Ultra Processed Food And It's Effect On Health

  • Elena Paspel Master of Science in Engineering (Digital Health) - Tallinn University of Technology, Estonia


Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) have quietly become staples of our diets, far removed from the less processed staples of the past. These foods, characterised by high levels of additives like colourings and sweeteners, are increasingly dominating grocery shelves worldwide. In some regions, UPFs constitute up to 60% of daily energy intake, signalling a major dietary shift.1 This trend is concerning, as emerging research links UPFs to serious health risks, including obesity, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and even shortened life spans.2 The pervasive reach of UPFs presents a significant challenge, making it imperative to examine their impact on our health and well-being.

What exactly are UPFs?

UPFs are not your typical grocery items. Within the framework of the NOVA classification, these foods are identified as complex concoctions created almost entirely through industrial means.3 According to the report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the NOVA system itself categorises all food into four broad groups, singling out ultra-processed foods due to their intricate production processes and their profound implications for our health.

The creation of UPFs is quite an elaborate process:

  • It begins with the dismantling of whole foods to extract basic components: sugars, oils, fats, proteins, starches, and fibre, usually sourced from high-yield plant varieties or intensively reared animals.
  • These components are then chemically transformed via methods like hydrolysis or hydrogenation.
  • They are reassembled with scant traces of their original, whole-food forms, employing industrial techniques like extrusion and pre-frying.
  • A cocktail of additives is introduced to ensure these foods taste good, last long, and look appealing.

Strolling through a supermarket, you are likely to bump into UPFs such as:3

  • Carbonated beverages
  • Pre-packaged chips and snacks
  • Candies and sweets
  • Commercially available ice cream
  • Mass-produced bread and margarine
  • Cookies, pastries, and cake mixes
  • Sweetened breakfast cereals
  • Various forms of reconstituted meat products
  • Ready-to-make soups, noodles, and desserts.

Peeking at the ingredient list of UPFs, we find elements that are strangers to the typical kitchen pantry:

 To give these foods their irresistible allure, 'cosmetic additives' are liberally used:3

Each of these ingredients is meticulously chosen and combined to deliver foods that are convenient and enjoyable. However, their long shelf life, ready-to-eat nature, and hyper-palatability come with a cost. Marketed aggressively, UPFs have a knack for edging out the nutritious 'real foods' they replace, leading to health and social concerns that ripple throughout our society.3

Unpacking the nutritional content of processed foods

UPFs provide convenience but at the expense of nutritional value, making them a double-edged sword in our diets. They often have low levels of fibre, protein, and important micronutrients and high levels of harmful fats, added sugars, and salt, all of which can have a detrimental effect on general health.7

Food labels on UPFs can be misleading, with a focus on long shelf lives and enhanced flavours due to additives, rather than providing the nutrients we need. This nutritional imbalance is increasingly recognized as a contributing factor to various health problems.7

A significant link has been established between the frequent consumption of UPFs and obesity, with these foods contributing to larger waist circumferences and a higher incidence of metabolic syndrome, conditions that amplify the risk of more severe health issues.8

How UPFs could be harming your health 

UPFs, while convenient and often palatable, carry a spectrum of risks that can affect various facets of health. The following is a summary of possible risks associated with excessive intake of various foods:

  • Weight gain and obesity: Research has consistently demonstrated that diets rich in ultra-processed foods are associated with higher risks of weight gain and obesity in both adults and children.6,9
  • Metabolic syndrome: Regular consumption of these foods has been linked to the development of metabolic syndrome, which is typified by elevated blood pressure, elevated blood sugar, extra body fat in the waist area, and abnormally high cholesterol levels.8
  • Cardiovascular disorders: UPF  consumption has been linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular disorders, such as strokes and heart attacks.8
  • Cancer: Although research is still in its early stages, some data points to a potential connection between eating a diet high in ultra-processed foods and a higher risk of developing cancer, especially because of the presence of chemicals and neoformed compounds (NFCs) .1
  • Type 2 diabetes: Many ultra-processed meals include high levels of sugar and refined carbohydrates, which may lead to the development of type 2 diabetes.2
  • Gastrointestinal issues: UPFs can disrupt the gut microbiome and may be linked to conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).2
  • Depression and mental health disorders: Research has uncovered associations between diets high in UPFs and the prevalence of depressive symptoms.2
  • Childhood health issues: Beyond weight, UPFs are implicated in health concerns for children, including asthma and other developmental issues.5
  • Overall mortality: High consumption of UPFs may be associated with an increased risk of all-cause mortality.8

Impact of UPFs on mental health

Beyond just sating our hunger, the food we consume may have a significant impact on our mood and general sense of wellbeing. Ultra-processed meals may provide instant gratification , but our long-term emotional well-being may suffer as a result.

