Eating more ultra-processed food has been found to increase a person’s risk of dying early, three studies have now found.
The first, published in February 2019, revealed upping these foods by 10% in your diet is associated with a 14% higher risk of early death.
Meanwhile, two large European studies published by The BMJ today reveal a link between consumption of ultra-processed foods and a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and early death.
The results are clear and perhaps unsurprising: ultra-processed food eaten in large quantities isn’t great for health. But what constitutes an ultra-processed food? And how does it differ from processed food?
Ultra-processed foods are defined on a scale called the NOVA scale, explains registered nutritionist Charlotte Sterling-Reed, of SR Nutrition. These are not simply ‘modified foods’ – like frozen or tinned products – but foods that have undergone multiple processes which result “in little, if any, intact whole foods being present”.
Some examples include:
:: Soft drinks
:: Packaged snacks (biscuits, pretzels, crisps, popcorn, etc.)
:: Ready meals.
These ultra-processed foods often contain additives and ingredients such as hydrogenated or interesterified oils, where the oil has been modified to make it more suitable for deep frying or making margarine that’s flavoursome and has a low saturated fat content.
It’s thought they account for around 25-60% of daily energy intake in many countries.
Processed foods, on the other hand, include fruits and vegetables or fish which is bottled or tinned in salt or syrup, as well as cheeses and breads, Sterling-Reed explains.
So what can we take away from the research? As always, it’s a matter of eating things in moderation. “Most of us know that we should be eating a balanced diet and trying to do things such as cook from scratch, eat more fruits and vegetables whenever possible, as well as reducing intakes of processed (specifically ultra-processed) foods,” says Stirling-Reed.
Ultimately, she says, these studies confirm what is currently recommended for people wanting to live a healthy lifestyle – “we need to have a balanced diet and choose minimally processed foods as much as possible”. She adds that we also need to remember that all processed foods aren’t necessarily ‘bad’ for health and so you shouldn’t treat them all like the devil. “It’s all about balance and context when it comes to what we eat and how it affects our health.”