Meat-free alternatives could increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases despite being marketed as healthy options, new research indicates.

Researchers set out to investigate the impact of ultra-processed plant-based foods in comparison to plant-based diets.

They say that meat-free foods such as sausages, burgers and nuggets can be classed as ultra-processed foods (UPFs), but they are often labelled as healthier alternatives.

The team, made up of researchers from the University of São Paulo in Brazil, Imperial College London and the International Agency for Research on Cancer, says that dietary recommendations should now urge people to cut down on their UPFs and champion plant-based diets.

Data from 118,000 people indicated that while plant-based diets are associated with lowering the risk of disease, overall, UPFs were found to be associated with poorer health.

A key finding was that the consumption of plant-based UPFs was linked to a 7% greater risk of cardiovascular diseases, in comparison to consuming unprocessed plant-based foods.

Eating any kind of UPFs, whether its animal or plant-based, was found to be associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular diseases and death from these diseases.

Study co-author Dr Eszter Vamos, from Imperial College London, said: “Fresh plant-based foods such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes are known to have important health and environmental benefits.

“While ultra-processed foods are often marketed as healthy foods, this large study shows that plant-based ultra-processed foods do not seem to have protective health effects and are linked to poor health outcomes.”

Meat-free items like sausages and burgers can contribute to the risk of cardiovascular diseases due to their make-up and how they are processed.

Additives and industrial contaminants in these types of foods can cause oxidative stress and inflammation, which raises the risk even further.

Dr Renata Levy, from the University of São Paulo, said: “The study aimed to fill the gap in the evidence regarding the consumption of ultra-processed plant-based foods and their impacts, especially when it comes to cardiovascular diseases. Research like this is essential for guiding public policies.

“In this case, we have yet another strong argument to encourage the reduction of ultra-processed food consumption, regardless of whether it is of animal or plant origin.”

Past studies have found that eating UPFs is linked to worse health including type 2 diabetes, cancer, obesity and cardiovascular disease.

The latest research from Dr Eszter Vamos and colleagues also found that increasing the amount of non-UPF plant-based food you eat by 10% is linked to a 13% reduction in death from all cardiovascular diseases.

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