Health & Wellbeing

Researchers call for health warning labels on ultra-processed foods

Researchers call for health warning labels on ultra-processed foods
Some researchers are calling for health warning labels to be put on ultra-processed food packaging
Some researchers are calling for health warning labels to be put on ultra-processed food packaging
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Some researchers are calling for health warning labels to be put on ultra-processed food packaging
Some researchers are calling for health warning labels to be put on ultra-processed food packaging

A study looking at the health records of nearly 200,000 people in the United Kingdom has found a link between cancer and the consumption of ultra-processed foods. The researchers call for health warnings to be added to these foods but other experts suggest factors unrelated to the food products could be responsible for the higher risk of cancer.

“The average person in the UK consumes more than half of their daily energy intake from ultra-processed foods," explained Kiara Chang, first author on the new study from Imperial College London. "This is exceptionally high and concerning as ultra-processed foods are produced with industrially derived ingredients and often use food additives to adjust color, flavor, consistency, texture, or extend shelf life."

Ultra-processed foods are industrially-produced foods, high in salt, sugar and fat. They contain little to no whole foods, and harbor plenty of food additives, colorings and preservatives. For the purposes of this study, the researchers categorized a variety of foods under the umbrella of ultra-processed, including, "soft drinks, mass-produced industrial-processed breads, sweet or savoury packaged snacks, breakfast ‘cereals’, reconstituted meat products and ready-to-eat/heat foods."

Looking at data from an ongoing UK health study the researchers tracked incidences of cancer across a 10-year period. Each participant also completed 24-hour dietary records at several points over the study period as a way of evaluating their overall food intake.

The findings revealed a distinct correlation between ultra-processed food intake and increased risk of cancer. For every 10% increase in ultra-processed food consumption, the researchers detected a 2% overall increase in cancer risk, with ovarian cancers in particular showing the greatest increase in risk at 19%. Cancer-related death also increased with each 10% increment in ultra-processed food intake.

While the researchers are clear to point out their findings cannot attribute causality to this association, they do speculate a number of ways ultra-processed foods could increase a person's cancer risk. Alongside the high fat, sugar and salt content, it is noted these kinds of foods often contain a variety of chemical additives and contaminants that may play a role in cancer risk, including microplastics from packaging materials.

"Recent evidence from the NutriNet-Santé cohort showed higher intake of artificial sweeteners associated with increased risk of overall, breast, and obesity-related cancers, while higher intake of nitrate and nitrite from food additives was associated with increased risk of breast and prostate cancer, respectively," the researchers write in the study. "Higher dietary exposure of acrylamide, an industrial chemical formed during high-temperature cooking procedures, was found associated with an increased risk of ovarian and endometrial cancers."

Simon Steenson, from the British Nutrition Foundation, said more research is needed to better understand the links between ultra-processed food consumption and poor health. He suggests it is possible people who eat lots of these kinds of foods simply have generally poor diets.

“It is possible that a higher proportion of UPFs in the diet is a marker of an overall poorer diet, which is higher in energy, saturated fat, salt, and free sugars, and lower in fruit, vegetables, fiber and essential nutrients – dietary factors that are known to negatively affect health," said Steenson.

Duane Mellor, a dietician from Aston University, also questions the direct association found between ultra-processed foods and cancer. He said it is likely the negative health effects detected here are due to eating less healthy whole foods instead of the ultra-processed foods somehow directly causing cancers via chemical additives.

“When looking at food intake of people reported to be consuming more ultra-processed foods, they also tended to drink more fizzy drinks and less tea and coffee, as well as less vegetables and other foods associated with a healthy dietary pattern (e.g. pulses, nuts, seeds, fruit etc.)," said Mellor. " This could mean that it may not be an effect specifically of the ultra-processed foods themselves, but instead reflect the impact of a lower intake of healthier food."

Chang agrees fresh, minimally processed foods should be cheaper and more readily accessible to help drive people away from ultra-processed foods. However, Chang also argues warning labels should be attached to the packaging of ultra-processed foods to make consumers more aware of their unhealthy nature.

