Many of us are guilty of tucking into the odd ready meal or giving ourselves an energy boost with a sugary drink, however a new study has linked ultra-processed foods with an increased risk of heart disease and even death.
Two separate studies, conducted by researchers at Deakin University and the University of Paris, found positive associations between the consumption of foods such as ready meals, sugary cereals and snacks with the risk of potentially fatal cardiovascular 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. They typically contain high levels of added sugar, fat and salt, and make up around 25-60 per cent of daily energy intake in many countries.
While the studies, published in the BMJ on Thursday, did establish links, researchers stressed that further work needs to be done to better understand these effects. However they did call for policies to be implemented promoting the cosnumption of fresh or minimally processed foods, rather than highly processed foods.
In the first study, researchers based in France and Brazil looked at possible links between ultra-processed foods and the risk of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease – meaning conditions affecting bloody supply to the heart and brain.
They assessed more than 105,000 French adults (the majority of whom were women) with an average age of 43. Participants imn the NutriNet-Santé study were asked to complete six 24-hour dietary questionnaires to measure their usual intake of 3,300 different food items, ranked according to how processed they were.
Researchers then monitored rates of diseases over 10 years (2009-2018) and found that a 10 per cent increase of the amount of ultra-processed food in the diet was associated with significantly higher rates of overall cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and cerebrovascular disease (increase of 12%, 13%, and 11% respectively).
They also noted a significant link between unprocessed or minimally processed foods and lower risks of all reported diseases.
In the second study, researchers based in Spain looked at possible links between eating ultra-processed foods and the risk of death from any cause, assessing almost 20,000 university graduates, with an average age of 38.
Participants in the Seguimiento Universidad de Navarra study were asked to complete a 136-item dietary questionnaire, with foods again grouped according to a degree of processing, with deaths measured over a period of 10 years.
The study found that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods (defined as more than four servings per day) was associated with a 62 per cent increased risk of mortality compared with lower consumption (less than two servings per day). For each additional daily serving of ultra-processed food, mortality risk relatively increased by 18%.
While both studies found positive links, they were observational and did not establish causality. However both studies suggested that policy makers should place greater emphasis on promoting the “availability, affordability and accessibility of unprocessed or minimally processed foods”.
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