Research published by the British Medical Journal on 28 February 2024, has found that UPFs, including cereals, chocolate bars, and ready meals, are linked to 32 negative health outcomes.

UPFs are foods that are created in factories through intense processing.

This often involves breaking down whole foods into their basic components such as oils, fats, and sugar, and then putting them back together in a different way.

They are usually sold ready to eat but often lack essential nutrients and fibre while being loaded with additives. 

Research has suggested this increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and even mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression.

What they found

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Researchers from Australia’s Deakin University examined ten million people whose UPF intake was measured and found that those who consumed the most were at a 21% greater risk of dying due to heart disease and a 55% greater risk of dying young. 

Surprisingly, the research even suggests a connection between higher consumption of UPFs and an increased risk of mental health issues.

They found people who ate more of it were 22% more likely to experience depression, and 50% more likely to have anxiety and trouble sleeping.

Scientists suggest this might be due to the food triggering inflammation throughout the body and disrupting the gut bacteria, which is linked to both depression and anxiety.

The UK has the highest consumption of UPFs in Europe, with more than half of the country’s daily diet consisting of these items.

This concerns health advocates such as author Dr Chris van Tulleken and former UK government food advisor Henry Dimbleby, who are urging stricter regulations on these foods, similar to those for tobacco.

Dimleby resigned from his role in 2023, citing the government’s “insane” inaction against obesity.

In the journal, Professor Carlos Monteiro exclaimed that “no reason exists to believe that humans can fully adapt” to UPFs, which are “often chemically manipulated cheap ingredients” and “made palatable and attractive by using combinations of flavours, colours, emulsifiers, thickeners, and other additives”.

He 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.”

Tackling the ultra-processed food crisis

At an individual level, education is a key tool to learn about the downsides of UPFs, where they prioritise whole foods, cooking at home, reading labels, and supporting responsible businesses.

At an industrial level, foodservice companies can contribute by reformulating products towards healthier profiles, increasing transparency, promoting nutritious options, and adopting responsible marketing practices.

At a governmental level, certain policies will help.

This could include taxes on unhealthy ingredients, subsidies for healthy options, educational initiatives on food literacy and cooking, regulations on marketing towards children, and support for community-based solutions that improve access to healthy food.

By working together at these various levels, we can create a more sustainable and health-conscious food system for all.