Ultra-Processed Foods Linked with Cognitive Decline: Study

The results of a new scientific study have revealed that eating ultra-processed foods* for more than 20% of your daily calorie intake every day** could lead to cognitive decline–including the areas of the brain involved in executive functioning — the ability to process information and make decisions.  The study demonstrated that men and women who ate the most ultra-processed foods had a 28% faster rate of global cognitive decline and a 25% faster rate of executive function decline compared with people who ate the least amount of overly processed food.

Study overview

Scientists followed over 10,000 Brazilians for up to 10 years. Just over half of the study participants were women, White or college educated; the average age of participants was 51.

Cognitive testing included immediate and delayed word recall, word recognition and verbal fluency; testing was performed at the beginning and end of the study, and participants were asked about their diet.

Results overview

People who consumed more than 20% of daily calories*** from processed foods had a 28% faster decline in global cognition and a 25% faster decline in executive functioning compared to people who ate less than 20%.

Study participants who ate the most ultra-processed foods were more likely to be younger, women, White, had higher education and income, and were more likely to have never smoked, and less likely to be current alcohol consumers.

*The study defined ultra-processed foods as “industrial formulations of food substances (oils, fats, sugars, starch, and protein isolates) that contain little or no whole foods and typically include flavorings, coloring, emulsifiers, and other additives”.  Ultra-processed foods are filled with synthetic and industrialized food additives (including endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the packaging) and contain few (if any) natural food ingredients. Highly-processed or ultra-processed “food” items have been linked in scientific studies to numerous health concerns including weight gain, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, strokedepression and frailty and an increased risk of early death.  A recent study we published has also linked ultra-processed foods to dementia. The general consensus among experts is that people should avoid–or greatly minimize–their consumption of ultra-processed foods and replace them with unprocessed and minimally processed foods.

**On average, 58% of the daily calories consumed by U.S. citizens come from ultra-processed foods. That average is 56.8% by British citizens, and 48% of the daily calories consumed by Canadians come from ultra-processed foods.  On average, ultra-processed foods make up 25% to 30% of total calorie intake in Brazil. 

***For a person who eats 2,000 calories a day, 20% would equal 400 or more calories — for comparison, a small order of fries and regular cheeseburger from McDonalds contains a total of 530 calories. (source)

Reference:  Dr. Claudia Suemoto, study co-author and assistant professor in the division of geriatrics at the University of São Paulo Medical School & Dr. Natalia Gonçalves, study co-author and researcher in the department of pathology at the University of São Paulo Medical School, et al.  (Author Block: Natalia G Gonçalves, PhD; Naomi Vidal Ferreira, PhD; Neha Khandpur, ScD; Euridice Martinez Steele, PhD; Renata Bertazzi Levy, PhD; Paulo A Lotufo, MD, PhD; Isabela M Bensenor, MD, PhD; Dirce Lobo Marchioni, PhD and Claudia Kimie Suemoto, MD, PhD, University of São Paulo Medical School, São Paulo, Brazil, University of São Paulo Medical School, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Centro Universitário Adventista de São Paulo, Engenheiro Coelho, Brazil, University of São Paulo, Sâo Paulo, Brazil, University of São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil, Center for Clinical and Epidemiological Research, Hospital Universitário, University of Sao Paulo, São Paulo, SP, Brazil, Sao Paulo, Brazil, University of Sao Paulo Medical School, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Faculdade de Medicina, Universidade de So Paulo, São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil).  Consumption of ultra-processed foods and cognitive decline in the ELSA-Brazil study: a prospective study. Study presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, August 1, 2022, San Diego, California.