Recent studies have shown that ultra-processed foods (UPFs), ready-to-eat or heat industrial formulations made with ingredients taken from foods or synthesised in laboratories, 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 nations, the study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, which is distributed by Elsevier, found that increased consumption of these foods was linked to more than 10 per cent 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, and specific foods or drinks, such as sugar-sweetened beverages," explained lead investigator Eduardo AF Nilson, ScD, Center for Epidemiological Research in Nutrition and Health, University of Sao Paulo, and Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, Brazil.

"To our knowledge, no study to date has estimated the potential impact of UPFs on premature deaths. Knowing the deaths attributable to the consumption of these foods and modelling how changes in dietary patterns can support more effective food policies might prevent disease and premature deaths."

To determine the baseline intakes of UPFs by sex and age group, Nilson and his colleagues used data from nationally representative dietary surveys as a basis for their modelling.

Using data from 2019, statistical studies were performed to determine the percentage of overall deaths that were related to the use of UPFs and the effects of reducing UPF intake by 10 per cent, 20 per cent, and 50 per cent within those age categories.

UPF consumption in Brazil throughout the study period ranged from 13 per cent to 21 per cent of total dietary intake across all age categories and sex divisions. In 2019, there were 541,260 premature deaths among individuals aged 30 to 69, of which 261,061 were caused by preventable, noncommunicable diseases.

The model discovered that almost 57,000 fatalities that year, or 10.5 per cent of all premature deaths and 21.8 per cent of all deaths from avoidable noncommunicable diseases in individuals aged 30 to 69, could be linked to the use of UPFs.

The researchers hypothesised that the estimated impact would be considerably greater in high-income nations like the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia, where UPFs make up more than half of total calorie intake.

Nilson observed that over time in Brazil, the consumption of traditional whole foods like rice and beans gradually declined.

It may take a variety of interventions and public health measures, such as fiscal and regulatory policies, changing the food environment, stepping up the implementation of food-based dietary guidelines, and enhancing consumer knowledge, attitudes, and behaviour, to reduce the consumption of UPFs and promote healthier food options.

In Brazil, reducing UPF consumption by 10 per cent to 50 per cent could potentially prevent 5,900 to 29,300 premature deaths annually.

"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 Nilson.

"Even reducing consumption of UPFs to the levels of just a decade ago would reduce associated premature deaths by 21 per cent. Policies that disincentivize the consumption of UPFs are urgently needed."

The development of more effective food policy options to support healthier food environments can be aided by having a tool to estimate the deaths attributable to the consumption of UPFs.

This tool can also assist nations in estimating the burden of dietary changes related to industrial food processing.

Prepackaged sauces, frozen pizza, prepared meals, hot dogs, sausages, sodas, ice cream, and store-bought cookies, cakes, candies, and doughnuts are a few examples of UPFs.