It turns out that eating highly processed foods can do more than cause weight gain and high blood pressure; it can put you in a grave before your time is up.
The revelation is part of a study that appeared in Monday's edition of The American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
In examining the deaths of Brazil residents between the ages of 30 and 69 in 2019, researchers found that 57,000 of them were due to high consumptions of highly processed foods, according to the study's results. That amounts to 10% of the country's premature deaths.
The investigators suggested that in high income countries such as the United States, Canada, the UK, and Australia, where ultra-processed foods account for more than half of total caloric intake, the estimated impact would be even higher.
"To our knowledge, no study to date has estimated the potential impact of ultra-processed foods on premature deaths," the study's lead author, University of São Paulo nutritionist Eduardo Nilson, said in a statement. "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."
A food is considered "ultra-processed" when it contains added sugar, salt, oils and fats, little or no whole food, and is often full of added flavors, colors, emulsifiers, and other additives for cosmetic purposes.
Ultra-processed foods have been associated with many disease outcomes, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer, as well as "preventable and premature death," Nilson said.
Among ultra-processed foods that could lead to an early death are frozen pizza, instant noodles and other pre-packaged soups and sauces, ready-to-eat meals, margarine, meat products like hot dogs, sausages and hamburgers, salted crackers and chips, sugar-sweetened beverages, ice cream, and store-bought cookies, cakes, candies and doughnuts.
According to the study, sales of highly-processed food have risen dramatically worldwide during the past decades and are gradually replacing traditional foods and meals made from fresh and minimally processed ingredients in many countries. They now may make up to half or more of the total dietary energy consumed in some high-income countries and between one-fifth and one-third of diets in middle-income countries.
Researchers say the study indicates that reducing ultra-processed food intake and promoting healthier food choices would lead to substantial health gains for the population and should be a food policy priority to reduce early death.
"Even reducing consumption of ultra-processed foods to the levels of just a decade ago would reduce associated premature deaths by 21%," Nilson said. "Policies that disincentivize the consumption of ultra-processed foods are urgently needed."