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Eating higher amounts of ultra-processed food increases the risk of being diagnosed with multimorbidity, or multiple chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, a new study has found.
“What is particularly important in this large study is that eating more highly processed foods, particularly animal products and sugary drinks, is associated with an increased risk of developing cancer along with another disease such as stroke or diabetes,” said Helen Crocker, assistant director of research and policy at the International Fund for Cancer Research, which funded the study, in a statement.
However, the increased risk is modest, said Tom Sanders, emeritus professor of nutrition and dietetics at King’s College London, who was not involved in the study.
“This article reports a 9% increase in the risk of multimorbidity associated with higher intake of ultra-processed food,” Sanders said in a statement.
“Food intake was measured by a questionnaire once a long time ago. This is important because dietary patterns have changed quite significantly over the past twenty-five years with more food being eaten outside the home and more convenience foods being purchased,” Sanders said.
While the study can’t definitively prove that ultra-processed foods are the direct cause of the host of diseases, a large body of other research shows a link between certain ultra-processed foods (UPF) and health damage, said nutrition researcher Ian Johnson, an emeritus fellow at Quadram Institute Bioscience in Norwich, UK. He did not participate in the research.
“Taken with all the other scientific evidence, it is very likely that some types of UPF increase the risk of later disease, either because they are directly harmful or because they replace healthier foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, olive oil, etc. n.,” Johnson said in a statement.
The study’s findings are troubling because in Europe, highly processed foods make up “more than half of our daily food intake,” co-author Heinz Freisling, a nutrition and metabolism scientist at the International Agency for Research on Cancer, said in a statement. In the United States, a 2019 study estimated that about 71% of the food supply may be over-processed.
Ultra-processed foods contain ingredients “that are never or rarely used in kitchens, or classes of additives whose function is to make the final product palatable or more appealing,” according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
The list of additives includes preservatives to resist mold and bacteria; emulsifiers that keep incompatible ingredients from separating; artificial colors and dyes; Antifoaming agents, fillers, whitening, gelling and glazing agents; and added or altered sugar, salt and fat designed to make food more palatable.
The study, published Monday in the journal The Lancet, collected information on the diets of 266,666 men and women from seven European countries between 1992 and 2000. Researchers followed participants for 11 years to see who developed various chronic diseases, including crab.
When they entered the study, each person was asked to recall what they typically ate in the past 12 months, and the researchers categorized foods using the NOVA classification system, which looks beyond nutrients to how foods are prepared.
“To assess it, researchers had to break down foods into different ingredients to try to determine whether or not they were over-processed,” said Dwayne Mellor, a registered dietitian and senior lecturer at the Aston School of Medicine in Birmingham, UK. Mellor was not involved in the study.
“This approach, especially since the food data is up to 30 years old, can make this type of interpretation of historical data using a modern definition open to errors,” Mellor said in a statement.
When ultra-processed foods were examined by subgroup, not all appeared to be linked to the development of multiple chronic diseases, said lead author Reynalda Cordova, a postdoctoral fellow in pharmaceutical, nutritional and sports sciences at the University of Vienna.
“While some groups, such as animal products and artificially and sugar-sweetened beverages, were associated with increased risk, other groups, such as ultra-processed breads and cereals or plant-based alternatives, showed no association with risk,” Cordova said in a statement .
“Our study highlights that it is not necessary to completely avoid ultra-processed foods; rather, their consumption should be limited and preference should be given to fresh or minimally processed foods,” co-author Freisling said in a statement.