“Ultra-processed foods,” such as breakfast cereals, french fries, hamburgers, frozen pizza, sugary drinks and ice cream, were linked to an increased risk of heart disease and early death, according to two major studies published this week.
These heavily-processed foods are convenient, ready to eat or heat in their attractive packaging, and tasty. They typically contain a higher amount of total fat, saturated fat, added sugar and salt, along with lower amounts of the good stuff, like fiber and vitamins.
Think fast food, sweet and savory snacks, processed meats, pre-prepared meals you'd grab out of the frozen section, instant soups — and even chocolate.
The two new studies from Spain and France were published Wednesday in The British Medical Journal.
File photos show pepperoni pizza and stacked glazed donuts. (Photo credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
In the first study, a team in Spain from Navarra University followed nearly 20,000 people from 1999 to 2014 and checked in on them every two years with questionnaires. The researchers measured how often people ate food in four different categories:
1) Unprocessed or minimally processed: Fruit, vegetables, legumes, milk, eggs, meats, poultry, fish and seafood, fermented yogurt, grains (white rice, pasta), natural juice and coffee.
2) Processed ingredients: Salt, sugar, honey, oils (olive, sunflower, corn), butter and lard.
3) Processed foods: Condensed milk, cheeses, cured traditional ham, bacon, canned and bottled fruit, breads, beer and wine.
4) Ultra-processed foods: Ice cream, sausages, salami, chips, breakfast cereals, pizza (and frozen pizza), margarine, cookies, muffins, doughnuts, chocolates, artificially sweetened drinks, milkshakes, instant soups and creams, mayonnaise, whisky, gin and rum.
The study also took into account age, sex, body mass index and other lifestyle factors like smoking and physical activity. Over the course of the study, 335 participants died, and the main cause was cancer.
Researchers found that those who had more than four servings a day of ultra-processed foods had a 62-percent increased risk of premature death than those who ate those foods less frequently. For each additional serving of ultra-processed food, the risk of death increased by 18 percent, the study noted.
“Processed meats, sugar sweetened beverages, dairy products, and French fries were the main foods contributing to the total of ultra-processed food consumed,” the study's author stated.
Meanwhile, the team in France didn't find anything better.
Researchers in the second study followed more than 105,000 people over the age of 18 for a median follow-up of five years. Participants filled out a 24-hour dietary record an average of 5.7 times.
The study found that for every 10 percent increase in the amount of ultra-processed food eaten, there was an associated 12 percent, 13 percent, and 11 percent increase in the rates of overall cardiovascular, coronary heart and cerebrovascular disease, respectively.
While neither study proves a direct cause and effect between eating highly-processed foods and certain health problems or death, it adds to the growing body of evidence found over the past decade associating these foods to higher risks of obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and some cancers, researchers noted.
As the team in France points out, consumption of ultra-processed foods worldwide has also increased substantially.
“According to nationwide food surveys assessing intakes, household expenses, or supermarket sales in European countries, the US, Canada, New Zealand, and Latin American countries, ultra-processed products represent between 25% and 60% of total daily energy intake,” the researchers noted.
The authors of both studies concluded that ultra-processed foods in the diet should be limited, and eating unprocessed or minimally processed foods should be promoted instead.
This story was reported from Los Angeles.