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Whole or minimally processed foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, differ little from their original, intact forms. Ultra-processed foods, however, such as snacks, ready-to-eat meals, and soft drinks, bear little resemblance to intact food forms. These foods typically contain added flavors and colors, are inexpensive and ready to eat, and often have long shelf lives. Findings from a recent study suggest that consumption of ultra-processed foods increases the risk of premature death from all causes and cardiovascular disease.

The study involved more than 22,00 men and women (average age, 55 years) enrolled in the Moli-sani Study, a large study of cardiovascular and cancer risks among people living in Italy. At the beginning of the study, participants completed questionnaires regarding their intake of 188 foods. The authors of the study categorized each of these foods according to the degree of processing: fresh or minimally processed foods, such as fruits, vegetables, meat, and fish; processed culinary ingredients, such as honey or butter; processed foods made with salt, sugar, or oil, such as canned vegetables, legumes, or fish; and ultra-processed foods such as carbonated beverages and processed meats.

The participants who consumed the highest amounts of ultra-processed foods were 58 percent more likely to die from cardiovascular disease, 52 percent more likely to die from ischemic heart disease or cerebrovascular disease, and 26 percent more likely to die from all causes of premature death. The greatest contributor to the increased risk appeared to be high sugar content in the ultra-processed foods.

These findings suggest that consumption of ultra-processed foods increases the risk of premature death and underscores current dietary guidelines to reduce intake of foods containing added sugars.

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