Hello and welcome to PREKURE’s weekly snippet of science, where on a weekly basis we share emergent research related to extending the human healthspan.
Ultra-processed food now makes up approximately 80% of the foods available in supermarkets. These highly palatable food formulations are designed to encourage overconsumption by triggering the rewards centres in the brain. Tackling ultra-processed food consumption can be an easy place to start when discussing diet quality with clients. By looking at diet quality in this way, you don’t get stuck in the weeds of trying to explain complex macro and micronutrient needs to clients who may not be interested in that level of detail. Even more importantly, by eating a whole-food-based diet and trending away from ultra-processed foods, our clients are likely to consume a more nutrient-dense diet anyway.
It’s important to remember that ultra-processed foods are those foods that contain little resemblance to the ingredients from which they are made. Think muesli bars, flavoured sausages, and plant-based meats. These foods undergo a series of processes and are usually laced with a list as long as your arm of additives, preservatives, flavour-enhancers, and colourants. Emerging research suggests that these additives alone may have detrimental long-term health impacts.
Given their rising popularity in the food supply chain, researchers have begun to examine the effect that ultra-processed foods have on all-cause and cause-specific mortality. A recent paper published in European Heart Journal reported that:
“A diet rich in UPF is associated with increased hazards of all-cause and CVD mortality among individuals with prior cardiovascular events, possibly through an altered renal function. Elevated UPF intake represents a major public health concern in secondary CVD prevention.”
This is particularly interesting, given that some of the heart-health-approved foods, while not adequately signposted for consumers, could be considered ultra-processed in nature. A glaring example of this is margarine. This article illustrates the importance of determining a unified understanding of healthful foods in the public health realm. It is not serving the public to continue arguing about this diet versus that diet or this single nutrient versus that single nutrient.
The time has come to recognise that big food and ultra-processed food are the real enemies and that in order to promote long, healthy lives we should be looking toward a simpler matrix for understanding healthy foods. Understanding the diet as a whole rather than single nutrients is indicative of how people live. The degree to which food has been processed and the NOVA system may be a solution. Although the mechanisms through which ultra-processed foods cause health loss are not yet fully understood, it appears that they create a cytokine storm resulting in inflammation and dysregulation of several body systems.
The next question is, do specialty ultra-processed foods like protein bars, low carb snacks, keto confectionery, and vegan meat and dairy alternatives have the same impact?