What is Ultra-Processed Food? Study Link to Cancer, Mortality and Poor Mental Health

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What do studies show about the regular consumption of ultra-processed 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.

Ultra-processed foods may lead to poor mental health outcomes

A 2022 cross-sectional examination in the journal Public Health Nutrition found that individuals who consumed the greatest amount of ultra-processed foods were significantly more likely to report mild depression, as well as more mentally unhealthy and more anxious days per month. The authors noted that the associations with adverse mental health outcomes and ultra-processed foods might derive from the greater presence of biologically active food additives and low-essential nutrients. 

Ultra-processed food intake may increase the risk of cancer, as well as all-cause and cardiovascular risk mortality

Recent data, derived from three large prospective cohort studies and published in the British Medical Journal, found that men (but not women) who consumed a large amount of ultra-processed foods had a 29% greater risk of colorectal cancer than men who consumed smaller amounts. The men who consumed the highest amount of ultra-processed foods consumed mostly ready-to-eat products derived from meat, poultry or fish. Another recent study in the BMJ found that food processing (and consumption of foods highly processed) was linked with higher mortality risk, especially from cardiovascular disease.

Studies show that ultra-processed foods may also lead to adverse health outcomes due to associations related to excess consumption with obesity, heart disease and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

How to avoid ultra-processed food

Best-selling author Michael Pollan defined food as something that comes from nature, is fed from nature and eventually rots. This is perhaps the first high-level manner in which to determine whether a food is ultra-processed or not. Ultra-processed foods will tend to give themselves away by other factors as well:

  • A long list of ingredients that are not native to the average kitchen or that are not ingredients that the average consumer can understand. This may include colorings, preservatives or other additives meant to increase palatability.
  • Foods that have been stripped of fiber, or foods that contain large quantities of calories, fat, sugar or salt may also be key indicators. This indicates that the product is dense in energy, but not in nutrients.
  • Most ultra-processed foods are low in cost, convenient and easy to prepare. Studies also indicate that processed foods are typically those that are hard to stop eating, often referred to as hyper-palatable.

How dangerous are ultra-processed foods? Moderation is a key

Completely avoiding all ultra-processed foods may not be realistic for everyone. So just how much is it OK to eat? And when does the amount consumed hit a level that it will start to affect your health?

Assessing the processing level of a food and knowing just how much we should avoid certain foods can be confusing. And it can vary even among different sources of the same food. For example, there is a difference between a burger cooked at home versus a burger bought frozen from the grocery store versus a burger purchased from a fast-food restaurant. The three may vary greatly in their processing. Processing of general snack foods may vary as well based on brand and practices. Plus, total avoidance may be challenging for some individuals based on budget, accessibility and. time constraints.

The recent data on ultra-processed foods, however, clearly show that the greater the consumption, the greater the risk. Therefore, making a frozen pizza for dinner, having pretzels or crackers for a snack, or having a few slices of bacon on a Sunday morning is not what researchers have found to be the culprit of early death. Rather, it’s when these foods are significantly more prevalent than nutrient-rich whole foods. As with most areas of nutrition, further studies are needed to truly assess all the complexities surrounding our dietary choices and our health.

Ultra-processed foods are not going away anytime soon, but consuming less of them may benefit your overall health. A safe rule of thumb is to make 85% of your diet nutrient-dense, and consider the remaining 15% percent your allowance for everything else. This is how we can start to truly change our nutrition story by striving for a sustainable healthy diet — not perfection.

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