Nov. 7, 2022 -- A new study of how highly processed foods affect health found that eating foods like ice cream, hotdogs, and sodas contributed to about 57,000 premature deaths in Brazil in 2019.

That was about 10% of the Brazilian premature deaths in people aged 30 to 69 that year, said the study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Eating ultra-processed foods (UPFs) ranged from 13% to 21% of total food intake in the 30 to 69 age group included in the study, according to a news release about the study.

“Consumption of UPFs is associated with many disease outcomes, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some cancers, and other diseases, and it represents a significant cause of preventable and premature deaths among Brazilian adults,” lead investigator Eduardo A.F. Nilson of the Center for Epidemiological Research in Nutrition and Health, University of São Paulo, and Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, Brazil, said in the release.

Many nations have even higher consumption of UPFs. 

“The investigators suggested that in high-income countries such as the United States, Canada, the U.K., and Australia, where UPFs account for more than half of total caloric intake, the estimated impact would be even higher,” the news release said.

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported in 2021 that about 57% of calories consumed in the U.S. come from ultra-processed foods. 

The study in Brazil modeled data from national dietary surveys to estimate how much UPFs were consumed by different groups defined by age and sex in Brazil, the release said. Researchers extrapolated the number of premature deaths that might have been avoided if different groups had cut their intake of UPFs by 10%, 20%, and 50%.

Simply cutting down on processed foods could reduce the death rate in Brazil and many other nations, the researchers said.

“Even reducing consumption of UPFs to the levels of just a decade ago would reduce associated premature deaths by 21%. Policies that disincentivize the consumption of UPFs are urgently needed,” Nilson said.

Maura Walker, PhD, assistant professor of nutrition at Boston University, who wasn't involved in the study, told NBC News that the research did not directly connect premature deaths to UPFs. 

"It's likely that these ultra-processed foods are just one factor that's leading to things like hypertension, poor blood lipids, higher waist circumferences, and that's actually how they're linked to mortality," she said.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Eureka Alert: “Ultraprocessed foods linked to premature deaths."

American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: “Ultra-processed food consumption among US adults from 2001 to 2018." 

NBC News: “Highly processed foods are linked to early death, a new study finds."

Maura Walker, PhD, assistant professor of nutrition, Boston University.

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