Are you a fan of processed foods? You may be risking an early death

processed foodsCC: RawPixel at Unsplash

When it comes to convenient dining, processed foods certainly make life easier. Many require no preparation at all, making them ideal for when you’re leading a busy lifestyle.

Recent research suggests that relying on a diet of processed foods is perilous. A study focusing on 44,000 individuals found that you’re at risk of early death if you depend too heavily on them. The study took place in France, where people eat far less processed foods than other areas of the Western world.

What are processed foods, exactly?

Processed foods are the foods that are mass-manufactured using industrial ingredients and additives. Common examples include cakes, dried instant meals, and chocolate bars. Overall, these foods contain incredibly high levels of salt, sugar, and/or fat.

It’s often the case that people will eat these foods either because they’re convenient or because they’re cheap. Common examples could include instant soups, instant noodles, and Twinkies. Because they’re so cost-friendly, they’re particularly common among those with a low income and people who live alone.

What did the French study reveal?

The study focused on 40,000 people from 2009 onward. Over a seven-year period, the researchers found that the majority of those who died early were eating diets filled with primarily processed foods. Because the study took place in a country where dependence on processed foods is low, the link became quite evident.

To ensure the link between processed foods and early death was as clear as it could be, the researchers excluded other factors. For example, they ensured the figures weren’t due to social deprivation, smoking, obesity, or low educational background instead. As they are all factors that are associated with the consumption of processed foods, excluding them was important.

Do we know why processed foods have a link with early death?

The scientists who made this discovery have acknowledged the fact that the link between processed foods and early death isn’t clear. At the same time, public health experts have stated that we shouldn’t ignore the results. Although processed foods can play a small and occasional role in a healthy diet, they shouldn’t become a staple of one.

Previous studies have found a worrying link between processed foods and certain diseases. For example, in the U.S. one study found that there’s a link between a diet that’s high in processed foods and colorectal cancer. Another study from Australia found that processed foods such as sauces, some packaged meats, and condiments have an unreasonably high salt intake. As diets high in salt increase your risk of cardiovascular and kidney disease, this could be another reason for early death.

Overall, the scientific world isn’t sure precisely why these foods are an issue. But all the evidence is pointing toward the need to eat less of them.

What are the alternatives?

Some processed foods aren’t too risky. For example, many people will eat bread or pasta on a daily basis. It’s when you rely too much on instant and packaged food that’s high in additives that your diet will become a problem.

A simple rule of thumb is to try switching to fresh or simple ingredients as much as possible. For example, rather than relying on powdered soup, consider making one that’s seasonal. Or, rather than eating sauce from a jar, think about whether a DIY one is plausible.

Unfortunately, avoiding processed foods does become more challenging when you’re on a low income, as they’re sometimes seen as cheaper. However, if you can find ways to make healthy switches, it’s always advisable to do so.

About the Author

Laura McKeever
Laura has been a freelance medical writer for eight years. With a BSc in Medical Sciences and an MSc in Physician Assistant Studies, she complements her passion for medical news with real-life experiences. Laura’s most significant experience included writing for international pharmaceutical brands, including GSK.