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Ultra-processed foods linked to heart disease, cancer, and death, studies show


Sep. 10, 2022 Medical News Today

The food we eat can play a much greater role in health and longevity than many people may realize. In fact, previous research suggests that 1 in 5 deaths around the world could be prevented by improving diet. 

Now, two new studies recently published in the journal The BMJ examine the effects of ultra-processed foods on certain health conditions. 

In one study, researchers from Tufts University found that a diet high in ultra-processed foods increases the risk for colorectal cancer in men.

Another study from a research team at IRCCS Neuromed in Pozzilli, Italy says that adults with the lowest-quality diet and highest ultra-processed food consumption have an increased risk for heart disease and all-cause mortality.

What are ultra-processed foods?

Ultra-processed foods are a category of the NOVA food classification system designed by researchers from the Center for Epidemiological Studies in Health and Nutrition at the School of Public Health at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil.

The NOVA system classifies foods into four different groups: 

  • Group 1: unprocessed or minimally processed foods
  • Group 2: processed culinary ingredients (oils, fats, salt, and sugar)
  • Group 3: processed foods
  • Group 4: ultra-processed foods

Ultra-processed foods include products made in an industrial setting from ingredients that are mostly or entirely made in a laboratory or extracted from foods. 

In general, ultra-processed foods can be identified in a product if at least one item on its list of ingredients is characteristic of the ultra-processed food group, which is defined by the following:

  • ingredients commonly found in processed foods, like sugars, fats, and preservatives
  • additives designed to imitate natural unprocessed foods
  • flavor enhancers, colorings, and other additives
  • ingredients made through the synthesis of food constituents, like maltodextrin, high-fructose corn syrup, modified starch, and hydrogenated fats

Examples of ultra-processed foods include: 

  • sodas and sweetened juices
  • sports and energy drinks
  • energy bars
  • powdered and instant soups
  • margarine
  • mass-produced and packaged bread and baked goods made with hydrogenated fats, sugar, and additives
  • pre-prepared meals such as pizza, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, and fish sticks
  • infant formulas
  • meal replacement beverages 
  • mass-produced ice cream
  • candies
  • sweetened yogurt
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