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Ultra-Processed Foods Linked to Higher Risk of Heart Disease and Early Death

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Snack food for sale at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Jeffrey Greenberg / UIG / Getty Images

Are ultra-processed foods like savory snacks, frozen meals and soft drinks really bad for your health? A pair of European studies published Wednesday gives fresh evidence that you are better off avoiding them.


The studies, which both appeared in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), followed groups of people over a period of time in France and Spain and found that those who ate more factory-made foods were at greater risk for heart disease and early death respectively.

This is concerning because these foods are becoming a larger part of people's diets.

"Ultraprocessed foods already make up more than half of the total dietary energy consumed in high-income countries such as USA, Canada and the UK," senior author of the Spanish study and professor of preventive medicine and public health at the Universidad de Navarra Maira Bes-Rastrollo wrote in an email to CNN. "In the case of Spain, consumption of ultraprocessed food almost tripled between 1990 and 2010."

So what exactly did the studies find?

Early Death

The study Bes-Rastrollo participated in followed nearly 20,000 volunteers aged 20 to 91 between 1999 and 2014, asking them detailed questions about the food they ate every two years. It found that those who ate more than four servings a day of highly-processed foods were 62 percent more likely to die early. That risk went up 18 percent for every extra serving of factory-made food they consumed.

Bes-Rastrollo told CNN her study showed results that agreed with other studies in France and the U.S., which, to her, lent "support" to the idea that ultra-processed diets actually cause ill health.

Disease Risk


The French study, conducted by the University of Paris, followed more than 105,000 people over five years. It found that, for every 10 percent increase in the amount of ultra-processed foods someone consumed, their risk of heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular disease rose around 12 percent, according to The Guardian. The difference in outcome between low and high processed diets was not huge — the results indicated there would be 277 cases of heart disease for every 100,000 people who consumed lots of high-processed foods compared to 242 cases for every 100,000 people who did not. But study author Mathilde Touvier told The Guardian there was enough of a difference to justify abstaining from high-processed snacks.

"The public should avoid these foods as much as they can," she said. "We need to go back to more basic diets."

What Are Ultra-Processed Foods?

Researchers classified foods according to something called the NOVA classification system, which puts foods in four categories based on how they are made, as CNN explained:

The "unprocessed or minimally processed" food category included fruits, vegetables, legumes, milk, eggs, meats, poultry, fish and seafood, yogurt, grains (white rice and pasta) and natural juice. Salt, sugar, honey, olive oil, butter and lard were listed in the category of "processed ingredients," while "processed foods" included cheeses, breads, beer, wine, cured traditional ham and bacon. The final category encompassed ultraprocessed foods such as flan, chorizo, sausages, mayonnaise, potato chips, pizza, cookies, chocolates and candies, artificially sweetened beverages and whisky, gin and rum.

The two studies follow other research suggesting that these highly-processed foods are bad for human health. A previous study had linked consuming them to increased cancer risk, according to a BMJ editorial published alongside Wednesday's studies.

"These findings add to growing evidence of an association between ultra-processed food and adverse health outcomes that has important implications for dietary advice and food policies," editorial authors Mark A. Lawrence and Phillip I. Baker wrote. "The dietary advice is relatively straightforward: eat less ultra-processed food and more unprocessed or minimally processed food."

Why these foods are harmful is still a question for further research. A U.S. National Institutes of Health study suggested processed foods might encourage people to eat more. Researchers monitored all the food eaten by volunteers for a month and found that they ate 500 more calories a day when given the ultra-processed items, BBC News reported.

Other possibilities include the fact that these foods lack nutrients and fiber, are easy to eat, are more immediately attractive than healthier options and contain food additives that, while tested for safety individually, may have harmful effects when eaten in combination, BBC News said.

However, some question the "ultra-processed" category. Biochemist and University of Reading Associate Professor of Nutrition and Health Gunter Kuhnle said the studies were "very well and thoroughly conducted," but thought the NOVA categories were not clear.

"While 'ultra-processed' food is commonly assumed to be food that is extensively processed ... it actually contains foods which undergo few processing steps, such as hamburgers, crisps or chips, or those that contain preservatives that have been used for centuries such as preserves," he wrote, as CNN reported. "It is also not obvious why salami is considered to be ultra-processed, yet cheese, which often requires considerably more processing steps and additives, is not."

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The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.

"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.

"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."

The billions of dollars spent to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to create dunes to protect from future storms after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 may be a waste if sea level rise inundates the entire coastline.

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Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.

Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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