The cost of convenience

Two major new studies show that ultra-processed foods are clearly linked to dying young


There is a huge amount of research linking poor diets to poor health. Now, for the first time, scientists have formally investigated the link between highly-processed food and dying young. 

Two new studies by researchers in Europe and published this summer have clearly demonstrated that eating ultra-processed foods is linked to disease and early death. 

The NutriNet-Santé study 

Researchers based in France looked at the diets of over 45,000 people and found that for every 10% increase in processed foods, people were 14% more likely to die over the next seven years. The research was published in JAMA. 

A later paper in the BMJ reporting on the same study included 105,000 people showed similar links with diseases of the blood vessels leading to the heart and brain – which lead to stroke and heart attacks. 

Interestingly the researchers found that an otherwise healthy diet overall reduced the risk of the ultraprocessed foods, but didn’t remove it completely. 

The research was based on 24-hour diet records from people aged 45 and over as part of a study known as The NutriNet-Santé study. The researchers also took account of other things which can cause or prevent disease such as smoking and exercise. 

The Seguimiento Universidad de Navarra (SUN) study

In this study published in the BMJ, researchers in Spain looked at the diets of 20 000 university graduates. They found that eating more than four servings a day of ultra-processed foods was linked to a 62% higher risk of death than eating two servings a day. Like the French study, they found the more processed food eaten, the higher the risk. 

The graduates were aged on average 38 years and completed a dietary questionnaire as part of the SUN study. They also took account of other factors which could play a role. 

What are ultraprocessed foods? 

Ultraprocessed foods are ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat foods made from ingredients which are usually mixed with additives. For example, fizzy drinks, bread and other packaged baked goods, ready-meals containing food additives, soups which come as a powder, and reconstituted fish and meat. 

Why is ultraprocessed food so harmful? 

Ultraprocessed products are affordable, convenient and attractively packaged, so they’re understandably very popular. In many countries they make up 25-60% (well over half) of people’s energy intake. 

Unfortunately, they are also high in calories, sugar, fat, additives and salt, which raise blood pressure and cause other health problems such as high cholesterol and weight gain. They’re low in anything useful like vitamins and minerals. Together, these lead to type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and eventually strokes and heart attacks.  

Are there any limitations to the studies? 

Both of these studies were observational, meaning the researches simply recorded the diets and the health events that happened later on. This means that they can’t prove cause and effect. Even so they believe that policy makers should promote less-processed and fresh food in favour of processed food.

The researchers say that future research should explore the link further to fully understand the effects of highly processed foods – including how they cause harm, for example by affecting gut bacteria – and the effects in different populations around the world. 

Katharine Jenner, CEO of Blood Pressure UK says: 

"It’s well-known that highly-processed foods are not good for us due to their reliance on salt, sugar and fat, but this is the first time the link with early death has been demonstrated. These deaths are completely unnecessary. The food we eat is now the biggest cause of death and disability, yet food companies are still somehow immune to government intervention. 

"Action from the government and food industry is needed urgently to make healthier food available and affordable to everyone."   

Read more 

Find out more from the BMJ.