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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