Topic 2.3: The impact of ultra-processed foods intake on health

Association has been found between high intake of UPFs and the risk of diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs)

increased risk of

  • Type 2 Diabetes
  • Overweight – Obesity
  • Cardiovascular disease – Hypertension
  • Metabolic Syndrome
  • Cancer (overall & breast)
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Depression
  • All-cause mortality

Impact of ultra-processed foods on health outcomes: Possible mechanisms


  • High content of total fat, saturated fat, added sugar and salt
  • High energy density
  • Low fibre and vitamin density
  • Authorised, but controversial, food additives/preservatives

Poor diet quality

  • Neo-formed contaminants (commonly found in all kinds of foods due to the complex reactions between components during processing) and compounds of yet unknown properties 🡪 UPF consumption is associated with increased exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals and phthalates (a family of synthetic chemicals with a wide variety of uses, ranging from consumer to industrial products) used in industrial plastic packaging. 
  • UPFs affect appetite regulation: convenience foods disrupt satiation/satiety signaling by encouraging a rapid eating rate and eating while distracted which leads to higher overall food intake. 
  • UPFs replace intake of other nutritious foods.
  • UPFs modify the gut microbiome: they disturb the energy balance and foster the selection of microbes that promote inflammation-related diseases, metabolic diseases and even mental disorders. 

A 10% increase in the proportion of UPFs in the diet was associated with:

  • a >10% increase in the rates of overall cardiovascular, coronary heart, and cerebrovascular diseases 10
  • a significant increase of greater than 10% in risks of overall and breast cancer 9

(n=105,159 participants)

The analysis of 13 prospective cohort studies (183,491 participants followed over a period ranging from 3,5 to 19 years) documented a:

  • 29 % increase in the risk of cardiovascular disease incidence and/or mortality
  • 34 % increase in the risk of cerebrovascular disease
  • 20 % increase in the risk of depression

The exposure group (i.e. those with higher UPF intake) and the reference group (i.e. those with lower UPF intake) being compared differ among the 13 studies that were included in the analysis. The exposure was extremely variable and ranges from the contribution of the total energy of UPF to servings per day or daily intake, e.g.: 2 studies compared those consuming >4 servings/day to those consuming <2 servings/day, 1 study compared those consuming 489g/day to those consuming 119g/day etc.

  • UPF category can also contain commonly consumed foods that provide important nutrients, such as packaged whole-meal bread containing fiber, essential vitamins and minerals, or high fiber-lower sugar breakfast cereals that are commonly fortified with key nutrients.
  • These and other healthier foods that classifying as UPF can form an important part of a healthy, balanced diet and provide affordable and widely available options that can form the basis of nutritious meals and snacks.