodium, and other harmful additives,” she told Healthline.
“Whole-grain cereals are a better choice compared to sugary cereals because they’re less processed and packed with beneficial fiber and nutrients. Similarly, choosing whole-grain or sprouted bread over white bread can provide the body with complex carbohydrates and essential nutrients.”
Costa said that for vegetarians and vegans, minimally processed tofu and tempeh may be healthier than heavily processed plant-based products like meatless deli slices and cheese substitutes. She noted that these often contain high levels of sodium, preservatives, and other additives.
Which ultra-processed foods are bad for you?
Ultra-processed foods undergo an additional stage of processing compared to processed foods. They’re often loaded with artificial flavors and sweeteners and have a very long list of ingredients. Examples include:
- fried foods
- hot dogs
- processed meats (i.e., ham, bacon, salami)
- flavored potato chips
- candy bars and certain snack bars
- ice cream
Recent research has linked ultra-processed food consumption to various conditions like heart disease and cancer.
Other research has shown that ultra-processed foods are “addictive substances” that only lead people to crave more of them.
The new study found a particularly strong association between ultra-processed animal-based foods and artificial sweeteners and a heightened risk of multimorbidities. Here’s a closer look at the effects of ultra-processed foods on the body.
Ultra-processed animal products
Costa explained that animal products are often high in saturated fats, which can increase low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol or “bad” cholesterol and contribute to atherosclerosis.
“Certain chemicals found in red and processed meats, both natural and added, increase their carcinogenic potential,” Costa continued.
“One such chemical, heme, present in red meat, forms harmful compounds during digestion that can damage bowel cells, potentially leading to colorectal cancer. She said a similar process occurs with processed meat, exacerbated by nitrite and nitrate preservatives.
Over time, Costa explained that continued consumption of these products may cause:
- chronic inflammation
- cellular damage
- increased oxidative stress
These ailments may lead to the development of multiple chronic conditions.
“Given these associated health risks, it is advisable to limit the consumption of animal products while exploring more plant-based dietary options for a healthier lifestyle,” she said.
Artificial sweeteners have been linked to obesity, which may increase the risk of developing other chronic conditions.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recently classified a common artificial sweetener, aspartame, as a potential carcinogen although the amount people would have to consume to put them at risk for cancer was extremely high.
Costa noted that erythritol, another popular sweetener, has been linked to an elevated risk of heart attack and stroke.
“Moreover, consumption of these chemical alternatives has been linked to adverse effects on gut health, potentially disrupting the balance of beneficial bacteria in our digestive system,” Costa said, adding that imbalances in gut bacteria may lead to:
- intestinal permeability (leaky gut)
- other digestive issues
“This disruption of the gut microbiota’s balance may also contribute to weight gain and heighten the risk of metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes,” Costa said.
“Additionally, high sugar intake can result in insulin resistance, a key factor in the development of type 2 diabetes, and contribute to increased inflammation and high blood pressure, both of which are risk factors for heart disease.”
Is it OK to eat ultra-processed foods in moderation?
Costa said that ultra-processed foods should ideally be consumed in moderation and not relied upon as the primary source of nutrition.
“The frequency of consuming “safer” ultra-processed foods can also vary based on factors such as individual nutritional needs, health goals, and lifestyle,” she said.
“A practical approach might be to include these foods in your diet a few times a week rather than daily. This allows for greater emphasis to be placed on whole and minimally processed foods that are rich in essential nutrients and devoid of harmful additives. It’s crucial to remember that dietary guidelines are not one-size-fits-all, and individual dietary habits should align with personal health circumstances and nutritional needs,” she continued.
Costa recommended limiting saturated fat, added sugar, sodium, and other harmful compounds and additives in ultra-processed foods.
Whenever possible, choose a well-balanced diet with whole and minimally-processed foods, such as:
- whole grains
A new study found a strong link between consumption of certain ultra-processed foods like meats and artificial sweeteners and a heightened risk of multimorbidities.
Other common ultra-processed food groups, like breads and cereals, did not impact risk and may not cause harm to health.
Health and nutrition experts recommend choosing whole and minimally processed foods whenever possible to reduce your risk of developing chronic diseases.