Junk foods put the ‘die’ in ‘diet’: Ultra-processed foods linked to early death

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Pre-packaged snacks, frozen pizzas, and other processed ready-to-eat meals may seem like a time-saver in the moment. Important new research finds such dietary choices may end up robbing us of time in a different way down the line, however. Scientists in Brazil show that consumption of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) is associated with more than 10 percent of all-cause premature, preventable deaths — though that number could be even higher in the U.S.

What exactly are ultra-processed foods? Researchers define them as ready-to-eat-or-heat industrial formulations made with ingredients extracted from foods or synthesized in laboratories. Real-world examples range from prepackaged soups, sauces, and frozen pizzas, to sausages, sodas, candies, and doughnuts. It’s also important to note that while this research is based on Brazilian eating habits, higher-earning nations (like the USA) generally eat far more ultra-processed foods.

“Previous modeling studies have estimated the health and economic burden of critical ingredients, such as sodium, sugar and trans fats, and specific foods or drinks, such as sugar sweetened beverages,” says lead investigator Eduardo A.F. Nilson, ScD, Center for Epidemiological Research in Nutrition and Health, University of São Paulo, and Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, Brazil, in a media release. “To our knowledge, no study to date has estimated the potential impact of UPFs on premature deaths. Knowing the deaths attributable to the consumption of these foods and modeling how changes in dietary patterns can support more effective food policies might prevent disease and premature deaths.”

Study authors modeled data provided by nationally representative dietary surveys, estimating baseline intakes of UPFs according to gender and age group. Statistical analyses were then performed estimating the proportion of total deaths attributable to eating ultra-processed foods, as well as the impact of reducing intake of UPFs by 10 percent, 20 percent, and 50 percent across age groups.

Across all age/gender demographics, consumption of UPFs ranged from 13 to 21 percent of total food intake in Brazil during 2019. Meanwhile, 541,260 adults between ages 30 and 69 years old passed away prematurely in 2019, of whom 261,061 were from preventable, noncommunicable diseases. Study authors’ models indicate roughly 57,000 deaths that year may be attributable to the consumption of UPFs. That number corresponds to 10.5 percent of all premature deaths and 21.8 percent of all deaths linked to preventable noncommunicable diseases among adults in those age groups.

As touched on earlier, researchers theorize that the detrimental health impact of UPFs are likely even greater in high income countries such as the United States, Canada, the UK, and Australia, where UPFs account for more than half of total caloric intake.

Dr. Nilson notes that UPFs are slowly but steadily replacing the consumption of traditional whole foods, such as rice and beans, over time in Brazil. Reducing the intake of UPFs, and promoting healthier food choices, may not be easy. Multiple interventions and public health measures may be needed, such as fiscal and regulatory policies, changing food environments, strengthening the implementation of food-based dietary guidelines, and improving consumer knowledge, attitudes, and behavior.

If ultra-processed foods consumption can be reduced by 10 to 50 percent, it could potentially prevent roughly 5,900 to 29,300 premature deaths in Brazil annually.

“Consumption of UPFs is associated with many disease outcomes, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some cancers, and other diseases, and it represents a significant cause of preventable and premature deaths among Brazilian adults,” Dr. Nilson concludes. “Even reducing consumption of UPFs to the levels of just a decade ago would reduce associated premature deaths by 21%. Policies that disincentivize the consumption of UPFs are urgently needed.”

The study is published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

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