The Grapevine

Eating Ultra-Processed Foods Might Raise Early Death Risk, Study Shows

The more "ultra-processed" foods you consume, the higher your risk of early death — that is what researchers from France are suggesting in a new study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine recently. 

Snacks containing additives, desserts, and ready-to-eat or -heat meals are some of the common ultra-processed foods. In recent years, experts have raised concerns that such foods are making up too much of the average Western diet.

While estimates say they make up around half of the food bought in households in the United Kingdom, the figure may be even higher in the United States, at 58 percent, according to one study.

And what is it that makes these products so popular? Nita Forouhi of the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge highlights their convenience i.e. being inexpensive, easily available, and taking less time to prepare.

"Such foods are attractive because they tend to be cheaper, are highly palatable due to high sugar, salt, and saturated fat content, are widely available, highly marketed, ready to eat, and their use-by dates are lengthy, so they last longer," she told the Guardian.

In the new study, the research team examined the diets of more than 44,000 middle-aged, French adults. Over the seven-year follow-up period, 602 deaths had taken place, a third of which were due to cancer. 

It was found that a 10 percent rise in the proportion of ultra-processed food consumption was linked to a 14 percent rise in the risk of mortality. The effect remained clear even after accounting for factors like lower income, lower education level, higher body mass index, and lower levels of physical activity.

Nurgul Fitzgerald, who was not involved in the study, spoke to CNN, praising the researchers for the study being "strong" in terms of design — with that being said, it was not without limitations.

The use of a term like "ultra-processed foods" encompasses a very wide range of food products — they may differ from one another in terms of the additives used, the temperature during processing, the type of packaging they come in, etc.

Fitzgerald, who is a professor at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, explained that this makes it hard to pinpoint exactly what is leading to the effect seen in the study.

Despite the complexity of factors involved, the finding strengthens the often-heard recommendation to cut down on the intake of processed foods. To make smarter choices, Fitzgerald emphasizes the importance of reading nutrition labels on the front and the back of ready-made meals.

"Look at the ingredients list. Do you understand all those ingredients that go into your foods?" she asked, urging consumers to only buy the products "with the least number of ingredients and with ingredients you understand."