Is half your diet from processed foods? A new study from Brazil has found that more than 10 percent of early deaths were attributable to ultra-processed foods in 2019. The study was conducted by scientists in Brazil and published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine

Their findings revealed these ultra-processed foods are more likely to cause premature death because they could increase the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity.

Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are foods and drink products that contain little or no whole food and are usually added with colors, flavors, emulsifiers, and other additives. With the dramatic increase in the sales of ultra-processed foods worldwide, the dietary caloric intake is also equally elevated among people — especially in middle and high-income countries. Examples of these ultra-processed foods range from frozen pizza to ice cream, hot dogs, prepackaged soups, sugar-sweetened beverages, hamburgers, and soda.

Prior studies have only looked from the perspective of health and economic impacts caused by these critical ingredients added to most food and drinks (including sodium, fats, sugars, and even sugar-sweetened beverages). However, this is the first modeling study of its kind to estimate the premature deaths credited to the consumption of UPFs. 

Study Methodology 

Dr. Nilson along with his team looked at the diets of Brazilian adults pooled from a 24-h food recall. To estimate the prevalence of UPF consumption, the team modeled data from nationally representative dietary surveys. Then, statistical analyses were done to obtain data on the rate and proportion of deaths caused by the consumption of UPFs. In addition to that, they also estimated the possible impact of a reduction in UPFs consumption by 10 percent, 20 percent, and 50 percent across all sex and age groups.

Results

The study authors found a range of 13 percent to 25 percent of total dietary intake upon consumption of UPFs across all genders and ages. Over hundreds of thousands of Brazilian adults (541,260) aged 30 – 69 years were found to die prematurely in 2019 in Brazil. They also found that the intake of UPFs caused roughly 57,000 deaths in 2019 analogous to 10.5 percent of all premature deaths as well as 21.8 percent of death from preventable non-communicable diseases among Brazilian adults within the age of 30 – 69 years. 

It’s worth noting that high-income countries such as the UK, US, Canada, and Australia are more exposed to the harm from UPFs consumption since it makes up more than half of their dietary energy intake. For this reason, the chances of premature deaths are likely even higher.

Brazilian researchers note that cutting back intake of UPFs by 10 percent to 50 percent would most likely prevent about 5,900 – 29,300 deaths per year.

Despite the clinical implications associated with eating UPFs, the consumption rate keeps skyrocketing. The consumption of foods such as rice and beans — which are traditional whole foods — is fast declining and giving room for ready-to-eat UPFs.

The team highlighted the need to reduce eating UPFs since they contributed a great deal to premature and preventable deaths in the cohort in Brazil. Though it will require multiple interventions, the study authors suggest a simple change of food environment to a more healthy one, enhancing the enactment of food-based dietary guidelines as well as educating consumers and encouraging them to adopt good attitudes and behaviors. This will in no time, increase the consumption of fresh and minimally processed food in the general population and at the same time, reduce premature deaths.

The study lead author, Eduardo A.F. Nilson, ScD, Center for Epidemiological Research in Nutrition and Health, University of São Paulo, and Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, Brazil says: “Even reducing consumption of UPFs to the levels of just a decade ago would reduce associated premature deaths by 21%”.

“Policies that disincentivize the consumption of UPFs are urgently needed,” he adds.

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