Ultra-Processed Foods May Increase the Risk of Premature Death

Researchers followed tens of thousands of people for over 30 years and found that those who consumed high amounts of ultra-processed food had a slightly higher risk of mortality from certain health conditions.

Ultra-processed foods have come under scientific scrutiny recently after several studies found links between highly processed "junk" food and multiple health conditions, including cancer and cardiometabolic diseases. Researchers also suggest that processed food consumption may be linked to the development of dementia.

But can consuming high amounts of ultra-processed food lead to early death?

That's the question scientists hoped to answer in new research published in The BMJ on May 8.

The study, funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), included 74,563 female registered nurses and 39,501 male health professionals in the United States. At the study's onset, the participants had no history of cancer, cardiovascular diseases, or diabetes.

After analyzing over 30 years of data, including diet assessments, death records, and information on lifestyle factors such as physical activity and smoking status, the team found that high ultra-processed food intake may increase the risk of premature death.

Overall, participants who consumed the highest amount of "junk" food — an average of seven servings per day — had a 4% higher mortality rate from all causes and 9% higher mortality from causes other than cancer or cardiovascular diseases compared to those who ate the least amount of ultra-processed foods.

Moreover, meat, poultry, and seafood-based ready-to-eat products, AKA processed meat, sugar-sweetened and artificially sweetened drinks, dairy-based desserts, and ultra-processed breakfast food had stronger associations with mortality outcomes.

While the scientists found no associations between junk food consumption and cancer or heart-related mortality, they did find links between ultra-processed food intake and death from neurodegenerative conditions like dementia. Dairy-based desserts such as sherbet and frozen yogurt had the strongest links to brain-related mortality.

Moreover, consuming high amounts of ultra-processed food was tied to an increased risk of death from respiratory-related conditions.

Still, overall diet quality had more influence over long-term health and mortality than ultra-processed foods. This means that individuals with a healthier diet were not significantly impacted by junk food consumption.

In addition, participants with higher ultra-processed food intake were more likely to have low intakes of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. They were also more likely to smoke, be physically inactive, and have a higher body mass index (BMI).

"On the basis of our data, limiting total ultra-processed food consumption may not have a substantial influence on premature death, whereas reducing consumption of certain ultra-processed food subgroups (for example, processed meat) can be beneficial," the study's authors wrote.

Are all ultra-processed foods unhealthy?

In an editorial accompanying the study, University of Auckland, New Zealand researchers explain that the risk of mortality from ultra-processed food found in the study was small, and the association between the two faded when overall diet quality was considered.

Moreover, the authors say that according to the Nova classification, foods that fall into the ultra-processed category are diverse and include soft drinks, candy, snack foods, alcoholic beverages, and packaged whole grain bread.

Whole grain bread, which contains fiber, is considered a healthy dietary staple. The authors suggest that policymakers consider the nutritional value of some foods that fall under the junk food category before recommending that all ultra-processed foods are unhealthy and should be avoided.

Interventions such as restricting junk food marketing campaigns targeting children, adding warning labels on highly processed food, and taxing sugar-sweetened beverages may be more effective ways to reduce consumption, the authors say.

"Adding a sweeping statement in dietary guidelines about avoiding ultra-processed foods is not helpful," the researchers wrote. "Our focus should be on advocating for greater global adoption of these and more ambitious interventions and increasing safeguards to prevent policies from being influenced by multinational food companies with vested interests that do not align with public health or environmental goals."

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