How bad are processed foods for health?

Previous research has suggested that consuming high levels of ultra-processed foods, such as packaged snacks and soda, could harm health. Two new studies confirm this notion and provide more evidence of the associated cardiovascular and all-cause mortality risks.

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Numerous studies have linked a high consumption of ultra-processed foods with a raised risk of chronic conditions. Cancer, type 2 diabetes, celiac disease, and multiple sclerosis are just a few of the outcomes associated with consuming processed foods.

Some studies have also suggested that consuming processed meat may raise the risk of premature death. Now, two studies appearing in the BMJ strengthen the idea that processed foods may be harmful to one’s health. One study focused on the risk of adverse cardiovascular events, while the other examined the risk of all-cause mortality.

The Cardiovascular Risks of Processed Food

Bernard Srour, from the Epidemiology and Statistics Research Center at Sorbonne Paris Cité in France, is the lead author of the first study. Srour and colleagues examined the links between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and the risk of cardiovascular conditions.

The researchers looked at data on 105,159 adults who had enrolled in the NutriNet-Santé study, which is one of the largest worldwide studies of nutrition and health. The participants were 43 years old, on average, and mostly women (79%). They completed six questionnaires that examined their dietary patterns over a 24-hour period, choosing foods from a list of 3,300 items.

Read more: Heart Disease Risk Eased by Healthy Habits

Recent research looked into the reward response that processed foods trigger in the brain. The team classified the foods according to their “degree of processing.” Srour and colleagues define ultra-processed foods as those containing many ingredients that manufacturers exclusively use for industrial purposes but that consumers perceive as “safe, convenient, and highly palatable.”

Ultra-processed foods “often have a higher content of total fat, saturated fat, added sugar, energy density, and salt, along with a lower fiber and vitamin density,” the study authors explain. Baked goods, snacks, sugary soft drinks, ready meals with food additives, and dehydrated vegetable soups are some examples of ultra-processed foods.

Read more: One cigarette a day exhibits high heart attack risk

In the study, Srour and team clinically followed the participants for a decade, between 2009 and 2018. The findings revealed that for every 10% increase in the amount of ultra-processed foods the participants consumed, the risk of:

By contrast, those who consumed minimally processed or unprocessed foods were at a lower risk of developing these cardiovascular diseases. The scientists calculated the cardiovascular risk in relative terms, meaning that they compared the cardiovascular risk of those who consumed more processed foods with that of those who consumed less.

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