The term “ultra processed” may be unfamiliar, but it applies to many familiar foods, including soft drinks, packaged snacks and baked goods, and reconstituted meat products such as chicken and fish nuggets, as well as instant noodles and commercially produced soups. A study published in 2016 determined that more than half of the calories consumed in the U.S. come from these foods, which the researchers defined as “industrial formulations, which besides salt, sugar, oils and fats, include substances not used in culinary preparations.” Ultra-processed foods frequently contain additives used to mimic the taste and texture of foods prepared from scratch and, according to the researchers, “to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product.”
The link between these foods and type 2 diabetes was revealed in a French study published in December 2019 showing that every 10 percent increase in the amount of ultra-processed food consumed increases the risk of developing diabetes by 15 percent. Earlier, the same research team found that daily and regular intake of ultra-processed foods was linked with an increased risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, inflammatory bowel disease, depression, metabolic disorder, and all-cause mortality. The French investigators wrote that ultra-processed foods represent between 25 and 60 percent of the modern diet.
Their study included 104,707 participants, 79 percent of them women, whose average age was 43. All were asked to periodically complete six 24-hour food diaries reporting on their consumption of more than 3,500 food items. They also were asked about major health events – including type 2 diabetes – over the course of the six-year study. The researchers confirmed this information by researching medical records, and reported that consumption of ultra-processed food generally was higher among smokers, obese individuals, and those who were less physically active, as well as those who consumed more red and processed meats and fewer whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
A study from the U.S. National Institutes of Health also published in 2019 linked ultra-processed foods with overeating and weight gain, but the French researchers found that even if participants in their study didn’t gain weight during follow-up, they were still at risk of developing type 2 diabetes based on their consumption of ultra-processed foods.
They wrote that the health risks associated with these foods stem from their higher levels of sodium, calories, fat and sugar, lower levels of fiber and higher glycemic loads. Also of concern is their use of preservatives and “other physical and chemical processes, such as high-temperature heating…associated with production of contaminants posing health risks, such as acrylamide, found mainly in fried potatoes, biscuits, cakes, and coffee, which have been associated with insulin resistance.”
Andrew Weil, M.D.
Bernard Srour et al, “Ultraprocessed Food Consumption and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes Among Participants of the NutriNet-Santé Prospective Cohort,” JAMA Internal Medicine, December 16, 2019, doi: doi.org/10.1001/jamainternmed.2019.5942