People who regularly eat ultra-processed food are more likely to have a heart attack or stroke, two new studies have suggested.

Frequently eating ultra-processed food is also linked to cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure, experts have said.

In recent years, there has been a huge demand for ultra-processed items, such as fizzy drinks, cereals, protein bars and ready meals, as well as fast food.

According to the researchers, ultra-processed food makes up half of an individual’s diet in the US and UK, especially those from poorer neighbourhoods.

During one study, a team of academics examined the food and drink intake of 10,000 women, as well as analysing their health.

They found that the women who frequently eat ultra-processed food were 39% more at risk of developing high blood pressure compared to those with a healthier diet.

Otherwise known as hypertension, high blood pressure is associated with cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, peripheral arterial disease, vascular dementia and aortic aneurysms, the study has reported.

As part of another investigation, researchers looked at the diets and health outcomes of 325,000 people.

From this study, they found that the participants who regularly eat ultra-processed food were 24% more at risk of experiencing cardiovascular complications, such as heart attacks, angina and strokes.

Typically, ultra-processed foods have five or more ingredients. They tend to include many additives and ingredients that are not typically used in home cooking, such as preservatives, emulsifiers, sweeteners and artificial colours and flavours.

Ultra-processed foods contain a low amount of fibre and nutrients that are present in fresher foods, including plain yoghurt, homemade bread and fruit and vegetables.

Prior research has found that people who regularly eat ultra-processed foods are more at risk of developing type 2 diabetes, cancer and obesity.

Chief author from the first study, Anushriya Pant said: “Many people were unaware that food they assume is healthy, such as shop-bought sandwiches, wraps, soups and low-fat yoghurts, were in fact ultra-processed food.

“It could be that foods you think are healthy are actually contributing to you developing high blood pressure. Women typically eat more ultra-processed food than men.”

Ultra-processed food expert, Dr Chris van Tulleken said: “The findings of these new papers are entirely consistent with a large and growing body of work showing that increasing consumption of ultra-processed food is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

“Much of it will be familiar as ‘junk food’, but there’s plenty of organic, free-range, ‘ethical’ UPF which might be sold as healthy, nutritious, environmentally friendly or useful for weight loss. Almost every food that comes with a health claim on the packet is ultra-processed food.”

He added: “There is now significant evidence that these products inflame the gut, disrupt appetite regulation, alter hormone levels and cause myriad other effects which likely increase the risk of cardiovascular and other disease much in the same way that smoking does.”

Former Government advisor for food, Henry Dimbleby said: “The studies presented are among the first to suggest that the harm caused by ultra-processed food may be more than just because of the high fat, sugar and salt content of the products.

“This indicates there is something else going on. Given that ultra-processed food represents 55% of our diet, that should be a wake-up call.”

He added: “If there is something inherent in the processing of foods that is harmful, then that is a disaster.

“Britain is particularly bad for ultra-processed food. It is storing up problems for the future. If we do nothing, a tidal wave of harm is going to hit the NHS.”

Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, an Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, said: “More research was needed to understand the links between ultra-processed foods and cardiovascular disease.

“For example, we don’t know to what degree this is driven by artificial additives or the high levels of salt, sugar and fat that these foods tend to contain.”

She concluded: “We do know that the world around us doesn’t always make it easy for the healthy option to be the accessible and affordable option.

“On the contrary, less healthy foods often take centre stage. To address this, we need a comprehensive strategy that creates an environment that can support people to live long and healthy lives.”

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