Ultra-Processed Food Linked to Heart Disease, Cancer, and 30 Other Health Conditions, Study Suggests

But before you clean out your pantry and fridge, here’s what a dietitian wants you to know.

<p>Getty Images</p>

Getty Images

Individuals who fuel up with more ultra-processed foods (UPFs) might be increasing their risk for 32 different physical and mental health conditions, according to a February 2024 study published in The BMJ.

The meta-analysis, essentially a study of the results of other studies, involved information from more than 9.8 million participants who had completed food frequency questionnaires, dietary histories, and 24-hour dietary recalls. After diving into all of that data, the researchers found that those who ate more UPFs appeared to be more likely to be diagnosed with everything from breast and colorectal cancer to heart disease, depression, asthma, and more at some point during their lifespans.

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These findings could seem pretty frightening, considering the fact that about 73% of America’s food supply is UPFs, and more than 60% of the daily energy intake in our country comes courtesy of UPFs. But before you start cleaning out your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer and shopping for a totally new supply, we spoke with a dietitian to help translate the study and bring the results back down to earth.

What are ultra-processed foods, exactly?

While “processed food” has developed a negative reputation, food processing has been around for centuries and is a necessary part of the cooking and eating process. In fact, without processing our food, we likely wouldn't be able to feed ourselves consistently—or get the nutrition from our food in some cases, confirms Caroline Thomason, RD, CDCES, a Warrenton, Virginia-based registered dietitian and diabetes educator.

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Take bread. We process wheat to transform it into flour, which can be utilized to feed that sourdough starter that becomes your homemade bread. Technically, that’s processed. If we just ate the raw flour, that could lead to foodborne illness. Or eggs. Before they’re packed into a carton, they’re washed and pasteurized, which drastically reduces the chances that we’ll get Salmonella.

Morac/Pixabay Ultra-processed foods are typically high in fat, salt, and sugar — and are linked to several health conditions.
Morac/Pixabay Ultra-processed foods are typically high in fat, salt, and sugar — and are linked to several health conditions.

Yogurt, canned and frozen vegetables, cheese, and milk all go through some amount of processing so that we can eat them — and these can all be tremendously health-supporting foods, Thomason says.

According to the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Global Research Food Program, foods can be categorized as minimally processed, processed ingredients, processed foods, or ultra-processed foods.

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So what sets UPFs apart? The recipes are generally high in salt, sugar, and fat, “with a hefty dose of additives that are sometimes hard to pronounce thrown in,” Thomason continues. This makes them frequently hyper-palatable.

“Consider the Cheeto: Cheetos are perfectly dusty and immediately start melting when they hit your tongue,” Thomason explains. “It doesn't take more than a couple of bites before we have completely dissolved a Cheeto and we’re ready for another handful. This is hyper-palatability: the science behind making food so oh-so-delicious that we barely need to chew it. Plus, it hits the reward centers in our brains in a way that makes us crave more.”

Other examples of UPFs include chicken nuggets, soft drinks, packaged cookies and crackers, frozen dinners, and boxed cereal.

What can this study teach us IRL?

When you realize that ultra-processed foods are often high in calories, easy to overindulge, and a significant source of salt, sugar, and that, it shouldn't come as a surprise that eating too many of these UPFs in your diet might come with negative health outcomes, Thomason admits.

However, labeling foods as “good” or “bad” is not typically a helpful way to look at nutrition. True, overeating ultra-processed foods may have some negative health consequences, and it’s a good idea to lean into a menu that’s rich in plant foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds. But some people may require the extra calories UPFs offer (such as athletes and those with texture and sensory disorders) and wouldn't be able to consume food without choosing ultra-processed options.

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“Ultra-processed foods are part of modern-day American culture, and they're here to stay,” Thomason adds, which means “it's not realistic to cut these foods out completely, and choosing them from time to time likely will not have a significant impact on your health.”

“Finding a healthy balance of how you include these foods into your diet is important for your relationship with food and getting enough vitamin P: that’s P for pleasure,” concludes Thomason. “These foods are delicious and for the overwhelming majority of Americans, it doesn't make sense to never eat them.” (What is a birthday without cake, after all?)

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According to Pete Wilde, professor and emeritus fellow at Quadram Institute Bioscience in the United Kingdom, who reviewed the results, “it is also important to consider that most foods contain components that can have health benefits as well as components that can be detrimental to health.”

Translation: Everything we consume has pros and cons.

Villainizing all UPFs is less helpful than honing in on the ideal balance that allows us to still enjoy life while supporting a long, healthy, and vital life. If you’re unsure of where to start, consider these pro tips from the CDC:

  • Fuel up with fiber-rich whole grains

  • Bolster your bones with dairy products (as long as you’re not allergic or intolerant) and other calcium-rich foods

  • Aim to paint your plate with color from natural foods like fresh herbs, fruits, and vegetables

  • Consume a variety of protein sources

  • Limit added sugars and sodium

  • Drink mainly water

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