A new analysis of dozens of recent studies, including health outcomes for more than 10 million people, says consuming lots of ultra-processed food could lead to dozens of health problems — from obesity and heart disease to cancer, diabetes and even early death.

The mega analysis, which was just published in BMJ, the British medical journal, reports that “diets high in ultra-processed food may be harmful to many body systems.” The list of potential harms, prepared by an international team of researchers from Australia, France, Ireland and the United States, includes “32 health parameters spanning mortality, cancer and mental, respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and metabolic health outcomes.”

Ultra-processed foods, the researchers wrote, “encompass a broad range of ready-to-eat products including packaged snacks, carbonated soft drinks, instant noodles and ready-made meals. These products are characterised as industrial formulations primarily composed of chemically modified substances extracted from foods, along with additives to enhance taste, texture, appearance and durability, with minimal to no inclusion of whole foods.”

Notes The Washington Post, “In an editorial published alongside the BMJ study, a group of international academics argued that ultra-processed foods ‘are not merely modified foods.’ Typically, they contain ‘little if any whole food’ and are made from cheap, chemically altered ingredients including modified starches, sugars, oils and fats, the group wrote.”

The team found “convincing evidence” of direct links to consuming a lot of ultra-processed food and all-cause and heart-disease-related mortality, Type 2 diabetes, overweight and obesity, as well as anxiety and other common mental health challenges.

Evidence for a link with asthma, digestive system health concerns, some cancers and certain heart-health risks was less clear, prompting the researchers to call for further research.

How ultra-processed is our diet?

The BMJ study found great variance in how much ultra-processed food a country’s diet typically contains, from 10% in Italy to 58% in the United States.

“Notably, over recent decades, the availability and variety of ultra-processed products sold has substantially and rapidly increased in countries across diverse economic development levels, but especially in many highly populated low and middle-income nations,” per the study. Those countries had typically not consumed as many highly processed products, compared to more developed, high-income nations.

The report concluded that “across the pooled analyses, greater exposure to ultra-processed foods, whether measured as higher versus lower consumption, additional servings per day or a 10% increment, was consistently associated with a higher risk of adverse health outcomes.”

Others note risks from consumption

That’s not the only recent criticism of ultra-processed food. The Wall Street Journal this week reported on a study in Cell Metabolism that links ultra-processed foods to “changes in the way we learn, remember and feel. These foods can act like addictive substances, researchers say, and some scientists are proposing a new mental-health condition called ‘ultra-processed food use disorder.’ Diets filled with such foods may raise the risk of mental health and sleep disorders.”

The Deseret News has reported on a number of studies that link ultra-processed foods to different maladies. One, about a study in the BMJ’s special edition, Food for Thought, posits that ultra-processed food that is replete with refined carbohydrates and added fats could be as “addictive as cigarettes.”

Studies we’ve reported have found an association between ultra-processed food and sleep apnea, lower life expectancy, obesity, reduced cognitive health and other potentially serious health problems.

A need for government intervention?

But the new mega-analysis also suggests that governments and others should emphasize the need to eat healthy, less processed foods and beverages.

That’s under consideration in the U.S., as another Washington Post article recently noted. The committee responsible for the federal government’s dietary guidelines is pondering any link between obesity and ultra-processed foods. “The committee’s conclusions could lead to a seminal change in how Americans view nutrition, forcing them to think beyond the basic nutrients in a food, and instead consider how their food is made and what happens to it before it reaches their table,” the Post article said.

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It noted that ultra-processed foods have made their way into perhaps unexpected places, like the National School Lunch Program. That program lets schools provide meals “consisting of Domino’s pizza, Lunchables, Cheez-Its, and other ultra-processed foods that have been formulated to meet government standards for fat, protein, sodium and whole grains. Yet many of these processed foods are loaded with additives. For example, the turkey in a box of Lunchables served in schools contains 14 different ingredients, including additives for texture, flavor and shelf life,” per the article.

But industry groups are pushing back, as that article reported. They note that the processes involved allow food a longer shelf life, reducing food waste and lowering costs. The Institute of Food Technologists wrote in a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that stabilizers and other chemical additives “ensure food and nutrition security when fresh foods may not be available or accessible.”