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Study links ultra-processed foods to higher cardiovascular disease risk and mortality

Plant-based ultra-processed foods linked to higher cardiovascular disease risk
Plant-based ultra-processed foods linked to higher cardiovascular disease risk Copyright Canva
Copyright Canva
By Oceane Duboust
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Researchers looked at the impact of a range of “plant-based” ultra-processed foods on your health, which confirmed other findings that link processed foods to health problems.

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An increasing number of studies are finding links between ultra-processed foods (UPFs) and higher risks of health problems such as obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.

A team of researchers from the University of São Paulo in Brazil and the Imperial College London in the UK looked specifically at heavily processed "plant-based" foods’ impact on cardiovascular risk.

They analysed the data of nearly 120,000 people from the UK Biobank who were on average  55 years old.

When the diet was richer in plant-based unprocessed food such as fruits, vegetables, cereals or nuts, the risks were reduced. 

A ten per cent increase in such ingredients was associated with a seven per cent reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and an eight per cent reduced risk of coronary heart disease. 

Non-animal-based ultra-processed food consumption, however, was associated with a five per cent increased risk of cardiovascular disease and 12 per cent higher mortality.

UPFs in general were linked to higher cardiovascular disease risk and mortality as well.

“We have yet another strong argument to encourage the reduction of ultra-processed food consumption, regardless of whether it is of animal or plant origin,” Dr Renata Levy, one of the study’s authors and a professor at the University of São Paulo, said in a statement.

What ultra-processed foods were included in the study?

The study looked at a wide range of ultra-processed foods including industrial breads, pastries, biscuits, and cakes. Meat alternatives only represented 0.2 per cent of the plant-based UPF.

Dr Hilda Mulrooney, a reader in nutrition and health at London Metropolitan University,said in a statement that the study was “impressive in terms of the size of the study and it has used a wide range of statistical methods to demonstrate an effect”.

But she pointed out that “the greatest contributor to the ultra-processed plant-based foods are not meat alternatives but bread, pastries, buns, cakes, and biscuits, which arguably are not good markers of a plant-based diet, since many people consuming meat will also be consuming those products”.

“The study remains limited to showing associations and causality cannot be demonstrated,” she added. 

Several experts also noted that the study relied on the NOVA classification system which classified foods according to their degree of transformation but doesn’t take into account the nutritional content of the foods.

“Too high an intake of any one group of foods is likely to result in imbalance, and I would have far more concern that healthy foods are made more affordable. Consuming lower quality foods is the only option for many people due to cost-of-living pressures,” Mulrooney added.

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