Eating ultra-processed foods linked to premature death, study finds

A new study has found an “alarming” link between the rising consumption of highly processed foods such as sliced white bread and sugary soft drinks and premature, preventable deaths.

Scientists studied death rates in Brazil in 2019, and found that increased consumption of these so-called “ultra-processed foods” (UPFs) contributed to more than 10 per cent of all premature deaths.

The research, published recently in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found that UPFs containing little or no whole foods in their ingredients contributed to about 57,000 premature deaths in the South American country that year.

Scientists, including those from the University of São Paulo in Brazil, say the findings are “alarming” especially since Brazilians consume far less of these products than those in countries with higher incomes.

“Previous modeling studies have estimated the health and economic burden of critical ingredients, such as sodium, sugar, and trans fats, and specific foods or drinks, such as sugar-sweetened beverages,” study co-author Eduardo AF Nilson said in a statement.

“To our knowledge, no study to date has estimated the potential impact of UPFs on premature deaths. Knowing the deaths attributable to the consumption of these foods and modeling how changes in dietary patterns can support more effective food policies might prevent disease and premature deaths,” Dr Nilson said.

Ultra-processed food such as packaged baked snacks, ready-to-eat meals, frozen pizza, sugary drinks and cereals are a common part of modern diets, but a growing number of studies link them to a range of adverse health conditions, including obesity, dementia, and cancer.

Scientists also point out that UPFs are low in protein and fibre, and heavy in added sugar, fat and salt.

In the latest study, researchers modeled data from nationally representative dietary surveys to estimate baseline intakes of UPFs by sex and age group.

They then estimated the proportion of total deaths attributable to the consumption of UPFs and the impact of reducing the intake of UPFs by 10 per cent, 20 per cent, and by half within those age groups.

During the study period in Brazil, researchers say the consumption of UPFs ranged from 13-21 per cent of total food intake across all age groups and sex strata.

Of the 541,260 adults aged 30 to 69 who were found to have died prematurely in 2019, 261,061 were from preventable, non-communicable diseases, researchers say.

The study found that 57,000 deaths could be attributed to the consumption of UPFs, corresponding to slightly over 10 per cent of all premature deaths, and over a fifth of all deaths from preventable noncommunicable diseases in adults aged 30 to 69.

“Consumption of UPFs is associated with many disease outcomes, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some cancers, and other diseases, and it represents a significant cause of preventable and premature deaths among Brazilian adults,” Dr Nilson explained.

In high-income countries such as the US, UK, and Canada, where UPFs account for more than half of total caloric intake, the impact of these foods would be even higher, scientists say.

Multiple interventions and public health measures will be needed to reduce the growing consumption of UPFs across the world, they say.

These measures include fiscal and regulatory policies for changing food environments and strengthening the implementation of food-based dietary guidelines as well as ways to improve consumer knowledge, attitudes, and behaviour.

Scientists say reducing UPF consumption by 10-50 per cent could potentially prevent approximately 5,900 to 29,300 premature deaths in Brazil every year.

“The consumption of ultraprocessed foods represents a significant cause of premature death in Brazil. Reducing ultraprocessed food intake would promote substantial health gains for the population and should be a food policy priority to reduce premature mortality,” researchers wrote in the study.


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