Ultra-processed foods are the new silent killer

The hazards of ultra-processed foods and proposed solutions


Ultra-processed foods like drinks, cereals, and processed meat have many things added. It contains oil, fat, sugar, starch, and sodium, as well as emulsifiers such as carrageenan, mono- and diglycerides, carboxymethylcellulose, polysorbate, and soy lecithin; this stuff loses healthy nutrients of the food and gains ingredients that might be not good for health.

New ingredients not found in the body are now discovered in nearly 60 percent of the average adult’s diet and almost 70 percent of children’s diets in the United States. Too much eating of ultra-processed food is becoming a severe concern in the United States due to not exercising regularly and having higher weight. Doctors from Florida Atlantic University think this might be a hidden danger, like high blood pressure used to be.

Researchers mention in a Medical Journal that it’s difficult as the media, food companies, and government rules sometimes help people eat better.

Dawn H. Sherling, M.D., corresponding author, associate program director for the internal medicine residency, and an assistant professor of medicine at FAU Schmidt College of Medicine, said, “Our life expectancy is lower than other economically comparable countries. When we look at increasing rates of non-communicable diseases in less developed nations, we can see a tracking of this increase along with increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods in their diets.”

Professional organizations like the American College of Cardiology advise people to pick minimally processed foods over ultra-processed ones. However, there needs to be a clear definition of ultra-processed foods; some healthy foods might fall into that category.

When food is in its natural form, our body digests it slowly, which means we get fewer calories and better for our health. Even if we take out lousy stuff from ultra-processed food, it could still be bad for us if we overeat, leading to problems like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

Some health groups use a system called NOVA to classify foods into four groups: whole foods, essential ingredients like butter and oil, foods made with simple methods like bread, and ultra-processed foods, which are made with ingredients not usually found at home.

The authors think ultra-processed foods are bad for us because they have additives our bodies can’t digest well. These additives might feed harmful bacteria in our guts, causing problems. For example, some additives might make a layer in our intestines that lets terrible bacteria thrive, which could lead to diseases like inflammatory bowel disease.

They also mention that colorectal cancer is increasing, especially in younger people, and they think overeating ultra-processed food might be part of the reason.

Charles H. Hennekens, M.D., FACPM, co-author, the First Sir Richard Doll Professor of Medicine and senior academic advisor, FAU Schmidt College of Medicine, said, “Whether ultra-processed foods contribute to our currently rising rates of non-communicable disease requires direct testing in analytic studies designed a priori to do so. In the meantime, we believe it is incumbent upon all health care professionals to discuss the benefits of increasing consumption of whole foods and reducing consumption of ultra-processed foods with their patients.”

The authors differentiate the rise of ultra-processed foods and the dangers of tobacco in the past. It took a long time for people to realize how harmful tobacco was, and it wasn’t until health officials pushed for change that policies started to discourage smoking.

There is a similar amount of time for policies to change regarding ultra-processed foods because the big companies making these foods are compelling. Governments need help to create quick changes to promote healthier eating.

They also point out that many people have difficulty affording or finding healthier food options, so public health organizations must put more effort into helping everyone access better food choices.

Journal reference:

  1. Dawn Harris Sherling, Charles H. Hennekens et al., Newest updates to health providers on the hazards of ultra-processed foods and proposed solutions. The American Journal of Medicine. DOI: 10.1016/j.amjmed.2024.02.001