Highly processed foods increase the risk of disease

C: Freepic
C: Freepic

High consumption of highly processed animal products and soft drinks containing sweeteners and sugar increases the risk of multimorbidity

In a groundbreaking multinational study involving 266,666 participants from seven European countries, nutrition scientists from the University of Vienna, in collaboration with the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), have found that a high consumption of highly processed foods, also known as ultra-processed foods (UPFs), is associated with a higher risk of multimorbidity from cancer and cardiometabolic diseases. Read more about the results in the text or in the scientific journal Rudolphina of the University of Vienna. The study is currently published in The Lancet Regional Health - Europe.

UPFs are industrially manufactured products that include modified food ingredients that are recombined with a variety of additives that cannot be prepared at home in this form. The study, conducted by Reynalda Córdova from the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Vienna and DOC fellow of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÃAW), is based on data from the "European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC)" study. Her conclusion: Increased consumption of UPFs is associated with an increase in the risk of multimorbidity from cancer and cardiometabolic diseases.

Not all UPFs are the same, but the risk is consistent

In addition, the study provides evidence of a differentiated relationship between subgroups of ultra-processed foods and multimorbidity. In particular, an association was found with highly processed animal products, sweeteners and sugar-sweetened soft drinks. Other subgroups, such as highly processed cereal products or plant-based alternatives, showed no association with increased risk. Nevertheless, the researchers found that the association between high UPF consumption and the risk of multimorbidity was equally valid for men and women, smokers and non-smokers, and in different European countries. "Our findings highlight the need to address the impact of highly processed foods and the importance of ensuring universal access to fresh and less processed foods," says Reynalda Córdova.

Multimorbidity refers to the occurrence of two or more chronic diseases in one person. This is a growing health problem not only in Europe, but in more and more regions of the world. The new findings can be used to improve preventive strategies for reducing the risk of multimorbidity from cancer and cardiometabolic diseases through dietary recommendations, health policies and interventions. Co-author Karl-Heinz Wagner from the University of Vienna comments: "The results of our study can be well reconciled with existing dietary recommendations to reduce meat products as much as possible and to eat mainly plant-based foods".

Adequate labeling for disease prevention

Labeling is particularly important for UPFs and other critical foods. Heinz Freisling, co-author and study leader at IARC, comments: "Critics of the classification of some foods as UPFs say that the definition is impractical and that some foods defined as UPFs make an important contribution to the nutrient supply of certain population groups (e.g. older people). Our study emphasizes that it is not necessary to completely avoid UPF to counteract any risk of multimorbidity, but only to limit consumption as much as possible."

The study was funded by the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÃAW) and the World Cancer Research Fund International.

Publication in The Lancet Regional Health Europe:

Consumption of ultra-processed foods and risk of multimorbidity of cancer and cardiometabolic diseases: a multinational cohort study.

Reynalda Cordova, Vivian Viallon, Emma Fontvieille, Laia Peruchet-Noray, Anna Jansana, Karl-Heinz Wagner, Cecilie Kyrø, Anne Tjønneland, Verena Katzke, Rashmita Bajracharya, Matthias B. Schulze, Giovanna Masala, Sabina Sieri, Salvatore Panico, Fulvio Ricceri, Rosario Tumino, Jolanda M.A. Boer, W.M. Monique Verschuren, Yvonne T. van der Schouw, Paula Jakszyn, Daniel Redondo-Sánchez, Pilar Amiano, José María Huerta, Marcela Guevara, Yan Borné, Emily Sonested, Konstantinos K. Tsilidis, Christopher Millett, Alicia K. Heath, Elom K. Aglago, Dagfinn Aune, Marc J. Gunter, Pietro Ferrari, Inge Huybrechts, Heinz Freisling