Highly Processed Foods Highly Risky


By Christina Phillis

Ultra-processed foods are not just bad for your health, they’re deadly. In two recent European studies, researchers found a positive association between eating highly processed foods and risk of cardiovascular disease and death.

Ultra-processed foods are high in added sugar, fat, and/or salt, and low in vitamins and fiber. They account for 25 to 60% of daily energy intake in many countries and include products like packaged baked goods and snacks, fizzy drinks, sugary cereals, ready meals containing food additives, dehydrated vegetable soups, and reconstituted meat and fish products.

Cardiovascular Risk

In the first study, researchers evaluated 105,159 French adults (21% men; 79% women) with an average age of 43 years. They looked at potential associations between ultra-processed foods and risk of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease.

Study participants completed an average of six 24-hour dietary questionnaires to measure usual food intake. Researchers classified foods by degree of processing. To determine disease rates, they checked in with participants for up to 10 years.

Their results showed that a 10% increase in the consumption of ultra-processed food was associated with a 12% increase in cardiovascular disease, a 13% increase in coronary heart disease, and an 11% increase in cerebrovascular disease. Consuming unprocessed or minimally processed foods was associated with lower risks of all reported diseases.

Mortality Risk

For the second study, researchers evaluated 19,899 Spanish university graduates (7,786 men; 12, 1113 women) with an average age of 38 years. They measured ultra-processed food intake and risk of death from any cause.

The participants completed a 136-item dietary questionnaire. Similar to the first study, foods were grouped by degree of processing and deaths were monitored over an average of 10 years.

The risk of all-cause mortality increased by 62% with higher consumption of ultra-processed foods (more than 4 servings per day) and only 18% with lower consumption (fewer than 2 servings per day). Each additional daily serving of ultra-processed food increased mortality risk by 18%.

It’s possible that unmeasured confounding factors could be contributing to some of the risk, but researchers did take into account well-known lifestyle risk factors and markers of dietary quality. And although neither study establishes causality, the results back up other research that links highly processed foods to poor health.

Both research teams recommend that policy makers focus on promoting the availability and affordability of unprocessed or minimally processed foods. For consumers, the message is resoundingly clear: eat less ultra-processed food and more unprocessed or minimally processed food.

Discussion Questions

  • Make a list of the foods you eat every day. How much of what you eat is considered ultra-processed?
  • How can policy makers encourage consumers to eat more unprocessed or minimally processed foods?


  • Processed
  • Ultra-processed
  • Confounding