Ultra-processed, ready-to-eat foods like hot dogs, frozen pizzas, and doughnuts may lead to premature death, researchers in Brazil found in a recently-published study.
The findings were published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, a peer-reviewed journal.
Ultra processed foods have long been associated with an increased risk of diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, the researchers said, so they wanted to take things a step further and see how the foods may be linked to premature death.
To find out, they did a comparative risk assessment, or a simulation of the impact of a risk factor on health, said lead author Eduardo Nilson from the University of São Paulo.
Based on their model and calculations, ultra processed foods made up 13% to 21% of the total energy intake among Brazilian adults.
In 2019, over 500,000 adults aged 30 to 69 died. The consumption of ultra processed foods was responsible for about 57,000 premature deaths among that group, or 10.5%.
The team was "conservative" in its estimations, so the impact could be much higher, Nilson said.
And while the team has yet to do a model for the U.S., numbers are highly likely to be higher in the states.
"It is a public health issue," he told USA TODAY. "What we're facing in Brazil is a steady, gradual increase in the consumption of ultra processed foods. In the U.S., I think it's actually more stabilized over time, but very high already."
Ultra processed food is industrialized, "ready to eat and ready to eat," Nilson said.
They often have very little fresh ingredients and have lots of starches, processed proteins, and food additives.
"(It's) very different from what we have in our kitchens, when will you mix foods from scratch," Nilson said. "They're intended to be over-consumed and have a long shelf life, and normally are cheap to produce."
And these foods are often consumed most by people from low-income communities because they're worried about how much they can afford.
Processed foods are cheaper than fresh foods and they are more accessible, he said.
The researchers used national food consumption data in Brazil from 2017 to 2018, as well as demographic and mortality data from 2019. The team also looked at data and health risks from other studies to estimate how many deaths were attributable to eating ultra processed foods.
The team took things a step further by estimating what would happen to the Brazilian population if people reduce how many ultra processed foods they consume.
If people cut their ultra processed food consumption, anywhere from 5,900 to 29,300 deaths could be prevented.
A 20% reduction alone in ultra processed foods would actually put the country's consumption back where it was 10 years ago, Nilson said.
"It's not far in the past," he said. "57,000 deaths could be prevented. We need urgency in terms of policies to reduce the consumption of processed foods and to increase healthier foods, which are fresh and minimally-processed."
Lastly, it's not fair to blame people for their food choices, he said.
"They are inside the food environment that drives many decisions in terms of prices, physical access, and information that comes through labeling, through publicity," Nilson said. "There's a lot of inequity in the populations ... the increase in ultra processed foods in Brazil is mainly (among) the poorest people in the country because they have limited access to healthy foods."
It's the same thing seen in the U.S. and other counties where Black, Latino, and immigrant populations have less access to healthy foods, he said.
"That should be addressed because people have a right to food," he said. "They have a right to adequate foods and healthy foods."
Nilson said his team's study is the first to model the impact of ultra processed foods on premature deaths. Previous research have looked at the impact of nutrients like sodium, some sugars, trans fats and saturated fats.
One limitation of the study is the model didn't take into account recurring events or the influence of interactions between individuals, populations, or their environments and their impact on health equality, the team said.
But despite its limitations, the researchers said their model can help policymakers understand how dietary patterns affect mortality. Policymakers can use these findings to come up with ways to combat premature mortality.
Nilson also said reducing ultra processed food from diets will come with a price.
Reducing sugars, for example, could lead to more artificial sweeteners. That's why it's important for the government to make sure dietary guidelines are based on food and dietary patterns, not just nutrients.
Basing guidelines on nutrients alone "leads to a lot of misunderstanding in terms of the impact of ultra processed foods," he said.
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