Not all ultra processed foods are bad for you

A few weeks ago, a study came out that concluded that ultra processed foods (UPF) are likely as addictive as alcohol and cigarettes. I don’t think anyone was surprised by those findings and many of you shared personal anecdotes about your own experiences with UPF (and red dye no. 3). I think it’s widely understood that UPF are addictive and can have really negative effects on your overall, long-term health.

However, a new international study has found that while regularly eating animal products and sugary drinks raise your risk of developing cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, certain ultra-processed foods may actually reduce the risk of disease. These foods include bread and cereals that contain fiber. While the study does affirm that ultra-processed foods (UPF) are harmful overall, it takes a more “Well, actually…” approach by labeling foods as “Bad but not that bad” and “Holy multimorbidity alarm, Batman!” This ping pong game of survey results is truly all over the place.

Not all UPF are created equal: Experts said the findings showed that regarding all UPF products as bad for health is unwise and unwarranted. Bread and cereals actually reduce someone’s risk of [multimortality] – because they contain fibre – despite also being ultra-processed foods (UPF), the researchers concluded.

UPF that aren’t associated with multimorbidity: Sauces, spreads and condiments are also bad for human health, but not as much as animal products and soft drinks. However, several other major types of UPF previously seen as harmful: sweets and desserts, ready meals, savoury snacks and plant-based alternatives to meat products also got the all-clear. They are “not associated with risk of multimorbidity”, said the authors. The term “multimorbidity” is when someone has at least two life-shortening diseases at the same time.

But, they’re still bad for you: Like several other recent research projects, the new study did conclude that UPF harms human health and makes it more likely that someone who consumes a lot of it would suffer a potentially fatal event, such as a heart attack or stroke. However, it also gives a more detailed picture of exactly which UPF products do and do not heighten that risk.

Look, they’re not all bad, but if you want to avoid disease, don’t eat them: The latest study is based on an analysis of the dietary history of, and illnesses experienced by, 266,666 people in seven European countries, including the UK. The authors said: “In this multinational European prospective cohort study, we found that higher consumption of UPF was associated with a higher risk of multimorbidity of cancer and cardiometabolic diseases.” People keen to lower their risk should replace some but not all UPF in their diet with “similar but less processed foods … for the prevention of cancer and cardiometabolic multimorbidity” or follow the Mediterranean diet, they said.

Finally, someone brings up moderation: Heinz Freisling, a co-author of the paper and expert at the World Health Organization’s cancer research agency IARC, which also collaborated on the study, said: “Our study emphasises that it is not necessary to completely avoid ultra-processed foods; rather, their consumption should be limited, and preference be given to fresh or minimally processed foods.”

Access to fresh and less-processed foods is necessary: The acute concern that has built up around UPF in recent months has been exacerbated by the fact that 50%-60% of total energy intake in some high-income countries comes from UPF, rather than freshly prepared dishes. Reynalda Cordova, who led the study and works at both IARC and the University of Vienna, said the study had shown that consumers need to have easy access to fresh and less-processed foods.

Well, actually, the definition of UPF is too broad: Dr Ian Johnson, a nutrition researcher and emeritus fellow at the Quadram Institute, said the study had shed useful light on what types of UPF were and were not harmful. “These observations do suggest a role for some UPF in the onset of multiple chronic disease. But they also show that the common assumption that all UPF foods are linked to adverse health events is probably wrong.”

Dr Duane Mellor, a senior lecturer at Aston University’s medical school, concurred. “The concept of ultra-processed foods is too broad,” he said.

[From The Guardian]

Well, dang, that is a lot of words to say, “Pick Cheerios over Fruit Loops.” Who paid for this survey? Big UPF? It’s wild that the bar has been lowered to “it’s not as bad if it can only potentially give you just one life-threatening condition instead of two!” I will think about that the next time I open a bag of Ruffles. Seriously, though, I don’t know of any health professional out there that wouldn’t say to avoid processed foods as much as you can. If you’re healthy, then it’s generally all about moderation and understanding what your body can and cannot take.

