Natural Health News — People whose diets are high in “ultra-processed” foods may also have a higher risk of cancer, according to a large study from France.
The findings are of concern in part because they come hot on the heels of a major European study which showed that unhealthy ultra-processed foods are making up more and more of the European diet.
According to the authors of the latest study increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods “may drive an increasing burden of cancer in the next decades.”
Ultra-processed foods include packaged baked goods and snacks, fizzy drinks, sugary cereals, ready meals and reconstituted meat products – often containing high levels of sugar, fat, and salt, but lacking in vitamins and fibre. They are thought to account for up to 50% of total daily energy intake in several developed countries, including the UK.
A few studies have linked ultra-processed foods to higher risks of obesity, high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. But firm evidence linking intake to risk of diseases such as cancer is still scarce.
» A large observational study in France has uncovered a link between consumption of ultra-processed foods and higher rates of cancer.
» Comparing dietary questionnaires and medical records the researchers found that 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet was associated with increases of 12% in the risk of overall cancer and 11% in the risk of breast cancer.
» The results of this study follow swiftly on from a recent evidence showing that ultra-processed foods account for up to 50% of total daily energy intake in several developed countries, including the UK.
So a team of researchers based in France and Brazil, set out to evaluate potential associations between ultra-processed food intake and risk of overall cancer, as well as that of breast, prostate, and bowel (colorectal) cancers.
Cancer rises with ultra-processed food consumption
Their findings of this observational study are based on 104,980 healthy French adults (22% men; 78% women) with an average age of 43 years who completed at least two 24-hour online dietary questionnaires, designed to measure usual intake of 3,300 different food items. Participants were followed for around 8 years.
Foods were grouped according to degree of processing and cases of cancer were identified from participants’ declarations validated by medical records and national databases over an average of five years.
Several well known risk factors for cancer, such as age, sex, educational level, family history of cancer, smoking status and physical activity levels, were taken into account.
The results, published in the BMJ, show that a 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet was associated with increases of 12% in the risk of overall cancer and 11% in the risk of breast cancer. No significant association was found for prostate and colorectal cancers.
Further testing found no significant association between less processed foods (such as canned vegetables, cheeses and freshly made unpackaged bread) and risk of cancer; consumption of fresh or minimally processed foods (fruits, vegetables, pulses, rice, pasta, eggs, meat, fish and milk) was associated with lower risks of overall cancer and breast cancer.
More work is needed
This was an observational study, so no firm conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect. Nevertheless, the study sample was large and they were able to adjust for a range of other potentially influential factors.
“To our knowledge, 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,” write the authors.
They stress that further work is needed to better understand the effects of the various stages of processing, but suggest policies targeting product reformulation, taxation, and marketing restrictions on ultra-processed products and promotion of fresh or minimally processed foods may contribute to primary cancer prevention.
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