The Health Risks of Ultra-Processed Food

There is a rule of thumb concerning the consumption of healthy food: the longer the list of ingredients are, the more skeptical one should be about consuming the food.

Usually foods are considered more natural when the ingredient lists are shorter. Fruits or vegetables, for example, do not need a list of ingredients. In contrast, ultra-processed foods have a longer list of ingredients. These foods usually contain high amounts of fat, salt, sugar, colorants, preservants and flavor additives.

Three studies that investigated the effect that the consumption of ultra-processed foods have on our health are presented:

The first study concluded that the regular intake of ultra-processed food leads to accelerated aging. The authors of the study measured the length of the telomeres of people in relation to the frequency of consumption of ultra-processed food (telomeres are caps at the ends of chromosomes, which are macromolecules that harbor hundreds of genes. In the aging process, pieces of the telomere caps are lost constantly). The study showed that people lose the telomere caps faster if they regularly consume ultra-processed food, therefore leading them to age faster.

Another study demonstrated that people who are regularly consuming ultra-processed food gain weight. In the study, two groups consumed three meals a day. They were allowed to eat as much as they wanted, however the ingredients of the meals were very different. One group consumed ultra-processed food and the other had natural and unprocessed ingredients. After two weeks, the group that consumed the meals with ultra-processed food gained approximately 1 kilogram of weight. This was most likely due to their higher caloric intake (approximately 500 calories more per day than the other group). After another two weeks, the groups swapped diets. The group which consumed the ultra-processed food now consumed the meals with the unprocessed ingredients. The surprising result was that the group lost the weight that they had gained the two weeks before (1 kilogram). On the other hand, the group that initially had the unprocessed food gained approximately 1 kilogram of weight after consuming the ultra-processed food for 2 weeks.

Another study warns about a possible relationship between the regular consumption of ultra-processed food and the development of cancer. For this investigation, the diet of a large number of people was documented for two days. A putative connection between the frequency of the development of cancer and the frequency people were consuming ultra-processed food was found. The more often people consumed ultra-processed food, the more likely they seemed to develop cancer. However, the authors could not clearly prove that the found relationship was not due to the general lifestyle of the investigated people. Because generally, people who have an unhealthy diet also consume more nicotine and alcohol and are also generally less active.

What message could one derive out of these three studies? Once again, the rule of thumb mentioned above shows its relevance: Foods with a shorter list of ingredients should be preferred over foods with a long list of ingredients.

Image: [beats1]