Ultra processed vegan food can increase your risk of heart death, study finds

Young and happy woman eating healthy salad
Scientists pointed out that 'meat-free' constituents of the vegan diet also included cakes, pastries and biscuits - RossHelen

Ultra-processed vegan food can increase the risk of heart death, Lancet research suggests.

The study of 118,000 middle-aged and older Britons found that plant-based diets can protect the heart – but only if they are based on whole foods.

Researchers found that every 10 per cent increase in plant-based foods was associated with a 20 per cent reduction in deaths from heart disease if the fare was not ultra-processed.

However, when the increase came from plant-based UPF foods, it was linked to a 12 per cent increase in such deaths.

Swapping plant-based UPF foods with fruit, vegetables and other wholefoods was found to cut deaths from all cardiovascular diseases by 15 per cent and the risk of developing such diseases by seven per cent.

Overhead view of a group of food that contains healthy nutrients for heart care shot on wooden table
Swapping plant-based UPF foods with fruit and vegetables was found to cut deaths from all cardiovascular diseases by 15 per cent - fcafotodigital

Researchers said the study published in Lancet Regional Health highlights the risks of common meat alternatives, such as vegan burgers and sausages.

However, scientists pointed out that “meat-free” constituents of the vegan diet also included cakes, pastries and biscuits.

The research by Sao Paulo University and Imperial College London, funded by the World Cancer Research Fund, assessed the diets of adults aged 40 to 69 and linked them to hospital data for almost a decade.

Researchers said the study is the first to show that UPF plant-based foods increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Lead author Dr Fernanda Rauber said the composition of such foods and their processing methods could lead to an increase in blood pressure and cholesterol.

‘Degree of processing’

She said: “Food additives and industrial contaminants present in these foods might cause oxidative stress and inflammation, further aggravating the risks.

“Those shifting towards plant-based foods should also think about the degree of processing involved before making their choices”, she added.

Dr Eszter Vamos, co-author for the study, from Imperial College London’s School of Public Health, said: “Fresh plant-based foods such as fruits and vegetables, wholegrains and legumes are known to have important health and environmental benefits.

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

Researchers said that based on the evidence found, nutritional guidelines promoting plant-based diets should also advise avoiding all UPFs.

‘Not considered essential’

Ultra-processed foods include packaged baked goods and snacks, fizzy drinks, sugary cereals, and ready-to-eat or heat products. They often contain colours, emulsifiers, flavours and other additives. They are typically high in energy, added sugar, saturated fat, and salt, but lack vitamins and fibre.

However, there is no clear definition, with arguments about whether some products, such as wholemeal bread, should be categorised as ultra-processed.

Independent scientists pointed out that in the latest study, around half of the plant-based UPFs came from industrialised packaged breads, pastries, buns, cakes and biscuits, with very little of it coming from plant-based meal alternatives.

Dr Duane Mellor, Dietitian and Spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association; and Honorary Academic Fellow at Aston University, said: “Many foods that do not contain animal products, which includes biscuits, crisps, confectionery and soft drinks, are technically plant-based but would not be considered essential as part of a healthy diet by the majority of people.

“It is important to emphasise that just because a food or drink is technically plant-based, it does not mean it is healthy.

“What we need to try to do is eat a diet that is mainly vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds with wholegrain.”