The consumption of large quantities of highly processed industrial foods can make our cells age faster, according to a Spanish study.
Industrial pizzas, chicken nuggets, hamburgers, energy bars, instant soups, ice cream, and many other industrial foods are on the radar screen of nutritionists and some groups of researchers who are highlighting the role of these products in the obesity epidemic.
Large consumption of industrial foods, known as “highly processed,” could also accelerate our aging process, according to a study published in June 2020 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. A team of researchers from the Department of Nutrition at the University of Navarra in Spain followed the diet of 886 Spaniards (645 men and 241 women) between the ages of 57 and 91 for about 20 years. Using adapted questionnaires, the researchers were able to classify the participants into four groups according to their consumption of highly processed foods, the first group consisting of those who consumed the least and the last group of those who ate the most. To determine which foods are defined as highly processed, the study authors used the NOVA classification.
The shortest telomeres in those who ate the most processed foods
At the same time, the research team of the Department of Nutrition of the University of Navarra also measured the evolution of the length of the telomeres – these DNA protection structures located at the end of the chromosomes – in these same participants. This is a relevant indicator to evaluate cellular aging since the length of our telomeres decreases with each cell division.
As a result, people who consume the most processed foods – more than 3 servings a day – were twice as likely to have shorter telomeres than those who consumed less. Is this enough to conclude that pizzas, chicken nuggets, and other processed foods make our bodies age faster? The publication’s authors say that more studies will be needed to confirm these observations.
How do you determine if a food is ultra-processed?
There are several classifications for classifying foods according to their degree of processing. The most widely used is the NOVA classification, created in early 2010 by a Brazilian researcher, Carlos Monteiro. According to NOVA’s definition, an ultra-processed product is an industrially formulated food to which food additives and ingredients (flavor enhancers, colorants, emulsifiers, sweeteners…) have been added to imitate or restore the food’s sensory properties. To be considered ultra-processed, the product must contain at least five ultra-processed markers that can be food additives or substances extracted from other foods that are added to the product: hydrogenated oils, protein isolates, casein, whey protein, dextrose, lactose ..etc. Therefore, this classification does not only apply to products that are too fatty or too sweet, such as hamburgers and ice creams, in short, foods that are referred to as “junk food”, but also includes many frozen industrial dishes, instant soups, cookies, ready meals, vegetable steaks, reconstituted fruit juices and much more.