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These are the least healthy ultraprocessed foods, according to a new study

A new study found that certain types of ultraprocessed foods have a greater impact on your risk of death than other types.
/ Source: TODAY

We all know that ultraprocessed foods aren’t the healthiest choice, but a new study has found that some can have worse effects on your health than others.

Published in The BMJ on May 8, 2024, the research followed for more than 30 years more than 100,000 people who'd never had cancer, heart disease or diabetes. The data looked at lifestyle and dietary habits, and tracked how their health changed. Study authors concluded that eating more ultraprocessed food led to a slightly higher risk of death, but that certain types of processed foods had an especially strong link.

Ultraprocessed foods are easy to grab in the grocery store without realizing it. So what are some examples of processed foods? And how do they impact your health? Here's what to know.

What are ultraprocessed foods?

Ultraprocessed foods have undergone an extensive transformation of the original food and often contain only extractions of it.

A 2019 commentary in the journal Public Health Nutrition defined ultraprocessed foods as “industrial formulations of processed food substances (oils, fats, sugars, starch, protein isolates) that contain little or no whole food and typically include flavorings, colorings, emulsifiers, and other cosmetic additives.”

Examples include meat products like ham and hot dogs, potato chips, soda, commercial bread, candy and more.

The difference between whole, processed and ultraprocessed foods

Processed food, on the other hand, has undergone only some processing from its original, natural state. This could be adding salt, sugar or other additives to ensure freshness. Examples include fruit juice, refined flour, canned fish and beans, fresh bread, cheese and pre-cut fruits and vegetables.

Whole foods, as the name implies, have gone through either no or minimal processing. A key indicator of whole foods is that most to all of their nutrient density (vitamins, minerals and fiber) remains intact. Examples include steel-cut oats, whole fruits and vegetables, raw nuts and seeds, grains such as quinoa or wild rice, dry beans and legumes, fatty wild fish, lean poultry or meat, and yogurt.

What are the health effects of eating ultraprocessed foods?

A handful of corn chips during a football game or a store-bought cookie after dinner won’t make a huge difference in your overall health. However, when these foods become staples in your diet, research shows that adverse physical and mental health implications may arise.

In fact, one February 2024 study found that eating ultraprocessed foods can lead to 32 different dangerous health outcomes.

Poor mental health

A 2022 cross-sectional examination in the journal Public Health Nutrition found that individuals who consumed the greatest amount of ultraprocessed foods were significantly more likely to report mild depression and more anxious days per month. The authors noted that the associations with adverse mental health outcomes and ultraprocessed foods might be due to higher amounts of biologically active food additives and low-essential nutrients. 

Another study published in the August 2023 issue of the Journal of Affective Orders found that high consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with depressive symptoms, especially in people with obesity.

Increased risk of cancer and other fatal conditions

A 2022 study published in The BMJ found that men who ate a large amount of ultraprocessed foods had a 29% greater risk of colorectal cancer than those who had smaller amounts. The men with the highest ultraprocessed-food intake ate mostly ready-to-eat products derived from meat, poultry or fish. Another study in the BMJ found that consumption of highly processed foods was linked with higher mortality risk, especially from cardiovascular disease.

Excess ultraprocessed food consumption has also been linked to obesity, heart disease, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and early death.

How much ultraprocessed food is safe to eat?

Recent research on ultraprocessed foods clearly shows the greater the consumption, the greater the risk. That means that occasionally having ultraprocessed food is not likely to lead to early death — rather, it’s when you're eating these foods much more than nutrient-rich whole foods that it becomes a problem.

A good rule is to make 85% of your diet nutrient-dense and consider the remaining 15% percent your allowance for everything else. The goal should be finding a ratio that's sustainable, not perfect.

How to avoid ultraprocessed foods

Completely avoiding all ultraprocessed foods may not be realistic for everyone due to budget or time constraints. So it’s important to assess the level of processing and nutritional value. Some healthy cereals and whole grains may be considered ultraprocessed, but they can still contain important micro and macronutrients.

And the level of processing can vary even among sources of the same food. For example, a burger cooked at home has different nutritional value and processing from one bought frozen from the store, which is different from those sold at a fast-food restaurants. Processing of general snack foods may vary as well based on brand.

If you're looking to avoid ultraprocessed foods, skip those that meet these factors:

  • A long list of ingredients not found in the average kitchen and that the average consumer won't recognize, such as colorings, preservatives and other additives
  • Foods that have been stripped of fiber
  • Foods that contain large quantities of calories, fat, sugar or salt
  • Foods low in cost, convenient, easy to prepare and difficult to stop eating

What are examples of ultraprocessed foods?

It would be close to impossible to list every ultraprocessed food, as you'll find dozens upon dozens of examples in your average grocery store. But here are some of the most accessible examples:

  • Processed reconstituted meat products, like ham and hot dogs
  • Potato chips
  • Frozen French fries
  • Candy
  • Store-bought cookies
  • Soft drinks
  • Refined grain pretzels
  • Commercial bread
  • Sweetened breakfast cereals
  • Baking mixes

Ultraprocessed foods to avoid most

As the May 8 study in The BMJ notes, not all ultraprocessed foods are equally harmful to your health. In fact, it's some of the first research to draw distinctions among the different types. The research found that the following foods were associated with higher risk of death:

  • Ready-to-eat meat, poultry and seafood products
  • Artificially- or sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Ultraprocessed breakfast foods
  • Dairy-based desserts

However, more research is needed to more fully understand which ultraprocessed foods are most harmful and why.