Ultra-processed foods may increase cancer risk

March 12, 2018 in Cancer Prevention, Healthy Eating, Nutrition Topics in the News

Ultra-processed foods may increase cancer risk

People who consume mostly packaged processed foods and drinks with many unpronounceable ingredients may be more likely to develop certain cancers than people who eat mostly on whole foods, a study from the French Institute of Health and Medical Research in Paris suggests.

Researchers examined data from dietary surveys completed by nearly 105,000 adults who didn’t have cancer. By the time half the participants had been in the study for at least five years, 2,228 cancer cases had been diagnosed – including 739 breast cancers, 281 prostate cancers, and 153 colorectal cancers.

Every 10 percent increase in the amount of heavily processed foods and drinks people consumed was associated with a 12 percent higher risk of developing all cancers and an 11 percent higher risk of developing breast cancer.

Based on other research linking certain additives and chemicals in processed foods to an increased risk of cancer and other health problems, consumers should be cautious about what they eat and drink, the researchers said.

 “Ultra-processed foods and beverages contain some food additives for which carcinogenic effects are suspected such as titanium dioxide, a white food pigment which can be found in some confectionaries, chewing-gums, and biscuits, and ultra-processed foods are also often packaged in plastic which might contain materials that have controversial effects on health, such as bisphenol A (BPA).”

Related: Five ways to eat fewer ultra-processed foods

Study participants reported their dietary habits based on their recollection of what they ate and drank over a 24-hour period in surveys administered every six months. Over the first two years of follow-up, people typically completed at least five surveys.

People who consumed the most heavily processed foods typically drank a lot of sugar-sweetened beverages and had a high intake of sugary, fatty and starchy foods.

Study limitations

The study wasn’t a randomized controlled trial designed to prove whether or how certain dietary habits might directly cause cancer, and it was also too brief to diagnose some tumors that might be slow-growing and take years to develop.

Participants were also generally more health-conscious and with higher income and education levels than the typical person in France, making it possible that results from this group might not represent what would happen with other people.

It’s also not clear what it is about heavily processed foods that might lead to cancer.

While more research is needed to verify the connection between processed foods in cancer, it’s possible that food additives, certain nutrients or contaminants from packages or other factors might have contributed to cancers in this study.

That said, plenty of evidence links a healthy diet to a lower risk of cancer and other chronic diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and fish reduces the risk of cancer.

Source: The BMJ, online February 14, 2018.

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