These ultra-processed foods could shorten your life, study says

BETHESDA, Maryland — Eating more ultra-processed foods may shorten your lifespan by more than 10 percent, according to a new, unpublished study of more than 500,000 people that researchers followed for nearly three decades.

After the data were adjusted, the risk rose to 15% for men and 14% for women, said lead researcher Erikka Loftfield, a researcher at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland.

When asked about their consumption of 124 foods, people in the top 90th percentile of ultra-processed food consumption ranked overly processed beverages at the top of their list.

“Diet sodas were the biggest contributor to ultra-processed food consumption. The second was sugary sodas,” Loftfield said. “Beverages are a very important part of the diet and the contributor to ultra-processed food.”

The study found that refined grains, such as ultra-processed bread and bakery products, ranked second in popularity.

“This is a large, long-term cohort study that confirms the association between UPF (ultra-processed food) intake and all-cause mortality, particularly cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes,” Carlos Monteiro, a professor emeritus of nutrition and public health at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, said in an email.

Monteiro coined the term ultraprocessed food and created the NOVA food classification system, which looks beyond nutrients to how food is made. Monteiro was not involved in the research, but several members of the NOVA classification system were co-authors.

The NOVA classification system sorts foods from minimally processed — whole foods like fruits and vegetables — to processed foods like meats and sausages — to ultra-processed. Ultra-processed foods include ingredients “that are never or rarely used in cooking, or classes of additives whose function is to make the final product more palatable or appealing,” according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

The list of additives includes preservatives to inhibit mold and bacteria; emulsifiers to prevent incompatible ingredients from separating; artificial colors and dyes; anti-foaming, fillers, bleaching, gelling and glazing agents; and added or modified sugar, salt and fats to make food more palatable.

Health risks associated with processed meat and soft drinks

The preliminary study, presented Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition in Chicago, analyzed dietary data collected in 1995 from nearly 541,000 Americans ages 50 to 71 who participated in the U.S. National Institutes of Health-AARP Diet and Health Study.

Researchers linked the dietary data to death rates over the next 20 to 30 years. Compared with the bottom 10 percent of ultra-processed food consumers, people who ate the most processed foods were more likely to die from heart disease or diabetes, the study found. However, unlike other studies, researchers found no increase in cancer-related deaths.

Some ultra-processed foods carried a greater risk than others, Loftfield said: “Highly processed meats and soft drinks were some of the subgroups of ultra-processed foods most strongly associated with mortality risk.”

Diet drinks are considered ultra-processed foods because they contain artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, acesulfame potassium, and stevia, and additional additives not found in whole foods. Diet drinks have been linked to a higher risk of premature death from heart disease and the onset of dementia, type 2 diabetes, obesity, stroke, and metabolic syndrome, which can lead to heart disease and diabetes.

‘The best possible decision’

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans already recommend limiting sugary drinks, which have been linked to premature death and the development of chronic diseases. A March 2019 study found that women who drank more than two servings of sugary drinks per day — defined as a standard glass, bottle or can — had a 63 percent higher risk of premature death compared with women who drank them less than once a month. Men who did the same had a 29 percent higher risk.

Processed meats such as bacon, hot dogs, sausages, ham, corned beef, jerky and deli meats are also discouraged. Studies have shown that red and processed meats are linked to colon and stomach cancer, heart disease, diabetes and premature death from all causes.

“The evidence from this new study suggests that processed meat is one of the unhealthiest foods, but people don’t consider ham or chicken nuggets to be UPF (ultraprocessed foods),” Rosie Green, a professor of environment, nutrition and health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said in a statement. She was not involved in the study.

The study found that people who ate the most ultra-processed foods were younger, heavier, and had a poorer quality diet overall than those who ate less ultra-processed foods. However, the increased health risk could not be explained by these differences, because even people of normal weight and better diets also had some risk of early death from ultra-processed foods, the study found.

According to Loftfield, choosing more minimally processed foods is one way to limit ultra-processed foods in your diet.

“We really should be focusing on eating diets that are rich in whole foods,” she said. “And if the food is ultra-processed, look at the amount of sodium and added sugars and try to make the best decision you can based on the nutrition facts label.”

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