Healthcast : A Study on Highly Processed Foods and Cancer

The paper, appearing in the BMJ this week, holds that increasing intake of the ultra-processed items by 10 percent increases overall cancer risk by 12 percent.

However, their classification of "ultra-processed foods" appears to be vague and fairly loose, meaning it's not very useful for consumers looking to eat healthier or policymakers wanting to lower the risk of disease. But through the years, researchers have linked sugar to increased risk of cancer and heart disease, and other studies have put red and processed meats under a similar spotlight.

Association between less processed foods (such as canned vegetables, cheeses and freshly made unpackaged bread) and risk of cancer were also not found to be that prevalent.

The researchers emphasised that at this stage it was just an observational study, and no firm conclusions could be drawn about ultra-processed food consumption and risk of cancer. The study showed that an average person's diet in numerous developed nations showed around 50 percent domination by processed foods. "Now we need to connect the dots and find out if any specific elements in these foods may increase the risk of developing cancer".

Alternatively, the association could be attributed to the wide range of additives in ultra-processed foods or migration of bisphenol A from plastic packaging or even the formation of neoformed contaminants due to processing techniques, such as the development of acrylamide due to high heat, the researchers note. It ranked the participants by how much ultra-processed food they consumed over two 24-hour periods.

It is well established that processed foods aren't good at keeping people full or providing them with the necessary fuel to get through the day without crashing.

"As the global consumption of highly processed foods increases", report Martin Lajous and Adriana Monge, of the National Institute of Public Health in Mexico, in a linked editorial, "understanding the health impact of these foods has become a relevant and timely topic". "The challenge now is to disentangle the different foods and understand this relationship to see what specifically is having this effect".

The growing popularity of highly processed foods may be storing up a future sharp rise in cancer cases, French researchers are warning.

Experts believe this is because processed foods, which include packaged meat, pies, candies and crisps, are higher in fat, salt and sugar. "Ultra-processed sugary products were associated with an increased risk of breast cancer". This included packaged breads and buns; sweet or savory packaged snacks; industrialized confectionery and desserts; sodas and sweetened drinks; meatballs, poultry and fish nuggets, and other reconstituted meat products; instant noodles and soups; frozen or shelf stable ready meals. For one, processed foods are often high in inflammatory constituents, like sugar and certain fats, and chronic inflammation can increase cancer risk.

For more on diet and cancer, visit the American Cancer Society.

The researchers warned that the results would have to be confirmed by further large-scale studies in different populations and settings.


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