Some Ultraprocessed Foods Are Worse Than Others

Ice cream, processed meat show strong association with mortality risk
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted May 9, 2024 9:45 AM CDT
Ultraprocessed Foods Linked to Early Death
This undated photo shows an "ultraprocessed" lunch, including brand-name macaroni and cheese, chicken tenders, canned green beans, and diet lemonade.   (Paule Joseph, Shavonne Pocock/NIH via AP)

A diet high in ultraprocessed foods has been linked to cancer, weight gain, and now early death. A new 30-year study of 115,000 people found those who consumed the most ultraprocessed foods (UPFs)—including frozen meals, processed meat like hot dogs, potato chips, sugary breakfast cereals, and artificially sweetened beverages—had a slightly higher risk of early death than those who consumed the least. Researchers found no increased risk of cancer or cardiovascular disease. But participants who consumed an average of seven or more daily servings of UPFs had 4% higher risk of "total deaths" than those who consumed three servings per day on average, and a 9% higher risk of "other deaths," including an 8% higher risk of death from neurodegenerative diseases, per Global News.

"The association is quite linear. The higher intake of ultraprocessed foods, the higher mortality," says Harvard researcher Dr. Mingyang Song, lead author of the study published Wednesday in the British Medical Journal. These foods are usually highly manipulated and contain preservatives, emulsifiers, sweeteners, and other additives, but little to no fiber, vitamins, or minerals. They also "account for more than 60% of daily calories in Americans," Song tells the Washington Post. But some ultraprocessed foods are better than others. Packaged whole-grain bread might be beneficial, according to an editorial accompanying the study. White bread, processed meats, potato chips, ice cream and sweetened beverages, on the other hand, have a strong association with higher mortality.

Previous studies have linked UPFs to various health risks, including early death. But some of these were based on small sample sizes tracked over relatively short periods. This study tracked 75,000 female registered nurses from 11 states from 1984 to 2018 and 40,000 male doctors and health professionals from all 50 states from 1986 to 2018, recording data on their health, lifestyle, and eating habits. The observational study doesn't make conclusions about cause and effect, and researchers note people who consume high amounts of UPFs often have other unhealthy habits. But the takeaway is that certain types of UPFs should be restricted. "If a person consumes a generally healthy diet and has some amount of ultraprocessed food, [that] wouldn't be too terrible," Song says, per Global News. (More processed foods stories.)

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