If you’ve ever tried to lose a few pounds, you know a big part of accomplishing that is eating “whole” foods versus “processed” foods. Eat real raspberries, not raspberry Pop Tarts. Eat plain oatmeal with raisins and walnuts, rather than Oatmeal Raisin Crisp cereal. Eat a grilled chicken breast, not reconstituted chicken “nuggets.”
This is usually because the processing strips many of these original foods of much of their original nutritional value. Plus, you add a plethora of industrial preservatives and chemicals. If you remove the vitamin spraying from processed cereals, for instance, the cardboard box isn’t much lower nutritionally than the cereal inside. You get the calories, but they tend to be empty calories that don’t provide lasting energy, so you’re hungry sooner. And you eat more.
A new study, although just observational in focus, points to an even more ominous link. It posits that increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods may be linked to a proportional rise in cancer risk.
Scientists from universities in Paris, France and Sao Paulo, Brazil conducted the study. Findings were recently published in The BMJ. This was an “observational study,” meaning it was not designed to prove cause and effect. Studies like this offer insights into possible links between variables such as diet and disease, and they then create the basis for more pointed research down the line to prove cause and effect.
The findings were scary if you make a habit of eating lots of instant noodles, frozen pizza, packaged snacks, chicken nuggets, fish sticks, packaged breads, and washing it all down with sugary sodas. The study found that for every 10 percent rise in the proportion of ultra-processed foods consumed, there was a 12 percent higher risk of cancer.
For the observational study, researchers analyzed the diet and health of 105,000 middle-aged individuals in the NutriNet-Sante cohort study. The participants in that study provided information about their daily diets, including thousands of different foods.
Researchers then categorized the foods reported eaten into four groups by the “extent and purpose of industrial food processing.” In their classification, ultra-processed foods are those that undergo the most industrial food processing.
The study includes a long list of ultra-processed foods, including: fish and chicken nuggets; packaged sweet and savory snacks; packaged breads; meat products that have been reconstituted with the aid of nitrites or other non-salt preservatives; and foods “made mostly, or entirely from sugar, oils, and fats.” Substances added during processing included flavoring agents, colors, humectants, emulsifiers, and artificial sweeteners.
In addition to the 12 percent higher risk of cancer for every 10 percent rise in the proportion of ultra-processed foods consumed, further analysis revealed an 11 percent rise in the risk of breast cancer.
The study didn’t claim any direct causal links, noting it was simply observational in execution, but it did feel the results merited direct study on ultra-processed foods and risk of cancer. It noted that many countries are shifting toward higher consumption of ultra-processed foods. It pointed to other studies from the U.S. Canada, Europe, and New Zealand that have shown 25-50 percent of daily energy intake is from ultra-processed foods such as ready meals, sugary cereals, packaged snacks and baked goods, and soft drinks.
No cancer link with less processed foods
The study also looked at foods that have undergone “minimal or no processing,” foods such as fruits, vegetables, pulses, rice, pasta, eggs, and meat. These foods are typically fresh or dried, ground, chilled, frozen, pasteurized, or fermented.
The next category was for “less processed” foods, such as canned vegetables with added salt, sugar-coated dried fruits, meats that are preserved only by salting, cheeses, and freshly made unpackaged breads.
When looking at these categories, the study found no significant link between cancer and consumption of “less processed” foods. It noted a lower risk of overall cancer and breast cancer when people ate “fresh and minimally processed foods.”
This study had a new focus — ultra-processed foods. These foods have been under increasing scrutiny as developing countries begin to eat more and more of them, in lieu of fresh, local foods. Other studies have looked at links with ultra-processed foods and higher risk of obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, but the study authors note this study “is the first to investigate and highlight an increase in the risk of overall — and specifically breast — cancer associated with ultra-processed food intake.”