32 Health Risks Associated with Ultra-Processed Foods Reveals Johns Hopkins Study

There is consistent evidence linking ultra-processed foods with over 30 harmful health effects, according to this international meta-analysis conducted at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The results, published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), confirm that diets high in ultra-processed foods are harmful to many body systems and underscore the need to reduce exposure to these food products.

Processed Food

Processed Food

Understanding Ultra-Processed Foods

What exactly are these ultra-processed products? They include industrial bakery products, ready-to-eat packaged snacks, carbonated drinks, and sugary cereals. These different products have undergone multiple industrial processes and contain colorings, emulsifiers, flavors, and other additives. They are generally high in added sugars, fats, and/or salt, but low in vitamins, fiber, and other nutrients. Finally, they represent up to 58% of the total daily energy intake, and their share in diets has been increasing in many countries in recent years.

Health Risks Associated with Ultra-Processed Foods

This analysis confirms that greater exposure to ultra-processed foods is associated with an increased risk of 32 health problems, including cancer, serious heart and lung diseases, mental health disorders, and premature mortality. The analysis synthesizes numerous studies that have already established a connection between ultra-processed foods and poor health, and it is the first comprehensive review that provides a global assessment of this evidence on the topic.

The study indeed consolidates data from 45 meta-analyses that link ultra-processed foods with harmful health effects, involving a total of nearly 10 million participants. Estimates of this type of food consumption were obtained from a combination of questionnaires and historical records. For each selected meta-analysis, researchers classified the evidence as convincing, highly probable, probable, of low quality, or nonexistent. Finally, this extensive analysis of meta-analyses concludes that greater exposure to ultra-processed foods is associated with an increased risk of 32 harmful health effects:

  • An approximately 50% increased risk of death from cardiovascular causes.
  • An increased risk of 48 to 53% of anxiety and common mental disorders.
  • A 12% increased risk of type 2 diabetes
  • A 21% increased risk of death from all causes.
  • A 40 to 66% increased risk of death from heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, sleep disorders
  • A 22% increased risk of depression.

According to mild or limited evidence, there is an increased risk of asthma, gastrointestinal disease, certain cancers, high levels of blood lipids, and low levels of HDL the good cholesterol.

Implications and Recommendations

It is possible, the authors write, that other factors have not been considered, and that variations in the assessment of ultra-processed food consumption may have influenced the results. However, the rigorous methodology used, the large volume of data, and the convergence of studies support public health interventions that seek to minimize the consumption of these harmful foods.

It should be remembered that too high or frequent intake of ultra-processed foods harms health and shortens life. New systematic measures regarding ultra-processed foods are essential. This includes front-of-package labeling, advertising restrictions, and banning sales in or near schools and hospitals, as well as fiscal measures that mechanically reduce access to these food products.

Final Thoughts: The Road Ahead for Policy Makers

The study’s implications for public health policy are clear, yet they come with the anticipation of resistance from influential food industry groups. The challenge for policymakers will be to navigate these waters, striking a balance between necessary health regulations and the interests of the food industry. This will require careful, pragmatic policymaking, ensuring that the path forward benefits public health without disregarding the complexities of the food industry.


Lane, M. M., Gamage, E., Du, S., Ashtree, D. N., McGuinness, A. J., Gauci, S., Baker, P., Lawrence, M., Rebholz, C. M., Srour, B., Touvier, M., Jacka, F. N., O’Neil, A., Segasby, T., & Marx, W. (2024). Ultra-processed food exposure and adverse health outcomes: Umbrella review of epidemiological meta-analyses. BMJ, 384. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj-2023-077310



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