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Ultra-processed foods associated with premature deaths

In many countries, ultra-processed foods (UPFs) – ready-to-eat-or-heat industrial formulations made with ingredients extracted from foods or synthesized in laboratories, including prepackaged soups, sauces, frozen pizza, hot dogs, sausages, sodas, ice cream, and store-bought cookies, cakes, candies, and doughnuts – have gradually been replacing traditional foods made from fresh or minimally processed ingredients. However, extensive consumption of such foods is highly dangerous, and can lead to illness or even death. According to a recent study led by the University of São Paulo in Brazil, increased consumption of UPFs was associated with over 10 percent of all-cause premature deaths in Brazil in 2019. 

“Previous modelling studies have estimated the health and economic burden of critical ingredients, such as sodium, sugar and trans fats, and specific foods or drinks, such as sugar sweetened beverages,” said study lead investigator Eduardo A.F. Nilson, an expert in Nutrition and Health at the University of São Paulo. “To our knowledge, no study to date has estimated the potential impact of UPFs on premature deaths. Knowing the deaths attributable to the consumption of these foods and modeling how changes in dietary patterns can support more effective food policies might prevent disease and premature deaths.”

The scientists modelled data from nationally representative dietary surveys to estimate baseline intakes of UPFs by age- and sex-groups, and used statistical analyses to estimate the proportion of total deaths attributable to the consumption of these foods, as well as the impact of reducing intake of UPFs by 10, 20, and 50 percent within various age groups.

The analysis revealed that consumption of UPFs ranged from 13 to 21 percent of total food intake in Brazil in 2019, with a total of 541,260 adults aged 30 to 69 dying prematurely, of whom 261,061 were from preventable, non-infectious diseases. Among these, 57,000 could be attributed to the consumption of UPFs, corresponding to 10.5 percent of all premature deaths and 21.8 percent of all deaths from preventable noncommunicable diseases. Since in countries such as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, or Australia UPFs account for over half of the total caloric intake, their estimated impact would most likely be even higher.

“Consumption of UPFs is associated with many disease outcomes, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some cancers, and other diseases, and it represents a significant cause of preventable and premature deaths among Brazilian adults,” Dr. Nilson explained. “Even reducing consumption of UPFs to the levels of just a decade ago would reduce associated premature deaths by 21 percent. Policies that disincentivize the consumption of UPFs are urgently needed.”

Reducing the consumption of UPFs and promoting healthier choices would require multiple interventions and public health measures, such as developing new fiscal and regulatory policies, changing food environments, strengthening the implementation of food-based dietary guidelines, and improving consumer knowledge, attitudes, and behavior.

The study is published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.   

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By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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