Highly processed foods often include unhealthy levels of added sugar, sodium, and fat. These ingredients make the foods we eat taste better, but too much of them causes serious health problems, such as obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. Whether or not you are deciding to include a highly processed food in your diet, it may be helpful to evaluate its nutritional content and its long-term effect on health. An ultra-processed food that contains an unevenly high ratio of calories and nutrients can be considered unhealthy.
For example, research supports an association between a high intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and an increased risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. However, some processed foods that contain beneficial nutrients, such as olive oil or oat flakes, have been linked to lower rates of these chronic diseases. Highly processed foods are often high in sugar, fat and empty calories. The consumption of many of these foods has long been linked to an increased risk of suffering from a wide variety of health problems that can cause heart disease or premature death, such as obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, cancer and depression.
Meanwhile, policy makers “should shift their priorities away from food reformulation, which risks positioning ultra-processed foods as a solution to dietary problems, and focus more on promoting the availability, affordability and accessibility of unprocessed or minimally processed foods,” they conclude. Because food begins to deteriorate and lose nutrients as soon as it is harvested, even apples that are in the produce aisle undergo four or more processing steps before being sold to the consumer. In the first study, researchers based in France and Brazil evaluated possible associations between ultra-processed foods and the risk of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases (conditions that affect the blood supply to the heart and brain). Some nutrients, such as proteins, are naturally retained during processing, and others, such as B vitamins and iron, can be re-added if lost during processing.
None of the studies were designed to determine if or how ultra-processed foods could directly cause health problems or premature death. People who ate the most processed foods (averaging more than five servings a day) were also more likely to be obese, smokers, ate snacks frequently, watched TV regularly, and had conditions such as cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, and depression. However, both studies took into account known lifestyle risk factors and markers of diet quality, and the findings support other research that links highly processed foods to poor health. That said, eating processed foods is the consumer's choice, and each type has its advantages and disadvantages.
Now, two studies published in The BMJ offer new evidence of the health risks of ultra-processed foods. Food processing is a spectrum that ranges from basic technologies, such as freezing or milling, to the incorporation of additives that promote shelf stability or increase palatability. Two major European studies published today by The BMJ find positive associations between the consumption of highly processed (“ultra-processed”) foods and the risk of cardiovascular disease and death. Once again, foods were grouped according to the degree of processing and deaths were measured for an average of 10 years.
Previous studies have linked ultra-processed foods to a higher risk of obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and some types of cancer, but there is still little firm evidence. And many people don't realize the harm that processed foods cause to Americans who live in urban areas where they don't have easy access to fresh, whole foods. There is evidence that shows an association with certain types of food processing and poor health outcomes (especially highly or ultra-processed foods).