Ultra-processed, plant-based food could increase the risk of heart disease

Plant-based foods have gained a lot of popularity, but a new study has found that ultra-processed plant-based foods could come with health risks - UnSplash +

Experts are warning consumers about the potential risk of early death

While many consumers opt for plant-based foods for a healthier choice, a new study is sounding alarm bells when it comes to some of these options. 

A new study published in The Lancet Regional Health – Europe found that ultra-processed, plant-based foods could increase consumers’ risk of heart disease and early death. 

“Previous studies have found a beneficial effect in adopting a healthful plant-sourced diet and reduced cardiovascular disease risk,” the researchers wrote. “However, none of these studies have clearly assessed whether the degree of industrial food processing affects this association. This is particularly important when considering a possible rising trend in new plant-sourced ultra-processed products.”  

The study

For the study, the researchers analyzed data from the U.K. Biobank. This included data on over 500,000 participants aged 40-69 when the study began in 2007. 

Participants completed a questionnaire at the start of the study that included information on their medical history, their current baseline health, their diets, and more. Over the course of the multi-year study, participants completed these questionnaires several times. 

The researchers then compared the health outcomes of the participants, breaking them into different groups depending on their diets. 

What are the health risks? 

Ultimately, the researchers identified a clear distinction: ultra-processed plant-based foods were associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and death, whereas plant-based foods that weren’t processed had health benefits. 

The study showed that participants who ate 10% more non-processed plant-based foods had a 7% lower risk of cardiovascular disease and an 8% lower risk of coronary heart disease.

Similarly, eating 10% more non-processed plant-based foods was associated with a 13% lower risk of cardiovascular-related mortality and a 20% lower risk of coronary heart disease-related death. 

However, the opposite was found when participants ate ultra-processed plant-based foods. There was an increased risk of developing both cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease, as well as an increased mortality risk from both conditions. 

“Despite being plant-sourced, ultra-processed-rich diets may still pose health risks due to negative effects caused by their composition and processing methods,” the researchers wrote. “High content of unhealthy fats, sodium, and added sugars contribute to dyslipidemia (high cholesterol), atherosclerosis, hypertension, insulin resistance, obesity, and metabolic disorders, all cardiovascular disease risk factors. 

The researchers also found that certain food additives in ultra-processed foods, such as monosodium glutamate and artificial sweeteners, as well as contaminants formed during industrial processing, such as acrolein, have been associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, possibly through oxidative stress, inflammation, endothelial dysfunction, metabolic dysregulation, insulin resistance, and alterations in gut microbiota composition. 

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