A study published Monday revealed an alarming statistic: Eating a lot of unhealthy, “ultraprocessed” foods may shorten your life. Specifically, researchers found that a 10% increase in the consumption of ultraprocessed foods was significantly associated with a 14% higher risk of death from all causes.
Eating a lot of ultraprocessed foods could be a marker for other unhealthy habits, such as lack of exercise or smoking, which may have also contributed to the findings, though researchers say they took these confounding factors into account. Still, it behooves us to learn what exactly it means when we say foods are processed, and “ultraprocessed.”
Processed foods defined
Minimally processed foods retain most of their inherent nutritional and physical properties, and include washed and precut fruits and vegetables, bagged salads and roasted nuts. Those, along with foods processed to help preserve and enhance nutrients and freshness of foods at their peak — such as canned tuna, beans and tomatoes, as well as frozen fruits and vegetables — are healthful and offer important nutrients.
Other minimally processed foods — and therefore healthier — include sauces and dressings, as well as cereals, crackers, nut butters, yogurt and milk fortified with calcium and vitamin D.
It’s the more heavily processed foods, also known as “ultraprocessed” foods, that are the “problem” processed foods. They are formulations of salt, sugar, oils and fats, as well as flavors, colors and other additives and are mostly consumed in the form of snacks, desserts, and ready-to-eat and -heat meals.
Ultraprocessed foods are industrial formulations that typically contain five or more ingredients, and may contain, for example, hydrogenated oils, dyes or flavor enhancers that are not found in other processed foods.
Ultraprocessed foods you should limit
The source of this food category is the NOVA food classification system — a tool for nutrition and public health research, policy and action that was used in the study published in JAMA Internal Medicine. It categorizes foods according to the nature, extent and purpose of processing. Here’s a list of some common ultraprocessed foods:
Sweet or savory packaged snacks
Margarines and spreads
Cookies, pastries and cakes
Meat and chicken extracts
“Health” and “slimming” products such as powdered or “fortified” meal and dish substitutes
Pre-made pies, pasta and pizza dishes
Poultry and fish “nuggets” and “sticks”
Powdered and packaged “instant” soups, noodles and desserts
According to one NOVA’s reports, “the formulation and the ingredients of these products make them highly convenient (ready-to-consume), highly attractive (hyper-palatable), highly profitable (low cost ingredients), and — of great importance — highly competitive with foods that are naturally ready to consume and freshly prepared dishes and meals.”
Before you empty your entire pantry or fridge, let me remind you that these foods can be enjoyed in moderation. I’m certainly not ridding my diet of ice cream, which I enjoy in small portions. But this list is a reminder of foods that we may be eating a little too much of, especially if we are hoping to live a longer, healthier life.