Ultra-processed foods are linked with higher risk of death, new study finds. Here’s why nutritionists say they can still fit into a healthy diet.

Hot dog on a fork
Eating ultra-processed meats like hot dogs and sausages is linked in a new study to higher mortality rates. (Getty Images)

You already know that ultra-processed foods aren’t great for you, but in case you needed more evidence, new research suggests that eating high amounts of them — particularly highly processed meats like hot dogs and sausages, as well as sodas — could shorten your lifespan.

That’s the main takeaway from a new study of more than 540,000 people who shared information about their eating habits and health in the mid-1990s when they were 50 to 71 years old and then were tracked for more than two decades.

For the study, which was presented at the Nutrition 2024 conference, researchers looked at the death rates of the participants, over half of whom have died since the study started. They found that those who ate higher amounts of ultra-processed foods were about 10% more likely to die from any cause, including heart disease and diabetes, over 23 years compared to those who ate minimally processed foods, meaning foods in their natural state or barely altered, like fresh fruits, vegetables or milk. (It's worth noting that study participants who ate ultra-processed foods weren’t more likely to die of cancer.)

People in the study who ate more ultra-processed foods also tended to have a higher body mass index and lower overall diet quality. However, even in people who were classified as normal weight, the link between eating these foods and a higher risk of death was still present.

But before you give up ultra-processed foods for good, another new study presented at the conference found that eating mostly minimally processed foods doesn’t automatically mean that someone has a healthy diet. What’s more, these foods expire more than three times faster than ultra-processed foods and they’re more than twice as expensive.

The study author also noted that not all ultra-processed foods are bad, pointing out that some are nutrient-dense, such as ultrafiltered milk, liquid egg whites, unsweetened applesauce and certain brands of canned tomatoes. The researchers’ takeaway? The types of foods we eat may matter more than the level of processing used to make them.

What else do you need to know when it comes to ultra-processed foods and your health? Below, some dietitians break it down.

Ultra-processed foods “are the furthest from their original state,” Christy Brissette, a dietitian and owner of 80 Twenty Nutrition in Laguna Beach, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. “They’ve gone through multiple steps of processing and typically have more than five other ingredients added to them including preservatives and stabilizers.”

Many packaged foods fall into this category, including ready-to-heat pastas and pizzas, instant noodles and soups, processed meats (such as deli meat, hot dogs, sausages and nuggets), packaged snacks, candy, pastries and potato chips, as well as sodas and energy drinks. “But there are varying degrees of how much processing foods go through,” Brissette says.

Jessica Cording, a dietitian and author of The Little Book of Game-Changers: 50 Healthy Habits For Managing Stress & Anxiety, says that many foods are processed on some level. Bagged spinach, for example, is technically processed. “But there is a difference between ultra-processed and minimally processed foods,” Cording tells Yahoo Life.

There are a few reasons why some ultra-processed foods aren’t great for your health overall. “Ultra-processed foods tend to be high in sodium, sugar and fat,” Brissette says. “They're often lower in nutrients we want, such as fiber and vitamins, unless they’re added to the product.”

When someone eats a lot of ultra-processed foods, they usually don’t get enough of what they need from other foods “and possibly too much of ingredients that are linked to health concerns,” Cording says.

Research has repeatedly linked ultra-processed foods with serious health concerns, including cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity and dementia.

Brissette points out that it’s “nearly impossible” to remove all processed foods from your diet. “Some processed foods make healthy eating easier for people and we don't want to change that,” she says. “For example, you may not have the time to soak and cook beans, but opening a can and rinsing them is something you're able to do. You're getting plant-based protein and fiber into your meals, and I wouldn't change that based on worrying about processing.”

Cording suggests aiming for an 85/15 approach to healthy eating, where you aim to eat healthy foods 85% of the time and give yourself more leeway for the other 15%. “Ideally, what you’re eating is nutrient-dense, minimally processed foods, but there is room for processed foods,” she says.

She recommends looking at ultra-processed foods as “special occasion foods,” meaning, you have them here and there, but they don’t make up the bulk of your diet. “From a mindset perspective, that tends to work better for many people,” she says. “Demonizing foods and saying you can’t have ultra-processed stuff at all tends to cause more issues.”

If you’re unsure if a processed food is healthy or unhealthy, Brissette recommends asking yourself how close it is to its original version. “Bagged or frozen cauliflower with no other ingredients added? Pretty close. Cauliflower crackers? Not so much,” she says.

When choosing packaged foods, Brissette suggests checking the ingredients list and choosing options that have minimal salt, sugars or artificial sweeteners and hydrogenated oils added. Opt for foods that are low in added sugars and have a daily value below 20% for sodium, she says.

Ultimately, Cording says that “it’s OK to have some processed foods in your diet. You just want to limit ultra-processed foods.”