Scientists Investigate the Health Risks Raised by Ultra-Processed Foods

Industrially produced foods, such as snacks, chips, convenience foods, carbonated drinks, increase the risk of death, especially from cardiovascular causes.

Supermarket shelves are increasingly flooded with foods produced by extensive industrial processing, generally low in essential nutrients, high in sugar, oil and salt and liable to be overconsumed. And they are very attractive: the convenience of microwave meals, the good taste of chips, the cheapness of a snack to take to school. Research by the Department of Epidemiology and Prevention at the I.R.C.C.S. Neuromed, in Italy, now confirms that these foods are harmful to health.

Published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the study was conducted on over twenty-two thousand citizens participating in the Moli-sani Project. By analyzing their eating habits and following their health conditions for over 8 years, Neuromed researchers were able to observe that those consuming a high amount of ultra-processed foods had an increased risk of death from any cause of 26%, and of 58% specifically from cardiovascular diseases.

“To evaluate the nutrition habits of the Moli-sani participants — explains Marialaura Bonaccio, researcher at the Department of Epidemiology and Prevention and first author of the study — we used the international NOVA classification, which characterizes foods on the basis of how much they undergo extraction, purification or alteration. Those with the highest level of industrial processing fall into the category of ultra-processed foods. According to our observations, people consuming large amounts of these foods have an increased risk of dying from cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases.”

The main culprit could be sugar, which in ultra-processed foods is added in substantial amounts. But the answer seems more complex. “According to our analyses — explains Augusto Di Castelnuovo, epidemiologist of the Department, currently at Mediterranea Cardiocentro in Naples — the excess of sugar does play a role, but it accounts only for 40% of the increased death risk. Our idea is that an important part is played by industrial processing itself, able to induce deep modifications in the structure and composition of nutrients.”

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