Ultra-processed foods linked to 30 dangerous health outcomes

Ultra-processed foods like crisps can lead to higher chances of throat and mouth cancer, study finds. (Getty Images)
Ultra-processed foods like crisps can lead to higher chances of throat and mouth cancer, study finds. (Getty Images)

Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) make up nearly two-thirds of the British diet, but new research has found that eating UPFs can lead to 30 different dangerous health outcomes.

UPFs include foods such as ready meals, biscuits, crisps, processed meats, bread, cereals, sweets and chocolate, ice cream, cakes, and fizzy drinks among others.

The study, published in the BMJ, has urged member states of the United Nations (UN) to urgently impose rules on junk food advertising similar to those on tobacco products.

Researchers at the Deakin University's School of Medicine in Australia found that people with a higher UPF were at a 50% increased risk of cardiovascular disease-related death, up to 53% higher risk of anxiety and common mental disorders, and a 12% greater risk of type 2 diabetes.

It comes after researchers from the University of Bristol and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) analysed the diet and lifestyle data of 450,111 adults who were followed for 14 years.

They found that eating just 10% more UPFs is associated with a 23% higher risk of developing head and neck cancer, and a 24% higher risk of cancer of the oesophagus.

Whole grain rye bread with seeds on blackboard. Closeup view, selective focus
Mass-produced bread counts as a UPF. (Getty Images)

A separate study from 2023 found that UPFs should be labelled as "addictive substances" in a bid to combat obesity rates.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, an international team of scientists called for acknowledgement that "certain types of processed foods have the properties of addictive substances", adding that this was a step towards addressing global health declines.

What are ultra-processed foods?

In the most basic of terms, UPFs are foods including ingredients that you wouldn’t find in a typical household kitchen. So food that’s been altered with chemicals, fats, sugars and starches.

UPFs are food products that have undergone extensive processing to add ingredients such as preservatives, flavours, colours and sweeteners.

"These foods are often low in essential nutrients and fibre, while being high in unhealthy fats, sugars and sodium," Mitchell says.

Nutritional therapist Lucia Stansbie says that a UPF is a food that you cannot recreate in your kitchen.

"If you read the back of the pack and the ingredients are things you don’t recognise then this is an ultra-processed food."

Prior studies have found that a third of baby foods sold in the UK are UPFs, while UPFs make up almost two-thirds of Britain’s school meals.

baby getty
A third of baby foods are UPFs. (Getty Images)

What counts as a UPF?

Some examples of UPFs include:

  • Cereal

  • Packets of ham

  • Biscuits

  • Sweets

  • Sausages

  • Crisps

  • Mass-produced bread

  • Fruit yoghurts

  • Ice cream

  • Low-fat products

  • Margarine

  • Ketchup

  • Brown sauce

  • Mayonnaise

  • Soft drinks

  • Instant soups

  • Some alcoholic drinks

  • Ready-to-eat meals

  • Chicken nuggets

  • Chocolate

  • Fries

"Normally products with long shelf lives are ultra-processed," Stansbie says. "Also foods which are marketed as being healthy like vegan meat alternatives and gluten-free foods."

child with chicken nuggets
Chicken nuggets are an example of a UPF. (Getty Images)

Are UPFs bad for you?

The British Heart Foundation says that UPFs contain high levels of saturated fat, salt and sugar which, when eaten, leaves less room in our diet for the nutrients and vitamins our bodies need.

"A high consumption of UPF is linked to obesity and related to conditions like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and lower general health," Stansbie says.

"In the 1970’s the average British person had a higher calorie intake but their BMI was lower as they weren’t eating as many UPFs. Processed foods are already broken down so our body will absorb them immediately including all the calories but actually real food requires energy to break it down."

Benefits of limiting your UPF intake

People who eat a large amount of UPFs often feel sluggish, have low moods and brain fog, Stansbie says, so limiting UPFs can help with these symptoms.

Mitchell adds that it can also help with weight management or weight loss, as you’ll be turning to more nutrient-dense food that will keep you fuller for longer.

"Opting for whole, minimally processed foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats provides essential nutrients, fibre and antioxidants crucial for good health," he adds.

"This choice stabilises energy levels, aids digestion, and promotes a balanced gut microbiome."

How to minimise your consumption of UPFs

If you are looking to minimise your UPF intake, here are some easy ways to start:

Cook at home

Preparing a meal from scratch allows you to have more control over the ingredients in your food.

Read food labels

Mitchell says to be mindful of nutrition lists and food labels. If a label has an ingredient you don’t recognised, it’s likely a UPF.

"Choose products with recognisable ingredients and lower levels of added sugars, unhealthy fats and sodium," he adds.

Carrots and homemade hummus are a great non-UPF snack. (Getty Images)
Carrots and homemade hummus are a great non-UPF snack. (Getty Images)

Snack on vegetables and fruit

"Opt for whole-food snacks like fresh fruits, yoghurt or raw vegetables with hummus, instead of reaching for packaged snacks," Mitchell says.

Swap cereal for oats

Overnight oats made with whole foods like milk, Greek yoghurt, chia seeds, raisins and fruit are a great alternative to cereals.

Chose whole foods

"Prioritise whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and nuts. These provide essential nutrients and are generally lower in additives," Mitchell says.

Limit convenience foods

While the last thing you want to do at the end of the day is cook, spend a Sunday afternoon meal-prepping so you’re not tempted to grab a ready meal on the way home.

Additional reporting by SWNS.

Healthy eating: Read more

Watch: UK Government Calls For Classification System to Define Ultra-Processed Foods