Food choices and your mood

It turns out that reaching for that bag of chips or microwavable meal might have implications beyond our physical health. A diet rich in UPFs has been linked with less-than-stellar mental health outcomes. The quick sugar highs and the inevitable crashes could be contributing to mood swings and irritability. More significantly, the nutritional deficiencies often seen with a high UPF diet may also play a role in exacerbating stress and hindering our ability to cope with it.4

Diet's role in emotional well-being

The relationship between our stomach and our mood, sometimes referred to as the ‘gut-brain axis,’ is fascinating and multifaceted. An elevated risk of depression appears to be linked to a diet heavy in UPFs, according to mounting data.4 This refers to a deeper, more pervasive sense of hopelessness that may impact all aspects of life, not simply a dull day's mood.

Making thoughtful food choices may be as crucial to our emotional well-being as they are to our physical well-being. The next time we have to choose between a fast, processed lunch and a more well-balanced, whole-food one, it is important to keep that in mind.

Processed foods' impact on children's health

As processed foods increasingly fill the shelves of our grocery stores, they also begin to fill the plates of our youngest generation, with implications that may extend far into their futures.

Childhood obesity

It is becoming obvious that children’s obsession with highly processed meals is a serious health risk rather than merely fad. The ease of consuming pre-made meals and sugary snacks is negatively affecting children's nutritional growth. Studies have shown that a diet high in these quick fixes is setting off alarm bells, correlating with a rise in childhood overweight and obesity rates. This trend highlights a critical need for parents and caregivers to keep a vigilant eye on the dietary habits of children from an early age, encouraging healthy eating patterns that can set the stage for their future health.5

The hidden long-term health risks

The story does not end with extra pounds in childhood. A diet heavy in UPFs has consequences beyond immediate weight gain. A concerning picture of these children’s long-term health prospects is starting to emerge from longitudinal studies that connect regular consumption of these foods to an increased risk of obesity and associated illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, later in life. These findings highlight the need to develop dietary mindfulness early on by serving as a sobering reminder that decisions made about food throughout childhood might have long-term effects. As such, it is not just about the extra weight but about the potential for a lifetime marred by health complications that could have been avoided with a more natural, less processed diet.6

Understanding the cancer risk from processed foods

The convenience of processed foods is often overshadowed by the growing concerns about their long-term effects on our health, particularly the potential link to cancer.

A troubling question is emerging in the public consciousness: could our modern convenience foods be putting us at greater risk for cancer? Even while the data is still inconclusive, experts are starting to connect the links. UPFs may be dangerous due to the same qualities that draw people to them, such as their palatability and extended shelf life. Although their function in encouraging weight gain is already well-established, there is growing concern that the very components that make them 'ultra-processed' may also be contributing to an increased risk of cancer. This isn't about causing panic but about understanding that the choices we make at the dining table could have implications beyond just waistlines and may influence our overall cancer risk.1

Ingredients that matter

It is not just the high sugar or fat content that is raising eyebrows; it is what's inside these foods on a chemical level. Some of the additives that give processed foods their texture, flavour, and longevity are under scrutiny for their potential as carcinogens. Additionally, the process of creating these foods can sometimes result in new, unintended chemical compounds—neoformed contaminants—that could pose a risk to our health. These findings serve as a compelling call to action for consumers to become more ingredient-conscious and for researchers to delve deeper into understanding how these components of UPFs could be influencing our risk of developing cancer.1

The larger effects of processed foods

The issues associated with UPFs transcend personal health, extending their reach into our economy and environment in ways that demand a closer look.

The cost of convenience to our healthcare system

There is a price tag attached to the convenience of processed foods, and it is one that society pays dearly for. Healthcare systems are buckling under the weight of diet-related diseases, with UPFs playing a starring role in this narrative. The economic strain of managing illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, all of which linked to processed food consumption, is becoming unsustainable. This is a clarion call for policymakers to step in and help weave a new food tapestry that prioritises health and reduces the reliance on these convenience foods, which are proving to be anything but convenient for our collective well-being.7

The environmental toll of packaged foods

Ultra-processed meals not only affect our health but also have a significant impact on the environment. It is impossible to overlook the carbon footprint these meals have throughout their whole existence, from manufacture to packaging to disposal. The massive resource consumption and the large amount of packaging waste they produce make environmental sustainability extremely difficult. It is becoming more and more crucial to take into account how our food choices—not only what we consume but also how it is produced and packaged—contribute to this global issue as our world struggles with the consequences of climate change. Moving away from UPFs is a step towards both improved health and a healthier environment.7

Steps to minimise processed foods in your diet

To forge a path towards healthier eating habits and away from the convenience trap of UPFs, consider the following actionable steps:

