Ultra-processed food significantly raises the risk of heart problems, according to two studies presented at the recent European Society of Cardiology Congress in Amsterdam.
The first study, which tracked 10,000 Australian women for 15 years, found those with the highest proportion of ultra-processed food (UPF) in their diet were 39% more likely to develop high blood pressure than those with the lowest.
The link between UPF consumption and a greater risk of high blood pressure remained even after researchers had adjusted their analysis to account for the impact of salt, sugar, fat and other nutrients. This suggests that it is the processing itself that is harmful.
High blood pressure, or hypertension, increases the risk of serious heart and circulatory conditions including heart disease, peripheral arterial disease, and vascular dementia.
The second study, a wide-ranging analysis of ten studies involving more than 325,000 men and women, showed those who ate the most UPF were 24% more likely to have serious heart and circulatory events, including heart attacks, strokes and angina.
A 10% increase in UPF consumption in daily calorie intake was associated with a 6% increased risk of heart disease. Those with UPF making up less than 15% of their diet were least at risk of any heart problems.
Henry Dimbleby, the former government food adviser, responded by saying: “This is one of the first studies to suggest the harm caused by ultra-processed food may be more than just because of the high fat, sugar and salt content of the products. Given that ultra-processed food represents 55% of our diet that should be a wake-up call. Food companies should not be selling people foods that are actively killing them.”
More than half of the typical British daily diet is made up of ultra-processed food, more than any other country in Europe. The products, made using a series of industrial processes, are often high in salt and sugar and may contain additives and preservatives. They include breakfast cereals, ready meals, frozen pizzas, sweets and biscuits.
Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, the BHF associate medical director, added: “There is increasing concern about links shown between ultra-processed foods and cardiovascular disease. The study of women in Australia showed an association between higher consumption of these foods and the development of high blood pressure.
“More research is needed to better understand why these links have been found and what the mechanisms are. For example, we don’t know to what degree this is driven by artificial additives or the high levels of salt, sugar and fat that these foods tend to contain.
“We do know that the world around us doesn’t always make it easy for the healthy option to be the accessible and affordable option. On the contrary, less healthy foods often take centre stage. To address this we need a comprehensive strategy that creates an environment that can support people to live long and healthy lives.”
The findings add to a growing body of evidence linking ultra-processed food to heart disease, heart attacks, strokes, cancer, depression and diabetes.