Adverse health impacts of ultra-processed food highlighted

By Rebecca Jenkins

Greater exposure to ultra-processed food (UPF) is linked with a higher risk of adverse health outcomes, particularly cardiometabolic disease and common mental disorder outcomes and early mortality, a large umbrella review has found.

UPF, as defined by the Nova food classification system, includes a broad range of ready-to-eat products, including packaged snacks and carbonated soft drinks, Australian and international researchers wrote in the BMJ.

‘The products are characterised as industrial formulations primarily composed of chemically modified substances extracted from foods, along with additives to enhance taste, texture, appearance, durability, with minimal to no inclusion of whole foods,’ they said.

For the umbrella review, the researchers included 45 distinct pooled analyses analysing UPF and health outcomes, encompassing a total population of almost 10 million participants. ‘Overall, direct associations were found between exposure to [UPF] and 32 (71%) health parameters spanning mortality, cancer, and mental, respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and metabolic health outcomes,’ the researchers wrote.

Of note, class I evidence supported the direct association between greater UPF exposure and higher risks of incident cardiovascular disease mortality (risk ratio, 1.50), type 2 diabetes (dose- response risk ratio, 1.12), as well as higher risks of prevalent anxiety outcomes (odds ratio, 1.48) and combined common mental disorder outcomes (odds ratio, 1.48).

‘These findings support urgent and mechanistic research and public health actions that seek to target and minimise [UPF] consumption for improved population health,’ the researchers concluded.

Laureate Professor Clare Collins, Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Newcastle, NSW, said the findings could not be ignored and were a call to governments globally for a moratorium on UPF.

Professor Collins, who is also Co-Director of the Food and Nutrition Program at the Hunter Medical Research Institute, Newcastle, said government resources should be directed to promoting healthy diets containing minimally processed foods, while the food industry should fund further research into UPF.

‘As a minimum, industries producing these foods should be made to demonstrate what the health consequences of these products are,’ she told Medicine Today.

For people facing food insecurity, Professor Collins wanted to see more programs that went beyond food provision, linking that to skill development for meal planning, cooking skills and meaningful employment and housing.

GPs could make a difference on an individual level by talking to patients about the benefits of meal planning and preparing food at home, which included cost-savings.

‘Everyone should be concerned about health impacts of UPF. This is a major concern for children, who are likely to be over-exposed to UPF across their whole lives,’ she said.

Professor Collins and colleagues have developed an online resource ‘No Money, No Time’, available at, to help people eat more healthily, recognising budget and time constraint challenges.

BMJ 2024; 384 :e077310.