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Understanding the Risks of Ultra-Processed Foods

Ultra-processed foods have been in the news lately due to research linking them to an array of health conditions, including cancer and dementia. But what exactly are ultra-processed foods, and why are they so bad for us? To answer these questions, we need to understand the difference between processed and ultra-processed foods, and how they affect our health.

Processed foods are any foods that have been altered from their natural state, usually with the addition of sugar, oil, salt, or other substances.[0] Examples include canned tuna, some cheeses, and ready-to-eat foods like crackers, chips, and cookies.[1] Ultra-processed foods, however, take things a step farther by adding artificial colors and flavors, preservatives for shelf stability, and ingredients to preserve texture. These foods use advanced food manufacturing processes such as extrusion, hydrogenation, hydrolysis, and bulking, aerating and foaming.[2]

Two large research studies published last year linked ultra-processed foods to cancer. One study, published in The British Medical Journal, found that men who ate the most ultra-processed foods had a 29% higher risk of developing colorectal cancer.[1] The problem with these studies is that they don't necessarily tell us anything about the processed food itself, but rather just that people who ate the most ultra-processed foods had a higher risk of some health condition. According to Sonya Angelone, R.D., a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “It may be that these food directly cause these diseases or the rest of the diet and lifestyle of those who eat these foods. In other words, it may be a lack of healthier foods that increases risk for these diseases.”[1]

The era of ultra-processing has led to a Cambrian explosion of food tastes and textures, but it has also led to uniquely harmful effects on the human body, contributing to obesity, diabetes, cancer and other health problems.[2] About 60 per cent of the food found in supermarkets is ultra-processed, and these foods include ingredients like whey protein, gluten, casein, lactose, hydrogenated oils, hydrolysed proteins, soy protein isolate, maltodextrin, invert sugar and high fructose corn syrup.[0]

It's understandable to have questions about ultra-processed foods.

0. “What ups diabetes risk? Processed foods like instant noodles, energy bars and drinks harm your body” The Indian Express, 1 Feb. 2023,

1. “What Are Ultra-Processed Foods, and How Bad Are They Really?” AOL, 6 Feb. 2023,

2. “It delivers a taste bomb of pure pleasure, but ultraprocessed food is killing us” The Irish Times, 30 Jan. 2023,

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