Ultra-processed Foods Linked to Health Problems and Early Death

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Feb. 29, 2024 -- People who eat ultra-processed foods are more likely to develop dozens of health issues or even die early, says a new review of studies involving millions of participants.

Ultra-processed foods include packaged snacks, carbonated soft drinks, instant noodles, and ready-made meals. “These products are characterised as industrial formulations primarily composed of chemically modified substances extracted from foods, along with additives to enhance taste, texture, appearance, and durability, with minimal to no inclusion of whole foods,” study authors noted. 

The review included 45 studies involving almost 10 million people. Researchers looked at the impact eating or drinking ultra-processed foods had on mortality, cancer, and mental, respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and metabolic health.

“This umbrella review found consistent evidence of a higher risk of adverse health outcomes associated with greater ultra-processed food exposure,” the authors wrote in The BMJ.

According to the research study, there were direct associations between a higher intake of ultra-processed foods and a greater risk of dying early, deaths from heart disease, common mental disorder outcomes, overweight or obesity, and Type 2 diabetes. 

Ultra-processed foods were also linked with higher risk of asthma, gastrointestinal issues, some cancers, and more. 

“Greater exposure to ultra-processed foods, whether measured as higher versus lower consumption, additional servings per day, or a 10% increment, was consistently associated with a higher risk of adverse health outcomes (71% of outcomes),” the review says.

Researchers told CNN they found “consistent evidence linking higher intakes” of such foods with more than 70% of 45 health outcomes assessed. 

For example, “Strong evidence shows that a higher intake of ultra-processed foods was associated with approximately 50% higher risk of cardiovascular disease-related death and common mental disorders,” said lead author Melissa Lane, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Food & Mood Centre at Deakin University in Geelong, Australia.

The study reported evidence that a high intake of ultra-processed food could increase anxiety by 53% and the risk of early death from any cause by 20%.