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05 June 2023

BBC One: King's academics highlight impact of ultra-processed food on health

Professor Tim Spector and Dr Sarah Berry from the Faculty of Life Sciences & Medicine have stressed how ultra-processed food can impact on long-term health in BBC One’s Panorama.


Ultra-processed food includes supermarket bread, crisps, flavoured yoghurts, cereals and fizzy drinks. They also include added ingredients not common in home cooking such as preservatives, emulsifiers and artificial sweeteners.

Dr Sarah Berry warns that these additional ingredients are present in so-called ‘healthy’ foods.

There’s a term we use called the health halo here you have packaging that says ‘high in fibre’, ‘low in sugar’, ‘low in salt’, ‘plant based’. All of these magic words which makes people think ‘Wow these are really healthy’. If anything ever says ‘low’, ‘reduced’ or ‘no’, I’d always be a bit suspicious because how else have they made these foods taste great?

Dr Sarah Berry, from the Department of Nutritional Sciences

Aimee and Nancy, identical twins from the TwinsUK study run by Professor Tim Spector at King’s, also feature in the programme. Aimee spends two weeks on an ultra-processed diet while her sister eats the same amount of calories through consuming raw or low-processed foods.

After a week, Aimee reports having a headache and feeling hungry. Professor Spector and Dr Berry’s previous research found people can experience big dips in blood sugar 2-3 two-three hours after people eat processed, refined carbohydrates. After two weeks, Aimee gained a kilo of weight and her blood sugar levels and blood fat levels went up. Long-term, these are a sign of serious disease such as diabetes and heart disease.

Previous research from PREDICT, the largest in-depth nutritional study in the world, found diets rich in healthy and plant-based foods encourages the presence of gut microbes that are linked to lower risk of illnesses such as a heart disease.

Professor Tim Spector says the ubiquity of ultra-processed foods in the UK diet is a “future time bomb.”

He said: “We already have the most obese children in Europe. That means more Type 2 diabetes, more cancer, more heart disease, more mental illness. This really is a future time bomb; it’s a complete disaster and we’re sleepwalking into it.”

Watch Panorama on BBC One here.

In this story

Tim Spector

Professor of Genetic Epidemiology