Researchers say these prepackaged foods are convenient and tasty, but they can cause a number of long-term health problems.
Most people will admit to lapses in healthy eating whether it’s occasionally scarfing pizza at a party or grabbing a bacon double cheeseburger on the run.
And many know these quick eats aren’t doing their body any favors.
But now there’s evidence that the more highly processed foods people eat, the likelier they are to die earlier.
Findings from a that appeared in a specialty publication of The Journal of the American Medical Association, concluded that ultra-processed foods might be responsible for premature deaths.
These foods have already been associated with an increased risk of high blood pressure, cancer, and obesity.
Ultra-processed foods are typically packaged snacks, desserts, breads, ready-to-eat meals, and sugary drinks. These products generally have many ingredients and go through multiple steps during manufacturing.
Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, a licensed, registered dietitian who is manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute in Ohio, isn’t surprised by the study’s conclusions.
Ultra-processed foods are simply a tasty temptation, she explained.
“It’s very hard to stay away from them,” Kirkpatrick told Healthline.
The study involved 44,551 people who were 45 years or older when it was launched in May 2009.
The participants recorded everything they ate for an initial 24-hour period. They then completed at least two more 24-hour dietary surveys during the next two years.
The results were analyzed when the study period ended in December 2017.
The items consumed were assigned to categories defined by NOVA, a food classification system that groups food according to how much processing it undergoes.
The four types of food range from categories such as fruits, eggs, and milk (that can be eaten with little or no processing) to those that have many ingredients. Ingredients include not only added sugar, oils, fats, and salt, but also dyes, flavor enhancers, and preservatives.
Edibles in this category require little if any preparation and can be found in virtually every grocery store. They also have a long shelf life and are relatively inexpensive.
Researchers said the participants who had a 10 percent increase in their proportion of ultra-processed food consumption had a 14 percent higher risk in all-cause mortality.
One possible explanation for the link between ultra-processed foods and mortality risk is the large amount of salt some contain, a preservative that has been linked to death from heart disease and stomach cancer, according to the recent study.
The high sugar content of these foods is also thought to increase the risk of cardiovascular death. Previous research has found a correlation between processed meats and mortality as well, the authors indicated, noting that these products are associated with colorectal and stomach cancer.
So what can you do when danger seems to be lurking in every bowl of cereal, Frappuccino, and fried chicken wing?
For starters, don’t try to eliminate all ultra-processed foods from your diet because that simply isn’t sustainable, says Mascha Davis, a registered dietician who runs a private practice in the Los Angeles area.
What’s more realistic is to have them comprise only a small portion of your overall food intake, she said.
“There’s room for all kinds of foods. It’s all about the balance of what you’re eating,” Davis told Healthline.
Kirkpatrick subscribes to the same philosophy. She advises people to make nutrient-dense foods 80 percent of their diet, but not feel guilty if they indulge in the occasional cheeseburger or bag of chips.
Adopting close-to-nature eating habits is feasible even though Americans are busier than ever, says Kirkpatrick, who as the mother of two young boys understands exactly why parents often stop on the way home to grab a premade dinner when they’re pressed for time.
She and fellow nutrition experts offer the following tips on how to shop for healthier food options:
- Eat raw fruits, vegetables, and other foods that are as close to their natural state as possible
- Frozen isn’t necessarily bad. Broccoli that’s frozen soon after it’s picked can be more nutritious than fresh blueberries that lose vitamins and minerals in transit to a store. But if you buy frozen fruit, don’t get the kind with added sugar.
- Identify healthy ingredients you can throw together quickly for a meal. Kirkpatrick will take tomato sauce that contains only a few ingredients and add it to bean-based pasta and broccoli. Katie Ferraro, MPH, RD, CDE, a registered dietitian and assistant clinical professor at the University of San Diego and the University of California San Francisco, suggests combining frozen vegetables, a no-salt rotisserie chicken, and pre-cut butternut squash for an easy, healthy meal.
- Don’t be fooled by claims on the front of a package. It’s the information on the back you should pay attention to. Manufacturers can boast a product to be a good source of fiber or omega-3 fatty acids for example, but a long list of ingredients could signal a lot of additives.
- Learn how to read food labels. Ingredients are listed by weight in descending order, so whatever’s listed first is what the manufacturer used the greatest quantity of. Ideally, sugar and salt shouldn’t be near the top, Davis says.
“Making sensible food choices requires doing your homework, which isn’t as easy — or as cheap — as opting for junk food,” Kirkpatrick said.
But convenience comes at a greater cost.
“You pay with obesity or any number of things that researchers are putting out there as negative,” she added.