Food and Behaviour Research

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Dissecting ultra-processed foods and drinks: Do they have a potential to impact the brain?

Contreras-Rodriguez O, Solanas M, Escorihuela RM (2022) Rev Endocr Metab Disord. 23(4) 697-717. doi: 10.1007/s11154-022-09711-2. Epub 2022 Feb 2. 

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Abstract:

Ultra-processed foods and drinks (UPF) are formulation of ingredients, mostly of exclusive industrial use, that result from a series of industrial processes. They usually have a low nutrient but high energy density, with a high content of saturated and trans fats, and added sugars.

In addition, they have characteristic organoleptic properties, and usually contain sophisticated additives, including artificial sweeteners, to intensify their sensory qualities and imitate the appearance of minimally processed foods. In addition, recent research has warned about the presence of chemicals (e.g., bisphenol) and neo-formed contaminants in these products.

UPF production and consumption growth have been spectacular in the last decades, being specially consumed in children and adolescents. UPF features have been associated with a range of adverse health effects such as overeating, the promotion of inflammatory and oxidative stress processes, gut dysbiosis, and metabolic dysfunction including problems in glucose regulation.

The evidence that these UPF-related adverse health effects may have on the neural network implicated in eating behavior are discussed, including the potential impact on serotonergic and dopaminergic neurotransmission, brain integrity and function.

We end this review by placing UPF in the context of current food environments, by suggesting that an increased exposure to these products through different channels, such as marketing, may contribute to the automatic recruitment of the brain regions associated with food consumption and choice, with a detrimental effect on inhibitory-related prefrontal cortices.

While further research is essential, preliminary evidence point to UPF consumption as a potential detrimental factor for brain health and eating behavior.

FAB RESEARCH COMMENT:

This review provides a comprehensive review of the current evidence that ultra-processed foods (UPF) affect brain development and function, as well as physical health.

It includes discussion of various potential mechanisms by which characteristic features of these foods (such as their sugar content, unhealthy fat profile, artificial additives and lack of dietary fibre) may adversely affect mood, behaviour and cognition, as well as the evidence from human studies llnking UPF consumption with behaviour and mental health, particularly eating disorders and addictive behaviours.

Controlled human clinical trial evidence still remains limited, but a recent rigorously conducted trial found significant effects on appetite and weight gain in healthy young adults after just 2 weeks on an ultra-processed food diet.


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