WASHINGTON – A large French study released Monday (February 11th) found the link between spending ultra-processed food and increased risk of death for the first time, but researchers warned that more work is needed to determine which mechanisms are in the game.
The study, which included monitoring the diet of tens of thousands of people in France between 2009 and 2017, found a modest relationship between increased consumption of ultra-processed foods – which are characterized as ready to eat foods or heat – and an increased mortality risk. during that period.
The results were published in the JAMA Internal Medicine, published by the American Medical Association.
But "we must not be disturbing or say that eating a packed meal gives 15 percent higher chance of death," warned Mathilde Touvier, head of the nutrition research team at Paris 13 University, led by NutriNet – Sante, together with teams of Inserma, Inre and CNAM's.
"This is another step in our understanding of the relationship between ultra-processed food and health," she added.
The relationship between diet and disease is complex and the results of the research are often misunderstood.
Last year, the same French team published a study on organic food and how it relates to cancer risk.
A higher rate of cancer has been found in people who have eaten less organic food – but the study did not conclude that there was a causal link – although this did not prevent many media from turning against the action of organic food that is fighting cancer.
In the last study, 45,000 people aged over 45 were involved, most of whom were women.
Every six months, they were asked to fill out three online surveys, randomly assigned over two weeks, about everything they were eating or sacking over a period of 24 hours.
About seven hundred people died after seven years. Researchers then queried numbers and found that increasing the proportion of ultra-processed food in the diet by 10 percent corresponded to a 15 percent mortality increase.
But Touvier warned that instead of focusing on numbers, the existence of statistically significant correlations is essential – and the study is part of the growing work on this issue.
Ultra-processed foods are part of the fourth category of the NOVA Food Classification System which has been recognized by health agencies, including the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
They have undergone several transformation processes, including high temperature heating and the presence of additives, emulsifiers and textures.
Many ready-to-warm foods that are rich in salt or sugar and with little vitamin and fiber fall into that category.
Last year, French researchers announced the results of the same research at NutriNet-Sante, which reported multiple cancers amongst the tough consumers of this food.
Since for ethical reasons it is not possible to carry out a controlled experiment in which one group consumes ultra-processed food, and other non-observational studies are the only option.
However, they are inevitably deficient, depending on accurate self-reporting, while there are a multitude of other "invisible" factors in the game – although the results are tailored to compensate for socio-demographic criteria and overall quality of nutrition.
A growing question remains, what about these foods that cause negative effects on health?
One popular hypothesis is the presence of additives, which have been studied in laboratory conditions on cells and on rats, particularly the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA).
The study is an "important contribution to literature" on this topic, AFP Casey Rebholz, an epidemiology professor at Johns Hopkins Public Health School, noted, that the methodology is robust despite the inherent limitations of exploration of this nature.
Another important message to be taken away is that such foods are consumed by people with lower incomes, says Professor Nita Forouhi of Cambridge University Clinical Medicine School.
"Consumption of highly processed food reflects social inequalities – they are disproportionately more consumed by people with lower incomes or education or those who live alone," she said.
"Such foods are attractive because they are cheaper, they are very tasty because of their high sugar content, salt and saturated fats, are widely available … More needs to be done to address these inequalities."