At least one in FIVE premature deaths are directly linked to ultra-processed foods

At least one in FIVE premature deaths are directly linked to ultra-processed foods like pizza, cakes and soda

  • Around 57k Brazilian deaths were tied to diets made up of ultra-processed food
  • This accounted for more than 10 per cent of deaths among adults 30 to 69
  • Ultra-processed foods run the gamut from meats to cereals to cakes 

Up to one in five premature deaths are directly linked to ultra-processed foods, a first-of-its-kind study has found.

Calorie-dense foods such as pizza, cakes and hot dogs are often packed with sugar, salt and fat – which raise the risk of obesity, heart disease and other chronic illnesses.

Researchers in Brazil estimated that in 2019, the deaths of around 57,000 Brazilian people between the ages of 30 and 69 were attributable to highly processed snacks.

That amounted to nearly 22 per cent of deaths from preventable diseases among that age group, and 10 per cent of all premature deaths.

The experts said in high-income countries like the US, Canada and the UK — where junk food consumption is higher — the estimated impact would be even greater. 

Lead study author Dr Eduardo Nilson, a nutritionist at the University of São Paulo, said: ‘Consumption of UPFs is associated with many disease outcomes, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some cancers, and other diseases, and it represents a significant cause of preventable and premature deaths among Brazilian adults.’

He added: ‘To our knowledge, no study to date has estimated the potential impact of UPFs on premature deaths. 

‘Knowing the deaths attributable to the consumption of these foods and modeling how changes in dietary patterns can support more effective food policies might prevent disease and premature deaths.’

In 2019, over 10 per cent of deaths among Brazilians aged 30 -69 were attributed to diets made up of ultra-processed foods such as fozen meals, meats, sugary drinks, and cakes

What are ultra-processed foods? 

A processed food has been altered in some way during its preparation.

This can be via freezing, canning, baking or drying.

Examples include breakfast cereals, pastries, potato chips, frozen meals, cakes, bread, and pre-packaged meats 

Processed foods are not necessarily unhealthy unless sugar, salt or fat are added to make them more palatable or extend their shelf life.

This can lead to people eating more than the recommended allowance of sugar, salt and fat a day as they unaware of the levels in processed foods.

People can reduce their intake by reading nutrition labels on processed products to check their fat, salt and sugar content.

Cooking food from scratch also gives people more control over their diets.

It is worth noting some healthy foods require processing, such as pressing olives to make oil.

Ultra-processed foods typically have more artificial ingredients than natural ones and are made from substances extracted from foods, such as fats, starches, added sugars, and hydrogenated fats.

High-processed foods run the gamut from cheeses to meats, to cereals to pizza, and have long been considered less healthy alternatives to natural whole foods.

The study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, used data from a national dietary survey to estimate processed food intake by sex and age.

They then drew on a Cambridge University analysis which compared the risk of death in people who consumed large amounts to people who ate relatively little.

The researchers applied the findings to Brazil’s population.

Reducing the consumption of over-processed junk foods by 10 to 50 per cent could prevent as many as 29,300 premature deaths in Brazil each year.

‘Even reducing consumption of UPFs [ultra-processed foods] to the levels of just a decade ago would reduce associated premature deaths by 21 per cent,’ Dr Nilson said.

‘Policies that disincentivize the consumption of UPFs are urgently needed.’

The toll that ultra-processed food takes on a population’s diet is likely much higher in the US where people consume far more of those products than people in Brazil.

Roughly 57 per cent of the American diet is made up of ultra-processed foods while nutritious whole foods account for less than 28 per cent of calories consumed.

Doctors have long known that diets made up primarily of processed foods were linked to more chronic diseases and shorter lifespans. 

A recent study of more than 22,000 people found that those who maintained an ultra-processed diet had a 19 percent higher likelihood of early death and a 32 percent higher risk of death due to heart disease compared with people who ate a more wholesome diet and fewer processed foods.

Eating ultra processed foods has also been linked to higher instances of colorectal cancer according to the American Cancer Society and the World Health Organization.