Processed foods’ claim to fame mostly comes from their ease of preparation and affordability (and, perhaps, their engineered, bordering-on-addictive taste). But according to the research in recent years, they’ve become a major health hazard. And those known as “ultraprocessed” foods, which have even less in common with actual food, may be the worst yet for our health and longevity. A new study in JAMA Internal Medicine finds that people who eat more of these highly processed foods have a significantly greater risk of death from multiple causes over the years.
The team looked at data from almost 45,000 French participants, who were about 57 at the start of the study and tracked for over 7 years on average. They filled out questionnaires about their typical food and drink intakes, along with other information, including physical activity, sociodemographic, lifestyle, weight/height, and other body measurements.
The researchers were most interested in a group of foods designated “ultraprocessed” in the NOVA food classification system. The authors summarize these foods as being “manufactured industrially from multiple ingredients that usually include additives used for technological and/or cosmetic purposes. Ultraprocessed foods are mostly consumed in the form of snacks, desserts, or ready-to-eat or -heat meals.” According to the NOVA authors, ultraprocessed foods are “formulated from industrial ingredients and contain little or no intact foods.” (A detailed description can be found here.)
The team correlated a person’s consumption of these ultraprocessed foods with their risk of dying from all causes. Overall, for each 10% increase in the intake of ultraprocessed foods, there was a 14% greater risk of all-cause mortality.
“To our knowledge, this prospective study was the first to investigate the association between ultraprocessed foods consumption and mortality risk in a large population-based French cohort,” the team writes in their paper.
This isn’t a total shock. Last year, the same team reported that ultraprocessed foods were linked to greater risk of both breast cancer and overall cancer. And other research has certainly shown what a “Western” diet can do to health—high-sugar, highly processed diets appear to be some of worst available, for metabolic health, brain health, overall health, and mortality.
The team who carried out the current study speculated a bit about the potential mechanisms behind the processed foods-mortality connection. One, they say, is the presence of acrylamide, a compound produced during high-temperature cooking of grains and potatoes. A few years ago, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, after reviewing all the evidence, decried acrylamide as a “probable carcinogen.”
Additionally, additives like titanium dioxide, which “may be associated with an increased risk of chronic intestinal inflammation and carcinogenesis,” may partially explain the connection. And emulsifiers and artificial sweeteners might each work to disrupt the bacterial balance in the gut, potentially leading to inflammation, metabolic syndrome, and, ultimately, type 2 diabetes and cancer. Finally, the authors suggest that food packaging—particularly cans and plastics with BPA and the like—may play a role.
They do caution that reverse causation may be at play, where people with existing health problems gravitate toward less healthy foods. But they largely dismiss this possibility, since logic would suggest that people with heath issues would more likely make healthier, not poorer, food choices.
And they of course point out the trend in recent years, all over the globe, away from whole foods and toward the quick and dirty processed ones. “Ultraprocessed foods consumption has largely increased during the past several decades and may drive a growing burden of noncommunicable disease deaths,” the authors write. Even in France, known for its healthy, whole foods (and the fatty, decadent ones eaten in moderation), apparently people are eating processed stuff.
Since cost is often a factor, this growing body of research suggests that more need be done to make healthier foods available to a greater number of people. And as always, the message is to eat real foods, as much as is feasible and affordable. And if you fall off the wagon, don’t beat yourself up—just try to resist the second donut and get back on.