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How processed foods accelerate ageing, premature deaths

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Ultra-processed products are high in saturated and trans fats, added sugar, and salt CREDIT: BT.com


*Consumption of industrially produced trans fats to cause 500,000 deaths yearly due to coronary heart disease
*New 2019 policy measures introduced in Brazil, Turkey, Nigeria all meet WHO’s criteria for best-practice
*‘Systematic opposition’ to regulation in tackling non communicable diseases from food industry highlighted

New research has established the association between eating ultra-processed foods (UPFs) with accelerated shortening of telomeres, cell ageing and premature deaths. Telomeres are markers of an individual’s biological age at a cellular level.

The researchers, from the University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain, published their findings in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The consumption of UPFs is on the rise worldwide. UPFs are manufactured food products comprising the building blocks of naturally occurring foods: protein isolates, sugars, fats, and oils.

However, while their components are often extracted from natural sources, UPFs ultimately contain no, or very little, in the way of whole foods.

The companies that produce UPFs often add flavourings and emulsifiers for taste, as well as colorings and other cosmetic additives to achieve the desired appearance. UPFs are nutritionally poor and often unbalanced.

UPFs are highly profitable for their producers due to their inexpensive ingredients, cost effective manufacturing processes, and long shelf life in stores. What make them so attractive to consumers are their convenience and their relative imperishability.

Previous research has not conclusively established a link between UPFs in general and telomere length (TL). However, researchers have noted associations between TL and alcohol, sugar-sweetened beverages, processed meats, and foods high in saturated fat and sugar.

Other research indicates a UPF connection to several serious conditions, such as obesity, hypertension, depression, metabolic syndrome, some types of cancer, and type 2 diabetes. However, these conditions also tend to be age-related and thus difficult to associate definitively with the consumption of UPFs.

UPFs and telomere length
The NOVA system classifies foods according to the degree of processing that their production involves, as opposed to their nutritional content. The goal of Lucia Alonso-Pedrero, who is the leader of the study, and her colleagues was to investigate the effect of UPF consumption in older adults using NOVA as a means of categorizing the foods that they consumed.

The researchers began their analysis with data from the SUN project, which the University of Navarra is conducting with other Spanish universities. The ongoing study began recruiting in 2000 and includes volunteers over the age of 20 years. Participants are required to fill out and return questionnaires every two years.

The study’s authors wrote: “In this cross-sectional study of elderly Spanish subjects, we showed a robust strong association between UPF consumption and TL. Further research in larger longitudinal studies with baseline and repeated measures of TL is needed to confirm these observations.”

The study authors also found that those who consumed higher amounts of UPFs were more likely to experience depression — especially when they were less active physically.

Finally, the findings linked the consumption of UPFs to excessive body weight, hypertension, and all-cause mortality. Meanwhile, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), consumption of industrially produced trans fats, which are UPFs, is estimated to cause around 500,000 deaths per year due to coronary heart disease.

Industrially produced trans fats are contained in hardened vegetable fats, such as margarine and ghee, and are often present in snack food, baked foods, and fried foods. Manufacturers often use them as they have a longer shelf life and are cheaper than other fats. But healthier alternatives can be used that do not affect taste or cost of food.

Two years into the ambitious effort to eliminate industrially produced trans fats from the global food supply, the Organisation reports that 58 countries so far have introduced laws that will protect 3.2 billion people from the harmful substance by the end of 2021. But, it said, more than 100 countries still need to take actions to remove these harmful substances from their food supplies.

Director-General of WHO, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said: “In a time when the whole world is fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, we must make every effort to protect people’s health. That must include taking all steps possible to prevent non-communicable diseases that can make them more susceptible to the coronavirus, and cause premature death. Our goal of eliminating trans fats by 2023 must not be delayed.”

The report highlighted two encouraging trends. First, when countries do act, they overwhelmingly adopt best-practice policies rather than less restrictive ones. “New policy measures passed and/or introduced in the past year in Brazil, Turkey and Nigeria all meet WHO’s criteria for best-practice policies.”

Also, a new study out this week during the Global Week for Action on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) has highlighted that global public health regulation intended to tackle unhealthy diets, a key risk factor for NCDs, is being consistently opposed by the food and drinks lobby.

The study titled “Non-communicable disease governance in the era of the sustainable development goals: a qualitative analysis of food industry framing in WHO consultations” was published in the journal Globalization and Health https://globalizationandhealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12992-020-00611-1. NCDs, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, account for over 70 per cent for global death and disability but failure to implement coordinated and targeted action has led to a growing problem – evidenced through the current obesity crisis facing much of the world.

The new research, from health policy analysts at Bath in collaboration with researchers from the universities of Edinburgh and São Paulo, and the World Public Health Nutrition Association, examined all food industry responses to consultations held by the WHO on NCD policy and governance between September 2015 and September 2018.

By evaluating responses across five separate consultations run by the WHO throughout this period, the work shows that, despite a rhetoric of support for public health, food industry groups consistently oppose effective regulations such as taxes and marketing restrictions, and advocate for weaker voluntary and partnership approaches instead.

Lobby groups also challenged established public health evidence about tackling NCDs. For example, the International Council of Beverages Associations which represents the soft drinks industry questioned the well-established link between sugar-sweetened beverages and obesity suggesting: “The overall weight of the scientific evidence on sugar and/or sugar-sweetened beverages show that they do not have a unique effect on body weight beyond their contribution to total calorie intake.”

In addition, the lobby group inaccurately argued that the world’s leading public health agency was not in a position to advise on health taxes: “Offering such policy advice in a field – economics and fiscal policy – far from WHO’s expertise is not in our opinion a prudent course of action.”

In fact, the researchers argued, the WHO includes among its staff many economists and the World Bank also promotes the use of health taxes.

The researchers suggested that the arguments used are similar to those deployed by the tobacco industry when the WHO started to take stronger action to regulate cigarettes in the early 2000s. These included claiming that regulation would not work or was not needed, and questioning the science and evidence underlying policies such as sugar-sweetened beverage taxation.

Recognising that good health is essential to development, the UN’s landmark Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include a target to promote health and reduce premature mortality from NCDs by one third by 2030 (SDG 3). The COVID-19 pandemic, which affects people living with NCDs more severely, has shown how important the project is.

Yet, the researchers highlighted a possible tension between this goal, to improve health, and another, SDG 17, which promotes public-private partnerships. They documented how food industry groups use the latter to promote industry involvement in policymaking, which for many is seen to be undermining attempts to improve health. A number of groups used SDG 17 to oppose a tool developed by the WHO to help member states protect nutrition programmes against conflicts of interest, arguing that such limitations on engagement with the food industry would not be coherent with the partnership aim promoted by the goal.


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