Tag Archives: ultra-processed food

Ultra-processed foods are hurting your heart

Credit: Flickr, Ted Eytan.

Eating a diet mainly composed of ultra-processed food is associated with a significantly increased risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality, according to a new study published today.

The average American gets half of their daily calories from ultra-processed food, which include many foods that are marketed as healthy, such as protein bars, breakfast cereals and most industrially produced breads.

“As poor diet is a major modifiable risk factor for heart disease, it represents a critical target in prevention efforts,” said Filippa Juul, a faculty fellow at the New York University School of Public Health and lead author of the study. “Our findings add to a growing body of evidence suggesting cardiovascular benefits of limiting ultra-processed foods.”

The term ‘ultra-processed foods’ was first coined by a team of Brazilian nutritionists in a 2016 study that made waves internationally after it linked this type of food with cancer.

According to the International Food Information Council, “any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it is ready for us to eat” makes it ‘processed food’. Ultra-processed foods are defined as “industrial formulations with five or more ingredients.”

What typically sets ultra-processed foods apart from other types of processed foods is the widespread use of flavors, added sugars, fats, and chemical preservatives. The purpose of these ultra-processed foods is convenience since many such products are ready-to-eat, require very little prep to be palatable, and are cheap.

Some examples of ultra-processed foods included in the original 2016 study from Brazil include:

  • Soft drinks
  • Packaged bread and buns
  • Chips
  • Candy
  • Store-bought ice cream
  • Boxed cake mix
  • Instant noodles
  • Infant formula
  • Breakfast cereal
  • Energy bars
  • Flavored yogurt
  • Chicken nuggets
  • Fast food burgers
  • Hot dogs

Besides cancer, consuming ultra-processed foods is associated with obesity, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, Type 2 diabetes, and now cardiovascular disease.

Juul and colleagues analyzed data from the Framingham Offspring Study, which included 3,003 middle-aged adults with an average age of 53.5 years. Diet was assessed by mail using a food questionnaire where participants reported the frequency of consumption of certain foods in the previous year, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrient database was used to calculate nutrient intakes from reported dietary intakes.

During an average of 18 years of follow-up, the researchers observed 648 instances of hard cardiovascular events, meaning sudden and non-sudden coronary death, heart attack, and fatal/non-fatal stroke. They also recorded 713 deaths during the follow-up period, including 108 deaths attributed to cardiovascular disease.

Those who had the highest intake of ultra-processed foods also had the highest incidence rate of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Each daily serving of ultra-processed food was associated with a 7% increase in the risk of hard CVD, a 9% increase in the risk of hard coronary heart disease (CHD, a 5% increase in overall CVD and a 9% increased risk in cardiovascular disease mortality. 

“Population-wide strategies such as taxation on sugar-sweetened beverages and other ultra-processed foods and recommendations regarding processing levels in national dietary guidelines are needed to reduce the intake of ultra-processed foods. Of course, we must also implement policies that increase the availability, accessibility and affordability of nutritious, minimally processed foods, especially in disadvantaged populations. At the clinical level, there is a need for increased commitment to individualized nutrition counseling for adopting sustainable heart-healthy diets,” Juul said in a statement.

More than 70% of America’s packaged food is ultra-processed — and it’s a big problem

The food supply in the US is dominated by ultra-processed foods which are almost always high in energy, saturated fat, sugar, and salt.

Avoid ultra-processed foods, physicians warn. Image credits: FDA.

Unhealthy processed food

For every 10 calories someone in the US eats, 8 come from store-bought foods and beverages (packaged and unpackaged). The ready-to-eat food market plays a crucial role in the US, and it also plays a crucial role in the development of obesity and cardiovascular diseases.

Time and time again, studies have shown that processed foods (and particularly, ultra-processed foods) are dangerous to human health. Not only do they make you fat, but they also increase the risk of many serious conditions, including cancer and diabetes — and yet, Americans can’t have enough of them.

“The US packaged food and beverage supply is large, heterogeneous, highly processed, and generally unhealthy,” the new study reads.

Scientists analyzed 230,156 products, finding that 71% of products such as bread, salad dressings, snack foods, sweets, sugary drinks and more were ultra-processed. When they looked at the largest 25 manufacturers, a whopping 86% of products were classified as ultra-processed.

