- By Esme Stallard
- Climate and Science Journalist, BBC News
Twenty years ago no one had heard of the term ultra-processed food – or UPF – but around half of the things we eat now in the UK are made that way.
From sliced brown bread to convenience foods and ice cream, it is a group of foods manufactured with varying, but often significant, levels of industrial processing. The ingredients used, such as preservatives, artificial sweeteners and emulsifiers, are not usually found in home cooking.
“Ultra-processed foods are some of the most profitable foods companies can make,” says Professor Marion Nestle, food policy expert and professor of nutrition at New York University.
Some academics believe the link is no coincidence.
Professor Tim Spector is Professor of Epidemiology at King’s College London, who studies disease trends.
He told BBC Panorama: “Over the past decade the evidence has slowly increased that ultra-processed foods are harmful to us in ways we never imagined.
“We’re talking about a whole variety of cancers, heart disease, strokes, dementia.”
The study of 200,000 UK adults found that increased consumption of ultra-processed foods may be linked to an increased risk of developing cancer in general, and ovarian and brain cancers specifically.
It follows dozens of studies linking increasing UPF consumption to an increased risk of developing serious diseases.
The first surveys on mortality and the consumption of ultra-processed foods have started in France at the Sorbonne Paris Nord University, as part of the ongoing study of the eating habits of 174,000 people.
“We have 24-hour food records during which they tell us all the foods, drinks, etc., that they consume”, explains Dr Mathilde Touvier who is leading the study.
Emulsifiers – the Holy Grail
More recently, they looked at the impact of one specific ingredient – emulsifiers – which act like a glue in ultra-processed foods to hold it all together.
Emulsifiers are the holy grail for the food industry – they improve the appearance and texture of foods and help extend shelf life well beyond that of less processed foods.
They are everywhere, in mayonnaise, chocolate, peanut butter, meat products. If you eat, you will likely consume emulsifiers as part of your diet.
BBC Panorama had exclusive access to Dr Touvier’s initial results.
They have not yet been peer-reviewed – a crucial verification step for scientific studies – but she said they were still of concern.
“We observed significant associations between the consumption of emulsifiers and the increased risk of cancer in general – and breast cancer in particular – but also with cardiovascular disease,” she says.
This means that a trend has been observed between consumption of ultra-processed foods and disease risk, but more research is needed.
Despite the growing body of evidence, the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) – which regulates the food industry in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – has yet to issue regulations limiting emulsifiers.
When Panorama asked the FSA about the growing body of evidence that these additives could cause harm, it said: “We have not received any evidence – through this program or otherwise – of specific emulsifiers that are believed to pose a risk to health. “
But the FSA said it planned to hold a public consultation.
Could the food industry itself play a role in rolling back regulation?
The BBC Panorama team have spent the past eight months investigating.
“Food companies are not public health agencies… their job is to sell products,” food policy expert Professor Nestlé told the BBC.
She said the food industry has been known to fund research, sponsor experts and disparage existing studies to prevent regulation.
Ultra-processed ready meals contain chemicals that UK regulators say are safe, but Panorama is studying emerging scientific evidence of a link between some of these chemicals and cancer, diabetes and stroke.
To watch BBC iPlayer nowor on BBC One at 8:00 p.m. BST on Monday June 5 (8:30 p.m. in Northern Ireland and 11:10 p.m. in Wales)
He says his mission is to “deliver science that improves human health” – but he has previously published studies comprehensively undermining regulation and public advice on healthy diets. In 2012, the European Food Safety Agency was so concerned about potential conflicts of interest that it insisted that anyone associated with ILSI must either resign from the institute or leave the agency.
Professor Alan Boobis, Emeritus Professor at Imperial College London, is an unpaid director of ILSI Europe and former vice-chairman of its board. But he also heads a group of British scientists, known as the Committee on Toxicity, which provide advice on the risk of chemicals in food to the FSA.
Professor Boobis told Panorama that his advice was not industry-oriented and that he was always “totally committed to conducting and identifying the best scientific research…regardless of who funds it”.
The Food Standards Agency said it had a “clear code of conduct… for declarations of interest” and had “no evidence” that bias affected its decisions.
ILSI said: “(We) operate under the highest principles of scientific integrity.”
Aspartame, sweeter than sugar
One of the most controversial UPF additives is the sweetener aspartame.
Two hundred times sweeter than sugar, it has been advertised as a great low-calorie alternative – turning once unhealthy sugary drinks, ice creams and mousses into products marketed as “healthy”.
There have been questions about its potential damage over the past two decades.
Then, last month, the World Health Organization said that, although the evidence was inconclusive, it was concerned that long-term use of sweeteners like aspartame could increase the risk of “diabetes from type 2, heart disease and mortality”.
In 2013, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) decided – after reviewing all available evidence – that aspartame was safe. The UK Food Standards Agency has accepted this position.
Six years later, Professor Erik Millstone, Emeritus Professor of Science Policy at the University of Sussex, decided to look at the same evidence reviewed by EFSA – to see who had funded the various studies.
He found that 90% of studies defending the sweetener were funded by big chemical companies that make and sell aspartame.
And that all studies suggesting that aspartame can cause harm have been funded by independent, non-commercial sources.
A spokesperson for the Food and Drink Federation, a membership body for manufacturers, told the BBC that the companies take “the health of consumers and the safety of the food they produce seriously – and adhere to strict regulations “.
The FSA says it will review the ongoing WHO assessment on aspartame.
The government says it is aware of growing concerns about UPF and has ordered a review of the evidence on ultra-processed foods.
Watch Panorama – Ultra-processed foods: a recipe for ill health? – on BBC iPlayer or on BBC One at 8:00 p.m. BST on Monday June 5 (8:30 p.m. in Northern Ireland and 11:10 p.m. in Wales)