Yet more evidence, as if it were needed, that the consumption of ultra-processed foods has a measurably negative impact on our health. A new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), based on a study of the diets and cardiovascular health of 13,446 adults, found that a 5% increase in ultra-processed foods corresponded to a 5% decrease in overall heart health.
So what are “ultra-processed” foods? It’s a wider category than you might imagine, and includes lots of foods that we’re all guilty of indulging in occasionally: soft drinks, salty snacks, cookies, cakes, processed meat, instant noodles, “microwave meals” and of course, hamburgers and fries.
This is not simply an American phenomenon, though the USA is the undisputed king of fast food consumption. In France, fast food now accounts for more than half of all food service industry revenue, eclipsing traditional restaurants. And as fast food is generally cheaper than real French cuisine, we can surmise that the quantity of fast food being eaten now vastly outweighs what we tend to imagine when we think of Gallic gastronomy. Meanwhile, in the UK, ultra-processed foods account for more than half of all purchased dietary energy (including food consumed both inside and outside the home).
These are worrying trends, and they go hand-in-hand with a major health crisis: obesity. Worldwide obesity has tripled since 1975, affecting hundreds of millions of people, and cardiovascular disease, which is strongly correlated to obesity and the consumption of ultra-processed foods, is the most common cause of death globally. There has been a significant increase in the rate of obesity since the financial crisis of 2008, too, as people have turned to cheaper, less healthy foods.
The consumption of ultra-processed foods does damage twice over: firstly through the high levels of cholesterol and saturated fats which clog our arteries, and excessive salt which puts strain on our kidneys and blood vessels. Secondly, it correlates with reduced consumption of those healthier foods which protect our hearts: fruit, vegetables, whole grains.
In addition to the immediate physiological impacts of ultra-processed foods, there are the indirect effects which create negative feedback loops: as people become unhealthier, they do less of the physical exercise that is good for the heart, and spend more time sedentary, unable to burn the excess calories consumed through high-fat, low-fiber foods.
The American Heart Association, to whom the CDC’s report was presented at their Scientific Sessions conference in Philadelphia from November 16-18, defines 7 key risk factors that people can work on in order to improve heart health, and four out of the seven actions involve food: controlling cholesterol, reducing blood sugar, eating better, and losing weight—the other three are managing blood pressure, getting active and stopping smoking.
On the issue of eating better, Slow Food is largely in agreement with the recommendations of the American Heart Association, though the first and most important step on the road to healthier living is stopping and taking a moment to think about what you eat and where it comes from — see our Food and Health section for more information. The ignorance and dismissal of this critical element of our well-being is what leads to all of the health problems mentioned above, as well as a series of other social and environmental problems.
Beyond the immediate health impact of our food choices, we should think of each meal as a political act akin to voting—but with your fork! The ultra-processed food which leads to heart disease and an early death is almost always provided by an agro-industrial system which cares little for our well-being, nor for that of food industry workers or indeed, the planet. When we buy their products, we send them a message: this system is all right. And while it’s difficult to lobby governments to force change upon industry, we have the power to refuse that system each time we eat, to send a different message, one that supports the farmers and producers that provide us with good, clean and fair food. It’s good for the heart, literally.
by Jack Coulton