Grocery store shelves are increasingly flooded with foods produced by extensive industrial processing, foods that are generally low in nutrients, high in sugar, oil and salt and easily overconsumed.
Their convenience, intensely palatable taste, and relatively low cost make ultra-processed foods very appealing.
Now, a new study from Italy, adds to mounting evidence that these foods are harmful to health.
About the study
Conducted in over 22,000 participants of the Moli-sani Project, the researchers analyzed eating habits and followed their health outcomes for over eight years.
The Moli-sani Study involves about 25,000 citizens living in the Molise region of Italy. Its aim is to learn about environmental and genetic factors underlying cardiovascular disease, cancer and degenerative disorders. The research project has transformed an entire Italian region into a large research lab.
Assessing ultra-processed food intake
To evaluate eating habits, the researcher used the international NOVA classification, which characterizes foods on the basis of how much they undergo extraction, purification or alteration. Those with the highest level of industrial processing fall into the category of ultra-processed foods.
“Industrial” foods can include chicken nuggets, chicken strips, cereal bars, granola bars, fruit leather, breakfast cereals, frozen waffles, cookies, potato chips, pretzels, crackers, soft drinks, candy, processed meats, frozen dinners, instant noodles, frozen pizza and more.
Health risks, harmful components
The researchers found that participants who consumed a high amount of ultra-processed foods had an 26% increased risk of death from any cause, and a 58% higher risk of early death from cardiovascular disease.
The main harmful culprit could be sugar, which in ultra-processed foods is added in substantial amount. The study found that excess sugar did play a role, but it accounted only for 40% of the increased death risk.
The researchers feel the answer may be more complex.
Industrial processing itself may be partly to blame by causing deep modifications in the structure and composition of nutrients.
Young people in particular are increasingly exposed to pre-packaged foods, easy to prepare and consume, extremely attractive and generally cheap.
This study, and others, emphasize that fresh and minimally processed foods are paramount in a healthy diet.
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.