Scientists from Spain found eating ultra-processed foods is linked to a higher death risk in the general population.
They also found that replacing these unhealthy foods with unprocessed or minimally processed foods may decrease death risk.
The research is published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings and was conducted by Ruth Blanco-Rojo et al.
Ultra-processed foods go through multiple processes (extrusion, molding, milling, etc.), contain many added ingredients, and are highly manipulated.
Examples are soft drinks, chips, chocolate, candy, ice cream, sweetened breakfast cereals, packaged soups, chicken nuggets, hotdogs, fries, and more.
These foods have been strongly changed from their original state, with salt, sugar, fat, additives, preservatives, and/or artificial colors added.
Ultra-processed foods do not contain enough of the beneficial nutrients that the body requires. The more ultra-processed foods we eat, the poorer the overall nutritional quality of our diet.
In the study, the team aimed to test the link between eating ultra-processed food and death risk in the general population.
They analyzed data from 11,898 middle-aged people in Spain. The dietary information of these people was collected through a computer-based dietary history.
The team categorized the food information according to its degree of processing.
During the 8 years follow-up period, the team found the average consumption of ultra-processed foods was 385 g/d (one-quarter of the total energy intake).
A total of 440 deaths occurred. Eating ultra-processed foods was linked to higher death risk.
In addition, replacing ultra-processed food with unprocessed or minimally processed foods was linked to a big decrease in death risk.
The team concluded that eating more ultra-processed food was linked to a higher death risk in the general population.
So how ultra-processed food consumption can increase death risk?
The team says there are several possibilities.
First, ultra-processed foods have a high-energy density that is less satiating and easy to get. This may lead to overeating, which has been linked to death.
Second, ultra-processed foods contain a lot of saturated fatty acids, trans fatty acids, hydrogenated oils, starches, free sugars, and salt, plus food additives.
Many studies have found harmful effects of some of these nutritional compounds.
Finally, eating ultra-processed foods is also linked to a poorer diet quality (with less consumption of fiber, fruit, and vegetables) and an unhealthy lifestyle, all contributing to higher death risk.
The team says if confirmed in future studies, the findings may help develop new nutritional policies and guides at the national and international levels to reduce the death risk.
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