Doctors warn of ill effects of ultra-processed foods

Consuming such foods is major cause of obesity and many fatal diseases including diabetes and cancer

M. Waqar Bhatti
A representational image of a burger with fries. — Pixabay
A representational image of a burger with fries. — Pixabay

Health and nutrition experts have warned against the ill effects of ultra-processed foods which are high in sugar, salt and trans fatty acids (TFA), as they are major risk factors for non-communicable diseases (NCDs) including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and most importantly cancers of different types.

Munawar Hussain, country coordinator of the Global Health Advocacy Incubator (GHAI), according to The News, said ultra-processed foods appear tasteful through enhanced processing by adding artificial flavours and other substances but are not healthy choices, as they greatly contribute to deaths and disease.

"The consumption of such foods is the major cause of obesity and many fatal diseases such as diabetes, ischemic heart diseases, cancers, liver and kidney diseases, stroke and many other chronic diseases," he said, speaking during an awareness session organised by the Pakistan National Heart Association (PNHA) in Karachi on Saturday.

Hussain maintained that sugary drinks, flavoured dairy, ice creams, pastas, jams, candies, burgers, samosas, partially hydrogenated oils, biscuits and bakery products etc are consumed by almost everyone but these are adding to the miseries of our people by increasing their risk of becoming sick.

"The products are cheaper as compared to healthier alternatives and the government must take policy action to reduce its consumption,” he said, adding that increasing the tax on such foods as well as enacting front-of-pack warning labels to help consumers adopt healthier choices could help in lowering their consumption.

Similarly, limiting transfats to less than 2% of total fats in all foods, regulating their marketing and removing such products from schools, and subsidising healthy foods like fruits, vegetables and lentils could greatly help cut down diseases and deaths in the country, he added.

"We appreciate the government for increasing taxes on sugary drinks in Finance Bill 2023-24 but it is a first step only. Now we must gear up the progress by progressively increasing the tax on unhealthy foods and also introducing a package of policies to reduce consumption," said Sana Ullah Ghumman, PNHA general secretary.

“Heart diseases and stroke are among the top killers of Pakistanis and diabetes is already skyrocketing, and no country can afford to treat such a huge number of people,” he added.

We must focus on the prevention of these diseases as the hospital expenditure is in billions of dollars. The annual cost of diabetes management is estimated at more than $2,640 million in Pakistan, he added.

Fayza Khan, president of the Pakistan Nutrition and Dietetic Society, said that our population doesn’t even know the harmful effects of highly processed food products.

"We must mobilise public support by increasing awareness among the population and policymakers, and help them understand that we are in a state of emergency where urgent policy measures can save thousands of lives every day,” she said, highlighting the important role of health professionals, civil society, nutritionist, media and dietitians towards raising awareness and mobilising public support for urgent policy actions to reducing consumption of sugary drinks and other ultra-processed foods.