Even while following the Mediterranean diet, a large intake of these food products doubles the risk of a second heart attack or deadly stroke. The probability of dying from any cause is also 40% higher.
The possible negative health impacts of ultra-processed foods or industrially processed foods are a major public health concern.
A new study from the I.R.C.C.S. Neuromed’s Department of Epidemiology and Prevention in Pozzilli (Italy) investigates the health implications of a high dietary proportion of ultra-processed foods on individuals who already have cardiovascular disease.
The findings suggest an increased probability of suffering another heart attack (or stroke), this time deadly. Additionally, this study reveals another finding: even when people eat a Mediterranean diet in general, but consume an excessive amount of ultra-processed goods, health risks are increased.
The study, which was published in the European Heart Journal, the official journal of the European Society of Cardiology, followed 1,171 participants in the Moli-sani epidemiology project for more than 10 years.
They were all already suffering from cardiovascular disease at the time of the study’s inclusion. Considering the participants’ diets, the researchers concentrated on ultra-processed foods, which are made in part or entirely with ingredients not normally used in cooking (hydrolyzed proteins, maltodextrins, hydrogenated fats, for example) and typically contain a variety of additives such as dyes, preservatives, antioxidants, anti-caking agents, flavor enhancers, and sweeteners.
This category includes sugared and carbonated beverages, pre-packaged meals, spreads, and other products that appear to be “unusual,” such as rusks, breakfast cereals, crackers, and fruit yoghurt. These foods were classified according to the NOVA method, which assigns a value to foods based on their degree of processing rather than their nutritional content.
“We saw,” says Marialaura Bonaccio, a researcher at the Department of Epidemiology and Prevention and first author of the study, “that people with a higher consumption of ultra-processed foods have a two-thirds increased risk of a second heart attack or stroke, this time fatal, compared to participants eating these foods less frequently.”
They also noted that “the probability of dying from any cause is also 40% higher.”
The author emphasizes that the term “ultra-processed food” does not refer to the nutritional content of the food, but rather to the procedure used to prepare and store it. In other words, a food may be deemed ultra-processed even if it is nutritionally balanced. Clearly, it is not the occasional consumption of a particular food that makes the difference, but rather a diet that incorporates an excessive number of products from shop shelves. As the Mediterranean tradition has taught us for ages, a diet centered on fresh, minimally processed foods should always be chosen.
Licia Iacoviello – Director of the Department of Epidemiology and Prevention at Neuromed says that “a person could follow a Mediterranean diet, perhaps rich in legumes or vegetables, a healthy diet we would say. But the simple definition of ‘Mediterranean’ does not tell us ‘how’ those foods were prepared. Fresh vegetables are not the same as pre-cooked and seasoned vegetables, and the same goes for many other foods. It is a factor to be increasingly considered when advising citizens about proper nutrition. Our proposal is that the level of industrial processing of foods should be added to the front-of-pack labels, which until now only provide nutritional information”.
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