Ultra-processed foods are harming your health

A new study from French researchers has shown that diets comprising of “ultra-processed” foods are raising the risk of an early death. Ultra processed food is defined as food that is manufactured by multiple industrial processes and taken as snacks, ready-to-eat or heat meals or desserts.

Chicken nuggets, Image Credit: AS Food studio / Shutterstock
Chicken nuggets, and ultra-processed food. Image Credit: AS Food studio / Shutterstock

This includes burgers, soft drinks, chips, chocolate, candy, ice-cream, sweetened breakfast cereals, packaged soups, chicken nuggets, hotdogs, fries and more. The results of the study were published in the latest issue of the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

For this study Laure Schnabel, MD, Emmanuelle Kesse-Guyot and Benjamin Allès of Paris-Sorbonne University looked at a population of 44,551 men and women who were aged over 45 years. Their diet and health status was followed for a period of seven years up to 15th December 2017. These participants were part of the French NutriNet-Santé Study. This is a Web-based nutritional study across the nation started in May 2009. Of the participants 73.1 percent were females and the average age of all the participants at the commencement of the study was 57 years. The participants were sent online web questionnaires of 24 questions to be filled in by the participants every 6 months of the follow up period. The participants had to substantiate their reports with photographs of the portion sizes they were consuming throughout the day. Results showed that for each 10 percent increase in consumption of ultra-processed food, there was a 14 percent increased risk of dying early due to any cause.

The team encountered 602 deaths during the follow up of the participants and of these 219 deaths were due to cancer and 34 were due to heart disease or coronary artery disease. Dr Laure Schnabe and colleagues stated, “An increase in ultra-processed foods consumption appears to be associated with an overall higher mortality risk among this adult population.” They noted that 29 percent of the calorie intake by the participants came from these ultra processed foods an 14.1 percent of the total weight of the food consumed was ultra-processed.

The team noted that people who were younger, had poorer education and were living alone were more likely to weigh more than others. They tended to have low physical activity and a more sedentary lifestyle as well. The researchers explain that the slat and refined sugar content of these processed foods are high. The high sodium in the foods is linked to stomach cancer and heart disease they write. The refined sugar content is linked to diabetes, metabolic syndrome and heart disease, they add. Further the fibre content of these foods is low and that is further detrimental to health.

The team writes, “Findings from this prospective study of a large French cohort suggest for the first time, to our knowledge, that an increased proportion of ultraprocessed foods in the diet is associated with a higher risk of overall mortality.” They explain that people choose these foods due to their cheaper costs, ease of preparation and consumption and longer shelf lives. They write that manufacturers are aggressively marketing these foods and they are prominently displayed at supermarkets.

The authors conclude, “Further studies are needed to confirm those results in different populations and to disentangle the various mechanisms by which ultraprocessed foods may affect health, including both their nutritional features and their food processing–related characteristics.” “Ultraprocessed foods consumption has largely increased during the past several decades and may drive a growing burden of noncommunicable disease deaths,” they sign off.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

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Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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