According to recent research, ultra-processed foods (UPFs), which are ready-to-eat or heat commercial formulations manufactured using chemicals derived from foods or synthesised in labs, are gradually replacing traditional foods and meals made from fresh and minimally processed components.
Although Brazilians consume far fewer of these products than citizens of high-income countries, the study published in Elsevier’s American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that increased consumption of these foods was linked to more than 10% of all-cause premature, preventable deaths in Brazil in 2019.
“Previous modelling studies have estimated the health and economic burden of critical ingredients such as sodium, sugar, and trans fats, as well as specific foods or drinks such as sugar-sweetened beverages,” said lead investigator Eduardo A.F. Nilson, ScD, of the University of Sao Paulo and the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Brazil. “To far, no study has quantified the possible impact of UPFs on premature mortality. Knowing the number of fatalities caused by these items and modelling how changes in dietary patterns might promote more effective food policy may help to avoid disease and premature mortality.”
Dr. Nilson and his colleagues used data from nationally representative dietary surveys as the foundation for their modelling to calculate the baseline intakes of UPFs by gender and age group. Using 2019 data, statistical analyses were conducted to assess the percentage of total fatalities attributable to the usage of UPFs and the impacts of lowering UPF consumption by 10%, 20%, and 50% within those age categories.
Throughout the research period, UPF consumption in Brazil ranged from 13% to 21% of total dietary intake across all age groups and sexes. In 2019, there were 541,260 premature deaths among people aged 30 to 69, with avoidable, noncommunicable illnesses accounting for 261,061 of these.
The model revealed that the use of UPFs was responsible for about 57,000 deaths that year, accounting for 10.5% of all premature deaths and 21.8 percent of all deaths from preventable noncommunicable illnesses in those aged 30 to 69.
The researchers hypothesised that the projected impact would be much bigger in high-income countries such as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia, where UPFs account for more than 50% of total calorie consumption.
Dr. Nilson found that traditional whole meals such as rice and beans were steadily declining in Brazil over time.
To reduce UPF consumption and promote healthier food options, a variety of interventions and public health measures, such as fiscal and regulatory policies, changing the food environment, accelerating the implementation of food-based dietary guidelines, and improving consumer knowledge, attitudes, and behaviour, may be required.
Reduced UPF consumption by 10% to 50% in Brazil might potentially avoid 5,900 to 29,300 early deaths per year.
“Consumption of UPFs is associated with many disease outcomes, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some cancers, and other diseases, and it represents a significant cause of preventable and premature deaths among Brazilian adults,” said Dr Nilson.
“Even decreasing UPF consumption to levels seen just a decade ago would cut linked early deaths by 21%. Policies that discourage the use of UPFs are desperately required.” Having a technique to quantify the mortality attributed to UPF consumption can contribute in the creation of more effective food policy alternatives to foster healthier food environments. This method can also help governments estimate the cost of dietary changes caused by industrial food processing. UPFs can be found in prepackaged sauces, frozen pizza, prepared meals, hot dogs, sausages, sodas, ice cream, and store-bought cookies, cakes, candies, and doughnuts.