Ultra-processed foods may increase risk of death by 10%

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Ultra-processed foods such as hot dogs, sausages, and deli meats are linked to a higher risk of mortality. Howard Kingsnorth/Getty Images
  • A diet heavy in ultra-processed foods may increase the risk of mortality among older Americans by as much as 10%, according to new research.
  • The diet and health research tracked more than half a million participants over more than 20 years.
  • The highest level of ultra-processed food consumption was among the younger members of the researcher’s cohort of older adults.

Eating ultra-processed food is linked to an increased risk of mortality in older people, a new extended study suggests.

People who ate significant amounts of ultra-processed foods were 10% more likely to die during the long follow-up period of the study than those who did not.

The study used data from the US NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study, which tracked the diet and health of over half a million elderly people. The new analysis included adults aged 50 to 71 years at baseline in 1995-1996, with a median follow-up of 22.9 years.

The researchers scored their diets using the NOVA system, which classifies foods according to the amount and type of processing used in their preparation.

They looked at Healthy Eating Index (HEI)-2015 scores, and not just NOVA processing, and noted that people with higher UPF intake tended to have lower diet quality and higher BMI.

Of particular note to this study are the two approaches the researchers used to further validate the food frequency questionnaires (FFQ): expert consensus and an alternative and novel food-based approach to UPF intake (grams per day) to define, which was. broken down into food codes, then ingredient codes, then classified by NOVA.

The researchers also used two 24-hour dietary recalls in a subgroup to calibrate their FFQ risk estimates, which is not standard practice and adds to the potential rigor of the study’s results.

The research was presented this week at the NUTRITION 2024 conference of the American Society for Nutrition.

According to the NOVA system, natural, processed and ultra-processed foods are defined as follows:

  • Unprocessed foods, or natural foods, come directly from plants or animals without any change or processing, other than transporting them to the point of sale.
  • Processed foods are at least similar, except that they have been cleaned and unwanted or unwanted parts removed. They may be cut into portions, ground, dried, fermented, pasteurized, chilled or frozen on the way to the table. However, no oils, fats, sugar, salts or other substances have been added.
  • NOVA also includes a category called Processed Culinary Ingredients, which are substances extracted from natural foods. These include oils, fats, salt, and sugar, and are ideally used in small amounts to season and cook foods without degrading the overall nutritional quality of the diet.
  • Processed foods are foods manufactured for consumption using sugar, salt, and oil added to natural foods for flavor, and to help extend their shelf life. They usually have no more than two or three ingredients.
  • Ultra-processed foods, or UPF, are industrial creations that are fashioned primarily from substances, including oils, fats, sugars, and proteins derived from natural foods, along with modified starches and hydrogenated fats, with added coloring, and enhancers taste They are cheap to the consumer and convenient, and may contain five or (many) more ingredients.

It is already widely known that a diet heavy in ultra-processed foods can harm human health. However, the large number of people in this study – 318,889 men and 221,607 women – and the additional follow-up time are unusual.

Dietitian Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RDN, who was not involved in the research, said, “The very long follow-up period is interesting; However, the researchers also note that it is not clear what was done between the time the data was taken and the follow-up. Did these people make dietary changes? Were there other activities that were dangerous to overall health? The details are not clear to us.”

Compared to the lowest amount of processed food consumption, was the highest amountassociated with increased risks of death from heart disease and diabetes but not death from cancer.

“This research shows that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with increased mortality risk independent of other factors such as smoking, obesity, and diet quality,” said Michelle Routhenstein, MS, RD, CDCES, a preventive cardiology dietitian at EntirelyNourished.com, who were also not involved in the research.

“This suggests that the adverse health effects of ultra-processed foods may persist regardless of overall lifestyle factors,” Routhenstein said.

“Ultra-processed foods tend to have more added sugars, unhealthy fats and additives, while lacking essential nutrients such as fiber and vitamins, which can negatively impact cardio-metabolic health. These foods contain higher levels of advanced glycation end products (AGEs) due to their processing methods, which can increase oxidative stress and inflammation in the body. AGEs may also raise cystatin C levels, which are associated with reduced kidney function and increased risk of cardiovascular disease.”
— Michelle Routhenstein, MS, RD, CDCES

Given the extended follow-up period, participants were between 73 and 94 years of age, approximately at the time of follow-up.

“Research on the impact of ultra-processed foods specifically on adults is limited but growing. The specific long-term impact on mortality in older populations remains an active area of ​​study,” said Routhenstein.

“It’s never too late to make beneficial dietary changes,” Kirkpatrick said. “Previous research, such as a study that assessed UPF in ages 57-91, has found similar life-span results.”

She noted that much of the research she sees relates to young people, and focuses on preventing problems later through better nutrition.

​​​​The researchers found that younger members of their study population tended to consume more UPF than older members.

“Younger participants – especially middle-aged people – may eat more ultra-processed foods due to factors such as convenience, affordability and advertising. These foods are often widely available, require little preparation, and are heavily marketed, making them attractive to busy lifestyles,” said Routhenstein.

It could also be the case, Kirkpatrick said, “that young people who are generally healthy and have not had symptoms/or serious illness may not be thinking about what the future holds for their diet today. “

The American diet tends to contain a significant number of foods that span the processed spectrum.

“Some of these foods like breakfast cereals, for example, may even help fill some nutritional gaps through fortification,” Kirkpatrick said.

However, she said, “If you eat a lot of these foods you don’t have the opportunity to nourish the body [more] nutrient dense options.” The result may be a high consumption of calorie-dense foods without nutrition.

Kirkpatrick expressed concern about over-reliance on the NOVA classification system to assess the impact of processed foods.

“The NOVA scale is strictly about the amount of processing and has nothing to do with the nutritional value of the foods, so it doesn’t take into account things like added sugar, protein or fiber content,” she explained.

“There is a risk of oversimplifying nutritional science if you lump all processed foods together, so limiting UPF should also be accompanied by education for individuals,” Kirkpatrick said.

“There is no one-size-fits-all nutritional approach, so each patient may deserve a personalized approach to their nutritional needs and goals,” she said.

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