One other thing that stood out to me was how they go out of their way to mention that a majority of people living in wealthier countries are picking UPF over fresh foods. Just throwing this out there, but maybe these studies should take the extreme wealth gaps within these countries into consideration. We’d all be more likely to eat better if fresh foods were affordable and accessible to everyone.

Photos credit: Mart Production, Mizuno K, Anastasia Shuraeva, Ekaterina Bolovtsova and Tima Miroshnichenko on Pexels

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17 Responses to “Not all ultra processed foods are bad for you”

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  1. Carol says:

    It has been over 45 years since I at a Big Mac. I can still taste it in my mouth!

  2. dlc says:

    People also would be more likely to eat fresh foods if they had more time to prepare them.

  3. ThatsNotOkay says:

    I appreciate that they’re trying to take a more moderate approach, since it’s clear we’re not giving everything up! Highlighting which is not as bad as the other is a good thing. Still, I agree with the posters above: humans need access and time to get and prepare fresh foods. You want a healthier populace, encourage a healthier work-life balance through policy and wealth redistribution. *Yeah, I said it.

  4. Lily says:

    This had me rolling my eyes so hard I had trouble reading the excerpts. Ultra-processed foods, such as… Bread? Should I just snort the flour, then?
    Also, wait until they hear that people in the Mediterranean regions eat bread. Every day.

    Honestly, this study seems to be all, “we interviewed people that eat and found out they get diseases”. There’s just no new information here, only they’re calling everything “ultra-processed”.

    • LadyMTL says:

      Yeah, this study is a bit strange. By their standards practically anything that we didn’t grow or produce ourselves is UPF? Also, saying animal products are ultra-processed is silly – I can make a hamburger here at home that’s literally just ground beef, salt, pepper, a bun and that’s now considered UPF? Excuse me while I roll my eyes.

      (And never mind that fresh food like fruit / veg is so ridiculously expensive now…)

    • Robert Phillips says:

      All bread is not the same. The bread we eat in the US is processed. And has preservatives in it. The bread in most of the rest of the world is made fresh every day. And people pick some up every two or three days. Or even everyday. Because there are bakeries and fresh food markets in each little area. In the US one or maybe two companies own everything. So there are only a few places food is made. And then shipped all over the country. So more preservatives are added so it lasts longer. To fix this problem the government will have to break up the monopolies corporations have on food. And small stores would need to open up everywhere.

  5. Barrett says:

    My mom was a type 1 diabetic who drank 4-5 sodas a day and never opened a book to learn how to eat and manage her diabetes. I was drinking soda and an unhealthy diet even in utero. I was born craving sweets and my environment at home further supported sweet consumption. My mom suffered horrible diabetic complications, I went on to develop type 1 during an especially stressful time in my 30s at work and I note while grazing on more UPF than usual. My brother has better health but still suffers from autoimmune arthritis. Our family diet in 1980s and 1990s was so bad. We had uneducated parents and the food industry focused on “fast” ultra processed food. I rehauled my diet in 2015. I have learned so much from nutritionists. I wish our kids got more of this education in school as core curriculum monthly. “Eat Real Food”, all else in moderation. Also kids -those candies and crappy foods near the registers they are marketing to you to prey on you for impulse buys and money!

  6. Busybody says:

    I bet the corn and say lobbies had something to do with dialing back the alarm on UPF. Take a cross country road trip to confirm how much of those crops we raise in this country; it doesn’t seem likely that we could produce enough food to feed ourselves if we don’t put corn and say in most products.

    • Concern Fae says:

      There was a lot of pushback from people alarmed at diet culture and all the harmful attitudes it pushes. Ultra Processed Foods is a new category made up by the diet industry to be “alarmed” at. Nutrition “research” is so terrible that the rest of medicine just rolls their eyes.

