A new study adds to the evidence that a diet high in ultra-processed foods can be unhealthy and perhaps shorten someone’s life. But overall dietary quality had a stronger influence on death outcomes than did ultra-processed food consumption alone. And not all ultra-processed foods carry the same risk.

The international study led by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health finds that the more someone consumes ultra-processed foods, the greater the risk it will impact health and longevity, as the study links it to slightly greater all-cause mortality from causes besides cancer and heart disease.

The findings were published in the British medical journal The BMJ.

The risk differed depending on the subgroups of ultra-processed foods, “with meat/poultry/seafood-based ready-to-eat products showing particularly strong associations with mortality,” the researchers wrote. But the associations also extended to sugar and artificially sweetened beverages, white bread, dairy-based desserts and ultra-processed breakfast foods, per the study.

“The findings provide support for limiting consumption of certain types of ultra-processed food for long-term health. Future studies are warranted to improve the classification of ultra-processed foods and confirm our findings in other populations,” according to the research.

An editorial in the same journal noted that not all ultra-processed foods are equal in terms of health risk. And it said that “recommendations to avoid ultra-processed food may also give the impression that foods that are not ultra-processed are healthy and can be freely consumed. This is problematic.”

The duo writing the editorial, Kathryn E. Bradbury and Sally Mackay, nutrition experts at the University of Aukland, wrote that “our global food system is dominated by packaged foods that often have a poor nutritional profile. This system largely serves the goals of multinational food companies which formulate food products from cheap raw materials into marketable, palatable and shelf-stable food products for profit.”

As The Washington Post explained, “Ultra-processed foods encompass a broad category ranging from cookies, doughnuts and potato chips to hot dogs, white bread and frozen meals. Scientists say what these foods have in common is that they are typically formulations of industrial ingredients that are designed by manufacturers to achieve a certain ‘bliss point,’ which causes us to crave and overeat them. They also tend to be low in nutrients such as fiber, vitamins and minerals.”

Findings and remedies

This isn’t the first study to link high consumption of ultra-processed foods to early death, but it is by far the largest. And the longest look back, as well.

Mingyang Song, lead author of the study and a professor of clinical epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told the Post that the interest in understanding how ultra-processed foods could impact health has grown over time, as has consumption of the products. Song said they now account for more than 60% of daily calories in Americans.

The study, which was observational, included 74,563 female nurses in 11 states who took part in the Nurses’ Health Study from 1984-2018 and 39,501 men from all 50 states who were part of the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, 1986-2018. None of the participants had a history of cancer, heart disease or diabetes at the beginning of their participation in the research.

The study had limitations, starting with the fact that it could not prove cause, just association. “People who consume a lot of ultra-processed foods tend to engage in other unhealthy habits. They eat fewer fruits, vegetables and whole grains, are more likely to smoke and less likely to be physically active. The researchers took these factors into account when they did their analysis, but other variables could have played a role as well,” per the Post.

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Per the editorial, “They also showed that the association between ultra-processed food consumption and mortality was somewhat stronger when distilled alcohol, which is a well-established risk factor for premature mortality, was included in the ultra-processed category and somewhat weaker when packaged wholegrain products were included in the ultra-processed category.”

Whole grains are good for people and even ultra-processed forms can be a healthy choice, according to researchers. “Importantly, the authors also looked at diet quality. They found that for people who had high quality diets (high in fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, as well as healthy fats, and low in sugary drinks, salt, and red and processed meat), there was no clear association between the amount of ultra-processed food they ate and risk of premature death,” as The Conversation reported.

The nutritionists who penned the editorial also noted that some countries have implemented and proven effective “best buys and other interventions to better serve population health. These include the restriction of marketing of unhealthy foods to children and the addition of warning labels on nutritionally poor food products, taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages and bans on partially hydrogenated oils that are a source of industrial trans fat. Our focus should be on advocating for greater global adoption of these and more ambitious interventions and increasing safeguards to prevent policies from being influenced by multinational food companies with vested interests that do not align with public health or environmental goals.”

Other studies

A mega analysis of ultra-processed food in BMJ in March cites many health issue associations, as Deseret News reported: “The list of potential harms, prepared by an international team of researchers from Australia, France, Ireland and the United States, includes ‘32 health parameters spanning mortality, cancer and mental, respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and metabolic health outcomes.’”

Those researchers cited what they call “convincing evidence” that ultra-processed food consumption is directly linked to all-cause and cardiovascular-related death, Type 2 diabetes, being overweight or having obesity, as well as anxiety and certain mental health challenges. They called for more research to clarify possible links with some cancers and certain heart-health risks.

Studies in Italy and the U.S. in 2022 found more reasons to prepare your meals with whole foods that are in as natural a state as possible, as Deseret News separately reported.

The studies said men are at greater risk of colon cancer while consumption by either gender of a lot of ultra-processed food increased risk of heart disease.

“Literally hundreds of studies link ultra-processed foods to obesity, cancer, cardiovascular disease and overall mortality,” Marion Nestle, author of books on food politics and marketing, as well as a professor emerita of nutrition and food studies at New York University, told CNN.