Consumption of ultra-processed foods and health status: a systematic review and meta-analysis.

The British journal of nutrition. 2021;125(3):308-318

Plain language summary

Ultra-processed foods (UPF) are, according to the NOVA classification, “formulations of ingredients, mostly for industrial use only, derived from a series of industrial processes”. UPF represents an important and growing part of the world’s food supply. The aim of this study was to assess the relationship between UPF consumption as defined by NOVA and health status. This study is systematic review with meta-analysis of all the cross-sectional and cohort studies published to-date. At the end of the selection process, twenty-three articles were included in the qualitative analysis and nineteen in the quantitative analysis. Results indicate the possible association between high UPF consumption, worse cardiometabolic risk profile (reported by an increased risk of overweight/obesity, elevated waist circumference, reduced high-density lipoprotein-cholesterol levels and increased risk of the metabolic syndrome), and greater risk of all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, cerebrovascular disease and depression. Authors conclude that their findings have important public health implications, especially for food policymakers who should discourage the consumption of UPF and promote fresh and minimally processed foods to improve health status.


Increasing evidence suggests that high consumption of ultra-processed foods (UPF) is associated with an increase in non-communicable diseases, overweight and obesity. The present study systematically reviewed all observational studies that investigated the association between UPF consumption and health status. A comprehensive search of MEDLINE, Embase, Scopus, Web of Science and Google Scholar was conducted, and reference lists of included articles were checked. Only cross-sectional and prospective cohort studies were included. At the end of the selection process, twenty-three studies (ten cross-sectional and thirteen prospective cohort studies) were included in the systematic review. As regards the cross-sectional studies, the highest UPF consumption was associated with a significant increase in the risk of overweight/obesity (+39 %), high waist circumference (+39 %), low HDL-cholesterol levels (+102 %) and the metabolic syndrome (+79 %), while no significant associations with hypertension, hyperglycaemia or hypertriacylglycerolaemia were observed. For prospective cohort studies evaluating a total population of 183 491 participants followed for a period ranging from 3·5 to 19 years, highest UPF consumption was found to be associated with increased risk of all-cause mortality in five studies (risk ratio (RR) 1·25, 95 % CI 1·14, 1·37; P < 0·00001), increased risk of CVD in three studies (RR 1·29, 95 % CI 1·12, 1·48; P = 0·0003), cerebrovascular disease in two studies (RR 1·34, 95 % CI 1·07, 1·68; P = 0·01) and depression in two studies (RR 1·20, 95 % CI 1·03, 1·40; P = 0·02). In conclusion, increased UPF consumption was associated, although in a limited number of studies, with a worse cardiometabolic risk profile and a higher risk of CVD, cerebrovascular disease, depression and all-cause mortality.

Lifestyle medicine

Fundamental Clinical Imbalances : Immune and inflammation ; Structural
Patient Centred Factors : Triggers/Ultra-processed food
Environmental Inputs : Diet ; Nutrients
Personal Lifestyle Factors : Nutrition
Functional Laboratory Testing : Not applicable

Methodological quality

Jadad score : Not applicable
Allocation concealment : Not applicable