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

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.

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Abbreviations

ADI:

Acceptable daily intake

BBB:

Blood Brain Barrier

BMI:

Body Mass Index

BPA:

Bisphenol-A

FDA:

US Food and Drug Administration

GLP-1:

Glucagon like peptide-1

KYN:

Kynurenine

LNCSs:

Low-/-non calorie sweeteners

PHO:

Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils

PYY:

Peptide tyrosine-tyrosine

SCFA:

Short-chain fatty acids

TiO2:

Titanium dioxide

TCS:

Triclosan

Trp:

Tryptophan

UPF:

Ultra-processed foods and drinks

5-HT:

Serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine)

5-HIAA:

5-Hydroxyindoleacetic acid

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Acknowledgements

This study has received support from the Intramural Translational Projects (2021) from the CIBERSAM granted to O Contreras-Rodriguez, and the project PID2020-119391GB-I00 granted M Solanas and RM Escorihuela.O Contreras-Rodriguez is funded by a “Miguel Servet” contract (CP20/00165) from the Health Institute Carlos III (ISCIII), Spain.

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Contreras-Rodriguez, O., Solanas, M. & Escorihuela, R.M. Dissecting ultra-processed foods and drinks: Do they have a potential to impact the brain?. Rev Endocr Metab Disord (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11154-022-09711-2

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Keywords

  • Ultra-processed foods and drinks
  • Organoleptic properties
  • Additives
  • Trans fats
  • Chemicals
  • Eating Behavior Brain network