Scientists Investigate the Health Risks Raised by Ultra-Processed Foods

Processed Food Aisle Supermarket

Industrially produced foods, such as snacks, chips, convenience foods, carbonated drinks, increase the risk of death, especially from cardiovascular causes.

Supermarket shelves are increasingly flooded with foods produced by extensive industrial processing, generally low in essential nutrients, high in sugar, oil and salt and liable to be overconsumed. And they are very attractive: the convenience of microwave meals, the good taste of chips, the cheapness of a snack to take to school. Research by the Department of Epidemiology and Prevention at the I.R.C.C.S. Neuromed, in Italy, now confirms that these foods are harmful to health.

Published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the study was conducted on over twenty-two thousand citizens participating in the Moli-sani Project. By analyzing their eating habits and following their health conditions for over 8 years, Neuromed researchers were able to observe that those consuming a high amount of ultra-processed foods had an increased risk of death from any cause of 26%, and of 58% specifically from cardiovascular diseases.

“To evaluate the nutrition habits of the Moli-sani participants — explains Marialaura Bonaccio, researcher at the Department of Epidemiology and Prevention and first author of the study — we used the international NOVA classification, which characterizes foods on the basis of how much they undergo extraction, purification or alteration. Those with the highest level of industrial processing fall into the category of ultra-processed foods. According to our observations, people consuming large amounts of these foods have an increased risk of dying from cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases.”

The main culprit could be sugar, which in ultra-processed foods is added in substantial amounts. But the answer seems more complex. “According to our analyses — explains Augusto Di Castelnuovo, epidemiologist of the Department, currently at Mediterranea Cardiocentro in Naples — the excess of sugar does play a role, but it accounts only for 40% of the increased death risk. Our idea is that an important part is played by industrial processing itself, able to induce deep modifications in the structure and composition of nutrients.”

“Efforts aimed to lead the population towards a healthier diet — comments Licia Iacoviello, Director of the Department of Epidemiology and Prevention of Neuromed and full professor of Hygiene and Public Health at the University of Insubria in Varese — can no longer be addressed only by calories counting or by vague references to the Mediterranean diet. Sure, we obtained good results by those means, but now the battlefront is moving. Young people in particular are increasingly exposed to pre-packaged foods, easy to prepare and consume, extremely attractive and generally cheap. This study, and other international researches going in the same direction, tell us that, in a healthy nutrition habit, fresh or minimally processed foods must be paramount. Spending a few more minutes cooking a lunch instead of warming a container in the microwave, or maybe preparing a sandwich for our children instead of putting a pre-packaged snack in their backpack: these are actions that will reward us over the years.”

Reference: “Ultra-processed food consumption is associated with increased risk of all-cause and cardiovascular mortality in the Moli-sani Study” by Marialaura Bonaccio, Augusto Di Castelnuovo, Simona Costanzo, Amalia De Curtis, Mariarosaria Persichillo, Francesco Sofi, Chiara Cerletti, Maria Bendetta Donati, Giovanni de Gaetano and Licia Iacoviello on behalf of the Moli-sani Study Investigators, 18 December 2020, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
DOI: 10.1093/ajcn/nqaa299

The Moli-sani Study

Started in March 2005, it involves about 25,000 citizens living in the Molise region. The aim is to learn about environmental and genetic factors underlying cardiovascular disease, cancer, and degenerative disorders. The Moli-sani Study, now based in the I.R.C.C.S. Neuromed, has transformed an entire Italian region into a large research lab.

The I.R.C.C.S. Neuromed

The Institute for Research, Hospitalization and Health Care (I.R.C.C.S.) Neuromed in Pozzilli (Italy) is a landmark, at Italian and international level, for research and therapy in the field of neurological and cardiovascular diseases. A centre where doctors, researchers, staff and the patients themselves form an alliance aimed at ensuring the best level of service and cutting-edge treatments, guided by the most advanced scientific developments.

1 Comment on "Scientists Investigate the Health Risks Raised by Ultra-Processed Foods"

  1. Darn, I was just getting used to liking my Triscuits as a properly prepared whole wheat survival food. Now I guess I’ll have to go back to using hardtack? How else can you prepare wheat cracker rations that last long and dosn’t have some health drawback? , wheatgrass juice 🙁 ?

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