Ultra-processed foods linked to increased cancer risk

Ultra-processed foods are not known for their health qualities. We know this, yet it's hard to resist the doughnuts y...

Posted: Feb 15, 2018 9:48 AM
Updated: Feb 15, 2018 9:48 AM

Ultra-processed foods are not known for their health qualities. We know this, yet it's hard to resist the doughnuts your kind colleague brought into the office. Now, research published Wednesday in the BMJ may give you at least a longer pause before you pick the pink one with sprinkles.

Researchers discovered that people who eat more ultra-processed foods have a higher risk of cancer. Such foods are the ones with unrecognizable and unpronounceable words on the list of ingredients -- anything from the candy that turns your tongue blue to healthier-sounding canned soups packed with artificial flavors, additives or emulsifiers. Most food is processed to some degree, but ultra-processed foods are typically much more calorie-, sodium- and sugar-packed.

Increase in ultra-processed foods linked to heightened cancer risk

Ultra-processed food makes up 60% of the US diet and more than 50% in the UK

Research has long showed that people who live on ultra-processed food tend to be more obese and overweight. They're also more likely to have heart and circulation problems or diabetes, studies have found. Eating a lot of processed meat like hot dogs has also been tied to an increased risk of colorectal cancer.

Researchers saw this new cancer link when they analyzed 24-hour dietary records of nearly 105,000 adults in the NutriNet-Sante cohort, a general population group in France. The individuals recorded what they ate from a list of 3,300 food items that were then categorized by how processed they were, using a system called NOVA.

What the scientists found was that a 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet was associated with a significant increase of greater than 10% in risks for overall cancer and breast cancer.

"Ultra-processed fats and sauces, sugary products and drinks were associated with an increased risk of overall cancer," the study says. "Ultra-processed sugary products were associated with an increased risk of breast cancer."

People who tended to eat more ultra-processed food also tended to smoke more and exercise less than the others, but the authors controlled for these issues and still found the elevated cancer risk.

"It was quite surprising, the strength of the results. They were really strongly associated, and we did many sensitive analysis and adjusted the findings for many co-factors, and still, the results here were quite concerning," study co-author Mathilde Touvier said.

"What people eat is an expression of their lifestyle in general and may not be causatively linked to the risk of cancer. So it is necessary to rule out what are called cofounding factors," said Tom Sanders, scientific governor of the British Nutrition Foundation and an emeritus professor at King's College London.

Sanders, who was not involved in the study, said the authors made statistical adjustments to accommodate for some of that, but he cautions that "the approach of categorizing dietary patterns that depend on industrially processed food in relation to disease risk is novel but probably needs refining before it can be translated into practical dietary advice."

The nonprofit trade group Association of Food Industries did not respond to requests for comment.

Marji McCullough, strategic director of nutritional epidemiology at the American Cancer Society, suggests caution about interpreting what is responsible for the cancer risk associated with ultra-processed food.

"This study doesn't mean that people should think 'if I eat this cracker, I'm going to get cancer,' " McCullough said. "The overriding message of this study was really to look at an overall diet pattern rather than a specific ingredient, and it supports a lot of what we already know."

For example, she said, people eating more highly processed foods are probably eating fewer healthy foods, which may help prevent cancer. Nutritionists recommend a diet rich in whole grains, whole fruits and vegetables instead of foods that have little nutritional value.

Touvier also noted that it's an observational study, meaning scientists don't know what exactly is causing the increased cancer risk, but her group at the Sorbonne Paris Cit- Epidemiology and Statistics Research Center plans to look closer at what the connection may be. "The challenge now is to disentangle the different foods and understand this relationship to see what specifically is having this effect."

Animal studies have shown that some additives are "quite good candidates" for being carcinogenic, Touvier said, "but that would need to be seen if they are also carcinogenic in the human population."

If you are starting to worry about what you've brought for lunch, Touvier cautions not to be "too alarmist" about this research.

