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A​ new study adds to a growing body of research showing that ultra-processed foods can lead to premature, preventable death. Monty Rakusen/Getty Images
  • Dietary patterns can have an immense impact on health outcomes.
  • Ultra-processed foods that go through large amounts of processing can lose nutritional value and contain unhealthy elements.
  • A​ new study adds to a growing body of research showing that ultra-processed food consumption may cause premature, preventable death.

People require nutrients to survive, but not all foods are the same or provide the same nutritional value.

Highly processed foods are a more prevalent part of diets in recent decades, and researchers are still working to understand the full impact of these dietary shifts.

A​ recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine studied how the intake of ultra-processed foods was associated with premature, preventable death.

Researchers found that ultra-processed food consumption may be the attributable cause of death in a significant percentage of deaths in the Brazillian population.

The findings demonstrate the importance of reducing the intake of ultra-processed foods to minimize health risks.

Many foods go through a certain amount of processing so that they don’t spoil.

Kimberly Gomer, MS, LDN, a registered dietitian and nutrition expert, not involved in the study, explained a few of the basics of processed foods to Medical News Today:

“Processing takes a food in its natural (home-grown) state and changes it by adding salt, sugar, oil, and additives like chemicals, colors, flavorings, stabilizers, and preservatives. That’s why they have an extremely long shelf life which is attractive to both people and industry.

Ultra-processed foods, however, go through vigorous processing. A few examples of ultra-processed foods include:

  • sodas
  • sweet or savory packaged snacks like chips or cookies
  • energy bars and energy drinks
  • instant soups and other ready-to-heat products like pizza or chicken nuggets

“Most of these foods have a long list of ingredients found on the ingredient list of the food label,” Gomer said. “These foods include — but are not limited to — frozen meals, cakes, cookies, fast food, packaged foods, and snacks.”

The full health implications of ultra-processed food intake are still being studied.

Some research indicates that eating processed foods decreases diet quality and increases the risk for health problems like high blood pressure (hypertension), obesity, and heart disease.

The new study looked at the number of deaths in the Brazillian population and their relationship to the intake of ultra-processed foods.

First, researchers looked at national food consumption in Brazil from 2017 to 2018. They then looked at this information in light of data on demographics and mortality from 2019.

Depending on age demographics, Brazilians were getting between 13 and 21% of their total energy intake from ultra-processed foods. Researchers looked at the 541,160 people between the ages of 30 and 69 that died in 2019.

Their analysis shows that consuming ultra-processed foods was responsible for 10.5% of all premature deaths in this age demographic.

Researchers further noted that ultra-processed food intake was responsible for 21.8% of all preventable deaths from non-communicable diseases.

Study author Eduardo A.F. Nilson, ScD, a researcher at the Center for Epidemiological Research in Nutrition and Health, University of São Paulo, and Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, Brazil, noted the following highlights of the research to MNT:

“It is the first study that has actually modeled the overall impact of UPF [ultra-processed food] intake on deaths that we are aware of. The results are significant firstly because the attributable deaths represent a huge burden in terms of premature deaths from all causes (57 thousand deaths represent 21.8% of the premature deaths from preventable non-communicable diseases in Brazil). Additionally, if UPF intake was kept at the levels we had a decade ago, 21% of the attributable deaths could be prevented.”

Based on this information, researchers estimated that cutting down energy intake from ultra-processed foods by 10-50% of current amounts could greatly help reduce these mortality rates.

“Clinically, the results confirm a change in the paradigm of dietary recommendations toward preventing and treating non-communicable diseases and to promoting healthy diets in general,” Dr. Nilson said.

The study adds to a growing body of evidence about the dangers of ultra-processed foods — but it does have some limitations that also need to be addressed.

First, experts cannot perfectly determine the number of deaths caused by ultra-processed foods.

The model and analysis had certain limitations, such as the risk of confounding and the inability to account for every factor.

Researchers also acknowledge that there is a risk for reverse causation. This was also data gathered from one country, meaning that the outcomes might be slightly different in other countries, for better or worse.

Eduardo Nilson noted that they could work to apply the data they collected in other areas and other countries:

“We look forward to estimating the impact of UPF in other countries, modeling the impacts of different policies and interventions (dietary counseling, UPF taxation, front-of-package labeling, regulation of food publicity, etc.), developing models for specific health outcomes (such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, obesity), incorporating health economic analyses to the models and improving the models to forecast the impacts of policy interventions.”

It’s unknown how exactly changes to food policies and recommendations at national and international levels could affect the health of entire populations.

In the meantime, people can work with their doctors and nutrition specialists to cut down on personal consumption of ultra-processed foods as appropriate.

“Start by reducing (eventually eliminating) sodas, chips, cookies, fried foods, and junk,” Gomer said.

“Replacing junk food with whole foods is key. [Sit] down to meals instead of eating on the run and make the time and effort to prepare healthy food at home. Challenge yourself to small changes. Replace a few unhealthy foods with healthy ones.”