Ultraprocessed foods linked to early death risk: Study

May 9, 2024

A 30-year study found that eating ultraprocessed foods is linked to a higher risk of early death.

The study, published Wednesday in the BMJ journal, examined the eating habits of 115,000 people and found that a higher intake of ultraprocessed foods was associated with a slightly higher mortality risk.

The results varied based on which foods people ate, but meat, poultry and seafood “ready-to-eat” products showed strong associations with mortality.

“Ultra-processed foods, which are typically of low nutritional quality and high energy density, have been dominating the food supply of high income countries, and their consumption is markedly increasing in middle income countries,” the study said.

According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, ultraprocessed foods account for 57 percent of adults’ daily energy intake and 67 percent in youths in the United States.

Ultraprocessed foods have added sugars, sodium, saturated fats, trans fats, refined carbohydrates and add very little fiber. They also may contain harmful substances like additives and contaminants that are added during the foods’ processing, the study said.

The study found that the ultraprocessed food was linked to increased risk of mortality, cardiovascular diseases, metabolic syndrome, depression and postmenopausal breast cancer.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, ultraprocessed foods are “never or rarely used in kitchens” and have additives, like salt, fat and sugar, that make food more appealing.

The study followed people from 1986 to 2018 who had no underlying risks and polled them every two years. It found that people who ate the most ultraprocessed food had a 4 percent higher risk of death.

Meats “consistently” showed strong associations with mortality outcomes, while soda, ice cream and processed breakfast foods also had high association with mortality.

Processed foods like cereal, or whole grain products, were less likely to have as high of risks, because they contain fiber, vitamins and minerals, the lead study author Dr. Mingyang Song, told CNN.

Song said more needs to be examined, like what effects food additives, emulsifies or flavors have on health, before making recommendations to government on food regulation.  

“If people maintain a generally healthy diet, I don’t think they need to be like scared or be freaked out,” he told the outlet. “The overall dietary pattern is still the predominant factor determining the health outcomes.”

Song recommended individuals choose foods with low levels of additives and to remain mindful of the nutritional content of the ultraprocessed foods individuals do choose to eat.