Eating these foods regularly can be disastrous for your health

Photo: Nicolas Barbier Garreau

We all know that ultra-processed foods like candy, soda, pre-packaged microwave meals, and hotdogs aren’t healthy.

That certainly isn’t breaking news. But, the true extent of their negative impact on the human body and lifespan will likely surprise many readers. It’s one thing to hear that sugary cereals or bags of chips are “bad for you,” but the findings of a recent study are taking things to an entirely new level of concern.

Italian researchers report regularly eating “ultra-processed foods” over an extended period (eight years) led to a 26% higher risk of death from any cause and a 58% higher risk of death from cardiovascular disease among a group of participants.

What exactly are ultra-processed foods? A troublingly large percentage of the foods for sale in grocery stores all over the world. From candies, chips, and ice cream to pre-packaged soups, frozen fries, and chicken nuggets, it’s hard to venture down a single food store aisle these days without being greeted by something that’s been through a conveyor belt. More specifically, most ultra-processed foods are loaded with excessive amounts of sugar, oil, and salt, and low in essential nutrients.

Again, it’s no secret that these foods aren’t doing our bodies any favors. So, why then are processed foods so popular and seemingly unavoidable nowadays? Researchers say it’s easy to understand the popularity of such food goods.

After all, these items are quite literally produced to be as tasty as possible. Overconsumption is the name of the game and food producers want you to reach in for just another handful of chips because ultimately that means more money spent on the snack budget each week.

Besides all that, processed foods are also super convenient. Sure, an all-natural salad made using only the freshest ingredients is a healthier option, but who has time for that day in and day out? Modern life is busy and hectic, and processed foods are designed to be eaten on the go or in a pinch.

Finally, one must consider prices as well. What do you think will cost more? A microwave meal from the frozen aisle or a fresh and nutritious home-cooked meal?

Hopefully, though, these findings will help at least some among us realize that a candy bar for dinner may be convenient today but it isn’t worth it in the long run.

Conducted at the I.R.C.C.S. Neuromed in Italy, researchers had access to health and diet data on over 22,000 local citizens. Those participants had been enrolled in the Moli-sani Project, a long-term research project that began in 2005 focusing on how both environmental and genetic factors may influence a variety of health outcomes throughout life. 

All that data allowed the research team to track participants’ diets and health conditions for eight years.

“To evaluate the nutrition habits of the Moli-sani participants we used the international NOVA classification, which characterizes foods on the basis of how much they undergo extraction, purification or alteration,” explains first study author Marialaura Bonaccio, a researcher at the Department of Epidemiology and Prevention. “Those with the highest level of industrial processing fall into the category of ultra-processed foods. According to our observations, people consuming large amounts of these foods have an increased risk of dying from cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases.” 

Why exactly are ultra-processed foods so incredibly bad for us? Study authors say an obvious culprit is sugar, considering it is so prevalent among countless processed foods. However, they say their findings don’t support that theory.

“According to our analyses the excess of sugar does play a role, but it accounts only for 40% of the increased death risk,” comments Augusto Di Castelnuovo, epidemiologist of the Department, currently at Mediterranea Cardiocentro in Naples. Our idea is that an important part is played by industrial processing itself, able to induce deep modifications in the structure and composition of nutrients.” 

In light of these findings, researchers stress the importance of spreading the word about the dangers associated with ultra-processed foods. They say it isn’t enough to simply advise “eat healthy;” everyone, but especially younger generations, stand to benefit from a more robust educational campaign that hammers home the dangers of these food products.

“Efforts aimed to lead the population towards a healthier diet can no longer be addressed only by calories counting or by vague references to the Mediterranean diet,” adds Licia Iacoviello, Director of the Department of Epidemiology and Prevention of Neuromed and full professor of Hygiene and Public Health at the University of Insubria in Varese. “Sure, we obtained good results by those means, but now the battlefront is moving. Young people in particular are increasingly exposed to pre-packaged foods, easy to prepare and consume, extremely attractive and generally cheap. This study, and other international researches going in the same direction, tell us that, in a healthy nutrition habit, fresh or minimally processed foods must be paramount.”

The occasional candy bar or microwaved soup isn’t a big deal, but don’t make such culinary shortcuts a daily habit. 

“Spending a few more minutes cooking a lunch instead of warming a container in the microwave, or maybe preparing a sandwich for our children instead of putting a pre-packaged snack in their backpack: these are actions that will reward us over the years,” Professor Iacoviello concludes.

The full study can be found here, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.