Can the consumption of ultra-processed food lead to premature death? Here’s what you need to know

Can the consumption of ultra-processed food lead to premature death? Here’s what you need to know

Traditional foods and meals made from fresh and minimally processed components are gradually being replaced by ultra-processed foods (UPF), ready to eat or heat industrial formulations made from substances taken from food or synthesized in laboratories, recent research has shown

Study in American Journal of Preventive Medicinepublished by Elsevier, found that increased consumption of these foods was associated with more than 10% of all preventable premature deaths in Brazil in 2019, although Brazilians consume far less of these products than high-income countries.

“Previous modeling studies have estimated the health and economic burden of critical ingredients, such as sodium, sugar and trans fat, and specific foods or beverages, such as sugar-sweetened beverages,” explained lead researcher Eduardo AF. Nilsson, ScD, Center for Epidemiological Research in Nutrition and Health, University of São Paulo and Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, Brazil. “To our knowledge, no study to date has evaluated the potential impact of UPF on premature death. Knowing the deaths attributable to consumption of these foods and modeling how changes in dietary patterns can support more effective food policies can prevent disease and premature death.”

dr. Nilson and colleagues modeled data from nationally representative dietary surveys to estimate baseline UPF intake by gender and age group. Statistical analyzes were used to estimate the proportion of total deaths attributable to UPF consumption and the impact of reducing UPF intake by 10%, 20% and 50% within those age groups, using 2019 data.

Across all age groups and gender strata, UPF consumption ranged from 13% to 21% of total food intake in Brazil during the study period. A total of 541,260 adults aged 30 to 69 died prematurely in 2019, of which 261,061 were from preventable non-communicable diseases. The model found that approximately 57,000 deaths that year were attributable to UPF consumption, which corresponded to 10.5% of all premature deaths and 21.8% of all preventable deaths from noncommunicable diseases in adults aged 30 to 69 years old. Researchers have suggested that in high income countries such as United States, CanadaUK and Australiawhere UPFs account for more than half of total caloric intake, the estimated impact would be even greater.

dr. Nilsson noted that UPFs have gradually replaced the consumption of traditional whole foods, such as rice and beans, in Brazil over time. Reducing UPF consumption and promoting healthier food choices may require multiple interventions and public health measures, such as fiscal and regulatory policies, changing the food environment, strengthening implementation of food-based dietary guidelines, and improving consumer knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors.

A 10% to 50% reduction in UPF consumption could potentially prevent approximately 5,900 to 29,300 premature deaths in Brazil each year.

“UPF consumption is associated with many disease outcomes, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some cancers and other diseases, and is a significant cause of preventable and premature death among Brazilian adults,” said Dr. Nilsson. “Even reducing UPF consumption to levels of just a decade ago would reduce associated premature deaths by 21%. Policies that disincentivize UPF consumption are urgently needed.”

Having tools to estimate deaths attributable to UPF consumption can help countries assess the burden of dietary changes related to industrial food processing and design more effective food policy options to promote healthier foods.

Examples of UPFs are prepackaged soups, sauces, frozen pizzas, ready-to-eat meals, hot dogs, sausages, sodas, ice cream, and store-bought cookies, cakes, candies, and donuts.

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