Consumption of Highly Processed Foods and Health: New Evidences from Research

Two studies provide evidences that associate high consumption of ultra-processed food with increased health risks

The food that we consume regularly has long term effects on our health. One way of classifying food items is by their level of industrial processing. Foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, legumes, grains, eggs are unprocessed or minimally processed. “Processed” foods like cheese, some breads, canned fruits and vegetables etc generally contain added salt, oil, sugar etc. In contrast, highly processed or “ultra-processed” food items have been through extensive industrial processing to either improve their taste or increase their shelf life. Ultra-processed foods are thus chemical-laden with added preservatives, sweeteners or color enhancers. Such foods are highly addictive and they contain high levels of added sugar, fat and/or salt and lack in vitamins and fibers.

Examples of ultra-processed foods include junk food, packaged baked goods, fizzy drinks, processed meat, breakfast cereals having high sugar, instant soups, readymade meals etc. and they are sold in boxes, cans, jars or bags. Experts comment that if the ingredient list of a food is more than five items then it is definitely in ultra-processed category. Consumption of ultra-processed foods is high in many developed countries because of their culinary appeal, price, availability and longer shelf life. Many studies have linked such ultra-processed foods to increased risk of obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol but evidence has remained limited.

Two new studies published in BMJ on May 29 provide strong evidences which point towards a positive link between consuming highly processed foods and increased risk of cardiovascular diseases and death. In the first large cohort study researchers collected data of 105,159 French adults of both genders and average age of 43 years. As part of NutriNet-Sante study, participants had completed an average of six 24-hour dietary questionnaires to measure their usual intake of 3,300 food items grouped according to grade of processing based upon NOVA classification. The rates of diseases of these adults was measured over a follow-up period of 10 years. Results showed that 10 percent increase in ultra-processed foods consumption was associated with increased rates of cardiovascular diseases and coronary heart diseases. And, strong association was found between fresh or very minimally processed foods and lower risk of these diseases. Researchers next aim to add all commercial brand names of various industrial products in the participant’s dietary records in order to more accurately evaluate the exposure.

In a second study, participants – 18,899 Spanish male and female adults of average age of 38 years – completed 136-food item questionnaire every other year between 1999 and 2014 as part of SUN (Seguimiento Universidad de Navarra) study. Similar to the first study, food items were grouped based upon levels of processing. Results indicated that higher intake of ultra-processed food (i.e. more than 4 servings in a day) was linked to 62 percent increased risk of mortality (due to any cause) compared to consumption of 2 servings a day. With every extra serving of ultra-processed food, mortality risk went up by 18 percent. Both studies took into account established lifestyle factors and markers of dietary quality.

Consumption of ultra-processed food in developed countries is alarmingly high and thus it is imperative to inform consumers about health implications so that they can make informed choices. Appropriate nutritional guidelines, product reformulations to improve nutritional quality and suitable taxations are needed to discourage consumers and limit consumption of ultra-processed food items. Fresh or minimally processed foods must be endorsed and on the other hand marketing of ultra-processed foods must be restricted. This needs to be implemented in health policies particularly in developed countries.


{You may read the original research paper by clicking the DOI link given below in the list of cited source(s)}


1. Srour B. et al. 2019. Ultra-processed food intake and risk of cardiovascular disease: prospective cohort study (NutriNet-Santé). BMJ.
2. Rico-Campà A. et al. 2019. Association between consumption of ultra-processed foods and all cause mortality: SUN prospective cohort study. BMJ.

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