Scientists also ranked foods based on their healthfulness, using a ranking system developed in Australia that ranks foods from 0.5 stars (unhealthiest) to 5 stars (healthiest) The Health Star Rating system scores packaged foods, offering consumers a quick look at the nutritional profile of packaged foods — something which can be difficult to assess in our day to day lives.

What’s ultra-processed anyway?

A decision we’ve all had to make countless times — what did you choose? Image credits: US Air Force.

The way we eat has changed substantially in the past few decades.  When early dietary guidelines were compiled and published in the first half of the last century, the vast majority of foods was sold as ingredients to be combined and consumed in the form of dishes or meals, or eat as it is. But after the 1950s, things started to change. More and more, we had access to pre-packaged, branded, and ready-to-eat (or drink) food. This was seen as more convenient and became increasingly prominent in high-income countries. But not long after that, it became clear that foods purchased this way aren’t healthy at all.

Although processed foods don’t need to be unhealthy, in practice, they almost always are. This is why the NOVA classification for food was devised, to help people understand what’s processed and what’s not. Here are the main categories:

  • unprocessed or minimally processed foods (think seeds, fruits, vegetables, eggs, etc);
  • processed culinary ingredients (flour, butter, vegetable oils, etc);
  • processed foods (relatively simple foods prepared with 2-3 ingredients — think canned beans or sugared nuts);
  • ultra-processed foods (complex foods that typically have many ingredients including sugar, oils, fats, salt, stabilizers, and preservatives — think foods like ice cream, cakes, sodas, burgers, sausages, nuggets, pastries, energy bars, and many many more).

Ultra-processed foods are unhealthy no matter where you look but compared to other countries, the US version is even worse, because it is generally processed with a higher sugar and sodium content, the study reports.

While the study did not analyze 100% of the market, it analyzed data collected by the Chicago company Label Insight, which represents more than 80% of all food and beverage products sold in the US over the past three years — enough to paint a comprehensive picture.

“We need to better capture real-time information of our constantly changing food supply if we’re going to track and improve its healthfulness,” said study co-author Dr. Mark Huffman, the Quentin D. Young Professor of Health Policy, associate professor of preventive medicine and medicine at Feinberg and a Northwestern Medicine cardiologist.

The fact that the average American has an unhealthy diet isn’t really a surprise by now. However, it’s important to understand the scale of the problem and reduce it as much as possible.

“To say that our food supply is highly processed won’t shock anyone, but it’s important that we hold food and beverage manufacturers accountable by continually documenting how they’re doing in terms of providing healthy foods for consumers,” said lead author Abigail Baldridge, a biostatistician in the department of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “And the verdict is they can and should be doing a whole lot better.”

The study was published in the journal Nutrients.


Ultra-processed foods cause weight gain, over eating, according to a new study

A preliminary study reports that eating ultra-processed leads to eating more calories and weight gain.

Instant Noodles.

Image via Pixabay.

People who eat ultra-processed foods have a higher calorie intake and gain more weight compared to those who eat a minimally-processed diet, a new study from the National Institutes of Health reports. This difference, the team explains, was seen even when participants in the ultra-processed and minimally-processed diet groups received the same number of calories and macronutrients in their food.


“Though we examined a small group, results from this tightly controlled experiment showed a clear and consistent difference between the two diets,” said Kevin D. Hall, Ph.D., an NIDDK senior investigator and the study’s lead author.

“This is the first study to demonstrate causality — that ultra-processed foods cause people to eat too many calories and gain weight.”

The study, at the NIH’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), was small-scale — it only included 20 adult volunteers. The authors report that it is the first randomized trial meant to look into the effects of ultra-processed foods as defined by the NOVA classification system. Previous observational studies, they explain, worked with large groups of people and have uncovered an association between diets with high amounts of processed food and health complications. However, these efforts had been randomized, so they can’t be used to establish a clear link between the two (people might have experienced health complications due to other factors, such as lack of access to fresh food, not necessarily from ultra-processed ones).

Under the NOVA system, foods that have ingredients predominantly found in industrial food manufacturing, such as hydrogenated oils, high-fructose corn syrup, flavoring agents, and emulsifiers, are considered to be “ultra-processed”.

