Despite common sense and the mounting body of evidence suggesting regular consumption of junk food is a sure-fire way to degrade our health, we’re still eating it to a staggering degree. In Canada, nearly half of an adult’s daily diet is comprised of ultra-processed food, according to 2017 research by Heart & Stroke.
A new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine adds to the compelling reasons to rethink both reliance on convenience foods and the social inequalities it reflects. Researchers in France tracked more than 44,000 people over seven years and found a link between eating a diet rich in heavily processed foods and risk of earlier death.
With each 10 per cent increase in the amount of ultra-processed food in a person’s diet, researchers found a 14 per cent higher risk of premature mortality. Of the 602 deaths that occurred during the study’s timeframe, 219 were attributed to cancer and 34 to cardiovascular disease.
High in salt, saturated fat and sugar, ultra-processed foods go through multiple industrial manipulations before they reach our mouths, including extrusion, hydrogenation and hydrolysis. They’re often manufactured from a dizzying array of ingredients, and contain additives for “technological and/or cosmetic purposes,” wrote the authors of the study. Our global appetite for ultra-processed food “has largely increased during the past several decades,” they added. The category includes ready-to-eat or -heat meals, snacks and desserts such as instant noodles, packaged soups, hot dogs, fish fingers, chicken nuggets, soft drinks, chips, candy, sugary breakfast cereals and much, much more.
Processes such as extrusion, hydrogenation and hydrolysis were devised to make food less perishable and more appetizing. The food industry has been so successful at the endeavour that the global ready-to-eat food market is projected to reach $258 billion by 2026, with Europe accounting for one-third of the total in 2016, an Allied Market Research report revealed.
Researchers unrelated to the study have pointed out “its many limitations,” including a vague definition of ultra-processed foods encompassing a wide range of food types. “Because so many different types of food are included in the ‘ultra-processed’ category, it’s impossible to tell which foods might have contributed to the small increased risk in deaths among the people taking part in the study,” according to analysis published on the U.K.s National Health Service website.
Nita Forouhi of the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge told The Guardian further investigation was needed, “yet we would ignore these findings at public health’s peril.” Adding, “the case against highly processed foods is mounting up, with this study adding importantly to a growing body of evidence on the health harms of ultra-processed foods.”