Home » The risks of abusing ultra-processed foods: what they are, why we choose them

The risks of abusing ultra-processed foods: what they are, why we choose them

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The risks of abusing ultra-processed foods: what they are, why we choose them

diAnna Fregonara

According to a recent study, the preference for foods that have not undergone much “processing” can reduce the risk of incurring chronic diseases over the years

They are called ultra processed or ultra processed and they are popular because they are satisfying, comfortable and economical.
«Examples are irresistible sweet and savory snacks, pre-packaged long-life ready meals, sugary or carbonated drinks. They are defined as ultra-processed because the food transformation process subtracts or adds nutrients or other substances, modifies the structure, refines, melts, models, recombines until obtaining the product that arrives on our tables”, begins Sabina Sieri, epidemiologist and director of Complex Epidemiology and Prevention Structure of the Irccs Foundation National Cancer Institute of Milan.
As scientific literature reports, 50%-60% of daily energy intake in some high-income countries comes from these foods instead of freshly prepared dishes. And middle- and low-income countries are reportedly following suit.

The story of transformation

«The transformation of foods to make them edible and preservable is as old as our civilization and allowed our ancestors to survive periods of food shortage: just think of olives, which would not be edible without debittering, or the production of cheeses and cured meats. which allows you to safely store quickly perishable foods”, says Sieri. «Some transformations, such as the microbial fermentation of milk for the production of yogurt or kefir or the leavening of flour products, can also improve the nutritional characteristics of foods».
Therefore, when talking about ultra-processed foods, we must immediately clear away generalizations and focus on the available data.

The new study

Until now, scholars had concentrated above all on analyzing the possible associations between the consumption of this type of food and the incidence of individual chronic diseases typical of the Western world, such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases, and metabolic syndrome.
Now, we read in The Lancet Regional Health Europe, the researchers of the large international study European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (Epic) wanted to verify whether those who consume more ultra-processed foods could have a greater risk of developing multimorbidity, i.e. more pathologies together, one of the most important challenges for our healthcare systems. The researchers considered the presence of at least two chronic pathologies such as cancer, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular pathologies as comorbidities. The choice to focus on these diseases was based on the fact that they are the main causes of illness and mortality worldwide and share common predictable and preventable risk factors, including poor diet.

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The results

«The Epic study recruited healthy volunteers in their 90s from seven European countries. They were asked about various aspects of their lifestyle, including diet. In the study published in The Lancet”, explains Sieri, who is also co-author of this new research, “on more than 250 thousand Epic volunteers we tried to understand how much a diet rich in ultra-processed foods was associated with the development of tumors or cardiometabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, ischemic heart disease and stroke. And it was seen that those who consumed ultra-processed foods more frequently had a 9% higher risk of developing multimorbidity over time. The risk was found especially for products of animal origin, for example cured meats, salted fish, processed cheeses, and for sugary or artificially sweetened drinks, while no risk was observed for those who consumed ultra-processed products of plant origin.

New research perspective

«It is important to underline» specifies Sieri, «that the results of the survey concern data on nutrition collected more than 20 years ago. So nothing can be inferred about the myriad of new baked goods, snacks or ready meals that rarely existed or were consumed in the 1990s.” Heinz Freisling, an expert from the World Health Organization’s IARC Cancer Research Agency, who also collaborated on the investigation, said: «Our study highlights that it is not necessary to completely avoid ultra-processed foods; rather, their consumption should be limited and preference should be given to fresh or minimally processed foods.” However, one message that this research provides is that “the intake of healthy foods, therefore with less salt or less sugar, helps to avoid the onset of diseases and is a great support in the prevention of multimorbidity of chronic degenerative diseases”, adds Sieri.

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«To update the information from Epic research and to study the effects on health of new natural or highly processed foods (“fast food”, “ready-to-eat”) or the habit of consuming “convenience food” with pre-cooked dishes , we are recruiting volunteers for the new YouGoody study carried out by our Unit. «With this project, not only are we collecting detailed information on the consumption of these foods in Italy, but this information will be updated every two years and this will allow us to understand how eating habits are changing and how consumption trends can influence multimorbidity» .

Why we choose these foods

However, one thing is clear: when we are under stress or when we are tired we choose these ultra-processed foods for their satisfying and comforting role. You can try replacing them so as not to overdo it. «The snacks are good and convenient; they are put in a bag or briefcase and opened as soon as hunger strikes, to break up a rather long morning or afternoon. Nutritionally speaking, we could replace them with dried fruit and fresh fruit, which are equally convenient to use”, advises Enzo Spisni, associate professor of Nutritional Physiology and director of the Laboratory of Translational Physiology and Nutrition of the University of Bologna, member of the scientific committee of the II Master’s level in Nutrition and Health Education from the same university.

«When you look for a bar, the non-ultra-processed ones are based on dried fruit and cereals. For chocolate, choose dark chocolate, meaning 70% and above. Finally, if you opt for a carbonated drink, the one with sugar is better: just combine a meal with a little less carbohydrates and a little more vegetables which counteract the “upward” effects that sugar can have on blood sugar. It is important to include these alternatives in our diet because this helps our intestinal microbiota and protects us from the possible slight state of chronic inflammation that ultra-processed foods can fuel and which, over time, can increase the risk of incurring many pathologies. Our goal should, therefore, be to limit ultra-processed foods, not to eliminate them completely from our diet. The available evidence from prospective cohort studies suggests that adherence to a varied, balanced and natural foods-based dietary pattern, such as the Mediterranean diet, is associated with a reduced risk of multimorbidity.”

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The classification

Depending on the degree of transformation, ultra-processed foods have been classified by scholars in the Nova system which catalogs foods according to their level of processing into four categories.

«Group 1 consists of natural foods such as the edible parts of plants (fruit, vegetables, seeds, cereals, roots, tubers) or animals (muscles, offal, eggs, milk) and also mushrooms», specifies Spisni.
«Group 2 includes foods minimally processed by industrial processes such as pressing, centrifugation, refining, extraction. Examples are flour, salt, sugar, olive oil or butter.”
«Group 3 consists of processed foods as they are added with natural preservatives (sugar, oil, salt), natural antioxidants, natural condiments or even cooked ones. They are, for example, canned vegetables and legumes, brines, salted or sweetened dried fruit, dried, cured or smoked meats and fish, or preserved in oil such as canned tuna.”
«Group 4 consists of ultra-processed foods, i.e. food formulations made with industrial processes and ingredients for exclusive industrial use that are not found in the home kitchen. Examples are the addition of chemical additives such as preservatives, emulsifiers and sweeteners whose function is to make the final product more palatable or palatable. “Cosmetic” additives are, however, glucose syrup to improve the sweet flavour, mono- and di-glycerides of fatty acids to better mix the lipids present in the food with the rest of the non-fatty ingredients, sodium and potassium nitrites used to preserve isolated proteins from milk or other sources. They are all ingredients that cannot be found in a kitchen, as is whey powder”, concludes the expert.

February 24, 2024


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