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Which products could harm your health, and benefits of fermented foods explained

A new BBC Panorama documentary will air on Monday night highlighting the health concerns around ultra-processed foods. Ultra-Processed Food: A Recipe For Ill-Health? will be on BBC One at 8pm, and will also be available on iPlayer.

What are ultra-processed foods?

The term “ultra-processed foods” comes from the Nova food classification system, which was developed by researchers at the University of São Paulo in Brazil.

Ultra-processed foods typically have five or more ingredients. They tend to include many additives and ingredients that are not typically used in home cooking, such as preservatives, emulsifiers, sweeteners, and artificial colours and flavours. They generally have a long shelf life.

Common ultra-processed foods include:

  • ice cream
  • ham
  • sausages
  • crisps
  • mass-produced bread
  • cereal
  • biscuits
  • carbonated drinks
  • fruit-flavoured yoghurts
  • instant soups and noodles
  • some alcoholic drinks including whisky, gin, and rum

How damaging can ultra-processed foods be to health?

The British Heart Foundation says: “Ultra-processed foods often contain high levels of saturated fat, salt and sugar and when we eat them, we leave less room in our diets for more nutritious foods. It’s also been suggested that the additives in these foods could be responsible for negative health effects.

“The actual processing of the food could also make a difference to how our bodies respond to it. Studies have shown, for example, that when foods such as nuts are eaten whole the body absorbs less of the fat than when the nut is ground down and the oils are released. Another new theory is that diets higher in ultra-processed foods could also affect our gut health.”

Tim Spector, professor of epidemiology at King’s College London, told Panorama: “In the last decade, the evidence has been slowly growing that ultra-processed food is harmful for us in ways we hadn’t thought.

“We’re talking about a whole variety of cancers, heart disease, strokes, dementia.”

A study published in The Lancet medical journal in January by Imperial College’s School of Public Health found that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods may be linked to an increased risk of developing cancer, specifically ovarian and breast cancers.

Two studies on ultra-processed foods were published in the British Medical Journal in 2019; one following 105,159 people in France, and another following 19,899 university graduates in Spain.

Both studies collected detailed information about the foods people ate at the start of the study. Participants in the French study also provided information about their diet on other occasions in the next two years. Participants were split into groups based on their consumption of ultra-processed foods.

In the Spanish study, the group eating the fewest ultra-processed foods ate less than two servings per day, and the group eating the most ate more than four servings per day. People in the group eating the most ultra-processed foods were 62 per cent more likely to have died after an average of 10.4 years than people in the low consumption group.

In the French study, participants were classed according to the percentage of their daily diet that came from ultra-processed foods. This ranged from an average of 7.5 per cent for the lowest consumers to 30.8 per cent for the highest. After an average of 5.2 years, each 10 per cent increase in the intake of ultra-processed foods was linked to a 12 per cent increase in cases of heart and circulatory disease.

On the reverse side, fermented foods can provide many health benefits such as antioxidant, antimicrobial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic and anti-atherosclerotic activity.

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