Study: Ultra-processed foods correlated with premature deaths
A correlation between ultra-processed food consumption and premature death was found among a Brazilian population in a recent nutrition study.
Evidence suggests that consuming too much highly processed food can have biological effects that stretch beyond obesity and cholesterol.
According to a study published by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine on Monday, in 2019, the deaths of around 57,000 Brazilian people between the ages of 30 and 69 were attributed to the consumption of ultra-processed food. Over 10% of the premature deaths in that age group were attributed to consuming foods such as hot dogs, chips, soda, and ice cream.
This marks the first study to estimate the effects of ultra-processed food on the risk of early death.
Applying a calculative model against a Brazilian population, the authors estimated the number of premature deaths which may have been prevented if people between the ages of 30 and 69 had eaten less processed foods. The study was conducted for the reason that the WHO attributes death from noncommunicable diseases to be premature in that age group.
The lead author in the study, Eduardo Nilson, who is a nutrition researcher at the University of Sao Paulo, said he believes "it is very likely that heart disease is among the main factors" contributing to these premature deaths. Diabetes, cancer, obesity, and chronic kidney disease may play a role as well, he said.
Ultra-processed foods are those that contain more artificial ingredients than those that just have added salt, sugar, or oil, in addition to containing very few whole ingredients. They contain flavorings, colors, and other additives. In addition to chips, ice cream, and other previously mentioned foods, instant noodles, frozen pizza and store-bought cookies are also ultra-processed foods. They can be easily spotted by their hideously long list of ingredients that you wouldn’t normally find in your kitchen.
Particularly in Brazil, ultra-processed foods contributing to large intakes of calories are mass-produced breads, cakes and pies, margarine, salted crackers, cookies, ham, hotdogs, hamburgers, pizza, and sugary drinks.
Read next: Artificial sweeteners linked to cancer: Study
US is even more at risk
Nilson et al., the study's authors, predict that if all Brazilian adults ensured that ultra-processed foods made up less than 23% of their daily intake, the country would witness 20,000 fewer premature deaths per year. Although most Brazilians are below this threshold already, 25% of the country’s adult population gets more than 50% of its daily calories from the harmful foods.
The US is even more at risk, compared: Ultra-processed foods make up around 57% of daily calories on average. Nilson predicts even more premature deaths in the US within this age group.
Although the study did not project that ultra-processed foods offer a direct cause of premature deaths, it did put forward a correlation. Previous studies have proposed that ultra-processed foods are correlated with negative health effects such as diabetes, cognitive decline, heart disease, and cancer.
"It’s likely that these ultra-processed foods are just one factor that’s leading to things like hypertension, poor blood lipids, higher waist circumferences, and that’s actually how they’re linked to mortality," said Maura Walker, an assistant professor of nutrition at Boston University.
A good alternative would be swapping ultra-processed foods for fresh fruits and vegetables.
Read next: New study finds yet another health benefit of drinking coffee