Study finds link between ultra-processed foods and cardiometabolic risk in children

A new study conducted by researchers in Spain has found an association between a child’s intake of ultra-processed foods and increased cardiometabolic risk factors – such as heart attack, stroke and diabetes.

The study, published in JAMA Network last week, sheds light on the potential health risks posed by ultra-processed foods (UPFs) – even in early childhood. 

Researchers from the Childhood Obesity Risk Assessment Longitudinal Study (CORALS) analyzed more than 1,400 children between 3 and 6 years old from seven cities in Spain and investigated the impact of UPF consumption on cardiometabolic health. 

Using data collected through questionnaires and health assessments on food consumption, physical activity and demographics, the researchers then focused on factors including body mass index (BMI), blood pressure and cholesterol levels to assess cardiometabolic health.

Ulta-processed foods and cardiometabolic risk in kids

The research team found links between UPF consumption and cardiometabolic risk outcomes in young children. 

Kids who consumed a higher intake of UPFs exhibited elevated levels of BMI, waist circumference, fat mass index and fasting plasma glucose. 


A photo illustration of ultra-processed foods on Feb. 16, 2018, in London, England. (Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

In addition, UPF consumption was tied to lower levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol – also known as "good cholesterol" – which is a protective factor against cardiovascular disease.

The study also highlighted socioeconomic and maternal factors influencing UPF consumption, with children from families with lower education and employment levels and higher maternal body mass index (BMI) showing higher intake of UPFs.

What are ultra-processed foods?

According to Harvard Health, 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 include frozen meals, soft drinks, hot dogs and cold cuts, fast food, packaged cookies, cakes and salty snacks.

RELATED: Ultra-processed foods linked to higher risk of cancer, heart disease, early death, study says

For those who want to limit the amount of ultra-processed foods they consume, experts recommend whole food options over the processed version – such as an apple over sweetened applesauce that may contain added ingredients like high fructose corn syrup.

Health experts also suggest reading over ingredient labels as much as possible. If it includes several added items, including ingredients you’ve never heard of, it’s probably ultra-processed. 

Also, try to mostly shop around the perimeter of the grocery store, and when buying items in the center aisles, choose one-ingredient foods.

Ultra-processed foods linked to higher risk of cancer, heart disease, early death

Previous research has shown that diets high in ultra-processed foods can be harmful to the body in many ways. 

Another recently-published study further underscored the damaging health effects that such sugary and ready-to-eat foods can have. 

The study, published in the BMJ, suggested that ultra-processed foods could lead to a higher risk of 32 different damaging health outcomes like cancer, major heart and lung conditions, mental health disorders and early death.

Other research has suggested that between 60% and 90% of the standard American diet now consists of foods and beverages that are highly processed.

Meanwhile, consumption of these foods has rapidly increased over recent decades in many low- and middle-income nations, too.

This story was reported from Los Angeles. Kelly Hayes contributed.