Consuming ultra-processed foods disproportionately raises the risk for hypertension (high blood pressure) in Black adults compared with other racial or ethnic groups, according to a new study presented at the American Heart Association’s virtual Epidemiology, Prevention, Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health Scientific Sessions, and described in a press release.
The broad health dangers linked to consuming certain highly processed foods have long been known. Processed meat, in particular — which includes sausage, bacon, ham, and deli meats — is linked to a higher risk for colorectal cancer as well as death from all causes. And ultra-processed foods of all kinds — which contain minimal to no whole-food ingredients, and account for 58% of all calories consumed in the United States — are linked to a higher risk for cardiovascular disease, with people who consume the average level of these foods much more likely to experience a stroke or heart attack than those who consume no ultra-processed foods.
While the dangers of ultra-processed foods are clear, most research hasn’t looked at whether certain groups — including racial or ethnic groups — face a higher or lower risk from consuming these foods. For the latest study, researchers focused on Black adults in particular, looking at how the risk for hypertension changed with a higher intake of ultra-processed foods in this group compared with the broader population.
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The study included 5,957 adults ages 45 and older, 23% of them Black, who completed a detailed food frequency questionnaire and had certain lab tests and measurements taken. Based on their food questionnaire responses, 27% of Black participants fell in the top 25% of ultra-processed food consumption, compared with 24% of white participants — not a huge difference, but potentially a meaningful one. Regardless of their race, participants who consumed the most ultra-processed food were more likely to be male, have a lower education level, get less physical activity, and have an income below $35,000 per year. After adjusting for these demographic and lifestyle differences, the researchers found that participants who fell in the top 25% of ultra-processed food consumption were 24% more likely to have hypertension, compared with those in the bottom 25%.
Black participants consuming ultra-processed foods more likely to have hypertension
But the higher risk for hypertension based on ultra-processed food intake wasn’t seen equally across racial or ethnic groups. In fact, Black participants in the top tier of ultra-processed food consumption were 55% more likely to have hypertension — more than twice as large of a risk increase as the 24% seen in the overall study population. White participants, in contrast, were only 16% more likely to have hypertension if they fell in this category for ultra-processed food consumption.
The researchers concluded that independent of physical activity, education level, income, or gender, being Black increases the risk for hypertension linked to consuming ultra-processed foods. The reasons for this higher risk are unclear, but may be related to other aspects of nutrition and measures of systemic inequality that weren’t included in the study, among other potential factors.
“We believe that these results indicate the need for lifestyle interventions to address the inequities in access to affordable, healthy food,” wrote study author Carol R. Oladele, PhD, an assistant professor at the Equity Research and Innovation Center of the Yale University School of Medicine, in the press release. “Additionally, we suggest a reexamination of food policies to advance food justice in the U.S.”
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