People who eat lots of ultra-processed foods are more likely to develop heart disease and to die sooner than those who stick with foods in their original unprocessed form, two large studies have concluded.
Heavily processed foods are often high in sugar, unhealthy fats, sodium and empty calories.
Consuming lots of these foods has previously linked to an increased risk of obesity, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, cancer and depression.
Now, two studies offer fresh evidence of the health risks of ultra-processed foods. One study linked eating more than four daily servings of ultra-processed foods to a 62% higher risk of premature death compared to eating little or none of these foods. The other tied every 10% increase in the share of the diet made up of ultra-processed foods to more than a 10% increased risk of cardiovascular diseases.
Neither study was designed to prove if or how ultra-processed foods cause health problems or early death.
What are ultra-processed foods?
Ultra-processed foods are ones that contain little, if any, whole foods and are typically caloric, fatty, salty and sugary and contain many additives. They’re lacking fibre, antioxidants and vitamins and minerals.
Examples include chicken nuggets, granola bars, ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, frozen waffles, frozen pizza, frozen dinners, potato chips, pretzels, crackers, soft drinks, candy, processed meats and instant noodles. Bread is considered ultra-processed when its ingredient list includes substances not used in homemade baking such as hydrogenated oil, whey, emulsifiers and other additives.
About the studies
The study of ultra-processed foods and mortality surveyed roughly 20,000 people primarily in Spain, ages 20 to 91, about their eating habits every two years from 1999 to 2014. During that period, 335 participants died.
People who ate the most processed foods - averaging more than five servings a day - were also more likely to be obese, smokers, frequent snackers, regular television watchers and to have conditions like cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol and depression.
The study of ultra-processed foods and cardiovascular disease gave an average of six diet surveys to about 105,000 adults in France over two years. Researchers followed the participants for an average of around five years, starting when they were about 43 years old.
During the study, a total of 1,409 first-time cardiovascular disease events like heart attacks and strokes occurred.
Compared to people who consumed the least amount of processed foods, those who ate the most were 12% more likely to have cardiovascular disease, 13% more likely to have coronary heart disease and 11% more likely to have cerebrovascular disease.
The link between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease remained when all lifestyle factors were accounted for. What’s more, the findings were not fully explained by the nutritional quality of ultra-processed foods (e.g., saturated fat, added sugar, sodium or calorie content).
Both studies relied on participants to accurately recall what they ate, which can be unreliable. Another drawback is the potential for many factors that lead people to buy ultra-processed foods like poverty or limited education to independently contribute to heart disease and premature death.
Still, people should try to avoid or limit heavily processed foods.
All research on this web site is the property of Leslie Beck Nutrition Consulting Inc. and is protected by copyright. Keep in mind that research on these matters continues daily and is subject to change. The information presented is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. It is intended to provide ongoing support of your healthy lifestyle practices.