Ultra-processed foods: it’s not just their low nutritional value that’s a concern

In this opinion piece, Good Mood Dudes founder Dr. Nicholas Chartres provides his view on this article: Ultra-processed foods: it’s not just their low nutritional value that’s a concern


What if we said that by eating nutrient deficient food, filled with chemicals, you have a significantly higher risk of dying younger from heart disease or cancer?

Pretty scary, huh?

Well in the UK, US and Canada, and Australia ultra-processed foods (nutrient deficient food, filled with chemicals) now account for ~50% or more of calories consumed. 

The food industry has told us that by fortifying these ultra-processed foods with other nutrients, it makes them healthier for us. The Health Star Rating system in Australia is a prime example of this tactic. 

However, it has now been identified that chronic inflammation may be a key contributor to why ultra-processed foods increase our disease risk. The industrial-sounding products and chemicals both within these foods (flavourings, colourings, emulsifiers, and thickeners) and the packets they are served in (very high levels of PFAS or ‘forever’ chemicals are found in various fast food packets) may be recognized by the body as foreign – like an invading bacteria or virus. It is proposed our body goes into fight mode against these harmful agents, causing an inflammatory response.

So why is this so bad?

Scientists have established ten Key Characteristics (KCs) that reflect the properties of cancer-causing hazardous agents. These include things like does the agent alter DNA repair, induce oxidative stress, or does it induce chronic inflammation. These KCSs of carcinogens have been applied in the evaluation of more than 70 carcinogens at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the world’s leading agency for classifying carcinogens. 

When we are continually eating ultra-processed foods (which we must be if ~50% of our diet comes from them), then we are likely to be in a state of chronic inflammation and therefore at a greater risk of disease. 

The article then points to the best ways we can prevent this disease state from happening. 1) Do not eat ultra-processed foods at all, and 2) Eat a plant-based diet.

Simple enough, right?

Well, doing these two things can be extremely difficult. This is because our food environment is flooded with these hyperpalatable food products, their marketing and advertising is ubiquitous and persuasive, and they are very cheap, making them affordable for very low-income communities, who are often the highest consumers of these products. 

So, what is the solution?

Well, part of it has to be government action and regulation, just like how we regulated tobacco, by banning advertising, increasing sales taxes and introducing plain packaging, just to name a few.


Dr Nicholas Chartres is the Director of Science & Policy at the University of California, San Francisco working with the Program of Reproductive Health and the Environment. His work focuses on US federal chemical policy and regulation.

Nick received his PhD from The University of Sydney, where his thesis examined ways to reduce bias in public health guidelines, including the primary studies that are used in our national Dietary Guidelines. Nick also has a Masters in Nutrition.