Consumption of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) has been linked with the development of 32 adverse human health outcomes, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal.

The umbrella review evaluated a range of “existing meta-analyses” involving almost 10 million people. It assessed the effects of participants’ exposure to UPFs, as defined by the NOVA classification system.

The products concerned included sweet and salty snacks, ready meals, instant noodles, breakfast cereals, margarines, some packaged breads and carbonated drinks, among other goods.

Researchers found “direct associations” between UPFs and an increased risk of death, death linked to cardiovascular disease and common mental disorders.

“The strongest available evidence” also showed a link between UPFs and a greater risk of becoming overweight and obese, along with type 2 diabetes.

Studies also associated UPFs exposure with asthma, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, “intermediate cardiometabolic risk factors”, and some cancers, although researchers concluded that evidence to support the connection to those issues was “limited and warrants further investigation”.

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Responding to the findings, a spokesperson for UK industry body the Food and Drink Federation said: “The food and drink industry will look at this report closely. First and foremost, it’s paramount to us that the food and drink we produce is safe, nutritious and clearly labelled.”

The spokesperson added the FDF was “concerned” the term of ultra-processed foods was “confusing” to consumers.

“Our view is that it’s more important to help people to understand where they are consuming too much food that’s high in fat, salt and sugar, and not enough fruit, vegetables and fibre, rather than focussing on processing in itself. To that end, food and drink companies have worked hard over a number of years to adapt the recipes of our products to make them healthier and to reduce portion sizes, and we continue to do so.”

“We also need to be clear as a society about the benefits of processing food and how this plays an important role in everyone’s diets,” the spokesperson added.

“Among other things, processing ensures that a wide range of food is widely available, protects our food security, extends the shelf life of products and cuts down on food waste, and supports the convenience that so many working families need amid busy lives.“

Just Food has also contacted pan-EU trade body FoodDrinkEurope for comment.

Also reacting to the report, Huib van Bockel, CEO of energy drinks group Tenzing, said he agreed that “there needs to be an honest conversation about the amount of sugar in our food and drink and people need healthier, affordable alternatives”, but noted “the alternative” needed to be approached “with caution”.

Bockel added he viewed artificial sweeteners as “a copout to be able to keep the same flavour without putting any effort into developing a low-sugar recipe”.

“I’ve been saying for years now that artificial sweeteners should never have been created as an alternative to sugar,” he said.

“Tenzing doesn’t make zero-sugar or zero-calorie energy drinks because our bodies need a balance of sugar and salt to stay energised.”

The connection between UPF consumption and adverse health outcomes is a contentious topic, and health bodies have been wary to sign off all processed food and drinks as being bad for health.

Last November, a report from the World Health Organization (WHO) suggested that some processed foods, such as bread and cereal, can decrease the likelihood of developing several long-term health problems, or multi-morbidity, due to their fibre levels.

The WHO study, which assessed over 266,000 people from seven European countries, found that diets regularly featuring processed sausages and sugary drinks increased the risk of someone putting on weight.

It stressed, however, that “other sub-groups, such as ultra-processed bread and cereals and plant-based alternatives, were not associated with risk”.