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Eating higher amounts of ultraprocessed food raises the risk of being diagnosed with multimorbidity, or having multiple chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, a new study found.
“What is particularly significant in this large study is that eating more ultra-processed foods, in particular animal products and sweetened beverages, was linked to an increased risk of developing cancer along with another disease such as a stroke or diabetes,” said Helen Croker, assistant director of research and policy at World Cancer Research Fund International, which funded the study, in a statement.
However, the increased risk was modest, said Tom Sanders, professor emeritus of nutrition and dietetics at King’s College London, who was not involved in the study.
“This paper reports a 9% increase in risk of multimorbidity to be associated with higher intake of ultraprocessed food,” Sanders said in a statement.
“Food intake was measured by a questionnaire on one occasion a long time ago. This is important as dietary patterns have changed quite markedly in the past twenty five years with more food eaten outside the home and more ready prepared food being purchased,” Sanders said.
While the study cannot conclusively prove that ultraprocessed foods are the direct cause of the multiple diseases, a good deal of other research has shown a connection between certain ultraprocessed foods (UPF) and health harms, said nutrition researcher Ian Johnson, emeritus fellow at Quadram Institute Bioscience in Norwich, United Kingdom. He was not involved in the study.
“Taken with all the other scientific evidence it is very likely that some types of UPF do increase the risk of later disease, either because they are directly harmful or because they replace healthier foods such as vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, olive oils, etc,” Johnson said in a statement.
The study’s findings are concerning because in Europe ultra-processed foods make up “more than half of our daily food intake,” said coauthor Heinz Freisling, a nutrition and metabolism scientist at the International Agency for Research on Cancer, in a statement. In the United States, a 2019 study estimated some 71% of the food supply may be ultraprocessed.
Ultraprocessed foods contain ingredients “never or rarely used in kitchens, or classes of additives whose function is to make the final product palatable or more appealing,” according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
The list of additives includes preservatives to resist mold and bacteria; emulsifiers to keep incompatible ingredients from separating; artificial colorings and dyes; anti-foaming, bulking, bleaching, gelling and glazing agents; and added or altered sugar, salt and fats designed to make food more appealing.