Processed foods make us fatter, lead to cancer, and are linked with early death. But what exactly is a processed food?

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Hot dogs qualify as an ultra-processed food, since they’re packed with preservatives. zz/Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/IPx 2018 via AP Images
  • A new study found that eating processed foods is linked to high risk of heart disease and early death, in part because of all the added sugar.
  • Previous research has found that processed foods cause people to eat more and gain weight, and are linked to higher rates of cancer too.
  • Scientists consider food to be processed if it’s made with additives and preservatives for flavour and freshness, like sugar, salt, or oil.

There’s even more evidence that cheap, convenient processed foods are terrible for our health.

The worst offenders, ultra-processed foods filled with preservatives and added sugar, have been linked to earlier death and higher risk of heart disease, according to a study published December 18 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

A group of Italian researchers followed 24,325 men and women aged 35 and older for up to 10 years, collecting data on their eating habits and health outcomes.

They found that participants who ate a diet high in processed foods had a higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, heart attack, or stroke. And the more processed foods they ate, the greater the increase in risk, according to the data.

Researchers theorised that sugar played a major role in the risk associated with processed food. However, neither sugar nor other ingredients like saturated fat could totally explain the health risks, meaning we still don’t fully understand why processed food is so dangerous.

But this is far from the first time that added sugar, salt, fat, and preservatives have been linked to worse health outcomes.

Ham pickle sandwich
Ham and other deli meats are a common processed food. Bonchan/Getty Images

A groundbreaking 2019 study from the National Institutes of Health found that people on ultra-processed diets ate more calories and gained more weight than they did when offered the same amount of nutrients from less processed food.

The finding suggests there’s something different about how quickly our bodies take in processed foods and how those foods interact with key hormones that help regulate our appetites.

Other researchers have connected packaged and ready-made foods with more cancer cases and more early deaths.

What is processed food?

In this latest study, the most common ultra-processed foods were processed meats, pizza, and cakes, the researchers found. But not all processed food is created equal. After all, a chicken-salad sandwich prepared at home may still qualify as a processed meal, as could a cheesy quesadilla.

So what exactly designates a certain food as processed, or ultra-processed?

To answer that question, scientists and nutrition experts often use a four-tiered system called NOVA that classifies everything we eat as one of these four categories: unprocessed or minimally processed, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods, and ultra-processed food and drink products.

Unprocessed foods include edible parts of plants (fruits, vegetables, seeds, roots, etc.) or animals, as well as fungi and algae. These can be fresh, frozen, or even fermented — the important distinction is that they have not been treated with additives, injected with salt, or rubbed with oil until they’re about to be eaten. Examples include dry beans; grains like rice; fresh or dried mushrooms; meat and dairy products; seafood; plain yogurt; nuts; and spices.

Processed culinary ingredients involve a step up in production. These are ingredients made from unprocessed foods, like vegetable oils, butter, and lard. This category also includes extracted food, like honey from combs, sugar from cane, and syrup from maple trees.

Processed foods are items that get infused with ingredients like sugar, salt, and fat to help keep them edible longer. Canned fruits, fermented breads (which most breads are, as they’re made with yeast), alcohol, cheese, pickles, and salted nuts all make this list.

Finally, there are ultra-processed foods. These items are designed to be ready to eat and ready to heat at a moment’s notice. To make that possible, these foods are often made in a factory, broken down from their whole or fresh form and treated with thickeners, colours, glazes, and additives. They may be fried before they’re packed in cans or wrappers. They might contain high-fructose corn syrup, protein isolates, or interesterified oils (replacements for trans fats, which are now widely banned). Examples of ultra-processed foods include packaged granola bars, carbonated soft drinks, candy, mass-produced breads, margarine, energy drinks, flavored yogurt, chicken nuggets, and hot dogs.

Wendys spicy chicken nuggets
Fast food like chicken nuggets are definitely in the ‘ultra-processed’ category. Irene Jiang/Business Insider

These are the items researchers are referring to when they say that ultra-processed foods are linked to more cancer cases, early deaths, and weight gain.

Of course, these items also tend to be more convenient and cheaper than less processed food, since they’re less perishable.

“Ultra-processed food has a lot of advantages in terms of its convenience,” Kevin Hall, the lead author of the NIH study, told Business Insider. “It’s cheap. It sticks around for a while. You don’t have to have all the fresh ingredients on hand, which might spoil. You don’t have to have all the equipment to prepare these meals from scratch.”

But experts, including Hall, say that if you can afford it, cutting back on ultra-processed food is a good strategy for maintaining a healthy weight and staying disease-free.

“You can’t just tax them and make them more expensive and less convenient for people,” he said. “You also have to support access and availability to unprocessed meals.”

Read more:

A public health researcher is warning that ultra-processed foods like white bread and burgers could damage your heart

Eating a lot of processed foods could cause your body to age more quickly, a new study suggests

Dietitians share their most hated foods, from deli meat and energy drinks to red wine