Ultra-processed food linked to early death: What they are, and how to spot them

Ultra-processed foods like bacon, bread and ice cream could be linked to early death, according to new research.

The amount of these types of food we are eating has increased rapidly in recent years according to scientists in Spain and France, who conducted the studies.

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And the new findings come just after recent reports that ultra-processed foods lead to overeating.

What are ultra-processed foods?

The classification is determined by how much industrial processing the food item has been through.

Items such as milk, vegetables, meat, legumes, grains and eggs are all unprocessed or minimally processed.

Processed foods are classified as those that have been altered to make them last longer and taste better.

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They can include popular items such as chicken nuggets, bacon, bread, breakfast cereals, fizzy drinks, hamburgers, sausages, tinned fruits and vegetables and ready-to-heat foods like pies and pizzas.

How can you spot ultra-processed foods?

To be considered ultra-processed, the food in question needs to have been through substantial industrial processing.

If it has a long ingredient lists on the packet, including colourings and preservatives, then it’s probably an ultra-processed food.

In fact, researchers say that if a product contains more than five ingredients it is considered ultra-processed.

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However, the labelling of food as ultra-processed could be inconsistent, said Dr Gunter Kuhnle, an expert in nutrition and health at the University of Reading.

"It is also not obvious why salami is considered to be ultra-processed, yet cheese, which often requires considerably more processing steps and additives, is not.

“The classification combines a wide range of foods with very different potential impacts on health, which limits its usefulness as a basis for recommendations."

How dangerous is ultra-processed food?

The first study by the University of Navarra in Spain, followed 19,899 people for 10 years and assessed their diet every other year.

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335 people died during the study and for every 10 deaths among those eating the least amount of ultra-processed food, there were 16 deaths among those eating the most (more than four portions a day).

The second study, by the University of Paris, followed 105,159 people for five years and assessed their diet twice a year.

This study found that those eating more ultra-processed food had worse heart health.

However, while these studies identify a pattern between ultra-processed foods and poor health, it’s not conclusive that one causes the other.

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They also took into account that those who ate more unhealthy food also more often had other unhealthy habits such as smoking.

The study by the US National Institutes of Health also found that people eating ultra-processed meals often ate up to 500 calories more than when they ate unprocessed food.

It suggested that the ultra-processed food is high in energy but lacking in nutrients and fibre, and also contains more additives.

Another suggestion was that people favoured the ultra-processed foods, and that as a result, fruits and vegetables were being pushed out of many people’s diets.

All the studies referenced in this article were published in the British Medical Journal.

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