Ultra-processed foods are harmful for our health — here’s why

Sugary drinks and many breakfast cereals are ultra-processed foods, as are more recent innovations, such as so-called “plant-based” burgers, which are typically made of protein isolates and other chemicals to make the products palatable.

The intense industrial processes used to produce ultra-processed foods destroy the natural structure of the food ingredients and strip away many beneficial nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.

Many of us are well aware that ultra-processed foods are harmful to our health. But it’s been unclear if this is simply because these foods are of poor nutritional value. Now, two new studies have shown that poor nutrition may not be enough to explain their health risks. This suggests that other factors may be needed to fully explain their health risks.

The role of inflammation

The first study, which looked at over 20,000 healthy Italian adults, found that participants who consumed the highest number of ultra-processed foods had an increased risk of dying prematurely from any cause. The second study, which looked at over 50,000 US male health professionals, found high consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with a greater risk of colon cancer.

What’s most interesting about these studies is that the health risks from eating a diet high in ultra-processed foods remained even after they had accounted for the poor nutritional quality of their diets. This suggests that other factors contribute to the harm caused by ultra-processed foods.

It also implies that getting the right nutrients elsewhere in the diet may not be enough to cancel out the risk of disease from consuming ultra-processed foods. Similarly, attempts by the food industry to improve the nutritional value of ultra-processed foods by adding a few more vitamins may be side-stepping a more fundamental problem with these foods.

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