Ultra-Processed Foods Linked to Early Death in New Study

While every year more and more nutrition experts advise against eating processed foods, it is still prevalent in society today.  And a new study indicates that not only are heavily processed foods definitely a risk-factor for early death, but that this risk factor seems to affect certain demographics more than others. 

University of Cambridge MRC Epidemiology Unit’s Professor Nita Forouhi notes that health experts and scientists continue to make the case against eating highly-processed foods and yet public policy does not seem to reflect the cautionary results they are finding.  As such, Forouhi advises we must remember that “consumption of highly processed foods reflects social inequalities—they are consumed disproportionately more by individuals with lower incomes or education levels, or those living alone.”

The study looked at more than 44,000 French adults starting in 2009.  They study looked at how much of their diets—and calories, perhaps more specifically—came from eating “ultra-processed foods”.  These are foods consisting of industrial ingredients and additives, and made in factories (not grown in fields).  Such ultra-processed foods could include dried-ready meals, cakes, biscuits, etc. 

Over the 7-year follow-up, the study reported 602 deaths.  Death, of course, is natural, and this not a particularly intriguing percentage of the entire population. However, of those deaths, 219 were due to cancer and 34 were related to cardiovascular disease.  Further investigation determined that these deaths were quite likely related to diets based more on ultra-processed foods. 

As such, Forouhi comments that these foods are particularly attractive not just because they might taste better (due to higher sugar content) but they also tend to be more affordable than natural foods.  But while they are highly marketed as ready-to-eat or low-preparation with longer use-by-dates, they are also high in salt and saturated fats. 

Nutrition researcher Dr. Ian Johnson explains that this is a “large, carefully conducted prospective study” that observed and analyzed the health of French adults in middle age or older.  And in this study, they found “a statistically significant association between death from any cause and a relatively higher consumption of ‘ultra-processed foods’.”

The Quadrum Institute of Bioscience Emeritus Fellow adds that while risk of death in this 7-year study period was 15 percent higher among those who did consume more of this type of food, the overall background risk was low.