New ultra-processed food warning: Children as young as THREE develop heart risk signs and blood sugar problems if … – Daily Mail

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Children fed a diet packed with ultra-processed-foods (UPFs) show early signs of poor heart health and diabetes risk factors from as young as three years old, according to disturbing new data.

UPFs, foods typically high in sugar, salt, fat and industrial food additives like preservatives and emulsifiers, have long been linked to health problems in adults.

But fresh research suggests children are also at risk from these meals which have become a mainstay of British diets. 

Spanish experts compared the health metrics of almost 1,500 children between three-to-six-year-of-age as well as tracking how much of their diet consisted of UPFs.

They found that children who ate the most UPFs were more likely to have higher body-mass-index (BMI) scores, a larger waist circumference, greater fat levels and higher blood sugar scores, compared to those who consumed the least.

Spanish experts compared the health metrics of almost 1,500 children between three-to-six-year-of-age as well as tracking how much of their diet consisted of UPFs (stock image)

All four of these measurements are risk factors for type 2 diabetes, the blood sugar condition that predominantly affects middle-aged adults and increases the risk of heart attacks, strokes and blindness. 

Researchers, who published their findings in the journal Jama Network Open, also find children who ate a lot of UPFs had lower levels of HDL cholesterol than those who ate fresher foods. 

HDL is also known as ‘good’ cholesterol as it’s known to help protect heart health. Low levels are linked to the development of coronary heart disease. 

They added that while their study was observational, meaning they couldn’t pin the observed changes directly on UPF consumption, it was plausible.

‘UPFs contain higher amounts of sodium, energy, fat, and sugar and lower amounts of fibre, which are well recognised as contributors to cardiometabolic risk factors,’ they wrote.

They added: ‘Moreover, excessive consumption of energy, saturated fat, and sugar contributes to weight gain and a higher risk of obesity, which is an important risk factor in cardiovascular disease.’

Researchers also cited animal studies on chemicals which are added to UPFs which show an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Another aspect researchers examined was how the mothers of the children also differed. 

They found mothers of children who ate more UPFs were typically younger, had a higher BMI, and lower levels of education and employment, considered to be markers of deprivation. 


Ultra-processed foods are high in added fat, sugar and salt, low in protein and fibre and contain artificial colourings, sweeteners and preservatives.

The term covers food that contains ingredients that a person wouldn’t add when cooking at home — such as chemicals, colourings and preservatives.

Ready meals, ice cream, sausages, deep-fried chicken and ketchup are some of the best-loved examples.

They are different to processed foods, which are processed to make them last longer or enhance their taste, such as cured meat, cheese and fresh bread.

Ultra-processed foods, such as sausages, cereals, biscuits and fizzy drinks, are formulations made mostly or entirely from substances derived from foods and additives.

They contain little or no unprocessed or minimally processed foods, such as fruit, vegetables, seeds and eggs.

The foods are usually packed with sugars, oils, fats and salt, as well as  additives, such as preservatives, antioxidants and stabilisers.

Ultra-processed foods are often presented as ready-to-consume, taste good and are cheap.

Source: Open Food Facts  


Experts concluded their study by calling for ‘public health initiatives to promote the replacement of UPFs with unprocessed or minimally processed foods’.

British experts, who were not involved in the study, said that UPF consumption could be a sign of poor diet in general.

Dr Duane Mellor, dietitian and spokesperson for British Dietetic Association, said: ‘When you look at the data more closely, the children with the highest intake of UPF tended to eat less healthy food like vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, legumes, unprocessed meats and more processed meats, candy and sugary drinks. 

‘So, it is not clear if it is an effect of UPF which might be associated with markers of health risk, or if it is the overall dietary pattern.

‘Rather than clearly showing that UPFS are the problem this study appears to show that a less healthy diet that contains less minimally processed foods such as vegetables, fruit, nuts, legumes and unprocessed meats is perhaps more of an issue.’

However, Dr Mellor did agree with the researcher’s conclusion that more needed to be done to improve the diets of children, especially in Britain. 

‘Before 2010 we had Children’s Sure Start Centres where lots of great work was done to encourage healthier lifestyles including food. 

‘Unfortunately, with austerity policies these have closed, and cost of living means that families may not be willing or able to afford healthier foods which may be wasted when children refuse them. 

