Ultra-processed foods are food items that are typically mass-produced and processed in industries and are designed for longer shelf life. They have a disproportionate amount of fat, sugar, and salt, and low fiber content.

Studies have shown that ultra-processed foods are highly addictive and are known to be associated with negative health effects, including the risk of cancer and heart disease.

According to the latest study published in the journal BMJ, higher consumption of ultra-processed food with an average of seven servings a day was associated with a slightly higher (4%) risk of death by all causes.

However, researchers noted that not all ultra-processed products have the same risk, and not all products call for restricted usage. The study has identified the items that have the most positive associations: meat, poultry, seafood-based ready-to-eat products, sugar and artificially sweetened beverages, dairy-based desserts, and ultra-processed breakfast foods.

“Cereals, whole grain bread, for example, they are also considered ultra-processed food, but they contain various beneficial nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals. On the other hand, I do think people should try to avoid or limit the consumption of certain ultra-processed foods, such as processed meat, sugar-sweetened beverages, and also potentially artificially sweetened beverages,” said lead study author Dr. Mingyang Song.

The findings were made after following up with more than 100,000 health professionals in the U.S. from 1986 to 2018. The researchers examined the health and lifestyle habits of the participants every two years, and their food habits based on a detailed questionnaire every four years.

During the follow-up period, there were a total of 48,193 deaths. The researchers also identified the number of deaths related to cancer (13,557), cardiovascular diseases (11,416), respiratory diseases (3926), and neurodegenerative diseases (6343).

“Compared with participants in the lowest quarter of ultra-processed food intake (average 3 servings per day), those in the highest quarter (average 7 servings per day) had a 4% higher risk of total deaths and a 9% higher risk of other deaths, including an 8% higher risk of neurodegenerative deaths,” the news release stated.

Although the study does not urge for universal restriction of all ultra-processed food, the researchers believe that the findings “provide support for limiting consumption of certain types of ultra-processed food for long term health.”