The food is full of chemicals and has always been. After all, it's chemicals. But modern "ultra-processed" food is something else – and new research shows that it can be more harmful than we suspect.
A massive new study of scientists in France examining the intake of over 44,000 French people found that consuming ultra-processed foods – including mass-produced snacks, sweet drinks and prepared meals – is associated with a higher risk of mortality.
"Ultra-processed foods are food products that contain many ingredients and are produced by a variety of industrial processes," said researchers led by nutritional epidemiologists Laura Schnabel of the University of Sorbonne.
"These foods are usually ready to be heated and fed, affordable and hypersensitive."
Comfortable and delicious can be, but the consumption of ultra-processed foods – which also includes high-processed breads, plus pastries and processed meats – is known to be problematic because it is now linked to a higher risk of obesity, hypertension and cancer.
So far, however, no one has judged separately whether eating ultra-processed foods also makes you more likely to die.
In the studied cohort, however.
Over a period of more than seven years, a 10% increase in the share of ultra-processed food consumption is associated with a 14% higher risk of all-cause mortality.
The research team is eager to emphasize that the study is a mere observation so that the causative can not be shown. But the fact that a statistically significant association is established is something to be thought of.
"We should not be alert or say eating packed meals gives you a 15% greater chance of death," said Mathilde Touvie, co-founder of the Nutrinet-Sante cohort, which they were studying.
"This is another step in our understanding of the relationship between ultra-processed foods and health."
What is certain is that ultra-processed foods contain many things that are not found in whole foods: all kinds of supplements, including preservatives, sweeteners, enhancers, colors, flavors, and so on.
They also contain a lot of energy – in the study, which represents 14.4% of the total weight of the consumed foods and beverages, but 29.1% of the total energy intake.
Ultra-processed foods are consumed disproportionately more than those with lower incomes or educational levels or those living alone, according to Nita Forouhi, an epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge, who was not part of the study.
"An extremely important message is that consumption of highly processed foods reflects social inequalities," said Foorhy.
"Such foods are attractive because they are cheaper, very tasty due to their high sugar, salt and saturated fat content, are widely available, highly sold, ready for consumption, and their consumption is long, so they last longer . "
In its present form, despite the healthy size and duration of this study, much work needs to be done to figure out why and how ultra-processed foods can be bad for us.
This is a job that is significantly more difficult because of the many foods we are talking about – not to mention the many ingredients (artificial or otherwise) containing ultra-processed foods.
"Some factors can be more harmful or less harmful than others," said Nugul Fitzgerald, of Rutgers University, who was not involved in the study.
But if you are particularly concerned about ultra-processed foods, what's in them and what they can do for you, the best approach can go back to basics the next time you're in the supermarket.
– See the list of ingredients. Do you understand all these ingredients that come into your food? Fitzgerald said. "[Buy those] with the smallest number of ingredients and ingredients you understand. "
The findings are reported in JAMA Internal Diseases,