Highly processed foods linked to memory loss, but DHA could help, research says

Dive Brief:

  • Consumption of highly processed foods results in memory impairment and brain inflammation, but this can be mitigated by supplementing a diet with DHA omega-3 fatty acids, according to research from Ohio State University published in the scientific journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. Scientists showed that the memory deficits resulting from a processed diet were primarily evidenced in older rats on which the diets were tested.
  • Processed diets also resulted in increased weight gain in both young and aged rats, although this effect was exaggerated in elder rats. Consumption of DHA did not alleviate their weight gain. This caveat led senior study author Ruth Barrientos to caution consumers using these findings as license to indulge in processed foods as long as they take a DHA supplement.
  • Despite the associated health risks, consumption of processed foods has been trending upward in recent years, especially among children and teenagers.

Dive Insight:

Consumer health concerns about COVID-19 led to an increase in the popularity of better-for-you products, specifically among older adults worried about their heart and digestive health.

Although consumers have indicated an interest in foods that support their well-being, evidence has shown that their food choices do not always reflect this goal. A study published this month by researchers at New York University found that consumption of highly processed foods  options that are high in refined carbohydrates, saturated fats and lack of fiber  increased 3.5 percentage points for all age groups over the 18 years of the study. At the same time, whole food intake declined. While an uptick in consumption of these foods does not help Americans’ rate of obesity nor life expectancy, the cognitive effects do not become notable until old age.

The NYU study also found that “older adults (aged 60+) experienced the sharpest increase in consuming ultra-processed foods.” Data from Ohio State University indicated that a diet of highly processed foods led to memory impairment in only four weeks.

Food manufacturers are aware of the connections between ultra-processed food and health concerns, and some have reformulated products to achieve a healthier profile.

Some brands are targeting health-conscious consumers by adding omega-3 as an ingredient, due to its association with attributes like improved mental health and enhanced learning abilities. Horizon Milk and Costco’s Kirkland brand boost omega-3 content through the addition of DHA, while eggs fortified with omega-3s are a fixture on supermarket shelves. Nestlé fortified its Juicy Juice with omega-3s, Pinnacle Foods has an omega-3 fortified Smart Balance peanut butter and Conagra’s Earth Balance has an omega-3 butter spread product.

Despite omega-3’s popularity, many of the supplements containing it are derived from fish and algae, leaving a distinctly oceanic taste in products that use them. Agricultural seed producer Nuseed, a subsidiary of Nufarm, Ltd. of Australia is now working with ingredients giant ADM to crush its proprietary omega-3 canola to create a sustainable land-based source of omega-3.

Access to a sustainable source of omega-3 that limits fishy taste has the potential to make omega-3s even more popular than they already are. However, consumers will have to be careful about considering the addition of DHA supplements to processed foods as a way to avoid the health effect’s of processed food. Ohio State University’s research demonstrates that even with processed food containing omega-3 put consumers at risk of weight gain, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and death.

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