“Ultra-processed” describes many foods, including pre-prepared dishes found in grocery store freezers, packaged baked goods, dehydrated soups, ice cream, sugary cereals and fizzy beverages.
Two separate studies published Wednesday in The BMJ link eating the popular factory-made fare with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and an increased risk of early death.
While a direct cause-effect relationship has yet to be established, the researchers of both studies note that previous studies have associated highly processed food consumption with higher risks of obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and even some cancers.
“Ultraprocessed foods already make up more than half of the total dietary energy consumed in high-income countries such as USA, Canada and the UK,” Maira Bes-Rastrollo, senior author of one study and a professor of preventive medicine and public health at the Universidad de Navarra, told CNN in an email. “In the case of Spain, consumption of ultraprocessed food almost tripled between 1990 and 2010.”
Researchers gathered data from close to 20,000 participants in the Seguimiento Universidad de Navarra (SUN) project, which monitors university graduate volunteers, ages 20 to 91 years old, every two years through questionnaires.
Using a 136-item food frequency questionnaire, the researchers evaluated each participant’s diet at the start of the study in 1999 and then reassessed it throughout the research period ending in 2014.
The routine surveys measured how frequently people ate food in the four food categories defined by the NOVA classification system
, which looks at how foods are made and not just nutrients.
The “unprocessed or minimally processed” food category included fruits, vegetables, legumes, milk, eggs, meats, poultry, fish and seafood, yogurt, grains (white rice and pasta) and natural juice.
Salt, sugar, honey, olive oil, butter and lard were listed in the category of “processed ingredients,” while “processed foods” included cheeses, breads, beer, wine, cured traditional ham and bacon.
The final category encompassed ultraprocessed foods such as flan, chorizo, sausages, mayonnaise, potato chips, pizza, cookies, chocolates and candies, artificially sweetened beverages and whisky, gin and rum.
Generally, products in this category are rich in poor quality fat, added sugar and salt, along with low vitamin density and fiber content, and they “are economically profitable (low cost ingredients), very palatable and convenient,” said Bes-Rastrollo.
“They have attractive packaging and intense marketing.” Worst of all, she explained, they are replacing unprocessed or minimally processed foods and freshly prepared meals in our diets.
Bes-Rastrollo and her colleagues also collected information on lifestyle, demographic factors, physical activity, weight and health from the study participants.
Analyzing the data, the team 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
Bes-Rastrollo said these “results are in agreement with other recent results” based on populations in France and the United States. If all the different study results align, despite the separate research groups using dissimilar populations, diverse age ranges and different methodologies, then this lends “support” to a possible cause-effect relationship between ultraprocessed foods and poor health, she added.
In France, the web-based NutriNet-Santé project
, which focuses on nutrition and health, provided data for a new study
of the potential effects of industrial foods. More than 105,000 people (average age 43 at the start of the study and 79% women) participated.
These adult volunteers completed five questionnaires related to health, lifestyle factors and diet at the start of the study. They were also invited to share their 24-hour dietary records every six months.
For the analysis, the researchers first categorized participants’ reported food and beverage into the four NOVA food groups and then averaged each person’s dietary intakes.