Ultra-processed food may cause ‘tidal wave of harm’ including stroke and heart attack risk

Lowest risk found at less than 15 per cent of ultra-processed food consumption out of calorie intake per day

Vishwam Sankaran
Monday 28 August 2023 07:40 BST
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Two new studies have found conclusive links between the consumption of ultra-processed foods (UPF) with increased cardiac disease risk, including heart attacks and strokes.

The research, presented at the annual meeting of the European Society of Cardiology in Amsterdam, found highly processed food sold in stores across the world, such as fizzy drinks, cereals and ready-to-eat meals, may lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases and hypertension.

Henry Dimbleby, the UK government’s former food tsar, said the findings should be a “wake-up call” for the country.

“Britain is particularly bad for ultra-processed food. It is storing up problems for the future,” he told The Guardian. “If we do nothing, a tidal wave of harm is going to hit the NHS.”

One of the studies, conducted by scientists from the Fourth Military Medical University in China, conducted a review of 10 studies that included 325,403 participants and 38,720 cases of cardiovascular disease (CVD) events, including heart attack and stroke.

It found a conclusive association between UPF and heart disease risk.

Scientists found that a 10 per cent increase in UPF consumption in daily calorie intake is linked to a 6 per cent rise in heart disease risk. Researchers also observed that the lowest risk was at a less than 15 per cent per day of UPF consumption out of total calorie intake.

However, heavy UPF consumption “was significantly and positively associated with increased risk of cardiovascular events,” scientists noted.

The other research, also presented at the world’s largest heart health conference, assessed the link between UPF intake with CVD and hypertension in a population of middle-aged women in Australia.

Scientists, including those from the University of Sydney, assessed health data of about 10,000 women aged 46-55 years who were recruited into the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health and followed for 15 years.

They assessed the contribution of UPF in the daily dietary intake of these women as well as their self-reported heart disease and stroke, and/or hypertension incidences.

The women included in the study had an average UPF intake of 26.6 per cent of total food dietary intake.

Over their 15 years of follow-up, scientists found 1,038 incident CVD and 4,204 hypertension cases.

Among the middle-aged women, scientists observed that a higher UPF intake was associated with higher risk of CVD and hypertension.

“These findings lend support to minimising UPF intake as a component of a heart-healthy diet,” scientists wrote in the study.

Taken together, the findings hinted that the harm caused by UPF may be more than just due to their high salt and fat content.

“If there is something inherent in the processing of foods that is harmful, then that is a disaster,” said Mr Dimbleby.

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