However, ultra-processed foods occupy a growing part of the world's diet. A 2016 study found that 60% of the calories in the average American diet come from this kind of food. A 2017 study found that they make up 50% of the Canadian diet, and they make up more than 50% of the UK diet. And more of the developing world is starting to eat this way.

A balanced and diversified diet should be considered one of the most important public health priorities, the authors advise. "Eat real food and try to limit ultra processed items," Touvier said. "At least until we know more."

Huntsville
Clear
73° wxIcon
Hi: 86° Lo: 67°
Feels Like: 73°
Florence
Clear
73° wxIcon
Hi: 88° Lo: 67°
Feels Like: 73°
Fayetteville
Scattered Clouds
72° wxIcon
Hi: 86° Lo: 65°
Feels Like: 72°
Decatur
Clear
71° wxIcon
Hi: 86° Lo: 66°
Feels Like: 71°
Scottsboro
Clear
75° wxIcon
Hi: 86° Lo: 68°
Feels Like: 75°
WAAY Radar
WAAY WAAY-TV Cam
WAAY Temperatures

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 90890

Reported Deaths: 1611
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson12039228
Mobile9170197
Montgomery6305147
Madison508227
Tuscaloosa398466
Baldwin326323
Shelby307532
Marshall298433
Unassigned281255
Lee251940
Morgan224315
Etowah195728
DeKalb171813
Elmore162637
Calhoun159012
Walker147464
Houston132712
Dallas129423
Russell12471
St. Clair123612
Limestone120813
Franklin120620
Cullman115711
Colbert110712
Lauderdale109512
Autauga103020
Escambia97915
Talladega92713
Jackson8704
Chambers82838
Tallapoosa82278
Dale78722
Butler75135
Blount7413
Chilton7226
Coffee7165
Covington71520
Pike6607
Barbour5635
Lowndes55824
Marion54724
Marengo52614
Clarke4879
Hale45726
Bullock44111
Winston43211
Perry4314
Wilcox4089
Monroe3954
Randolph39110
Bibb3813
Conecuh37210
Pickens3719
Sumter35918
Lawrence3240
Washington31412
Macon31113
Crenshaw2973
Choctaw27612
Cherokee2477
Henry2463
Greene24511
Geneva2420
Clay2235
Lamar2032
Fayette1765
Cleburne1211
Coosa922
Out of AL00

Tennessee Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 112441

Reported Deaths: 1117
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Shelby21728293
Davidson19563205
Rutherford615553
Hamilton572047
Knox410837
Williamson330822
Sumner321970
Unassigned29575
Out of TN278914
Wilson210222
Sevier17565
Montgomery175212
Bradley173910
Putnam160113
Trousdale15766
Robertson145919
Hamblen129713
Blount11817
Tipton11239
Maury10897
Washington10892
Madison92913
Bedford87711
Macon84113
Sullivan8339
Hardeman83011
Lake7560
Loudon6823
Bledsoe6741
Fayette6428
Anderson6307
Dickson6091
Gibson5902
Dyer5687
Cheatham5486
Rhea5111
Jefferson5083
McMinn49320
Lawrence4916
Henderson4690
Obion4534
Lauderdale4386
Carter4335
Warren4294
Coffee4212
Cocke4121
Hardin4097
Haywood4025
Roane3922
Cumberland3856
Smith3843
Monroe3779
Greene3765
Hawkins3694
Giles35410
McNairy3245
DeKalb3221
Weakley3103
Franklin2864
Marshall2662
Lincoln2551
Carroll2443
Crockett2364
Claiborne2350
Hickman2330
Henry2250
Campbell2211
Wayne2191
Marion2094
White2053
Chester1962
Grainger1790
Polk1793
Johnson1770
Decatur1692
Overton1391
Unicoi1390
Union1290
Cannon1260
Humphreys1093
Benton1081
Jackson1081
Scott1050
Grundy1022
Meigs990
Sequatchie960
Morgan911
Fentress760
Hancock761
Perry740
Stewart700
Clay640
Lewis581
Houston540
Moore440
Van Buren330
Pickett251

Community Events