- A new study from Brazil shows a significant association between ultra-processed food consumption and an increased risk of premature, preventable death.
- Experts say the findings highlight the importance of discouraging processed food products and encouraging healthier eating patterns.
- They also say that nutrient-dense whole foods are better, safer, and healthier than heavily processed foods.
It’s no secret that ultra-processed foods can be detrimental to health and contribute to chronic conditions like obesity, diabetes, and hypertension.
Now, a new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that increased consumption of ultra-processed foods (UPF) was associated with a significant increase in all-cause premature, preventable deaths in Brazil in 2019.
What’s more, the researchers note that Brazilians consume far fewer ultra-processed food products than other countries with high incomes, such as the United States.
“Ultra-processed food consumption, which corresponds to 23.7% of the total energy of the diet, is associated with over 10% of all-cause premature, preventable deaths in Brazil,” study author Eduardo A.F. Nilson, ScD, a researcher at the Center for Epidemiological Research in Nutrition and Health, University of São Paulo, and Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, Brazil, told Healthline.
“This means that about 57,000 deaths per year among adults are attributable to the consumption of ultra-processed foods in Brazil.”
Nilson said the study modeled data from nationally representative dietary surveys and mortality data from Brazil to link dietary patterns, considering the extent and purpose of industrial food processing, to deaths from all causes.
He explained the researchers used statistical analysis to estimate the proportion of total deaths that could be attributed to eating UPFs, and what impact reducing intake of these products by 10, 20, and 50% within those age groups had on mortality using data from 2019.
According to the study findings, over a half-million adults, ages 30 to 69, died prematurely in 2019, and nearly 300,000 of those deaths were due to preventable, non-communicable diseases.
Nilson noted that his study adds to a growing body of literature pointing to the importance of reducing the consumption of ultra-processed foods.
He said it’s important to consider their imbalanced nutritional composition, their “altered food matrix,” and their ingredients (i.e., food additives) and “neo-contaminants.”
In addition, Nilson cautioned that the adverse health effects of ultra-processed foods could be worse in wealthier countries where they’re even more common in standard diets.
“In high-income countries, such as the United States, ultra-processed foods represent up to 57% of the total energy of the diet, so the estimated impact of these foods will be even higher,” Nilson said.
Be that as it may, Nilson said that by reducing ultra-processed food consumption by 20% to levels of consumption observed a decade ago, around 11,000 deaths per year could be prevented.
Emily Feivor, a registered dietitian at Long Island Jewish Forest Hills, part of Northwell Health in New York, explained that ultra-processed foods consist almost entirely of additives and substances derived from foods that have undergone several steps of processing.
She emphasized these products usually lack protein, fiber, and many common micronutrients and typically contain a large number of calories, sugar, total fat, and saturated fat.
But Feivor clarified that some processed foods, such as oils, pasta, flour, sugar, and salt, canned fruits and vegetables, seasoned nuts, cured or smoked meats, cheese, and bread are not necessarily detrimental to health.
“These can all be part of a balanced diet and are, at times, inevitable to consume,” she told Healthline.
“Foods that have been formulated to be more nutrient dense and include fewer ingredients may be an alternative to conventional ultra-processed foods. These can include grains, pulses, fruits, vegetables, and fresh meat and milk.”
Dr. Theodore Strange, chair of medicine at Staten Island University Hospital in New York, told Healthline that people who eat fewer processed foods experience less incidence and prevalence of some or all of the possible health ailments.
“Diets that are more natural, [and] less processed have been attributed to better overall health and have been shown to have decreased incidences of diseases like diabetes, hypertension, atherosclerosis, diverticulosis, migraine, and some cancers, just to name of few,” he said.
Dr. Strange further noted there’s a “direct correlation” between salt and hypertension, trans fats with atherosclerosis and colon cancer, and processed sugars with diabetes.
“Trans fat diets, high sugar diets, high salt diets are unhealthy, and over time, can be unsafe, leading to higher chances of health impacts,” he said.
“The more color on the plate, the more likely that these are healthier food choices and better for you.”
A new study builds on existing evidence linking ultra-processed food consumption to chronic disease and premature death.
Like other nutrition experts, study author Nilson agreed that a healthy, balanced diet should be based on fresh and minimally processed foods, when possible, in addition to avoiding ultra-processed foods.
“The continuity of the current trends with gradual increases in ultra-processed food consumption will increase premature deaths,” Nilson said, adding that his research highlights a need for a shift in policy around ultra-processed foods.
Policies that disincentivize ultra-processed food consumption may include expanding nutrition education and improving accessibility in food deserts, which could help make healthy food choices more available and affordable.