A new link has been made between highly processed foods, cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and cerebrovascular disease. This new association comes after two large European studies were published by The BMJ this week which shared the findings.
There have been previous studies which have shown a connection between ultra-processed foods and high blood pressure, obesity, high cholesterol, and some cancers, but there has been no firm evidence to back up claims.
Ultra-processed foods are estimated to account for 25–60 percent of daily energy intake in many countries around the world. These foods include packaged snacks and baked goods, sugary cereals, ready meals, soda, and reconstituted meat and fish products. These products often contain high levels of added fat, sugar, and salt, but lack important fiber and vitamins.
The two studies released this week included one based in France and Brazil, with the other based in Spain. The first study assessed potential connections between ultra-processed foods and risk of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease (conditions affecting the blood supply to the brain).
Researchers based their finding from the NutriNet-Santé study, which included 105,159 French adults who had an average age of 43 years old. The participants completed an average of six 24-hour dietary questionnaires to measure usual consumption of 3,300 different food items.
The foods consumed were grouped according to the degree of processing and rates of disease were measured over a follow-up period of 10 years. The outcome showed that a 10 percent increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet was linked with significantly higher rates of coronary heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, and cardiovascular disease. Researchers also found a significant connection between unprocessed foods and lower risk of all report diseases.
Ultra-Processed Foods and Risk of Death
The second study based out of Spain evaluated possible associations between ultra-processed foods and risk of death from any cause or disease. This research was taken from the Seguimiento Universidad de Navarra (SUN) study, which included 19,899 Spanish university graduates with an average age of 38 years old. All participants in this study completed a 136-item questionnaire about the consumption of foods, which were once again grouped according to the degree of processing. Deaths were then measured over a 10-year period.
The results for this study showed that higher consumption (more than four servings a day) of ultra-processed foods was associated with a 62 percent increased risk of all-cause mortality compared with a lower serving (2 servings a day). Results also showed that for each additional daily serving of ultra-processed food, mortality risk increased by 18 percent.
As both of these studies are observational, causality cannot be established, and there is a possibility that some of the observed risks could be due to unmeasured factors. However, both studies took account of well-known lifestyle risk factors and markers of dietary quality and the conclusions back up other research that has been shown connecting poor health with highly processed foods.
For the conclusion of both studies, research teams agree that policies which promote the consumption of unprocessed foods and limit the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet are needed to improve public health globally. They concluded that policymakers “should shift their priorities away from food reformulation—which risks positioning ultra-processed food as a solution to dietary problems—towards a greater emphasis on promoting the availability, affordability, and accessibility of unprocessed or minimally processed foods.”