So-called ultra-processed foods are thought to pose a threat to human health. New research has suggested that even when people are following a diet that's been shown to promote good health, the Mediterranean diet, if they are also consuming a lot of ultra-processed foods, they are still significantly increasing their risk of having a second heart attack or stroke. The research also indicated that when people who have cardiovascular disease consume a lot of ultra-processed foods, they substantially increase their risk of a second heart attack. The findings have been reported in The European Heart Journal.
Ultra-processed foods are those that are made with hydrogenated fats, hydrolyzed proteins, maltodextrins, and typically include preservatives, dyes, sweeteners, flavor enhancers, and anti-caking agents. Some prepackaged foods, spreads, breakfast cereals, crackers, yogurts, and carbonated beverages are ultra-processed.
In this study, the researchers assessed the health and ultra-processed food intake of 1,171 people who already had cardiovascular disease. Foods were rated based on how much they'd been processed instead of their nutritional value.
Compared to those who ate ultra-processed food less often, study participants who had eaten the most ultra-processed food increased their risk of a second heart attack or stroke, which was fatal, by two-thirds, revealed first study author Marialaura Bonaccio, a researcher at the Department of Epidemiology and Prevention at the I.R.C.C.S. Neuromed.
"The probability of dying from any cause is also 40 percent higher. It is important to underline that the definition of ultra-processed food is not linked to the nutritional content, but rather to the process used for its preparation and storage. In other words, even if a food is nutritionally balanced, it might still be considered ultra-processed."
Bonaccio added that eating some bad foods once in a while probably isn't having a big impact on a person's health. It's the habitual consumption of food that comes out of a package on a supermarket shelf that's causing a problem for many people.
This research emphasizes that foods cannot be categorized as healthy or unhealthy simply based on the nutritional content. For example, Mediterranean diets aren't all the same, noted Licia Iacoviello, Director of the Department of Epidemiology and Prevention at Neuromed.
"Fresh vegetables are not the same as pre-cooked and seasoned vegetables, and the same goes for many other foods. It is a factor to be increasingly considered when advising citizens about proper nutrition. Our proposal is that the level of industrial processing of foods should be added to the front-of-pack labels, which until now only provide nutritional information."
Sources: Istituto Neurologico Mediterraneo Neuromed I.R.C.C.S., European Heart Journal