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The health risk raised by ultra-processed foods

The Health Risk Raised by Ultra-Processed Foods

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

Institute for Research, Hospitalization and Health Care Neuromed

The Institute for Research, Hospitalization and Health Care (I.R.C.C.S.) Neuromed in Pozzilli (Italy) is a center for research and therapy in the field of neurological and cardiovascular diseases. A center...

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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. (Istituto Neurologico Mediterraneo) 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 22,000 citizens participating in the Moli-sani Project. By analyzing their eating habits and following their health conditions for over eight 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 percent, and of 58 percent specifically from cardiovascular diseases.

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"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 who is currently at Mediterranea Cardiocentro in Naples—the excess of sugar does play a role, but it accounts only for 40 percent 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 calorie 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 research going in the same direction, tell us that, in a healthy nutrition [diet], 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."

- This press release was supplied by the Istituto Neurologico Mediterraneo Neuromed. It has been edited for style