The typical British diet will cause a “tidal wave of harm”, experts have warned, as damning new research revealed even eating “low-fat” and “diet” processed foods raises the risk of heart problems.
People who eat a lot of mass-produced foods are a quarter more likely to have heart attacks or strokes, one study found.
While separate research revealed women who ate high levels of heavily processed foods – including “healthy” products like protein bars, low-fat yoghurts and brown sliced bread – were 39 per cent more likely to develop high blood pressure, which can lead to serious heart problems.
Scientists took into account the impact of sugar, salt and fat in the foods, suggesting the processing itself could be harmful to health.
Experts said the studies were some of the strongest evidence yet that so-called ultra-processed foods (UPFs) posed serious health risks, likening the danger to that posed by smoking.
They called for a tougher regulation on food companies, including warning labels on packaging and a ban on promoting heavily processed foods like breakfast cereals, fruit-based snack bars and low-fat meals as “healthy” options.
The UK is one of the world’s biggest consumers of UPFs – which account for more than half of the calories eaten by the average British person.
These foods go through multiple processes during manufacturing, are often high in salt and sugar, and contain additives and preservatives. They typically lack the fibre and nutrients present in fresh and minimally-processed foods, like fresh fruit and vegetables, plain yoghurt and homemade bread.
Previous studies have linked eating high levels of such foods with a range of health issues including obesity, type 2 diabetes and cancer.
A new analysis of 10 studies involving more than 325,000 people, presented at the European Society of Cardiology Congress this weekend, found people who ate the most ultra-processed food were 24 per cent more likely to suffer heart attacks and strokes.
The study, by the Fourth Military Medical University in China, also found increasing the proportion of ultra-processed food in your daily calorie intake by 10 per cent was associated with a 6 per cent increased risk of heart disease.
A separate study, also presented at the conference, was the first to specifically look at the risk posed to women’s heart health by UPFs.
Researchers studied the diets of 10,006 Australian women aged 46 to 55 and classified the foods they ate into unprocessed, minimally processed, processed and ultra-processed categories using an internationally recognised system.
On average, 26 per cent of the food theY ate was ultra-processed, but the highest proportion was 42 per cent and the lowest 14 per cent.
After 15 years, they found the women with the highest proportion of UPFs in their diets were 39 per cent more likely to have developed high blood pressure than those with the lowest.
High blood pressure
But researcher Anushriya Pant, of the University of Sydney, warned the risk for women in the UK could be significantly higher.
Around 57 per cent of the typical British diet is made up of UPFs – a third more than the highest intake in the Australian study.
“The UK average is… high,” she told reporters. “It is likely the impact would be even greater the more you eat.”
She said UPFs lacked the “cardioprotective” nutrients and fibre found in fresh and minimally processed food, and were often high in salt, which is known to lead to high blood pressure.
Women eat more UPFs than men on average, but Ms Pant said more research was needed to establish whether this was partly because heavily-processed diet, low-fat and weight-loss products were typically marketed at women.
“It could be that foods you think are healthy are actually contributing to you developing high blood pressure,” she added.
Former government food adviser Henry Dimbleby said the study should be a “wake-up call” that British diets needed to change.
“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. This indicates there is something else going on,” he said.
“It is storing up problems for the future. If we do nothing, a tidal wave of harm is going to hit the NHS. At the same time, all these people are out of work as a result of diet-related illness… we will end up with a sick and impoverished country.”
He called for greater restrictions on the sale of UPFs, adding: “We need to make it less profitable for companies to sell us things that are going to harm us.”
Dr Chris van Tulleken, author of “Ultra-Processed People”, criticised the marketing of some ultra-processed foods as “healthy, nutritious, environmentally friendly or useful for weight loss” and called for packaging to carry warning labels.
“Almost every food that comes with a health claim on the packet is ultra-processed,” he said. “There is now significant evidence that these products inflame the gut, disrupt appetite regulation, alter hormone levels and cause myriad other effects which likely increase the risk of cardiovascular (and other disease), much in the same way that smoking does.”
Katharine Jenner, director of the Obesity Health Alliance, said the research added weight to calls to ban companies from claiming UPFs were healthy.
“Health claims on packaging are a marketing tactic to distract you from reading the label more thoroughly, where you might be surprised to find even everyday foods are often high in fat, salt, sugars and more. It should not be possible for companies to claim these are ‘healthy’,” she added.
Researchers emphasised both studies, which have not yet been published, could only show an association between eating ultra-processed foods and health problems, not cause-and-effect.
Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said: “There is increasing concern about links shown between ultra-processed foods and cardiovascular disease.
“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.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We have introduced legislation to restrict the placement and promotion of certain products in supermarkets to discourage unhealthy food choices.
“Thanks to our salt reduction programme, the amount of salt in food has fallen by around 20 per cent, preventing nearly 70,000 heart attacks and strokes. Our Soft Drinks Industry Levy has also nearly halved the amount of sugar in soft drinks.
“Additionally, we have also introduced calorie labelling on food sold in restaurants, cafes and takeaways to empower people to make informed personal choices about their lifestyle.”