Ultra-processed foods tied to second heart attack risk

December 5, 2021 in Healthy Eating, Heart Health, Nutrition Topics in the News

Ultra-processed foods tied to second heart attack risk

A new a study from Italy has found that a high intake of industrially-processed foods significantly increased the risk of a second heart attack or a fatal stroke in people who already suffer from cardiovascular disease.

What’s more, even in people who generally followed the Mediterranean diet, eating too many ultra-processed foods, increased the risk.

The study followed 1,171 people participating in the Moli-sani Study for over ten years. The Moli-sani Study, which began in March 2005 and involves about 25,000 people, aims learn about environmental and genetic factors underlying cardiovascular disease, cancer and degenerative pathologies.

All participants had cardiovascular disease at the time the study began. Regarding the diet, the researchers focused on the consumption of ultra-processed foods. 

What are ultra-processed foods?

Ultra-processed foods are made in part or entirely with substances not routinely used in cooking (e.g., hydrolysed proteins, maltodextrins, hydrogenated fats) and generally contain various additives, such as dyes, preservatives, anticaking agents, flavour enhancers and sweeteners.

Sugary and carbonated drinks, pre-packaged meals, spreads and some unsuspected products, such as sliced bread, breakfast cereals, crackers and flavoured yogurt are considered ultra-processed foods. These foods were classified using the NOVA system, which rates foods according to the degree of processing rather than on their nutritional value.  

The findings, takeaways

The researchers found that people with a higher consumption of ultra-processed foods had a two-thirds increased risk of a second heart attack or stroke, this time fatal, compared to participants who ate these foods less frequently. The probability of dying from any cause was also 40% higher.

It is important to note that the definition of ultra-processed food is not linked to the nutritional content, but rather to the process used for its preparation and storage. In other words, even if a food is nutritionally-balanced, it might still be considered ultra-processed.

It is not the single food that’s consumed occasionally that makes the difference, rather a diet that, as a whole, contains too many products coming from supermarket shelves. A diet based on the consumption of fresh, minimally processed products is always preferred.

This study, say experts, highlights the need to overcome the distinction between healthy and unhealthy food solely on the basis of the nutrient value. In other words, a person could follow a Mediterranean diet, perhaps rich in legumes or vegetables.

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.

The researchers propose that the level of industrial processing of foods should be added to the front-of-pack labels, which now only provide nutritional information".

Source: European Heart Journal, November 30, 2021.

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