Ultra-processing health

There’s nothing new about the warning that ‘if it seems too good to be true it probably is.’ Perhaps most often used to describe scam investments promising over the top returns, unfortunately the warning can also apply to so many other aspects of our lives. Most recently ultra-processed foods have hit the ‘if it seems too good to be true’ spotlight.

Relatively inexpensive and quick to prepare, the problem with ultra-processed foods is that they perfectly match a 24/7 always-on lifestyle. When life is taken at a rush then we are all too quick to grasp at anything which can help to save time. And some ultra-processed foods perfectly fit that bill.

Unfortunately, as one commentator, Dana Hunnes, PhD, a senior clinical dietician at the UCLA Medical Center, said: “An ultra-processed food is a food that resembles nothing of its component parts/ingredients” before adding: “An ultra-processed food has been stripped of its nutritional value (essentially).” With that in mind perhaps we should not be surprised when an umbrella review of ultra-processed food studies revealed that these products are linked to more than thirty health conditions including heart disease, mental health disorders, and cancer.

So strong is the correlation that ultra-processed foods have been shown to increase the risk of death due to cardiovascular disease by 50%. A similar level of risk was also associated with anxiety and mental disorders whilst Type2 diabetes was 12% more likely in those who included these foods in their diet. And with 57% of UK daily energy derived from ultra-processed foods, their impact cannot be ignored.

Aside from the implications these findings have on managing and treating a range of health conditions; we also need to be careful that as a result of the study our judgement isn’t adversely swayed against all potential time saving health pathways. For example, the more seamless we can make the patient experience from initial appointment booking to treatment and discharge the better the outcome for individuals and health services alike. So, making the best use of technology to relieve us from routine tasks might sound too good to be true but a well set-up technological solution could help to free up precious time.   

Or take a recent NHS trial which reported at the end of February for example. The trial looked to replace the traditional endoscopy procedure to identify the condition ‘Barrett’s oesophagus’ with a simple ‘sponge on a string’ approach. Over 8,500 patients took part in the trial with nearly 80% of them being discharged without the need for further testing. Not only did this outcome save staff time and resources, because no sedation was required to carry out the procedure, patients had a far more positive response to it.

Finally, in a spirit of moderation in all things we shouldn’t see the ultra-processed foods report as a call to ban all such foodstuffs from our daily lives. In September 2023 the NIHR School for Public Health Research commented that the ultra-processed food category “also includes foods that are affordable, accessible and nutritious” giving the example of supermarket bread which has been made with wholegrain fortified flour. They also counselled against a knee-jerk reaction, recommending that more research was undertaken in order to avoid an unhealthy food-shaming outcome.