‘We need to find a way to rebuild community focused approaches like Children Centres to support families into developing healthier food and lifestyle choices.’ 

Professor Gunter Kuhnle, and expert in nutrition and food science at the University of Reading, agreed: ‘If you look at the results, it’s very obvious that those in the lowest group of UPF intake consume more fibre, fruits and vegetables, and this is most likely the explanation for the associations they found,’ he said. 

‘In my opinion, the results suggest that children with high fruit & vegetable intake have a lower CVD risk, which is not really very controversial or new.’

He added that the authors’ suggestion that additives could also be factor in increasing risk of cardiovascular disease was problematic. 

‘The available data do not really support this claim. Additives in the EU and the UK are regularly assessed for their effect on health, and most studies that show adverse effects have been conducted in animals and used amounts or forms that are not comparable with human diet.’

Professor Kuhnle added that another factor to consider was that UPF was an umbrella term and as used in the study would also cover UPFs which are good for you.

The Nova system, developed by scientists in Brazil more than a decade ago, splits food into four groups based on the amount of processing it has gone through. Unprocessed foods include fruit, vegetables, nuts, eggs and meat. Processed culinary ingredients ¿ which are usually not eaten alone ¿ include oils, butter, sugar and salt

Food experts say some UPFs can be 'part of a healthy diet'. Baked beans, fish fingers and wholemeal bread all make the cut, according to the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF). Tomato-based pasta sauces, wholegrain breakfast cereals and fruit yoghurts are also 'healthier processed foods', the charity says

Experts have previously complained about the nebulous nature of the term UPF which references how much processing a food has undergone rather than how nutritionally good or bad it is. 

As such it doesn’t distinguish between a ready meal packed with fat, salt and sugar and a wholemeal loaf of bread the latter of which is far better for you. 

The authors, who hailed from multiple Spanish universities, based their study on 1,426 children from seven Spanish cities.

Children in the study had an average age of 5.8-years and were split almost evenly in terms of gender.

Researchers used a 125-item food and beverage questionnaire to identify the children’s diet and also collected health metric data like BMI from both the kids and their mothers. 

Children were then divided into three cohorts of about 475 based on their assessed UPF consumption, a low, medium and high group. 

Health data across these groups was then analysed to see if any patterns emerged such as higher chance of BMI or lower levels of good cholesterol.

The researchers acknowledged several limitations to their study.

In addition to the aforementioned observational nature of the findings they noted their study was only on Spanish children and therefore might not be replicated in other parts of the world. 

Britain is the worst in Europe for eating UPFs, with the foods making up an estimated 57 per cent of the national diet.

They are thought to be a key driver of obesity, an issue that costs the NHS around £6.5 billion a year.

Often containing colours, emulsifiers, flavours, and other additives, they typically undergo multiple industrial processes which research has found degrades the physical structure of foods, making it rapid to absorb.

This in turn increases blood sugar, reduces satiety and damages the microbiome – the trillions of ‘friendly’ bacteria, fungi, viruses and other organisms that live inside us and which we depend for good health.


Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain, according to the NHS

• Eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruit and vegetables count

• Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain

• 30 grams of fibre a day: This is the same as eating all of the following: 5 portions of fruit and vegetables, 2 whole-wheat cereal biscuits, 2 thick slices of wholemeal bread and large baked potato with the skin on

• Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks) choosing lower fat and lower sugar options

• Eat some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 portions of fish every week, one of which should be oily)

• Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and consuming in small amounts

• Drink 6-8 cups/glasses of water a day

• Adults should have less than 6g of salt and 20g of saturated fat for women or 30g for men a day

Source: NHS Eatwell Guide  


Food additives like non-nutritive sweeteners, modified starches, gums and emulsifiers also seem to affect the microbiome, levels of gut inflammation and metabolic responses to food which may also increase risk of heart attack and stroke.

While research has previously linked UPF consumption to 32 health problems including cancer, type 2 diabetes and mental health disorders, some experts say the evidence that UPFs are directly to blame is limited. 

Part of the problem is that people who eat large amounts of UPFs tend to be both unhealthier in general and poorer, factors that may worsen their health independently and influence or exacerbate the results.

Another factor is the potential that ultra-processed foods may not be directly damaging health but are instead leading people to eat less nutritious foods as the latest study might suggest. 

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