Ultra-processed foods linked to higher risk of cancer, heart disease, early death, study says

FILE - A photo illustration of ultra-processed foods on Feb. 16, 2018, in London, England. (Photo illustration by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Research has shown that diets high in ultra-processed foods can be harmful to the body in many ways, and a recently-published study further underscores the damaging health effects that such sugary and ready-to-eat foods can have. 

The new study, published on Wednesday in the BMJ, suggests that ultra-processed foods can lead to a higher risk of 32 different damaging health outcomes like cancer, major heart and lung conditions, mental health disorders, and early death.

Ultra-processed foods, like packaged baked goods and snacks, fizzy drinks, sugary cereals, and ready-to-eat or heat products, often have large amounts of fats, sugar, salt, artificial flavors, and preservatives and are low in vitamins and fiber.

These foods can account for up to 58% of total daily energy intake in some high-income countries like the United States, according to the study. Other research has suggested that between 60% and 90% of the standard American diet now consists of foods and beverages that are highly processed.

Meanwhile, consumption of these foods has rapidly increased over recent decades in many low- and middle-income nations, too.

The researchers from the Food & Mood Centre at Deakin University in Australia said many previous studies have linked these highly-processed foods to poor health, but this was the first comprehensive review that "provided a broad assessment of the evidence." 

The study included 45 meta-analyses that included data from almost 10 million participants, mostly adults. None were funded by companies involved in the production of ultra-processed foods, according to the study.

Eating more ultra-processed foods linked to 32 health issues

The study found that "higher exposure" to ultra-processed foods, like packaged chips and cookies, processed meats, and sodas, is linked to a greater risk of developing 32 different health issues. 

The study found "convincing evidence" showing that higher ultra-processed food intake was associated with around a 50% increased risk of cardiovascular disease-related death, a 48%-53% higher risk of anxiety and other common mental health disorders, and a 12% greater risk of type 2 diabetes.

"Highly suggestive evidence" also indicated that high ultra-processed food intake also brought a 21% greater risk of death from any cause, a 40%-66% increased risk of heart disease-related death, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and sleep problems, and a 22% increased risk of depression, according to the study.

Meanwhile, evidence linking ultra-processed foods with asthma, gastrointestinal health, some cancers and cardio-metabolic risk factors, such as high blood fats and low levels of "good" cholesterol, remained limited, the researchers said. 

Limiting ultra-processed foods: What can be done?

FILE - A photo illustration of the ingredients on a packet of instant noodles on Feb. 16, 2018, in London, England. (Photo illustration by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

FILE - A photo illustration of the ingredients on a packet of instant noodles on Feb. 16, 2018, in London, England. (Photo illustration by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

  • For those who want to limit the amount of ultra-processed foods they consume, go for the whole food options over the processed version – such as an apple over sweetened applesauce that may contain added ingredients like high fructose corn syrup.
  • Read ingredient labels as much as possible. If it includes several added items, including ingredients you’ve never heard of, it’s probably ultra-processed. 
  • Also, try to mostly shop around the perimeter of the grocery store, and when buying items in the center aisles, choose one-ingredient foods.

On their part, the researchers pointed out in a linked editorial piece how profits can discourage manufacturers from switching to making more nutritious foods, so public policies and action on ultra-processed foods "are essential." 

This could include front-facing labels that clearly identify the food as ultra-processed, restricting advertising and prohibiting sales in or near schools and hospitals, and developing national dietary guidelines that recommend the avoidance of ultra-processed foods.

Lastly, the researchers called for fiscal measures that "make unprocessed or minimally processed foods and freshly prepared meals as accessible and available as, and cheaper than, ultra-processed foods."

This story was reported from Cincinnati.