Ultra-processed foods – a scientific analysis
Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are those derived from either food constituents or created entirely in a laboratory. A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition caught our eye as it set out to evaluate the impact of these UPFs on health and longevity
What did the study aim to do?
The study aim was to establish the impact of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) on telomere length.
What is a telomere?
Good question. Telomeres are structures found at the ends of our chromosomes. They essentially protect the ends of chromosomes from deterioration or fusion with neighbouring chromosomes.
Why does telomere length matter?
Telomeres naturally shorten with age but it’s hypothesised that this shortening is accelerated by lifestyle factors such as stress, smoking and diet which then lead to early onset of chronic health problems.
As this study explains:
“Telomere length shortens with age. Progressive shortening of telomeres leads to senescence [decrepitude], apoptosis, or oncogenic transformation of somatic cells, affecting the health and lifespan of an individual.
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Accelerated telomere shortening is associated with early onset of many age-associated health problems, including coronary heart disease, heart failure, diabetes, increased cancer risk and osteoporosis.
The rate of telomere shortening can be either increased or decreased by specific lifestyle factors”
In short, their length serves as a good predictor of how disease-free (or otherwise) your life will be.
What is an ultra-processed food?
Before we dive into the method and results of this study, it’s probably a good time to clarify what exactly is an ultra-processed food? Why every food cannot be 100% defined, the best system of clarification is the Nova Classification System. This is the reference system used by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations to help identify the levels of processing involved within various ingredients and products. In this system, foods fall into one of four groups:
1. Unprocessed or minimally processed
Unprocessed means obtained directly from plants or animals and undergo zero alteration. ‘Minimally processed’ refers to whole, natural foods which have been subject to cleaning or removal of inedible parts. This includes drying or freezing, for example. The nutrient-density is not impacted, for example:
- Grains like wheat and oats
- Nuts and eggs
- Lentils, beans and other legumes
- Dried fruit and fresh herbs
- Meat and fish, fresh, frozen or chilled
- Fresh or frozen veggies
It’s pretty easy to spot unprocessed – or at least minimally processed - foods
2. Processed culinary ingredients
Foods extracted from a natural source by pressing, grinding or crushing. Examples include:
- Coconut fat
- Honey from honeycomb and syrup from maple trees
- Oils made from seeds, nuts and fruits
3. Processed foods
Products manufactured by industry with the use of salt or sugar predominantly to make them more palatable or increase their shelf life. They usually include two or three ingredients themselves. Examples include:
- Salted, dried or smoked meats
- Bacons and beef jerky
- Salted / sugared nuts
- Fermented alcoholic drinks
4. Ultra-processed foods
They’re derived from food constituents like hydrogenated fats and modified starches or they’re synthesised in laboratories. Manufacturing processes are heavy and reduce nutritional value to virtually zero...they’re essentially nutrient-negative: you’re worse off for eating (or drinking) them! You’ll know what we’re talking about here, but UPFs include:
- Baked products like biscuits, cakes, donuts and pastries
- Sports drinks and ordinary sports nutrition
- Margarines and spreads
- Soft drinks, including ‘energy’ drinks
- Pre-packaged meat and vegetables
It probably goes without saying but these energy drinks – alongside ordinary sports nutrition – fall into the UPF category
Why do we consume so many ultra-processed foods?
Unfortunately, the consumption of UPFs is on the rise. Despite being nutritionally poor they’re highly profitable for their producers due to inexpensive ingredients and cost-effective manufacturing methods, not to mention the lengthy shelf-life they achieve.
Producers spend millions on creating crisps with the perfect crunch, soft drinks with the ideal fizz and donuts with the perfect amount of sugar to keep you coming back for more. We’re with you - it takes real willpower to resist.
Before going down the rabbit-hole of why we consume so many – it’s hugely complex and multi-faceted – let’s get back to the study.
What method did the researchers use?
886 participants (approx. 65% men, 35% women) ranging in age from 57 – 91 were recruited. Researchers began by analysing data from the SUN project which began in 2000. From 2008, each participant’s telomere length was measured with volunteers filling out a questionnaire every two years. Their UPF consumption is tracked and logged according to the Nova system described above.
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What did the results show?
In short, the likelihood of shortened telomeres was dramatically increased with the number of daily UPF servings. Those who consumed more than 3 servings per day of UPFs were 82% more likely to have shortened telomeres.
In addition to the shortening of telomeres, the study also drew further conclusions about those who consumed UPFs more frequently:
- They were more likely to have diabetes
- They were more likely to snack between meals
- They consumed less protein, healthy fats, fibre, vegetables and macronutrients
Ultra-processed foods conclusion
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not sitting here perched atop a high horse proclaiming a monastic lifestyle is the way forward. I eat UPFs on occasion and appreciate that it’s harder than ever to avoid some level of processing in our food.
And let’s be honest - sometimes you just need that ice cream, biscuit or sumptuous pastry. Life’s too short to deprive yourself of all things you crave.
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The key here revolves around the frequency and quantity of UPFs we’re consuming as a whole. A bit like we all know we should watch less TV and exercise more, most recognise our diets could do with improving too. And with such clear science behind the link between ultra-processed foods and health and longevity, reducing UPF consumption seems to be a great place to start.
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