Eating ultraprocessed foods poses a significant risk to cardiovascular and coronary heart health, according to prospective data from about 3,000 people in the Framingham Offspring Cohort, the second generation of participants in the Framingham Heart Study.
Each regular, daily serving of ultraprocessed food was linked with significant elevations of 5%-9% in the relative rates of “hard” cardiovascular disease (CVD) events, hard coronary heart disease (CHD) events, overall CVD events, and CVD death, after adjustments for numerous potential confounders including energy intake, body mass index, waist circumference, and blood pressure, Filippa Juul, PhD, and associates wrote in a report published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
“Consumption of ultraprocessed foods makes up over half of the daily calories in the average American diet and are increasingly consumed worldwide. As poor diet is a major modifiable risk factor for heart disease, it represents a critical target in prevention efforts,” said Dr. Juul, a nutritional epidemiologist at New York University, in a statement released by the American College of Cardiology.
“Our findings add to a growing body of evidence suggesting cardiovascular benefits of limiting ultraprocessed foods. Ultraprocessed foods are ubiquitous and include many foods that are marketed as healthy, such as protein bars, breakfast cereals, and most industrially produced breads,” she added. Other commonplace members of the ultraprocessed food group include carbonated soft drinks, packaged snacks, candies, sausages, margarines, and energy drinks. The concept of ultraprocessed foods as a distinct, wide-ranging, and dangerous food category first appeared in 2010, and then received an update from a United Nations panel in 2019 as what’s now called the NOVA classification system.
Ultraprocessed foods fly under the radar
“Although cardiovascular guidelines emphasize consuming minimally processed foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts, they give less attention to the importance of minimizing ultraprocessed food,” wrote Robert J. Ostfeld, MD, and Kathleen E. Allen, MS, in an editorial that accompanied the new report. This reduced attention may be because of a “paucity of studies examining the association cardiovascular outcomes and ultraprocessed foods.”
The new evidence demands new policies, educational efforts, and labeling changes, suggested Dr. Ostfeld, director of preventive cardiology at Montefiore Health System in New York, and Ms. Allen, a dietitian at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, Hanover, N.H. “The goal should be to make the unhealthy choice the hard choice and the healthy choice the easy choice.”
The new analysis used data collected from people enrolled the Framingham Offspring Cohort, with their clinical metrics and diet information collected during 1991-1995 serving as their baseline. After excluding participants with prevalent CVD at baseline and those with incomplete follow-up of CVD events, the researchers had a cohort of 3,003 adults with an average follow-up of 18 years. At baseline, the cohort averaged 54 years of age; 55% were women, their average body mass index was 27.3 kg/m2, and about 6% had diabetes. They reported eating, on average, 7.5 servings of ultraprocessed food daily.
During follow-up, the cohort tallied 648 incident CVD events, including 251 hard CVD events (coronary death, MI, or stroke) and 163 hard CHD events (coronary death or MI), and 713 total deaths including 108 CVD deaths. Other CVD events recorded but not considered hard included heart failure, intermittent claudication, and transient ischemic attack.
In a multivariate-adjusted analysis, each average daily portion of ultraprocessed food was linked with an significant 7% relative increase in the incidence of a hard CVD event, compared with participants who ate fewer ultraprocessed food portions, and a 9% relative increase in the rate of hard CHD events, the study’s two prespecified primary outcomes. The researchers also found that each ultraprocessed serving significantly was associated with a 5% relative increased rate of total CVD events, and a 9% relative rise in CVD deaths. The analysis showed no significant association between total mortality and ultraprocessed food intake. (Average follow-up for the mortality analyses was 20 years.)
The authors also reported endpoint associations with intake of specific types of ultraprocessed foods, and found significantly increased associations specifically for portions of bread, ultraprocessed meat, salty snacks, and low-calorie soft drinks.