Ultra-processed foods such as sugary cereals and ready meals are linked to cardiovascular disease and early death, new research suggests.
Two large European studies published by The British Medical Journal have found positive associations between consumption of highly processed foods and the risk of heart disease.
Ultra-processed foods include packaged baked goods and snacks, fizzy drinks, sugary cereals, ready meals containing food additives, dehydrated vegetable soups, and reconstituted meat and fish products – often containing high levels of added sugar, fat, and/or salt, but lacking in vitamins and fibre. They are thought to account for around 25-60% of daily energy intake in many countries.
The researchers say further work is needed to better understand these effects, and a direct link remains to be established, but they call for policies that promote the consumption of fresh or minimally processed foods over highly processed foods.
In the first study, researchers based in France and Brazil assessed potential associations between ultra-processed foods and risk of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease.
Their findings are based on 105,159 French adults (21% men; 79% women) with an average age of 43 years who completed an average of six 24-hour dietary questionnaires to measure usual intake of 3,300 different food items, as part of the NutriNet-Santé study.
Foods were grouped according to degree of processing and rates of disease were measured over a maximum follow-up of ten years.
Results showed that an absolute 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed food in the diet was associated with significantly higher rates of overall cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and cerebrovascular disease (increases of 12%, 13%, and 11% respectively).
In contrast, the researchers found a significant association between unprocessed or minimally processed foods and lower risks of all reported diseases.
In the second study, researchers based in Spain evaluated possible associations between ultra-processed food intake and risk of death from any cause (all-cause mortality).
Their findings are based on 19,899 Spanish university graduates (7,786 men; 12,113 women) with an average age of 38 years who completed a 136-item dietary questionnaire as part of the Seguimiento Universidad de Navarra study.
Foods were grouped according to degree of processing and deaths were measured over an average of ten years.
Results showed that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods (more than four servings per day) was associated with a 62% increased risk of all-cause mortality compared with lower consumption (fewer than two servings per day).
Both research teams say policies that limit the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet and promote consumption of unprocessed or minimally processed foods are needed to improve global public health.
The findings back up other research linking highly processed food with poor health. A study published last year revealed that a 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet was associated with increases of 12% in the risk of overall cancer and 11% in the risk of breast cancer.
© FoodBev Media Ltd 2019
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