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Academic explains why ultra processed foods are a cause for concern ahead of Cambridge Festival talk

The diet of the average teenager in the UK is 66 per cent ultra processed foods, according to new research set to be discussed at the Cambridge Festival later this month.

These ‘foods’ contain edible substances that you wouldn’t use in home cooking and include emulsifiers, modified starch, hydrogenated vegetable oil, chemicals, colourings, sweeteners and preservatives that extend shelf life.

They are in everything from supermarket bread and ready meals, to flavoured yoghurts, sauces, crisps, biscuits, cereals, fizzy drinks, fries, ice cream, sausages, vegan meat replacements and dairy alternatives.

Ultra processed foods include bread, biscuits, crisps and fizzy drinks
Ultra processed foods include bread, biscuits, crisps and fizzy drinks

This is a cause for concern, according to Dr Yanaina Chavez-Ugalde, of the MRC Epidemiology Unit in Cambridge, as ultra processed foods are being linked to diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease. She will be discussing her latest research on the subject at the Cambridge Festival, which is supported by the Cambridge Independent. Coordinated by the University of Cambridge, the festival runs from 13-28 March. More than 360 (mostly free) events range from talks, debates, tours and interactive sessions.

Dr Chavez-Ugalde says: “There's something about these foods beyond high fat, sugar and salt that's having an effect on our health. And more and more research is coming out on that. There is a risk that these ingredients that are not classified as nutrients are actually having an effect on our immune system, having a huge effect on the diversity of our microbiota in the gut. And reduced resilience to disease. And also inflammation markers that, in the short term, don't make much of a difference, but in a sustained inflammation situation it can lead to non communicable diseases or chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, etc. So there is something going on, and research is coming out as we speak, that is looking at an independent effect on these ingredients above the effect of a food that is just high in salt, fat and sugar.”

And diving into the reasons why teens are turning to these foods - it is easy to see why the problem has arisen. The route to eating bad food is built into the system by poor choices being offered at school, convenience, lack of time and money, and marketing directed at them by major food companies through social media.

Dr Yanaina Chavez-Ugalde fears for the future of today's teenagers if they continue eating so much ultra processed food.
Dr Yanaina Chavez-Ugalde fears for the future of today's teenagers if they continue eating so much ultra processed food.

Dr Chavez-Ugalde has carried out research on teenagers’diet and ultraprocessed foods and will be joining a panel at the Cambridge Festival to discuss the shocking results.

She says: “Teenagers are faced with school and college canteens where they don’t have enough seats and so there is nowhere to sit down. Then they are forced to pick food they can eat standing up and hold with one hand. That isn’t going to be healthy food.

“They want to be warm, dry and have somewhere to sit. The food at the school canteens is often terrible. So if they can leave the grounds they go to McDonalds or another place selling junk food because it is warm, safe, has seats, has a bathroom, it may have a USB port at the table and it's somewhere they can hang out with their friends. So they buy the food there.”

This is before they are affected by the food that has been designed by commercial companies to be irresistible and is so much cheaper and more convenient than unprocessed food which has to be home cooked.

Dr Chavez-Ugalde explains: “It has to do also with the speed that we're eating. So emulsifiers make the food creamier and easier to swallow without having to chew it and crunch through it. When we consume things such as emulsifiers we eat them faster than whole foods.

“Our digestive system starts in the mouth. So if you're having something that is crunchy, like a carrot, or kale or beans, a whole food, then your brain says, Oh, we are eating something fantastic. Then it goes from the throat to the stomach and starts breaking down, and a bunch of nutrients start to be absorbed from the stomach all the way to the gut. Your microbiota says yes, yes. Fantastic. If it has fiber, even better. Your body will say, I'm full, thank you very much. Your insulin level starts to be reduced. We recognize the ingredients. We recognize this great.

“The research on satiety (a feeling of fullness) shows we eat UPF faster, because it's creamier, you have to chew less because it has less fibre. And secondly, our body doesn't register when we are full, because our body doesn't register these ingredients.

“An emulsifier doesn't necessarily have calories in it. But that will make you eat them faster. And when they get to your body’s receptors for the hormones ghrelin and leptin, the hormones that say I'm full, I'm hungry, they will not recognize that UPF as food. So it will just keep eating and that just goes all through your system without having any receptor to say this element this macronutrient fits perfectly like a key in a hole. Your body won’t say it has had enough because although what you ate was sweet the non nutritive sweeteners such as acesulfame and sorbitolare not registered as food. So you carry on consuming.”

we have an amazing dataset called the national diet and nutrition and NDNS that has very good data on data intake in the whole population. So I analyzed 11 to 18 year olds, in the UK, it was a sample of about more than 3000. UK asdolescents between the year of 2008 and 2019.

After studying the diet of 3,000 UK teenagers using a National Diet and Nutrition survey dataset of 11 to 18 year olds between 2008 to 2019. Dr YChavez-Ugalde says: “I found that UK adolescents consumed two thirds of their energy from UPF. So this is 66 percent. Adults are consuming 55 percent, so teenagers are having much more. The question is, how much will these adolescents be consuming when they're older? And the question comes down also to inequality because these foods are usually cheaper, compared to minimally processed foods, and you don't need time to cook them because they're already there for you. It turns out that there is a socio economic patterning of consumption. And there's a regional pattern as well.

“So UPF is more consumed by males aged about 18 years of age who have less time, have parents with routine manual occupations, and tend to be more likely to live in the north of England and be living with obesity. So this is highlighting that there's something to do with how we are consuming UPF and who is consuming them, usually impacting the ones that are worse off already. And because youth today are the adults of tomorrow, what does that mean? How many years will they live free from disease? We're already starting to see diabetes in youth when it was supposed to be a disease that happens later life.

“Our results highlight that adolescents are at increased risk of chronic diseases later in life, even at a potentially higher risk than their parents. This has implications for our financial, social and healthcare systems in the future. We need to have a better understanding of the drivers of UPF consumption in youth in order to design targeted policies that aim to improve adolescent’s diet.”

In Ultra-processed foods: What do we really know? (25 March), Professor Jean Adams from the MRC Epidemiology Unit, and a panel of experts, including Cathy Cliff, Soil Association; Dr Yanaina Chavez-Ugalde, MRC Epidemiology Unit; Samuel Dicken, University College London; and Tom Foster-Carter, Cherrypick, examine what we know about UPFs. They ask whether all UPFs are bad for us, and if so, what can we do about it?

Visit festival.cam.ac.uk to book a ticket.

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