  • Advocate for stronger regulations: Support initiatives for transparent food labelling and policies to curtail the proliferation of UPFs7
  • Prefer whole foods: To reduce your intake of processed foods, choose fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains high in fibre over packaged snacks. This is in line with the advantages of eating a diet high in whole and minimally processed foods.2,7,9 
  • Home cooking: Take responsibility for your health by cooking at home. This habit helps manage ingredients, portion sizes, and nutritional quality, leading to improved health and weight management.5,6,9
  • Stay informed: Be critical of food marketing strategies and educate yourself about the true nutritional value of foods to make healthier choices.9
  • Deciphering labels: Develop the skill to interpret nutritional labels, identifying and avoiding products high in sugars, fats, and additives.7

By integrating these strategies into everyday life, individuals can pivot from a diet high in UPFs to one that promotes health and longevity, harnessing the well-documented advantages of whole and minimally processed foods.9


The infiltration of UPFs into our diets has become a global phenomenon, presenting a serious challenge to our health. The allure of these convenient, shelf-stable products is undeniable, but so are the potential risks they carry, from obesity to various chronic diseases. These foods have undergone significant industrial processing and are often laden with additives while lacking essential nutrients.

The impact of UPFs is particularly concerning for children, as early dietary habits can influence long-term health. As research points to the potential risks, including obesity and cancer, the importance of reducing UPF consumption is clear.

Individuals can counter UPF prevalence by choosing whole foods, cooking at home, understanding food marketing, and reading labels to avoid high-sugar, high-fat products. Policy changes supporting transparent labelling and limiting UPFs are also crucial.

Embracing diets rich in whole and minimally processed foods can lead to better health and alleviate pressures on healthcare systems and the environment. Conscious consumption and advocacy for healthier food policies are key steps toward a positive shift in public health.


  • Kliemann N, Al Nahas A, Vamos EP, Touvier M, Kesse-Guyot E, Gunter MJ, et al. Ultra-processed foods and cancer risk: from global food systems to individual exposures and mechanisms. Br J Cancer. 2022 Jul;127(1):14–20. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41416-022-01749-y 
  • Elizabeth L, Machado P, Zinöcker M, Baker P, Lawrence M. Ultra-processed foods and health outcomes: a narrative review. Nutrients. 2020 Jun 30;12(7):1955. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12071955 
  • Monteiro CA, Cannon G, Levy RB, Moubarac JC, Louzada ML, Rauber F, et al. Ultra-processed foods: what they are and how to identify them. Public Health Nutr. 2019 Apr;22(5):936–41. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1368980018003762 
  • Lane MM, Gamage E, Travica N, Dissanayaka T, Ashtree DN, Gauci S, et al. Ultra-processed food consumption and mental health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. Nutrients. 2022 Jun 21;14(13):2568. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu14132568 
  • Rousham EK, Goudet S, Markey O, Griffiths P, Boxer B, Carroll C, et al. Unhealthy food and beverage consumption in children and risk of overweight and obesity: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Adv Nutr. 2022 Oct 2;13(5):1669–96. https://doi.org/10.1093/advances/nmac032 
  • De Amicis R, Mambrini SP, Pellizzari M, Foppiani A, Bertoli S, Battezzati A, et al. Ultra-processed foods and obesity and adiposity parameters among children and adolescents: a systematic review. Eur J Nutr. 2022 Aug;61(5):2297–311. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00394-022-02873-4 
  • Popkin BM, Barquera S, Corvalan C, Hofman KJ, Monteiro C, Ng SW, et al. Towards unified and impactful policies to reduce ultra-processed food consumption and promote healthier eating. Lancet Diabetes Endocrinol. 2021 Jul;9(7):462–70. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-8587(21)00078-4 
  • Pagliai G, Dinu M, Madarena MP, Bonaccio M, Iacoviello L, Sofi F. Consumption of ultra-processed foods and health status: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Nutr. 2021 Feb 14;125(3):308–18. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007114520002688 
  • Crimarco A, Landry MJ, Gardner CD. Ultra-processed foods, weight gain, and co-morbidity risk. Curr Obes Rep. 2022 Sep;11(3):80–92.  https://doi.org/10.1007/s13679-021-00460-y 
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Elena Paspel

Master of Science in Engineering (Digital Health) - Tallinn University of Technology, Estonia

Bachelor of Laws - LLB (Hons), London Metropolitan University, UK

An experienced professional with a diverse background spanning law, pricing, and eHealth/Digital Health. Proficient in copywriting, medical terminology, healthcare interoperability standards, and MedTech regulations. A strong foundation in scientific research methodologies and user experience research supports the creation of compelling content for the biopharmaceutical, CROs, medical technology, and eHealth sectors.

Proven expertise in driving product vision, synthesizing complex information, and delivering user-centric solutions. Adept at streamlining workflows and processes, and drafting documentation and SOPs. Always open to collaborations and eager to connect with like-minded professionals.

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