We’ve all heard it before: what we eat has a big impact on our health, and we should limit the amount of processed foods we consume.
In fact, two new studies published in journal The BMJ have found a link between what we classify as ‘ultra-processed’ foods and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and death.
The first, carried out by scientists in France and Brazil, reported a 10% increase in the amount of highly processed food in the diet was linked with a 12% increased risk of cardiovascular disease, 13% increase of coronary heart disease and 11% of cerebrovascular diseases.
The other study, by researchers in Spain, found that eating more than four servings of ultra-processed food per day was linked with a 62% increase in death from any cause, compared to those who ate two servings or less.
Although the researchers say more evidence is needed to understand the effects of highly-processed foods, the study highlights a worrying potential link between a high intake of packaged snacks and ready meals, and life expectancy.
The solution? Eat fresh where possible, and avoid ultra-processed foods where you can. Rather confusingly though, not every food that comes in packaging is inherently bad for you.
What is an ultra-processed food?
We tend to view foods in two categories: ‘processed’ and ‘unprocessed’. A cauliflower is unprocessed, but a frozen lasagne is processed, right? But actually, a ‘processed’ food is just any food that has been altered in some way during preparation.
For instance, canned beans, frozen veggies, cheese and tofu are foods that have been deliberately processed, but not in a way that’s detrimental to health. Not all processed foods are bad for us, and some foods need processing to make them safe, such as milk, which needs to be pasteurised.
‘Ultra-processed’ foods are the ones to be weary of – these have been manufactured through multiple industrial processes (like moulding and milling) and are often ready-to-eat or heat.
High amounts of salt, sugar and fat are often added to ultra-processed foods to add flavour, make them last longer, or contribute to the food’s structure. Eating these foods can lead to people unwittingly eating more than the recommended amounts of salt, sugar and fat per day.
Here are a few highly-processed foods that we should probably try and avoid or cut down on…
1. Sweetened cereal and cereal bars
2. Sausages and hamburgers
3. Packaged snack cakes
5. Instant noodles and soup
6. Fizzy drinks
7. Oven chips