Ultra-processed food has taken over your shopping basket: Be aware, be very aware

UPFs are convenient, affordable, highly profitable, strongly flavoured, aggressively marketed – and on sale in supermarkets everywhere. The foods themselves may be familiar, yet the term “ultra-processed” is less so.



Supermarket shelves are increasingly flooded with foods produced by extensive industrial processing, generally low in essential nutrients, high in sugar, oil, and salt, and most likely to be overconsumed.

The words are ‘ultra-processed food (UPF)’ and it is very attractive: the convenience of microwave meals, the good taste of chips, the cheapness of a snack to take to school.

New research by the Department of Epidemiology and Prevention at the IRCCS Neuromed, in Italy, however, has confirmed that these foods significantly increase the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) along with an increased risk of obesity.

Published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the study was conducted on over twenty-two thousand people participating in the Moli-sani Project.

By analyzing their eating habits and following their health conditions for over 8 years, Neuromed researchers were able to observe that those consuming a high amount of ultra-processed foods (UPF) had an increased risk of death from any cause of 26%, and of 58% specifically from cardiovascular diseases.

“To evaluate the nutrition habits of the Moli-sani participants, we used the international NOVA classification, which characterizes foods on the basis of how much they undergo extraction, purification, or alteration. Those with the highest level of industrial processing fall into the category of ultra-processed foods,” explains lead author Marialaura Bonaccio, a researcher at the Department of Epidemiology and Prevention.

“According to our observations, people consuming large amounts of these foods have an increased risk of dying from cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases.”

Not so ‘sweet’ sugar

The main culprit could be sugar, with substantial amounts added to ultra-processed foods.

But the answer is seemingly more complex. “According to our analyses, says Augusto Di Castelnuovo, the excess of sugar does play a role, but it accounts only for 40% of the increased death risk.

“Our idea is that an important part is played by industrial processing itself, able to induce deep modifications in the structure and composition of nutrients.”

Licia Iacoviello, Director of the Department of Epidemiology at Neuromed said Efforts aimed to lead the population towards a healthier diet can no longer be addressed only by calorie counting or by vague references to the Mediterranean diet.

“Sure, we obtained good results by those means, but now the battlefront is moving. Young people in particular are increasingly exposed to pre-packaged foods, easy to prepare and consume, extremely attractive and generally cheap.”

This study and other international research are going in the same direction, he said, adding that, in a healthy nutritional habit, fresh or “minimally processed foods must be paramount.”

“Spending a few more minutes cooking a lunch instead of warming a container in the microwave, or maybe preparing a sandwich for our children instead of putting a pre-packaged snack in their backpack: these are actions that will reward us over the years.“

What constitutes ultra-processed food

Havard Health defines ultra-processed foods as food made from substances extracted from foods, such as fats, starches, added sugars, and hydrogenated fats.

They may also contain additives like artificial colors and flavors or stabilizers.

What characterises ultra-processed foods is that they are so altered that it can be hard to recognise the underlying ingredients.

These are concoctions of concoctions, engineered from ingredients that are already highly refined, such as cheap vegetable oils, flours, whey proteins and sugars, which are then whipped up into something more appetising with the help of industrial additives such as emulsifiers.

An ultra-processed food can be reformulated in countless ways, but the one thing it can’t be transformed into is an unprocessed food.

Kevin Hall, from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in Maryland, USA, remains hopeful that there may turn out to be some way to adjust the manufacture of ultra-processed foods to make them less harmful to health.

A huge number of people on low incomes, he notes, are relying on these “relatively inexpensive tasty things” for daily sustenance.

But he is keenly aware that the problems of nutrition cannot be cured by ever more sophisticated processing.

“How do you take an Oreo and make it non-ultra-processed?You can’t!”