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 10:48 AM
Updated: Feb 15, 2018 10:48 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."

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 8 p.m. ET)

Confirmed Cases: 34830

Reported Deaths: 2143
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion9900581
Lake3639190
Allen166269
Cass15877
Elkhart132228
St. Joseph128634
Hendricks117171
Hamilton116293
Johnson1115109
Madison59359
Porter54328
Bartholomew51535
Clark50541
LaPorte43824
Howard41528
Tippecanoe4143
Jackson3921
Delaware38539
Shelby37322
Hancock34027
Floyd31839
Boone31535
Vanderburgh2822
Morgan28024
Montgomery24517
Noble23721
White2378
Clinton2331
Decatur22431
Grant21323
Dubois1993
Harrison19422
Henry18411
Greene16925
Vigo1698
Dearborn16821
Warrick16628
Monroe16612
Lawrence16524
Kosciusko1501
Miami1401
Putnam1377
Jennings1304
Orange13022
Scott1203
Marshall1112
Franklin1108
Ripley1096
Carroll932
Daviess9216
Wayne855
LaGrange842
Steuben842
Wabash792
Fayette787
Newton7810
Jasper681
Jay530
Washington521
Clay511
Fulton491
Randolph483
Rush472
Pulaski460
Jefferson451
Whitley433
Starke393
DeKalb371
Sullivan361
Owen351
Perry330
Brown331
Wells320
Benton310
Huntington282
Knox280
Blackford262
Tipton251
Crawford240
Fountain212
Switzerland200
Spencer201
Parke180
Gibson172
Adams171
Posey160
Ohio130
Warren121
Martin110
Vermillion100
Union90
Pike60
Unassigned0167

Illinois Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 7 p.m. CT)

Confirmed Cases: 121234

Reported Deaths: 5412
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Cook784953658
Lake8408292
DuPage7765374
Kane6404178
Will5613277
Winnebago229055
McHenry158572
St. Clair115282
Kankakee91548
Kendall80419
Rock Island66124
Champaign6457
Madison59460
Boone46317
DeKalb4184
Sangamon35029
Jackson28910
Randolph2694
Peoria2389
McLean22013
Ogle2113
Stephenson2092
Macon19419
Clinton18617
Union15511
LaSalle15313
Whiteside14213
Iroquois1324
Coles12715
Out of IL1181
Warren1170
Jefferson10116
Knox1010
Grundy992
Monroe9612
Unassigned930
McDonough8911
Lee811
Cass730
Tazewell735
Henry690
Williamson672
Pulaski560
Marion500
Jasper457
Macoupin452
Adams441
Perry410
Vermilion401
Montgomery391
Morgan361
Christian354
Livingston342
Jo Daviess320
Douglas280
Jersey241
Fayette213
Woodford212
Ford201
Menard200
Mason180
Washington180
Hancock170
Mercer170
Shelby161
Bureau151
Carroll152
Schuyler130
Bond121
Franklin120
Clark110
Crawford110
Fulton110
Logan110
Moultrie110
Piatt110
Brown100
Cumberland100
Johnson90
Wayne91
Alexander80
Henderson80
Effingham71
Massac70
Saline70
Greene50
Marshall50
Wabash50
De Witt40
Lawrence40
Richland30
Stark30
Clay20
Edwards20
Gallatin20
Hamilton20
White20
Calhoun10
Edgar10
Hardin10
Pike10
Pope10
Putnam10
Terre Haute
Clear
79° wxIcon
Hi: 89° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 80°
Robinson
Clear
82° wxIcon
Hi: 87° Lo: 66°
Feels Like: 82°
Indianapolis
Few Clouds
78° wxIcon
Hi: 87° Lo: 68°
Feels Like: 79°
Rockville
Clear
78° wxIcon
Hi: 88° Lo: 68°
Feels Like: 79°
Casey
Clear
79° wxIcon
Hi: 88° Lo: 67°
Feels Like: 80°
Brazil
Clear
79° wxIcon
Hi: 88° Lo: 68°
Feels Like: 80°
Marshall
Clear
79° wxIcon
Hi: 88° Lo: 68°
Feels Like: 80°
Sunny and Hot!
WTHI Planner
WTHI Temps
WTHI Radar

WTHI Events