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Long-term study links ultra-processed foods to a higher mortality risk
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Long-term study links ultra-processed foods to a higher mortality risk

Comprising over one lakh participants, the study found that those having seven servings of ultra-processed foods every day on average had a significantly higher risk of death
Increased intake of ultra-processed foods has been associated with a higher mortality risk
Prolonged consumption of ultra-processed foods has been cited as a risk factor for health conditions like diabetes and obesity.

A study conducted in the US spanning over 30 years found that increased intake of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) was linked to a higher risk of mortality, with ready-to-eat meat, poultry, seafood-based products, sugary drinks, dairy-based desserts and highly processed breakfast cereals showing the strongest associations.

The population-based cohort study published in the British Medical Journal on May 8, 2024, examined the association of UPF consumption with all-cause mortality (death due to any cause) and cause-specific mortality, making it one of the few investigations considering UPF intake as a risk factor for all-cause and cause-specific deaths.

What were the parameters of the study?

The study comprised 1,14,064 participants from two large cohorts — 74,563 female nurses from the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS) and 39,501 male health professionals from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (HPFS) — with no history of cancer, cardiovascular conditions or diabetes. They provided information about their health and lifestyle biennially, along with completing a detailed food questionnaire every four years. Their dietary quality was also assessed using the Alternative Healthy Eating Index-2010 (AHEI) score, which included measuring their UPF intake as servings per day.

What did the study find?

During an average 34-year follow-up period, 48,193 deaths were reported (30,188 women and 18,005 men), including 13,557 deaths due to cancer, 11,416 deaths due to cardiovascular complications, 3926 mortalities due to respiratory disorders and 6343 deaths due to neurodegenerative conditions.

“Compared to participants in the lowest quarter of ultra-processed food intake [average three servings per day], those in the highest quarter [average seven servings per day] had a 4% higher risk of total deaths and a 9% higher risk of other deaths [due to specific causes], including an 8% higher risk of neurodegenerative deaths,” a press release stated. However, no association was found between UPF consumption and deaths due to cardiovascular disorders, cancer or respiratory issues.

While the researchers state that not all UPFs should be universally restricted, they also advise against oversimplification when formulating dietary recommendations. “The findings provide support for limiting consumption of certain types of processed food for long-term health. Future studies are warranted to improve the classification of ultra-processed foods and confirm our findings in other populations,” they share.

Advertisements for ultra-processed foods are misleading

Speaking to Happiest Health, Dr Arun Gupta, a Delhi-based pediatrician and convenor of Nutritional Advocacy in Public Interest (NAPI), says although there have been multiple studies in the past focusing on the limitations and harmful effects of UPFs, this specific study done in the US for over three decades is important research.

These food products are often advertised by celebrities in an attempt to sway the masses. Disapproving of such endorsements, Dr Gupta adds, “There should not be any misleading advertisements. While we cannot stop the manufacturing and sale of ultra-processed foods, stringent laws are needed to stop the advertisement of such products. This also requires a clear definition of highly processed food items.” He recommends avoiding these advertised food products as they are harmful to health. To keep health conditions at bay, experts advise opting for healthier alternatives instead.

Similar studies should be conducted in India

Commenting on the study, Dr Sriharee Kulkarni, consultant diabetologist and internal medicine specialist, Fortis Hospital, Cunnigham Road, Bangalore, says if similar research is done in India, the results won’t be different owing to the high consumption pattern of processed foods. “We might overtake the US study findings if the same study is conducted with an Indian cohort; however, we currently don’t have the data. Opting for highly processed foods has become convenient, leading to an increased risk of non-communicable conditions. Such products lack protein and fiber, which one must be aware of while consuming,” he adds, emphasizing that such studies must reach the masses to increase awareness about the ill-effects of UPFs.

Takeaways

A large-scale study conducted in the US spanning over three decades found that excessive intake of ultra-processed foods was linked to a higher risk of mortality. Deploring celebrity endorsements of these products, experts urge the population to avoid or limit the intake of such food items and opt for healthier alternatives to keep metabolic disorders at bay.

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