      Since we declared a “war on cancer” in the 70s, all cancer studies have been required to follow the same protocols, so that they are easily compared. When the “war on obesity” came along, there was none of that. Study after study, trying to find a diet that works, and not being able to. Anyone who dares to point out the weaknesses in the field gets their reputation attacked, rather than their findings answered.

      • Kate says:

        Yep. If you even read the abstract of that last study about UPF being addictive it said the study authors thought it would be helpful to frame it that way in order to get more funding and awareness – not that they actually found UPF or sugar to be addictive.

        Also reading a book now about helping kids with extreme picky eating and the authors, a doctor and a nutrition and family therapist who have worked for decades in child nutrition and feeding clinics, have a whole section devoted to the myth of sugar being addictive and the negative psychiatric effects of over-focusing on its harms with your kids. It says “sugar is the macronutrient currently blamed for society’s health and nutrition woes, as fat was before it. While there is evidence that unbalanced intake of refined carbohydrates, including sugar, can contribute to chronic health problems, blaming or demonizing one macronutrient or food doesn’t support good feeding or nutrition.” They also go on to say that “there is no support from the human literature for the hypothesis that sucrose may be physically addictive or that addiction to sugar plays a role in eating disorders.”

  7. Jayna says:

    For decades I had to have at least one Coke a day, but more like two. Not diet. I live in a humid state. It was refreshing to me, and the sugar and caffeine in it would give me the jolt I needed. That first sip was like mainlining a drug it felt so good and satisfying. I didn’t drink coffee. A half a glass or half of a can of Coke was what I needed in the morning to get me going.

    At around 40 I developed gastric issues and was told I had to cut out Coke. I resisted until my symptoms worsened, and I had to cut out certain things, including Coke. Cut to about a year later and the thought of drinking a Coke made me sick, and that feeling has never wavered. The thick, dark syrupy look of it repulses me. Once I tried to take a sip of Coke, and it was so repulsive to me. That’s how much It had changed my tastebuds while drinking it back then and how addictive it was. Family and friends couldn’t believe that I found Coke disgusting in taste after I quit, because they had seen me drink it for decades.

    • Barrett says:

      COKe is what my type 1 mom was addicted to and ciggarettes. It was at first for her blood sugar lows but then she began to drink it 4-5 times a day. It impacted her emotions b/c her blood sugar was so unstable like a roller coaster. I know exactly what you are talking ab regarding that first sip. I craved it when I came home from high school like a drug desperately needing that first sip. Coke was and still is like it has opiods in it. That dopamiene sugar rush I gave it up at college b/c I think drinking water was more recommended and then I looked at it like ugh this black tar stuff is not for humans. I sadly still had a sweet tooth which did not go w my genetics, but I swear my mom drank cokes and chain smoked when pregnant and they studies show what the mom eats in pregnancy the kids will crave. And ciggies were no help. Oh the 80’s!
      Matthew Perry discusses being put on barbiturates as a baby to sleep during colicky spells and then his brain got way easily addicted to drinking/opiods. UPF and stimulants really matters even during pregnancy

  8. chumsley says:

    When I cut meat out of my diet, I did notice a difference in my health. And at the next check up I had after giving up meat, my cholesterol had gone down. When I when to a fully plant based diet, I wasn’t specifically trying to cut down on processed foods but ended up cutting out a lot of the processed foods because they had ingredients that came from animals. It just got to the point where I was eating a lot healthier home cooked meals because it was easier than reading labels all the time. And I really didn’t think about those weird chemicals and preservatives in foods I was consuming until I started reading the ingredient labels regularly. I was also surprised by how many foods have sugar in them!

  9. Mika says:

    I don’t eat processed food at home (outside the home it’s often unavoidable, and also, I’m sure I have one or two processed things that go into food) but the shopping, prepping, cooking and cleaning is A JOB. I’m child-free, and I still barely find the time for it. One time my boyfriend asked me for my cold-busting soup for him, and I told him that between making the homemade stock, then making the actual soup proper, it would take me two days. He thought I was joking. I was not. I love cooking, but let’s be realistic – capitalism was not built to support healthy eating.

