A report from the World Health Organization (WHO) has concluded that some ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are actually good for people’s health.

The Consumption of Ultra-Processed Foods and Risk of Multimorbidity of Cancer and Cardiometabolic Diseases report, produced by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer and the University of Vienna, has suggested that processed foods such as bread and cereal reduce the risk of multiple long-term conditions – multimorbidity – due to their fibre content.

UPFs have faced widespread criticism amid links to obesity, which increases the risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Speaking to Just Food last month, Filippa Debentencourt-Juul, provost’s post-doctoral fellow at New York University, who has undertaken a number of different studies into UPFs, said: “I found that there was a significant association between the proportion of all processed foods in the diet and the prevalence of [people who were] overweight and obese, the prevalence of abdominal obesity and also increased BMI and waist circumference.”

While the WHO study – based on more than 266,000 participants in seven European countries – found regular consumption of products such as sausages and sugary drinks makes it more likely someone will put on weight, it stressed the importance of not tarring all ultra-processed food with the same brush.

It said: “Among UPF sub-groups, associations [with health issues] were most notable for animal-based products and artificially and sugar-sweetened beverages. Other sub-groups, such as ultra-processed breads and cereals and plant-based alternatives, were not associated with risk.”

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However, the authors were careful to stress the harm that UPFs can cause generally.

“In this multinational European prospective cohort study, we found that higher consumption of UPFs was associated with a higher risk of multimorbidity of cancer and cardiometabolic diseases,” the report said.

Highlighting the scale of UPF consumption, the report said: “The availability and consumption of ultra-processed foods has increased worldwide and represents nowadays 50–60% of the daily energy intake in some high-income countries and middle-income and low-income countries are following suit.

“Fresh or minimally processed foods are being increasingly replaced by higher proportions of UPFs in the diet, raising concerns about their long-term health effects.”

UPFs are defined in the report as industrially-manufactured products comprising deconstructed and modified food components recombined with a variety of additives. Typically, UPFs are mass-produced packaged breakfast cereals, biscuits, reconstituted meat products, instant noodles, as well as soft and/or sweetened carbonated drinks.

The study was published in medical journal The Lancet.

Just Food spotlight: Why we need to talk about ultra-processed foods