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."

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 95659

Reported Deaths: 2056
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hennepin26960930
Ramsey10911320
Dakota7524126
Anoka6092133
Stearns401024
Washington379955
Scott257433
Olmsted244628
Nobles197116
Blue Earth16996
Wright16327
St. Louis160241
Carver14197
Clay138940
Rice13358
Mower13285
Sherburne115014
Kandiyohi10112
Winona88718
Lyon6954
Waseca6698
Benton5523
Steele5472
Freeborn5424
Nicollet54016
Watonwan5284
Crow Wing51618
Todd4952
Chisago4941
McLeod4882
Le Sueur4674
Otter Tail4414
Beltrami4215
Martin40810
Goodhue3659
Itasca32814
Pine3280
Douglas3102
Polk3054
Isanti2971
Becker2802
Carlton2701
Morrison2492
Dodge2390
Cottonwood2250
Pipestone22510
Chippewa2141
Meeker2022
Wabasha1960
Sibley1923
Brown1912
Yellow Medicine1822
Cass1804
Rock1730
Unassigned17052
Redwood1673
Mille Lacs1643
Murray1642
Renville1518
Jackson1481
Faribault1450
Swift1381
Houston1280
Kanabec1258
Roseau1230
Koochiching1223
Fillmore1200
Pennington1191
Lincoln1110
Hubbard1031
Stevens1031
Pope940
Big Stone820
Aitkin801
Wadena690
Wilkin653
Grant614
Lake590
Lac qui Parle581
Norman540
Marshall521
Mahnomen481
Red Lake451
Traverse310
Clearwater270
Lake of the Woods221
Kittson120
Cook60

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 85533

Reported Deaths: 1305
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Polk15872262
Woodbury544764
Johnson512627
Black Hawk448990
Linn4010111
Story344417
Dubuque325741
Scott301128
Dallas278538
Pottawattamie211338
Buena Vista199112
Marshall178434
Sioux16183
Wapello133357
Webster125514
Plymouth114121
Clinton112121
Muscatine110855
Crawford10885
Cerro Gordo105721
Warren9566
Jasper83832
Des Moines7848
Marion7637
Henry7434
Tama71331
Carroll6625
Lee6377
Wright5811
Dickinson5276
Boone5078
Bremer4927
Washington45911
Louisa42915
Mahaska41219
Delaware4023
Floyd3493
Jackson3493
Franklin34818
Winneshiek3356
Clay3264
Lyon3264
Hamilton3223
Benton3101
Winnebago30313
Hardin2991
Poweshiek2958
Buchanan2791
Jones2743
Butler2702
Kossuth2700
Shelby2671
Clarke2653
Emmet26510
Allamakee2616
Clayton2523
Chickasaw2500
Sac2500
Cherokee2492
Cedar2461
Guthrie2456
Fayette2222
Harrison2223
Grundy2203
Madison2192
Iowa2091
Palo Alto2020
Humboldt1903
Mitchell1900
Howard1886
Hancock1842
Calhoun1833
Mills1801
Page1700
Cass1682
Osceola1610
Monroe15911
Pocahontas1592
Lucas1566
Monona1531
Jefferson1381
Appanoose1363
Union1353
Taylor1301
Davis1244
Ida1221
Fremont1180
Van Buren1141
Keokuk1091
Worth1080
Greene1010
Montgomery965
Wayne862
Audubon821
Adair721
Decatur670
Ringgold502
Adams330
Unassigned170
Rochester
Clear
55° wxIcon
Hi: 67° Lo: 45°
Feels Like: 55°
Mason City
Broken Clouds
59° wxIcon
Hi: 69° Lo: 47°
Feels Like: 59°
Albert Lea
Clear
57° wxIcon
Hi: 68° Lo: 46°
Feels Like: 57°
Austin
Clear
59° wxIcon
Hi: 68° Lo: 47°
Feels Like: 59°
Charles City
Clear
57° wxIcon
Hi: 67° Lo: 47°
Feels Like: 57°
One Last Mild Day
KIMT Radar
KIMT Eye in the sky

Community Events