Increased consumption of ultra-processed foods is linked to preventable premature deaths
Ultra-processed foods (UPF), industrial ready-to-eat or reheat formulations made from ingredients extracted from food or synthesized in laboratories, are gradually replacing traditional foods and meals made from fresh and minimally processed ingredients in many countries. A new study in American Journal of Preventive Medicine, published by Elsevier, found that increased consumption of these foods was associated with more than 10% of premature deaths from all causes in Brazil in 2019, even though Brazilians consume far less of these foods than high-income countries.
Previous modeling studies have assessed the health and economic burden of critical ingredients, such as sodium, sugar, and trans fat, and of specific foods or beverages, such as sugar-sweetened beverages. To our knowledge, no research to date has evaluated the potential impact of UPF on premature deaths. Knowing the deaths attributable to consumption of these foods and modeling how changes in dietary patterns can support more effective dietary policies can prevent disease and premature death.”
Eduardo AF Nilson, ScD, Principal Investigator, Center for Epidemiological Research in Nutrition and Health, University of São Paulo and Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, Brazil
dr. Nilson and colleagues modeled data from nationally representative dietary surveys to estimate initial UPF intake by gender and age group. Statistical analyzes were used to estimate the proportion of total deaths attributable to UPF consumption and the impact of reducing UPF intake by 10%, 20% and 50% within these age groups, using 2019 data.
Across all age groups and sexes, UPF consumption ranged from 13% to 21% of total food intake in Brazil during the study period. In 2019, a total of 541,260 adults between the ages of 30 and 69 died prematurely, of which 261,061 were from preventable non-communicable diseases. The model found that approximately 57,000 deaths that year were attributable to consumption of UPFs, corresponding to 10.5% of all premature deaths and 21.8% of all preventable deaths from noncommunicable diseases in adults aged 30 to 69. year. The researchers suggested that in high-income countries such as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia, where UPFs account for more than half of total caloric intake, the estimated effect would be even greater.
dr. Nilson noted that UPFs have steadily replaced the consumption of traditional whole foods, such as rice and beans, in Brazil over time. Reducing consumption of UPFs and promoting healthier food choices may require multiple interventions and public health measures, such as fiscal and regulatory policies, changing the food environment, strengthening implementation of food-based dietary guidelines, and improving consumer knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors.
A 10% to 50% reduction in UPF consumption could potentially prevent approximately 5900 to 29300 premature deaths in Brazil each year.
“UPF consumption is associated with many disease outcomes, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some forms of cancer and other diseases, and is a significant cause of preventable and premature death among Brazilian adults,” said Dr. Nilson. “Even reducing UPF consumption to levels of just a decade ago would reduce associated premature death by 21%. Policies that disincentivize UPF consumption are urgently needed.”
Having tools to estimate deaths attributable to consumption of UPFs can help countries assess the burden of dietary changes associated with industrial food processing and design more effective food policy options to promote a healthier food environment.
Examples of UPFs are prepackaged soups, sauces, frozen pizza, ready meals, hot dogs, sausages, sodas, ice cream, and store-bought cookies, cakes, candies, and donuts.
Nelson, E., et al. (2022) Premature deaths attributable to consumption of ultra-processed foods in Brazil. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2022.08.013.