You might be tempted to reach for processed foods out of convenience when you are hungry but doing so on a consistent basis may lead to a shorter life. Researchers in Italy found consumption of what they termed ultra-processed foods led to a 26 percent increase in all-cause mortality and a 58 percent increase in death from cardiovascular disease.
The industrial processing of foods leads to products that are generally low in essential nutrients but high in sugar and unhealthy fats and are liable to be overconsumed. Researchers from the Department of Epidemiology and Prevention at the IRCCS Neuromed in Italy studied the effects of eating foods like that on 22,000 participants in the Moli-sani Project and published their findings in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Scientists analyzed the eating habits and health conditions of the Moli-sani participants over an eight-year period and realized those who ate high amounts of ultra-processed foods experienced the most detrimental health effects as evidenced by the increased risks of all-cause mortality and cardiovascular disease.
"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,” said study author Marialaura Bonaccio. “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."
While it’s assumed the added sugar is the main culprit, that’s not the only danger. Researcher Augusto Di Castelnuovo said, "According to our analyses, the excess of sugar does play a role, but it accounts only for 40% of the increased death risk. Our idea is that an important part is played by industrial processing itself, which is able to induce deep modifications in the structure and composition of nutrients."
Researchers believe the problem needs to be addressed head-on in order to encourage the consumption of less processed foods.
"Efforts aimed to lead the population toward a healthier diet can no longer be addressed only by calorie counting or by vague references to the Mediterranean diet,” said Licia Iacoviello. “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, which are easy to prepare and consume, extremely attractive and generally cheap. This study, and other international studies going in the same direction, tell us that minimally processed foods must be paramount for healthy nutrition. 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 are actions that will reward us over the years."