Nutrition 2024: Ultra-Processed Associations and Puzzles

Untitled, from Flor de PascuaTwo presentations of research about ultra-processed foods (UPFs) and health at Nutrition 2024 offer associations and puzzles that should make us think twice about sweeping generalizations on this subject.

Increased Death

On one hand, Erikka Loftfield presented data from the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study in which she found an association of consuming ultra-processed foods with an increased risk of death. People who ate the most UPFs had about a ten percent higher risk of death compared to those who ate the least. Lottfield says:

“Our study results support a larger body of literature, including both observational and experimental studies, which indicate that ultra-processed food intake adversely impacts health and longevity. However, there is still a lot that we don’t know, including what aspects of ultra-processed foods pose potential health risks.”

But No Guarantees

On the other hand, Julie Hess presented an analysis of the difference it might make if ultra-processed foods are eliminated from the so-called “Standard American Diet.” The title of her presentation says it all. A standard American diet made with less-processed foods is still SAD. They concluded that the level of food processing is not a good indicator of diet quality. Further, they found less processed foods can be more expensive and have a shorter shelf life. Hess described the implications:

“The results of this study indicate that building a nutritious diet involves more than a consideration of food processing as defined by NOVA,” said Hess. “The concepts of ‘ultra-processed’ foods and ‘less-processed’ foods need to be better characterized by the nutrition research community.”

Sweeping Generalizations

It is clear enough that there’s an association with poor health outcomes. But it’s not clear that simply eliminating ultra-processed foods from a person’s diet will produce better health outcomes. Our dietary patterns are more complex than sweeping generalizations presume.

RDN Linn Steward finds nothing in this to be especially surprising because it merely continues a kerfuffle about ultra-processed foods. Multiple perspectives are helpful, she says:

“It makes sense to me that both lenses for viewing this concern would have value. We have two eyes because looking at the same reality from two different perspectives helps us see better.”

Such are the puzzles that ultra-processed foods present us in the pursuit of health. While we seek the truth behind these puzzles, anyone who claims to have found it deserves a skeptical hearing.

Click here for the Loftfield abstract and here for the Hess abstract. For further perspective, click here, here, and here.

Untitled, from Flor de Pascua, woodcut by M.C. Escher / WikiArt

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July 1, 2024