Chocolate, chips and hamburgers among 'ultra-processed' foods linked to early death

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Cakes, potato chips and hamburgers are just some of the "ultra-processed" foods that researchers have claimed are drastically shortening life expectancies.

Researchers from Spain and France published their findings on the consumption of processed food in the British Medical Journal on Wednesday.

The Spanish study, from Navarra University, followed 19,899 people over two decades. It sorted processed foods into four categories ranging from unprocessed to ultra-processed – and found that those falling into the latter group were all linked to early deaths.

Eating five or more servings of ultra-processed foods per day increased the risk of mortality by 62%, the study's authors claimed, with each additional serving increasing the mortality hazard by 18%. The main cause of death was cancer, with an average age of 58 at death.

"Processed meats, sugar sweetened beverages, dairy products, and French fries were the main foods contributing to the ultra-processed food consumed," the report said.

However, the ultra-processed food category included a vast array of foods, such as:

  • Chocolate
  • Cookies
  • Potato chips
  • Pizza
  • Meatballs
  • Doughnuts
  • Mayonnaise
  • Margarine
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Milkshakes
  • Soda and sweetened drinks
  • Chicken nuggets
  • Croissants and pastries
  • Processed meat, like salami and hamburgers
  • Instant soups
  • Ice cream
  • Alcohol produced by distillation, like whisky and gin

Foods that had been processed to a lesser extent were also linked to mortality, the study said. The next highest-risk category covered foods which had substances added to them, such as salt or sugar, and which had been produced using methods like smoking or curing. Examples included canned vegetables, fruit in syrup, cheese, bread, and salted or sugared nuts.

335 deaths occurred among participants during the study, with those recording the highest consumption of ultra-processed foods most at risk of death.

Meanwhile, research published Wednesday by the University of Paris and the University of Montpellier monitored the dietary habits of 105,159 people over the age of 18 between 2009 and 2018.

The study concluded that there was a clear link between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and cardiovascular disease – which, according to the study's authors, is the main cause of death worldwide.

Last year, a separate study from Paris' Universite Sorbonne found a link between ultra-processed foods and cancer.

CNBC contacted a series of companies for comment, but spokespersons were not immediately available.

A spokesperson for British farming body the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board told CNBC via email Thursday: "This report is based on an associative study which would normally lead to or be the start of more detailed research. Health professionals continue to promote a combination of a healthy lifestyle and meat has its place in a balanced diet."