Ultra-processed foods, such as ready meals, chicken nuggets and pizza have been linked to poor health and early deaths, scientists say.
Researchers in France and Spain say the consumption of these highly processed foods has rapidly increased in recent years.
What are ultra-processed foods?
The term ‘ultra-processed’ comes from a way of classifying food by how much industrial processing it has been through.
The lowest category is unprocessed or minimally processed foods, includes fruit, vegetables, milk, meat, legumes such as lentils, seeds, grains such as rice, eggs.
Processed foods have been altered to make them last longer or taste better generally using salt, oil, sugar or fermentation. This category includes cheese, bacon, home-made bread, tinned fruit and vegetables, smoked fish.
Ultra-processed foods, have been through more substantial processing and usually include added preservatives, sweeteners or colour or flavour enhancers. Examples include processed meat such as sausages and hamburgers breakfast cereals or cereal bars, instant soups, sugary fizzy drinks, chicken nuggets, and many ready to meals.
What were the study’s findings?
Both studies were reported in the British Medical Journal in May 2019. The first study, by the University of Navarra, in Spain, followed 19,899 people for a decade and assessed their diet every two years. There were 335 deaths during the study. But for every 10 deaths among those eating the least ultra-processed food, there were 16 deaths among those eating the most.
The second study, by the University of Paris, followed 105,159 people for five years and assessed their diet twice a year. It showed those eating more ultra-processed food had worse heart health. Rates of cardiovascular disease were 277 per 100,000 people per year among those eating the most ultra-processed food, compared with 242 per 100,000 among those eating the least. (Reported in https://nypost.com)
Are these foods harmful to our health?
The evidence from these and other studies is accumulating and this builds on a direct link made with an increased risk of cancer, arising from diets in developed countries, reported in the British Medical Journal in February 2018.
While the studies have identified that there is a clear link between highly processed food and poor health, they have not proved that one causes the other, primarily as people who ate the most ultra-processed food were also found more likely to have other unhealthy behaviours, such as smoking and a generally unhealthy lifestyle.
Why are ultra-processed foods bad?
The first trial of ultra-processed foods showed this diet led people to eat more and put on weight. Researchers at the US National Institutes of Health monitored food that volunteers ate for a month. And when given an ultra-processed food-based diet, study participants over ate and gained weight, consuming around 500 calories a day more than when they were given unprocessed meals. (https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/nih-study-finds-heavily-processed-foods-cause-overeating-weight-gain)
Other suggestions include that people eat more because processed foods are easy to eat as they require no preparation, these types of foods are high in calories but lacking in nutrients and fibre and people eating processed foods tend not to eat healthier foods such as fruit and vegetables.
While the term ultra-processed food may be new, the health advice will be very familiar, we need to adopt a Mediterranean-style diet. Such a diet includes eating unprocessed foods including fresh fish, fruit, vegetables, fish, nuts and seeds, beans, lentils and whole-grains.
The British Heart Foundation recommends this type of diet, along with exercising regularly and not smoking, as being beneficial for lowering risk of heart and circulatory disease.
It’s well known and documented the health hazards of sticking to a diet that is mainly processed. It is important we understand just how much processed food we’re eating and cut down and introduce more fresh foods as part of a healthy diet.