Is your diet killing you?

New research suggests eating ‘ultra-processed’ foods may increase risk of early death

Chicken nuggets are an example of an ultra-processed food
(Image credit: 2018 Getty Images)

Modern diets packed with “ultra-processed” foods may be shortening people’s life spans, according to a new study.

French researchers analysed the diets of more than 44,500 men and women aged 45 and older over an eight-year period, and found that those who consumed heavily manufactured foods were more likely to die at an earlier age.

Each participant was asked to hand over 24-hour dietary records every six months, and to complete questionnaires about their general health and body measurements, physical activities, and social and economic background.

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The scientists, from the Paris-Sorbonne University, then calculated each participant’s overall dietary intake and consumption of ultra-processed foods - defined as those “manufactured industrially from multiple ingredients that usually include additives used for technological and/or cosmetic purposes”.

Examples include dried ready meals, cakes, biscuits and chicken nuggets, the consumption of all of which “has largely increased during the past several decades”, the team note in a research paper published this week in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

They found that these types of snacks, desserts and meals accounted for more than 14% of the weight of total food consumed by the research participants, and about 29% of total calories, reports CNN.

Over the course of the study, 602 of the participants died, including 219 from cancer and 34 from cardiovascular disease. After adjusting for factors such as smoking, the researchers calculated an associated 14% higher risk of early death for each 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods consumed.

The study findings are all the more concerning given that people in France typically consume far less ultra-processed foods and ready meals than those in many other countries.

In the UK, the diet of a typical family is made up of about 50% ultra-processed foods, a proportion that rises to around 58% in the US, according to Fortune.

Numerous other studies have found that overconsumption of junk foods can have serious health effects.

“Such foods are attractive because they tend to be cheaper, are highly palatable due to high sugar, salt, and saturated fat content, are widely available, highly marketed, ready to eat, and their use-by dates are lengthy, so they last longer,” Professor Nita Forouhi, of the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge, told The Guardian. “More needs to be done to address these inequalities.”

However, not everyone is convinced that the new French research proves a link between ultra-processed food and an early death.

Nurgul Fitzgerald, an associate professor of nutritional sciences at Rutgers University in New Jersey, offered “kudos to the authors” for a “strong” study, but said that ultra-processed food is far too wide a category to be able to draw a conclusive verdict.

“Some factors may be more harmful or less harmful than others. It’s really too complex,” she told CNN, adding that it may not be possible for the scientific community to “run with” the results.

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