10 April, 2021

Ultra-Processed Foods Linked to Cardiovascular Disease and Colorectal Cancer

There’s more bad news for some of your favorite snacks.

You hear it all the time: Eat less processed foods! Processed and ultra-processed foods are bad for your health!  But now, two recent studies have directly linked consumption of ultra-processed foods with cardiovascular disease (CVD) and colorectal cancer.

What are Ultra-Processed Foods?

Unprocessed or minimally processed foods are whole foods in which the vitamins or nutrients are still intact. The food is in a natural (or nearly natural) state. The only alterations to these foods are made by removal of inedible parts, drying, crushing, roasting, boiling, freezing or pasteurization – essentially, processes that make them suitable to store and safe to consume. Unprocessed foods include items such as carrots, apples, raw chicken, melon and raw, unsalted nuts.

When food is processed, it is changed from its natural state. Processing foods involves adding salt, oil, sugar or other substances. Examples include canned fish or canned vegetables, fruits in syrup, and freshly made breads. Most processed foods have two or three ingredients.

Ultra-processed or highly processed foods most likely have many added ingredients such as sugar, salt, fat and artificial colors or preservatives. Ultra-processed foods are made mostly from substances extracted from foods, such as fats, starches, added sugars and hydrogenated fats. They may also contain additives like artificial colors and flavors or stabilizers. Examples of these foods are frozen meals, soft drinks, hot dogs and cold cuts, fast food, packaged cookies, cakes and salty snacks.

According to a study published in The BMJ, ultra-processed foods are the main source (nearly 58%) of calories eaten in the U.S., and they contribute almost 90% of the energy we get from added sugars.

Ultra-Processed Foods and Cardiovascular Disease

In a recent study, conducted by researchers at New York University's School of Global Public Health in New York City, and published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, incidence of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and mortality was shown to be directly linked to consumption of ultra-processed foods. What is more, they found that the more ultra-processed foods a person consumes, the greater their risk for CVD.

The study showed that each additional daily serving of these foods was associated with worse outcomes, independent of a person’s energy intake, body fat, and any other cardiovascular risk factors.

The researchers also identified bread, meat and soft drinks in particular as potential drivers of poor cardiovascular outcomes and they urged “timely action” to curb consumption of these foods.

Ultra-Processed Foods and Colorectal Cancer

A second study recently conducted in Spain and involving nearly 8,000 people, has concluded that consumption of ultra-processed foods and drink could increase the risk for developing colorectal cancer. The study, published in Clinical Nutrition, found that a 10% increment in the consumption of ultra-processed foods and drink was found to be associated with an 11% increase in the risk of developing colorectal cancer.

Researchers in this study explained that low intake of fiber, fruits and vegetables, which are known to offer protection against colorectal cancer, could be one factor in this result. They also pointed to the additives and additional substances typically used in ultra-processed foods, which could have carcinogenic effects.

Learn to Identify Processed Foods

In general, it’s a good idea to try to avoid or limit ultra-processed foods whenever possible. At RadNet, we encourage you to take charge of your health and make the most informed decisions about your healthcare. Our centers offer cardiovascular screenings and virtual colonoscopy, if you have concerns. Of course, you should always consult with your physician first.

In the meantime, here is a table to help you quickly determine if food is minimally processed, processed, or ultra-processed. *


Minimally processed




Canned corn

Corn chips


Apple juice

Apple pie


Baked potato

French fries


Carrot juice

Carrot cake




*From Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School

10 April, 2021

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