“We need clear front of pack warning labels for ultra-processed foods to aid consumer choices, and our sugar tax should be extended to cover ultra-processed fizzy drinks, fruit-based and milk-based drinks, as well as other ultra-processed products," said Chang. “Lower income households are particularly vulnerable to these cheap and unhealthy ultra-processed foods. Minimally processed and freshly prepared meals should be subsidized to ensure everyone has access to healthy, nutritious and affordable options.”

Steenson, on the other hand, is against such simplistic solutions as labeling processed food as bad. He argues current food labeling already warns consumers of high sugar, salt and fat content, whereas some ultra-processed foods can actually be considered relatively healthy and we shouldn't be stigmatizing those who can only afford these products.

"... an issue with the concept of UPFs is that this category can also contain commonly consumed foods that provide important nutrients, such as packaged wholemeal bread, which contains fiber and essential vitamins and minerals, or high fiber, lower sugar breakfast cereals that are commonly fortified with key nutrients," explained Steenson. "These and other healthier foods that would be classified as UPF, such as reduced sugar and salt baked beans or vegetable-based pasta sauces, can form an important part of a healthy, balanced diet and provide affordable and widely available options that can form the basis of nutritious meals.”

The new study was published in eClinicalMedicine.

Source: Imperial College London

So I guess the government needs to subsidize healthy food and tax the ultra processed. And make it easily obtainable. i don't like to eat anything with more than 3 syllables and is tan in color.
"Ultra processed" is an ill-defined term and by no means a reliable indicator of a food's healthfulness. If "the government" is going to get involved with rating foods' healthfulness, then it must use transparent, objective, and clinically verified criteria for assigning the ratings.
Wouldn't reducing the sugar and carbs in processed foods make them cheaper?
"Ultra processed" is not an ingredient. Maybe they need to identify what ingredient or combination of ingredients in ultra "processed food" are causing the problems.
Anyone familiar with multivariable regression and statistics knows that any result can be found that is desired. No doubt any unnatural food or artificial food is likely bad for you but I suspect that going back to what our ancestors ate would be impossible. Even what they ate wasn't balanced nutritionally and would be deficient in something.
Ah, life expectation is down to diet, I see!
That must be why in the past 400 years or so our life expectation has risen from from 35 years when we ate nothing but totally natural, unprocessed foods to close to 90 years now we're eating modern, processed foods as 50% of our diet...
I've often wondered what caused that!
Where would we be without "experts".
"cannot attribute causality to this association" and copious guessing about what (if any) might be the cause: did they *really* "call for health warning labels"? There's no mention whatsoever of the word "label" in the actual report, so it sounds unlikely, since they don't have any evidence to support their claims, and no idea exactly what the cause would be if they did have it, so no idea which foods should be labelled... not the kind of "call" any genuine research would make.
This report has a axe to grind, and there is a constant repetition of the words 'ultra-processed food', so it is drummed into the subconscious. the ingredients are added for various reasons, but not to cause harm. The chemicals have all been tested for safety.
Sorry to burst Cat's bubble, but US life expectancy is now just 77.0 years (CDC). Yeah, surprised me when I saw that the other day, too. I expect to see it drop precipitously again, once they start figuring in all the covid jab data, as well.
Sugar is the hook that keeps people addicted + buying the worthless non-foods.
No, the government should subsidize nothing. They should pare down their numbers, stop wasting money, and pay off the enormous Public Debt, which is enough to crush each and every one of us all the way down through our great-grandkids.
Maboomba Maboomba
"ultra-processed" is not a scientific term, not a well-defined term, but more of a dumbed-down catch-all emotional term to try to appeal to non-label-readers. Kind of like that advice you see so often "If you have trouble pronouncing the name of the ingredients, stay away. (Or you could go to college, or just read up on the subject...) The reality is, proper nutrition is a complex subject, and while simplified rules-of-thumb can be helpful, they are not all-defining. If you don't have the head for looking into things carefully, it will be difficult to ascertain whether you are getting the best nutrition and least harm from what you eat. And we should remember the level of deceit often involved when corporations influence what is perceived as "official settled science", such as telling everyone they should be substituting cheaper-to-produce margarine (partially-hydrogenated transfats) for butter (one of the most nutritious foods known), for example.
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