Is it possible to avoid ultra-processed foods? Here’s why we should try

A new study finds a correlation between some ultra-processed foods and increased health risks.

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There may be some ultra-processed foods that are better to avoid than others. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

While they didn’t become a standard part of the human diet until the late 18th to early 19th century, in recent years, unhealthy, processed, and ultra-processed foods have become not only the norm but the subject of much scrutiny.

Numerous studies have examined their impact on autoimmune disorders, cancer, and heart disease. Other researchers have found links between high consumption of ultra-processed foods and poor mental and cognitive health. Then, there are whole-food gurus like Tabitha Brown who are throwing out the salt along with other processed foods.

Those warnings against overconsuming ultra-processed foods and ingredients may have just received another confirmation.

According to a new study published Wednesday in the British Medical Journal, there are several ultra-processed foods that may be best to avoid altogether. The study, which looked at data collected from 100,000 health professionals in the United States with no history of cancer, cardiovascular disease, or diabetes over a 30-year period, found there may be some ultra-processed foods that pose a significant risk.

The data, collected from 1986 to 2018, provided information on participants’ health and lifestyle habits every two years; every four years, participants completed an in-depth food questionnaire. Those who ate the least ultra-processed foods ate roughly three servings a day, while those who ate the most averaged seven servings a day.

Significantly, those who ate the most had a 4% higher risk of deaths by any cause, including a 9% increased risk of neurodegenerative deaths, the data showed.

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Ultra-processed foods, according to the National Library of Medicine, are a class of food with an evolving definition that presently refers to foods prepared with ingredients or additives not commonly used when cooking, but are later added as a means of improving taste.

Such additives have become so widely used that compiling a complete list is impossible. Given how pervasive they are, avoiding them in full is also a fool’s errand.

“Cereals [and] whole grain breads, for example, they are also considered ultra-processed food, but they contain various beneficial nutrients like fiber, vitamins and minerals,” lead study author Dr. Mingyang Song, an associate professor of clinical epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health, told CNN

He continued, “On the other hand, I do think people should try to avoid or limit the consumption of certain ultra-processed foods, such as processed meat, sugar-sweetened beverages and also potentially artificially sweetened beverages.”

Ultimately, Song explained, researchers found the most important factor in reducing the risk of death and diseases rests in the overall quality of a person’s diet. 

“If people maintain a generally healthy diet, I don’t think they need to be like scared or be freaked out,” he said. “The overall dietary pattern is still the predominant factor determining the health outcomes.”