Ultra-processed foods increase the risk of heart attacks, strokes and premature death, according to two major new studies published in the BMJ.
The studies, which were undertaken by independent research teams in France and Spain suggested that the risk of developing a first-time heart condition, suffering a stroke or dying prematurely were increased by a high intake of ultra-processed foods.
Considering this and other studies that have shown associations between ultra-processed food consumption and other health outcomes, people should limit the proportion of ultra-processed food in their diet.
Participants who ate the most processed foods were found to be 23-percent more likely to develop cardiovascular conditions than those who consumed the least.
The study in France was lead by researchers Bernard Srour and Mathilde Touvier from the University of Paris and followed 105,000 male and female participants for five years during which their diet was assessed twice a year. More than 1,400 of the participants developed blocked arteries in the heart or suffered a heart attack or stroke which equated to a risk factor of 23 percent.
Among participants who consumed the most ultra-processed foods, the resulting rate of cardiovascular disease was 277 per 100,000 people per year whilst those who ate the least had a lower rate of 242 per 100,000; indicating that a diet rich in ultra-processed food was detrimental to heart health.
Although this was the first epidemiological study to evaluate the association between the proportion of processed food in the diet and risk of cardiovascular diseases, earlier studies including the Cohort Nutri-Net Santé had already raised concerns that ultra-processed foods were associated with a greater risk of developing diseases including cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, hypertension, obesity and depression, and could even be linked to premature death.
“Considering this and other studies that have shown associations between ultra-processed food consumption and other health outcomes, people should limit the proportion of ultra-processed food in their diet and privilege the consumption of unprocessed and minimally processed instead,” Srour told Olive Oil Times.
He was keen to point out that along with junk food many other products fall into the category of ultra-processed foods including; mass produced packaged breads and buns, packaged snacks, factory produced confectionery and desserts, sodas and sweetened beverages along with reconstituted meat products such as meatballs, poultry and fish nuggets.
“Lack of time is not an excuse; it does not take very long to use for example frozen fish and vegetables with just a hint of olive oil, salt, pepper and thyme or spices, and a serving of whole-grain pasta,” Srour said. “It is delicious and only takes 10 minutes to cook.”
He advised restricting consumption of preservative-rich packaged foods including; instant powdered noodles and soups, pre-packed ready meals and food products containing high levels of sugar, fats and hydrogenated oils as well as modified starches and protein isolates.
The second study, which was undertaken in Spain by researchers from the University of Navarra, examined the eating habits of almost 20,000 Spanish adults for a decade during which diet was assessed annually. This study also pointed the finger at a link between ultra-processed foods and shorter life spans.
Results showed that participants with the highest intakes of ultra-processed food were 62-percent more likely to die within 20 years than participants with the lowest intake.
During this study 335 deaths occurred and it was noted that for every 10 deaths among the group eating the least amount of processed food, 16 deaths occurred among participants with a diet rich in ultra-processed foods (more than four servings a day), which equated to a 62 -percent increase in the risk of premature death. Each additional serving further increased the risk by 18 percent.
Srour advised readers to examine the packaging before purchasing processed foods and select products with lower risk ingredients and higher nutritional value as well as steering away from foods rich in sugar, salt and trans fats.
He warned against high consumption of ultra-processed products containing additives linked to cardiovascular risk and listed high doses of sulphites (often found in ready-to-consume sauces), high levels of monosodium glutamate, (a common ingredient in ready to eat noodles and soups) emulsifiers, artificial sweeteners and a thickening agent called carrageenan as additives of which to steer clear.
Srour also advised that the packaging of ultra-processed foods may contain harmful materials such as bisphenol A, which has been associated with an increased risk of cardiometabolic disorders as well as revealing that a number of compounds which are neo-formed during the processing of foods could be detrimental to cardiovascular health.