Ultra-processed foods linked to higher early death risk, study confirms

Credit: Unsplash+.

A new study spanning three decades, published in The BMJ, reveals a nuanced view of the impact of ultra-processed foods on health, particularly highlighting a small but significant increase in mortality risks associated with their consumption.

This extensive research involved over 100,000 health professionals in the United States and offers insights that could guide future dietary recommendations.

Ultra-processed foods are commonly found on supermarket shelves as ready-to-eat meals, sugary drinks, snacks, and cereals. These items are not only convenient but are also engineered with additives like colors and emulsifiers to enhance flavor and shelf life.

However, they are often low in beneficial nutrients like vitamins and fiber while being high in sugars, fats, and salt.

The link between ultra-processed foods and various health issues such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer has been established in prior studies.

However, comprehensive long-term studies focusing on mortality and specific causes of death have been scarce.

The current study aims to fill this gap by analyzing data from the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, which tracked the health and dietary habits of tens of thousands of participants from across the U.S. over 34 years.

During this period, the researchers recorded 48,193 deaths, including those attributed to cancer, cardiovascular, respiratory, and neurodegenerative diseases.

They found that participants with the highest consumption of ultra-processed foods (about 7 servings per day) had a 4% higher risk of overall mortality compared to those who consumed the least (about 3 servings per day).

Notably, there was a 9% increase in deaths from causes other than the major diseases studied, including an 8% rise in deaths due to neurodegenerative conditions.

Specific types of ultra-processed foods, such as ready-to-eat meat, poultry, seafood products, sugary beverages, dairy-based desserts, and processed breakfast foods, were most strongly associated with these increased risks.

Interestingly, the study noted no significant correlation between ultra-processed food intake and deaths due to cancer, cardiovascular, or respiratory diseases.

These findings suggest that the overall quality of one’s diet might play a more crucial role in long-term health than merely the quantity of ultra-processed foods consumed. This is underscored by the less pronounced associations observed once overall dietary quality was considered.

It’s important to note that this study is observational and thus cannot definitively prove cause and effect.

Moreover, the researchers caution against oversimplifying dietary guidelines based solely on these findings, as the classification of foods as ultra-processed does not capture all nuances of food processing. This could lead to potential misclassifications and affect the study’s conclusions.

The majority of the study’s participants were health professionals and predominantly white, which may limit how these findings apply to the broader population.

Despite these limitations, the large sample size and the detailed, consistent data collection over more than three decades provide a robust basis for the conclusions drawn.

Accompanying this study, an editorial from New Zealand researchers emphasizes the broader context of food policies.

They argue that while it’s essential to refine the categorization of ultra-processed foods, this should not delay the implementation of health-promoting policies like marketing restrictions on unhealthy foods to children, warning labels on poor nutritional products, and taxes on sugary drinks.

As the debate around ultra-processed foods continues, both the research and the editorial highlight the need for comprehensive strategies that not only address dietary choices but also consider broader public health and policy interventions to promote healthier eating habits globally.

If you care about nutrition, please read studies that ultra-processed foods may make you feel depressed, and Vitamin D could help reduce depression symptoms.

For more information about nutrition, please see recent studies about antioxidants that could help reduce the risk of dementia, and Omega-3 supplements could improve memory functions in older people.

The research findings can be found in The BMJ.

Copyright © 2024 Knowridge Science Report. All rights reserved.