Study finds that certain ultra-processed foods are worse for you than others

A new study has found that some ultra-processed foods are worse for you than others. News at seven, I know. But these results come from 30-years worth of research with nearly 115,000 participants who provided detailed info on their eating habits every two years in a questionnaire. By the end of the study a little less than half of the participants had, well, passed away, enabling the scientists involved to report the percentages by which certain ultra-processed foods were likely to end your life sooner. Still with me? (Though I don’t blame those of you who’ve decided to peace out and enjoy some Cheez-Its instead.) Here are more of the results:

The study: Researchers examined data collected for more than three decades on almost 75,000 women and 40,000 men, starting when participants were at least 40 years old and had no history of cancer, heart disease, or diabetes. Every two years, participants shared information about their health and completed detailed questionnaires about their eating habits. By the end of the study, a total of 48,193 people died. Participants who consumed the most ultraprocessed foods were 4 percent more likely to die during the study than people whose diets contained the smallest amounts of these foods, according to study results published in The BMJ.

A definition of ultra-processed foods: Generally speaking, ultraprocessed foods tend to be the most heavily processed packaged products available in the grocery story. These are typically industrial foods made almost entirely of substances extracted from things like oils, fats, sugars, starches, and proteins, or synthesized in labs and factories with few, if any, ingredients that come directly from natural plant or animal sources, according to a classification system developed by the United Nations.

Not all ultra-processed foods are equal: One thing the study found is that not all ultraprocessed foods are equally harmful from a longevity standpoint. For example, the study found that ultraprocessed meat, poultry, and seafood in ready-to-eat products were associated with a 13 percent higher risk of an early death. Similarly, ultraprocessed foods and sodas with added sugars or artificial sweeteners were tied to a 9 percent higher risk of premature death. Ice cream and other dairy-based desserts were linked to a 7 percent higher risk.

No simple math for years lost: However, it’s hard to translate the risk into a specific number of months or years that your life might get cut short from consuming lots of ultraprocessed foods, says senior study author Mingyang Song, MBBS, ScD, an associate professor of clinical epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “There is no simple math conversion from mortality risk to lost years of life or lost quality of life,” Dr. Song says. But if your goal is to live longer, the results do suggest that it makes sense to limit consumption of ultraprocessed foods as much as possible — especially ready-to-eat meals with processed meat and seafood, Song advises.

Build your diet with healthier processed food options: As with everything else you eat, it’s important to think about the quality of the ultraprocessed foods you consume and what nutrients they contain to help guide your choices, says Connie Diekman, RD, a food and nutrition consultation and past president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Build meals around fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, [and] lean protein choices,” advises Diekman, who wasn’t involved in the new study. Eating this way may include some healthier processed foods, like whole-grain bread, flavored yogurts, and nut milks, Diekman says. “Processing is only an issue when the nutritional quality of the food is lower than the calories the food provides,” Diekman adds.

[From Everyday Health]

By my advanced mathematical calculations from reading this, it defies logic and the laws of percentages that I’m still alive. So I’m taking it as a win! Ugh, this is NOT what I want to see heading into summer! I want to enjoy my hot dogs, my frozen crinkle cut fries that bake in the oven, my Coca Colas, my ice cream cones on a 93-degree day with humidity. Let me have these simple pleasures, please!! But fine, if the world insists on shaming me into having a healthier, longer life, I guess I can try. I’ve already been drinking more water this year. True, it was in an attempt to justify my potato chip intake, but it still counts! And I’ve actually been mostly off meat for about four years now (doing my part to cut down on methane gas). As with anything, it can feel overwhelming when you think of all the pieces that need to be changed. I’ll cling to small steps — like more water and less-to-maybe-no soda at all — as a way to get started. And I’ll still be staying the hell away from Lunchables.

PS — Why were there nearly double women participants than men in the study? It’s weird, right?

Photos credit: Pixabay and Eva Bonzini on Pexels, Tyson on Unsplash

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13 Responses to “Study finds that certain ultra-processed foods are worse for you than others”

  1. ME says:

    You may live longer but will it be a better life lol? I don’t drink, smoke, or do drugs. Let me have my chips and ice cream. Plus the world is going to hell anyways. I can’t imagine being 90 and living in a hellscape.

  2. Sarah says:

    While I don’t dispute that minimally processed foods are better for you than ultra processed , I think there is an element of money here that isn’t always addressed in these kinds of studies. Not everyone has access to fresh, unprocessed food or the skills to turn those foods into meals.

    • Michel says:


    • Bklne says:

      Skills is part of it. Another HUGE part is time. An additional factor is access to enough of a kitchen setup that you can cook effectively – it doesn’t need to be fancy, but you need a cutting board and a decent knife, pots and pans, etc. And you also have to factor in the cleanup. Scratch cooking is great, but the ability to do it depends on having ALL of the above.

      Another issue is that if you’re trying to feed kids on a limited income, it’s risky to spend money on foods your kids may refuse to eat. Ultra-processed foods are hyper-palatable. No, they are not as healthy, but the parents know the kids will eat them and get calories, and the food won’t go to waste. I have a lot of empathy for lower-income families wrestling with how to feed themselves and doing their best in a messed-up environment.

  3. Ivan says:

    Very inspiring!

  4. Rnot says:

    I’ve given up sweetened beverages entirely. I’ve cut down on meat. I avoid most prepackaged foods. You’ll pry my bacon and ice cream from my cold dead hands! Some foods are non-negotiable. Some foods are mildly pleasurable but not really worth the downsides. Our food industrial complex is genuinely more frightening than our military industrial complex. Henry Dimbleby wrote a book called “Ravenous” that’s a real eye-opener.

    • Ciotog says:

      Bacon and even ice cream are not ultra-processed. They’re talking about stuff like Cool Whip and diet soda.

  5. tealily says:

    Hey, I’m just glad that women were included at all! Give me the women’s health data!

    I’d be interested in hearing about the rest of their diets. Like, were they still more likely to day if they were eating the ultra-processed foods in addition to a healthy, balanced diet, or only if that’s all they were eating? How do ultra-processed vegan meat alternatives stack up against ultra-processed meat?

  6. Hmmm says:

    As someone involved in (mostly behavioral) health research for 25+ years, it’s a fact that more women sign up for studies now, and attrition is higher among men. So I’m not surprised by that.

  7. Libra says:

    I see nothing wrong with a hot dog and roasted marshmallows over the backyard fire pit in the summer by the lake. Memories, grandchildren and wet towels.

  8. cg says:

    Sadly, was actually eating Cheez-Its during my lunch as I read this article.

  9. FlamingHotCheetos2021 says:

    Your frozen crinkle cut fries are probably one of the least processed ‘processed foods’ you eat. It’s literally just potato, cut into a shape.

  10. Cass says:

    Historically, women have been poorly represented in health studies. It’s about time we’re included and don’t have to rely on information from studies done largely on male population. We are not the same

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