  10. Rnot says:

    UPF is a useful category for some broad policy purposes but it’s not very helpful for the average consumer.

    Bread can be made of: whole wheat flour, water, yeast and salt. Or… it can be made with: sugar, vegetable oil, lecithin, oleoresin, protein hydrolysate, soy, citric acid, vinegar and various preservatives that make the bread refuse to biodegrade for weeks at a time. AND that’s the whole-wheat $5/loaf from the grocery store. Cheaper loaves have things like: calcium propionate, diglycerides, calcium sulfate, mono calcium phosphate, etc. Throw a slice of commercial bread on top of a compost pile and come back in a month.

    It’s nearly impossible to find “real” bread in most of the US unless you’re lucky enough to live near a real bakery and even then you’ll have to buy it more than once a week. The preservatives that keep food from breaking down in the package also stop your gut bacteria from breaking it down to digest it. The added emulsifiers that make the food shelf-stable and easy to manufacture also mess with the lining of your intestine and screw up your gut bacteria.

    A more useful guideline might be HOW the food is processed. Is it a form of processing that a peasant would have done? Would your great grandmother recognize the ingredients? Fermentation is processing but (alcohol excepted) it usually produces food that reduces mortality. Baking is processing. Grinding is processing. How many steps is the food from the plant? What has been added and why?

  11. DuctTapeShoes says:

    Yeah, this is more a clarification for people who are confused than any sort of change. Whole wheat bread is not actually an ultra processed food. It’s still absolutely true that people who eat a diet that includes ultra processed foods are headed for any number of diseases.

    I also have never fully understood the argument re economic access to unprocessed foods. Plain yogurt, milk, eggs, nuts, beans, rice, oats, sweet potatoes, basic fresh fruit like apples and bananas, frozen vegetables like green beans, peas etc., and basic baking supplies like flour, salt, baking soda, and tap water — all of those things are readily available and not terribly expensive. Packaged cookies, chips, sweetened cereals (and yes, Cheerios are sweetened and not that great for you), sodas, ice cream and fast food or Subway — all of that is what costs money and that’s what’s bad for us. I feel like the economic access argument is sort of a copout from people who can’t be bothered to cook for themselves or their families — even the cheapest processed foods, like Ramen, cost more than making a pot of rice for example and there’s absolutely no more nutrition in a craptastic ramen cup than white rice.

    • Mrs.Krabapple says:

      I agree that an apple costs less than a bag of potato chips, and apples are pretty easy to find. However, there are many small reasons why poorer people eat less healthy foods, and it’s not *just* because of the cost of an apple. Some have to work multiple jobs to survive. That pot of rice can take 40 minutes to cook, or instant ramen takes 5 minutes. If you work three jobs, which one is easier? And what about preparing the entire meal, and not just the rice? Washing and cutting the vegetables, trimming fat off meat, cooking the meat, washing pots and pans afterwards, it cuts into time parents have to spend with their kids at night.
      Much easier to skip a couple of steps by buying pre-made items. Green beans and bananas might be cheap, but how often can you eat green beans and bananas before getting sick of them? Maybe you want bell peppers and watercress for a change, but those are expensive, so you end up eating canned soup instead. And even if you could afford to buy that tofu and arugula for your large family, they don’t last on the counter, so you need a refrigerator. Ever seen how much a new refrigerator costs? It’s cheaper to have mac & cheese from a box in the pantry. And what if you cannot afford a car? You take public transportation, which maybe is ok once a week to get to Safeway, but difficult to do every day, so you end up buying food items that last longer, which generally means more processed. Again, none of these alone is a good excuse to feed your kids cr@p, but when you add up all the issues that poorer people face, it is understandable.