Ultra-processed foods linked to increased risk of mortality, new study reveals

In a new study published in the British Medical Journal, researchers have uncovered a concerning connection between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and an increased risk of death. The study, conducted by a team of researchers from the Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University and other institutions, analyzed data from two large population studies – the Nurses' Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study – spanning over three decades.    

The study involved nearly 75 000 female nurses from 11 US states and about 40 000 male healthcare professionals from all 50 states, all of whom were in good health at the beginning of the investigation. Every four years, participants were asked to complete detailed questionnaires about their eating habits, and their health conditions were closely monitored every two years. As a result, more than 30 000 deaths of women and 18 000 deaths of men were documented during the 34 and 31 years of follow-up.    

The researchers discovered that individuals in the highest quartile of ultra-processed food consumption, consuming an average of seven servings per day, had a 4% higher risk of death from any cause compared to those in the lowest quartile, who consumed an average of three servings per day. Furthermore, the study revealed a 9% increased risk of dying from causes other than cancer or cardiovascular diseases, and an 8% higher risk of dying from neurodegenerative diseases.    

The researchers also identified specific types of ultra-processed foods that posed the greatest risk. Ready-to-eat meals containing beef, chicken, or fish were found to be the most detrimental, followed by sugary drinks, dairy-based desserts, and ultra-processed breakfast products.    

However, the researchers caution that the definition of "ultra-processed" foods is not without debate. While the current classification system represents the best available, some argue that it may be too broad, potentially penalizing certain processed foods that are not necessarily unhealthy. The study's authors emphasize the need for further research to refine the classification and better understand the precise mechanisms by which different types of ultra-processed foods impact health outcomes.    

Despite these nuances, the study's findings provide a clear call to action. This research reinforces the importance of reducing our consumption of ultra-processed foods, especially those that are high in added sugars, unhealthy fats, and other additives. As the scientific community continues to grapple with the complex relationship between diet and health, promoting healthier eating habits and policies that discourage the consumption of these foods should be a top priority for public health authorities.