Ultra-processed foods linked to cancer, diabetes, and heart disease

Ultra-processed foods (UPFs), which are now consumed by approximately half of the UK population, are being linked to a range of health issues, including cancer, dementia, heart disease, and strokes. The term UPF refers to food products that have undergone significant industrial processing and contain ingredients such as artificial sweeteners, emulsifiers, and preservatives that are not typically used in home cooking. The UK is one of the largest per capita consumers of UPFs in Europe, and as consumption has risen, so have rates of diabetes and cancer.

“In the last decade, the evidence has been slowly growing that ultra-processed food is harmful for us in ways we hadn’t thought. We’re talking about a whole variety of cancers, heart disease, strokes, dementia,” said Prof Tim Spector, a professor of epidemiology at King’s College London.

In January, a comprehensive study conducted by Imperial College’s School of Public Health and published in The Lancet medical journal found that higher consumption of UPFs may be linked to an increased risk of developing cancer overall, particularly ovarian and brain cancers. Furthermore, the World Health Organization (WHO) has recently cautioned against the long-term use of artificial sweeteners, citing potential health risks.

However, proving that specific ingredients in UPFs cause harm to humans can be challenging, as there are various factors in our lifestyles that can lead to these diseases, such as lack of exercise, smoking, and sugary diets.

The first investigations into mortality and consumption of UPFs began in France at the University Sorbonne Paris Nord, as part of an ongoing study into the eating habits of 174,000 people. The research has already published results showing that UPFs may drive an increased burden of cancer. More recently, the study has been focusing on the impact of one specific ingredient—emulsifiers—which act as a glue in UPFs to hold everything together.

Emulsifiers are widely used in the food industry to improve the appearance and texture of food and extend its shelf life far beyond that of less-processed food. They can be found in many products, such as chocolate, mayonnaise, meat products, and peanut butter.

BBC’s Panorama was given exclusive access to the early results of the study, which has yet to be peer-reviewed. Dr Mathilde Touvier, who heads up the study, said the results are concerning: “We observed significant associations between emulsifier intake and increased risk of cancer overall – and breast cancer notably – but also with cardiovascular diseases.”

Despite the growing body of evidence, the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) has yet to issue any regulation restricting emulsifiers. In response to Panorama’s inquiry about the evidence linking these additives to harm, the FSA said, “We have not been presented with any evidence – by this programme or otherwise – of any specific emulsifiers which are believed to pose a risk to health.” However, the FSA plans to hold a public consultation.

The food industry has been known to fund research, sponsor experts, and disparage existing studies to prevent regulation. The International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), a body that receives funding from some of the world’s largest food companies, has previously published studies globally undermining regulation and public guidance on healthy diets.

One of the most controversial additives in UPFs is the sweetener aspartame, which is 200 times sweeter than sugar and has been marketed as a low-calorie alternative to sugar. In 2013, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) decided that aspartame was safe, and the UK’s Food Standards Agency accepted this position. The Committee on Toxicity looked at a study into aspartame in 2013 and concluded that the results “did not indicate any need for action to protect the health of the public”.

However, a later review of the same evidence by Prof Erik Millstone, emeritus professor of science policy at the University of Sussex, found that 90% of the studies defending aspartame were funded by large chemical corporations that manufacture and sell the sweetener. In contrast, all the studies suggesting that aspartame may cause harm were funded by non-commercial, independent sources.

The Food and Drink Federation, a membership body for manufacturers, stated that companies take “the health of consumers, and the safety of the food they produce, seriously – and adhere to the strict regulations”. The FSA says it will look into WHO’s ongoing assessment of aspartame.

The UK government is aware of the growing concerns around UPFs and has ordered a review into the evidence on ultra-processed foods.

World News

Jamie Cartwright

Jamie is a keen traveler, writer, and (English) teacher. A few years after finishing school in the East Mids, UK, he went traveling around South America and Asia. Several teaching and writing jobs, he found himself at The Thaiger where he mostly covers international news and events.

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