“Results from this tightly controlled experiment showed a clear and consistent difference between the two diets,” said Kevin D. Hall, Ph.D., an NIDDK senior investigator and the study’s lead author. “This is the first study to demonstrate causality — that ultra-processed foods cause people to eat too many calories and gain weight.”

The participants, 10 male and 10 female, were admitted to the NIH Clinical Center for one continuous month. They were placed on each diet for two weeks (in random order), the team providing them with meals consisting of either ultra-processed or minimally processed foods. An ultra-processed breakfast, for example, might consist of a bagel, cream cheese, and turkey bacon, while the unprocessed breakfast was oatmeal with bananas, walnuts, and skim milk. Meals in both courses were controlled to have the same amounts of calories, sugars, fiber, fat, and carbohydrates. Participants were allowed to eat as much as they wanted.

People on the ultra-processed diet ate about 500 calories more per day than those on the unprocessed one. They also ate faster and gained weight, whereas their counterparts lost weight. On average, participants in the ultra-processed group gained 2 pounds (0.9 kilograms) and lost an equivalent amount on the unprocessed diet. “We need to figure out what specific aspect of the ultra-processed foods affected people’s eating behavior and led them to gain weight,” Hall admits. For example, the team says that slight differences in protein levels between the ultra-processed and unprocessed diets used in the study could explain up to half of the difference in caloric intake between the two groups.

“The next step is to design similar studies with a reformulated ultra-processed diet to see if the changes can make the diet effect on calorie intake and body weight disappear,” Hall explains.

“Over time, extra calories add up, and that extra weight can lead to serious health conditions,” said NIDDK Director Griffin P. Rodgers, M.D. “Research like this is an important part of understanding the role of nutrition in health and may also help people identify foods that are both nutritious and accessible — helping people stay healthy for the long term.”

While the study reinforces the benefits of unprocessed foods, researchers note that ultra-processed foods can be difficult to restrict. “We have to be mindful that it takes more time and more money to prepare less-processed foods,” Hall said. “Just telling people to eat healthier may not be effective for some people without improved access to healthy foods.”

The paper “Ultra-Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of Ad Libitum Food Intake” has been published in the journal Cell Metabolism.

Ready to eat microwave food (TV dinner). Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Ultra-processed food linked to dying prematurely

Ready to eat microwave food (TV dinner). Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Ready to eat microwave food (TV dinner). Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A new study that followed the diets of tens of thousands of people for almost a decade found that eating ultra-processed foods was associated with a higher risk of early death. Although this was an observational study, scientists unanimously agree that such products — which include pizza, burgers, and microwave meals — aren’t healthy and should be avoided as much as possible. Instead, people should cook at home or eat out with friends (obviously not in a fast-food restaurant).

Ultra-processed foods comprise 60% of the typical American’s diet

French researchers at the Université Paris monitored the diets of 44,000 individuals between 2009 and 2017. Every six months, participants had to fill out a survey about everything they had ingested within the last 24 hours. Seven years later, the authors registered 602 fatalities, of which 219 were due to cancer and 34 to cardiovascular disease.

Using statistical analysis, the researchers found that the risk of premature death increased by 14% with every extra 10% of ultra-processed foods that individuals included in their diets.

Ultra-processed foods have been significantly altered from their original state, containing salt, sugar, fat, additives, preservatives, and added artificial coloring. They’re usually consumed as snacks, desserts, or ready-to-eat or -heat meals, and their use has risen steadily in the past several decades. According to a 2016 study, nearly 60% of calories consumed by average American come from ultra-processed foods, which have poor nutritional value.

This is just an observational study and the fact that the participants’ diets were self-reported is an important limiting factor. Nevertheless, it all makes sense, since ultra-processed foods have been previously linked to obesity, cancer, and high blood pressure. In their study, the authors note that additives, packaging, and the processing itself may explain the heightened risk of premature death.

The authors recommend that people avoid ultra-processed foods by cooking at home or eating out. Studies have shown that people who dine together have healthier eating habits, such as enjoying more vegetables, fewer soft drinks, and less deep-fried food.

Ultra-processed foods, however, are pretty hard to resist. For one, it’s very convenient to throw a pizza in the microwave and having your meal ready in 5 minutes. Such products are also cheap, meaning that their negative health outcomes disproportionately affect the poor.