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Ultra-processed foods like soda and snacks are the new ‘silent killer’

In our pursuit of convenience and efficiency, our diets have undergone a significant transformation. The shelves of grocery stores are now dominated by ultra-processed foods, ranging from fizzy drinks and cereals to packaged snacks and processed meats.

Understanding ultra-processed foods

Laden with additives like oil, fat, sugar, starch, sodium, and various emulsifiers such as carrageenan and soy lecithin, these foods are not only devoid of essential nutrients but are also filled with potentially harmful ingredients.

The impact of this dietary shift is alarming, with novel ingredients, previously unknown to human physiology, now constituting nearly 60% of the average adult’s diet and almost 70% for children in the United States.

This trend is emerging as a significant health hazard, potentially becoming the new “silent” killer, reminiscent of the once-unrecognized dangers of high blood pressure.

The health cost of convenience

Physicians at Florida Atlantic University’s Schmidt College of Medicine have delved into this issue, providing crucial insights for healthcare providers.

Their findings underscore a concerning trend: the first decline in life expectancy in the U.S. in a century, attributed in part to the rise in non-communicable diseases linked to the consumption of ultra-processed foods.

“Those of us practicing medicine in the U.S. today find ourselves in an ignominious and unique  position – we are the first cohort of health care professionals to have presided over a decline in life expectancy in 100 years,” said Dawn H. Sherling, M.D., corresponding author, associate program director for the internal medicine residency and an associate professor of medicine, FAU Schmidt College of Medicine.

“Our life expectancy is lower than other economically comparable countries. When we look at increasing rates of non-communicable diseases in less developed nations, we can see a tracking of this increase along with increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods in their diets.”

What science says about ultra-processed foods

Despite warnings from organizations like the American College of Cardiology to opt for minimally processed foods, the lack of a clear definition for ultra-processed foods complicates dietary choices.

“When the components of a food are contained within a natural, whole food matrix, they are digested more slowly and more inefficiently, resulting in less calorie extraction, lower glycemic loads in general, and lower rise in triglyceride-rich lipoproteins after eating, which could result in atherosclerotic plaque,” said Allison H. Ferris, M.D., senior author, an associate professor and chair, Department of Medicine, and director of the internal medicine residency program, FAU Schmidt College of Medicine.

“Therefore, even if the troublesome additives were removed from the ultra-processed food, there would still be concern for an over-consumption of these products possibly leading to obesity, diabetes and heart disease.”

How ultra-processed foods harm us

The NOVA classification system, increasingly used by public health organizations, categorizes foods into four groups.

The groups range from whole foods to ultra-processed, highlighting the unnatural ingredients used in the latter that are not typically found in home cooking. These additives may disrupt our gut microbiota, potentially leading to diseases.

Sherling further explains that certain additives could harm the gut’s mucous layer, making it susceptible to diseases and possibly contributing to the rise in cancer among younger adults in the U.S.

“Additives, such as maltodextrin, may promote a mucous layer that is friendly to certain species of bacteria that are found in greater abundance in patients with inflammatory bowel disease,” said Sherling.

“When the mucous layer is not properly maintained, the epithelial cell layer may become vulnerable to injury, as has been shown in feeding studies using carrageenan in humans and other studies in mice models, using polysorbate-80 and cellulose gum, triggering immunologic responses in the host.”

Tobacco’s lessons: Echoes in our eating habits

The commentary also draws parallels between the fight against ultra-processed foods and the historical battle against tobacco.

“Whether ultra-processed foods contribute to our currently rising rates of non-communicable disease requires direct testing in analytic studies designed a priori to do so,” said Charles H. Hennekens, M.D., FACPM, co-author, the First Sir Richard Doll Professor of Medicine and senior academic advisor, FAU Schmidt College of Medicine.

“In the meantime, we believe it is incumbent upon all health care professionals to discuss the benefits of increasing consumption of whole foods and reducing consumption of ultra-processed foods with their patients.”  

Reclaiming our diets for a healthier tomorrow

In summary, confronting the pervasive presence of ultra-processed foods in our diets demands immediate action from all of us.

Healthcare professionals must lead the charge by educating patients on the benefits of whole foods, while individuals need to make conscious choices to prioritize nutrition over convenience.

Together, we can turn the tide against the detrimental health effects of ultra-processed foods, embracing a future where our meals support, rather than undermine, our well-being.

By fostering awareness and advocating for healthier dietary practices, we hold the power to reverse the trend of declining life expectancy and usher in an era of improved public health.

The full study was published in The American Journal of Medicine.


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