The food is full of chemicals and always has been. After all, everything is chemical products. But modern "ultra-processed" food is something else again, and new research suggests it could be more harmful than we suspect.
A new massive study by scientists in France who examined the dietary intake of more than 44,000 French adults found that consumption of ultra-processed foods, including mass-produced snacks, sugar-sweetened beverages and prepared foods, was associated with an increased risk of mortality.
"Ultra-processed foods are food products that contain multiple ingredients and are manufactured through a multitude of industrial processes," explain the researchers, led by nutritional epidemiologist Laure Schnabel of the Sorbonne University, in their article.
"These food products are generally ready to heat and eat, they are affordable and hyperpapable."
They can be convenient and tasty, but it is known that the consumption of ultra-processed foods (which also include highly processed breads, plus confectionery and processed meats) is problematic, as it has been linked to an increased risk of things like obesity, hypertension and cancer.
Until now, however, no one had evaluated separately whether eating ultra-processed foods also made you more likely to die.
In the studied cohort, however, he did.
Over a period of more than seven years, a 10 percent increase in the proportion of ultra-processed food consumption was associated with a 14 percent greater risk of all-cause mortality.
The research team is eager to emphasize that the study was only observational, so a causal effect can not be demonstrated. But the fact that a statistically significant association has been found is something to think about.
"We should not be alarmist, or say that eating a packed lunch gives you 15 percent more chance of dying," Mathilde Touvier, co-investigator of the NutriNet-Santé cohort who studied, told AFP.
"It's another step in our understanding of the link between ultra-processed food and health."
What is certain is that ultra-processed foods contain many things that are not found in whole foods: all kinds of additives, including preservatives, sweeteners, intensifiers, colors, flavors, etc.
They also contain a lot of energy: in the study, which accounts for 14.4 percent of the total weight of food and beverages consumed, but 29.1 percent of the total energy intake.
According to epidemiologist Nita Forouhi of the University of Cambridge, who was not part of the study, ultra-processed foods are also consumed disproportionately more by people with lower incomes or education levels, or those who live alone.
"A vital message to bear is that the consumption of highly processed foods reflects social inequalities," says Forouhi.
"Such foods are attractive because they tend to be cheaper, they are very tasty due to the high content of sugar, salt and saturated fats, they are widely available, they are highly commercialized, they are ready to eat, and their dates of use are long, so that last longer. "
As it stands, despite the robust size and duration of this particular investigation, there is much work to be done to finally unravel why and how ultra-processed foods can be bad for us.
It is a job that is made much more difficult due to the multitude of food products that we are talking about, not to mention the multitude of ingredients (artificial or otherwise) that contain ultra-processed foods.
"Some factors may be more harmful or less harmful than others," said nutritional scientist Nurgul Fitzgerald of Rutgers University, who was not involved in the research.
But if you're especially concerned about ultra-processed foods, what they contain and what they might be doing with you, the best approach might be to go back to basics the next time you're in the supermarket.
"Look at the list of ingredients – do you understand all the ingredients that go into your food?" Fitzgerald said. "[Buy those] with the least amount of ingredients and with ingredients that you understand. "
The findings are reported in Jama internal medicine.