A pair of studies published this week reveal the significant damage caused by these popular food products.
It seems logical that ultra-processed foods are less nutritious than less processed ones, but now there's some solid scientific evidence that back that up. Two European studies, both published in the British Medical Journal this week, show how diets high in ultra-processed foods put people at higher risk of disease and death.
Ultra-processed foods undergo a significant amount of processing to reach their final state. Typically they contain high amounts of poor-quality fats, added salt and sugar, low vitamin and fiber content, and tend to be "very palatable and convenient." These would be products such as potato chips, pizza, cookies, chocolate and candy, ice cream, frozen prepared meals, mayonnaise, deli meats, and many more.The first (and perhaps most alarming) study took place in Spain, with 20,000 participants between the ages of 20 and 91 whose dietary habits were followed from 1999 till 2014. Every two years, participants completed lengthy questionnaires that revealed how they ate. The researchers found that
"a higher consumption of heavily processed foods – more than four servings each day – was associated with a 62% increased risk for early death due to any cause relative to those who ate these foods less frequently. And, each additional serving of the factory-made fare increased that relative risk by 18%, the new study indicated."
The second study was conducted in France and involved more than 105,000 participants. Their diets were followed for five years with twice-yearly updates provided. The researchers found that those eating more ultra-processed foods had worse heart health. From the BBC's report:
"Rates of cardiovascular disease were 277 per 100,000 people per year among those eating the most ultra-processed food, compared with 242 per 100,000 among those eating the least."
The difference isn't huge, but it's enough to "justify abstaining from high-processed snacks," as study author Mathilde Touvier said.
While none of the evidence is conclusive, it is piling up. Ultra-processed foods were linked to cancer last year, as well as tendency to overeat, which contributes to obesity, and potentially disrupting gut microflora. There are concerns that these foods, while being energy-dense, lack nutritional value and end up replacing less-processed options. It's quite obvious that they do not belong in a healthy, well-balanced diet – or at least not in the quantities that they're currently consumed.