Two studies published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) are claiming that eating various ready meals and other foods which contain high sugar and added fats are linked to an increased risk of heart disease and other cardiovascular issues. The main finding is that ‘ultra processed foods’ as they are termed could increase the risk of an early death by around 60 per cent.
Ultra processed foods are those which have been manufactured but also include products such as sausages, meatballs, ready-to-eat meals and others. They are usually produced with increased shelf-life and an appealing consumer profile. Many of them have added sugars and fats.
The research showed that consuming four portions per day increased the risk of death by 62 per cent compared to those eating two portions every day. Each serving is claimed to increase the risk of mortality by up to a fifth.
The simple conclusion from both studies was that cutting out processed meats and reducing the number of convenience meals eaten would improve the life expectancy of everyone.
A more natural diet was called for. A typical natural diet would be one similar to the Mediterranean diet which includes a lot of fish, vegetables and legumes. For many though who follow a hectic modern lifestyle, eating a manufactured food is every more likely.
The Two Studies
The University of Navarra, in Spain studied the eating habits of 20,000 people. The group had an average age of 38. They completed a detailed questionnaire about various daily habits including what they ate.
This particular study found that eating four portions a day of highly processed foods had a 62 per cent increased mortality risk, compared with those eating less than two.
The Paris-Sorbonne University study showed that for every 10 per cent increase in consumption of “ultra-processed food” there was a 13 per cent increase in rates of heart disease, and an 11 per cent risk in diseases which caused strokes.
This finding was based on a study of 105,000 French adults who filled in a detailed questionnaire over six days. The study looked at their consumption of over 3,000 different foods.
The Future With Ultra Processed Foods
The studies are straight forward observational ones. Whilst they can make links and associations they cannot claim a ’cause’. In this case eating ‘ultra-processed foods’ does not cause early death or increase the risk of any particular disease. The study also includes risk factors for other aspects of lifestyle and behaviour, and many markers that account for diet.
The World Health Organization has produced a Global Non-communicable Diseases (NCDs) Action Plan for 2013-2020 (UN, 2011; WHO, 2013). The goal is simple. Achieve a 25% reduction in premature mortality from the four main global non-communicable diseases which are cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease, cancer, and diabetes by 2025.
At the moment the governments of many countries would like their populations to reduce their consumption of ready meals in favour of a more ‘natural’ diet. One approach is to reformulate ready meals with a lower calorie content. The issue is that in doing so and still keep flavour and maintain shelf-life requires the use of ingredients which do not necessarily help to reduce the risk factors. In the UK, the government target is to cut the calorie content of common foods by 20 per cent by 2024. Many dieticians would like to see more of us eating foods which are more healthy but more affordable and accessible. The worry is that there will still be a focus for consumers on the ultra-processed foods.
Association between consumption of ultra-processed foods and all cause mortality: SUN prospective cohort study. (Article).
Ultra-processed food intake and risk of cardiovascular disease: prospective cohort study (NutriNet-Santé) (Article) .
United Nations. Political declaration of the high-level meeting of the General Assembly on the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases. Agenda item 117. 2011;(January). doi:10.1007/BF03038934
World Health Organization. (2013) Global action plan for the prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases 2013-2020. Geneva: WHO. www.who.int/nmh/events/ncd_action_plan/en/. Published 2013.