Prepared and highly processed foods have become very common, and they've been linked to negative health effects like obesity and high blood pressure. But we all process food when we cook it, and not all processed foods are unhealthy. Some foods, like canned vegetables or tuna, are often packed at the peak of nutritional quality. The point is to try not to rely too much on highly processed or ultra-processed foods, like ready-to-eat or microwaveable foods. These convenient foods tend to be high in sugars, unhealthy fats, salt, and are typically eaten in large quantities.
New research reported in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has added evidence to the idea that highly processed foods should be avoided. The findings, which focused on more than 22,000 people in a study called the Moli-sani Project, analyzed health and food consumption data that was collected over eight years from these volunteers.
The scientists determined that people who eat a high amount of ultra-processed foods were 26 percent more likely to die of any cause, and they were 58 percent more likely to die from cardiovascular diseases than people who did not consume high amounts of ultra-processed foods.
"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," explained first study author Marialaura Bonaccio, a researcher at the Department of Epidemiology and Prevention at the I.R.C.C.S. Neuromed, in Italy. "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 sugar may be to blame for these health outcomes, and sugar levels are typically very high in ultra-processed foods, the story is probably more complex.
"According to our analyses, the excess of sugar does play a role, but it accounts only for 40 percent of the increased death risk," explained Augusto Di Castelnuovo, an epidemiologist now 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."
"Efforts aimed to lead the population towards a healthier diet can no longer be addressed only by calorie counting or by vague references to the Mediterranean diet. 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," noted Licia Iacoviello, the 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.
"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. 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."