Ultra-processed foods can increase risk of early death, study finds

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Dive Brief:

  • French researchers published a study Monday in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal that found for every 10% increase in the amount of ultra-processed foods consumers eat, there is a 14% higher risk of early death.
  • The study also found that consumption of ultra-processed foods has increased significantly over the last several decades to now more than 29% of total calories consumed. Most of these foods are ingested as snacks, desserts or ready-to-eat meals. Higher processed food consumption was linked to younger ages, lower incomes, lower educational levels, living alone, higher BMIs and lower physical activity levels.
  • The researchers used 44,551 French adults 45 and older for two years to conduct this study. All of them gave 24-hour dietary records every six months and completed questionnaires about their health. The authors of the research say that further studies are needed to confirm these results.

Dive Insight:

In recent years, processed foods have gained a bad rap as consumers grow more wary of unpronounceable ingredients. The movement has gained such steam that now, 91% of U.S. consumers believe food and beverage options with recognizable ingredients are healthier, according to Innova.

But that doesn’t mean that people don’t still indulge. There are plenty of edible options available that contain high percentages of additives used for technological or cosmetic purposes — including emulsifiers, preservatives and saturated fat. With consumers finding themselves ever more pressed for time, it can be tempting to just reach for an easy, packaged meal rather than taking the time to cook in the kitchen. The result is an increased incidence of noncommunicable diseases, like obesity, which has jumped considerably in the U.S. during the last 25 years.

Still, as the first study to directly compare processed foods with early death rates, other scientists and researchers told CNN that it is difficult to draw firm conclusions from the study. They found this to be the case due to the fact that the “ultra-processed” foods category was so large, ranging from packet soups to chocolate bars.

Nevertheless, the findings seem in line with what governments and regulatory bodies have been saying for decades. In fact, as early as 2014, some Latin American countries took the threat of highly processed foods so seriously that they enacted a new labeling system that forced food manufacturers to prominently display warning labels on their packaging if the product was high in sugar, salt, calories or fat. Chile also went as far as to ban advertising unhealthy products to children. In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration issued changes on Nutritional Facts labels that go into effect in 2020 and 2021.

While this study is significant, others will need to replicate the findings for them to have a widespread ripple effect within food manufacturing. This study did not include research on young people. Out of the 44,551 French adults that were monitored, the average age was 57 and nearly 73% of the participants were women.

Still, the study shows that consumers are becoming curious about the link between packaged food and long-term effects on health, so CPG companies should take note. Already, some strides toward less processing have been made by manufacturers. One significant change is premium and clear packaging which allows consumers to see what the food or beverage itself looks like while boosting the perception of a brand’s transparency.

Taste remains king though, especially for snacks, which tend to be highly processed. A study from Amplify Snack Brands — now part of Hershey — found 89% of millennials say they first and foremost want a snack that tastes good. For change to come, consumers and governments are going to have to be relentless in their pressure on CPG companies to create products that not only reduce the number of harmful chemicals and additives but also maintain an appealing taste profile.

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