Studies show fresh link between junk food and death

More than 4 servings of ultra-processed foods a day linked to 62% increased risk of mortality

According to one study, for each additional daily serving of ultra-processed food, mortality risk relatively increased by 18 per cent. Photograph: iStock

According to one study, for each additional daily serving of ultra-processed food, mortality risk relatively increased by 18 per cent. Photograph: iStock

 

A fresh link between “junk” food and cardiovascular disease and death has been highlighted in two major European studies published by one of the world’s leading medical journals on Thursday.

Direct associations between serious illnesses and ultra-processed foods, including packaged baked goods and snacks, fizzy drinks, sugary cereals and some ready meals have been found by the studies.

In one of the studies, a rise by a tenth in the proportion of ultra-processed food eaten was associated with significantly higher rates of overall cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and cerebrovascular disease.

Such foods, which typically have large amounts of added sugar, fat and salt, but lack vitamins and fibre, account for about 25-60 per cent of daily energy intake in some countries.

By contrast, researchers in France and Brazil found a significant association between unprocessed or minimally processed foods and lower risks of all reported diseases.

In the first study, published by the British Medical Journal, researchers in France and Brazil examined links between ultra-processed foods and the risk of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases.

More than 100,000 middle-aged adults took part, completing an average of six 24-hour dietary questionnaires that sought to measure the consumption of hundreds of different types of food.

In the second study, Spanish researchers evaluated possible associations between ultra-processed food and risk of death from any cause on the back of 20,000 questionnaires completed by Spanish university graduates.

Foods were again grouped by the degree of processing they had received, while deaths were measured over a decade, but the results were much more stark than in the first study.

The consumption of more than four servings of ultra-processed foods a day was associated with a 62 per cent increased risk of mortality, compared with eating just less than two servings a day.

For each additional daily serving of ultra-processed food, mortality risk relatively increased by 18 per cent.

Both studies were observational and unable to establish a direct link between diet and mortality.

Lifestyle factors

However, the BMJ report said they both took account of well-known lifestyle risk factors and markers of dietary quality with the findings supporting other research linking highly processed food with poor health.

Prof Kevin McConway of Open University said the studies state that they do not establish a causal link between the consumption of ultra-processed and health.

“There are many other differences between the people who ate relatively small and relatively large quantities of ultra-processed foods, apart from their consumption of those foods. For instance, they smoked more on average.”

Nutrition expert Dr Gunter Kuhnle said the studies associated “very high” consumption of ultra-processed foods with higher disease risk, but the increases in cardiovascular disease found “were rather modest”.

High consumption of ultra-processed foods was “a marker” of an unhealthy lifestyle because such people were more likely to smoke and less likely to exercise: dealing with this was “more important than simply addressing” symptoms.