LONDON — Processed foods have been known to raise the risk for certain health problems, but a recent study by French and Brazilian scientists shows possible links between highly-processed foods and cancer.
The researchers warn that consumption of these ultra-processed foods “may drive an increasing burden of cancer in the next decades.”
Examples of the processed foods include packaged baked goods and snacks, sugary cereals, sodas and similar carbonated beverages, frozen meals, and reconstituted meat products. These food products often contain high levels of sugar, fat, and sodium, but often lack nutrients like vitamins and fiber.
Several studies have linked processed foods to obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, but evidence linking the consumption of processed foods to specific diseases is scarce.
The researchers studied more than 104,000 French adults with an average age of 43 years old. Over three-quarters of the participants were women. The participants completed at least two 24-hour online dietary questionnaires designed to measure the consumption of 3,300 different food items. Different food items were then grouped by the degree of processing, and cases of cancer identified from participants’ responses and verified by medical records. The study controlled for other cancer risk factors such as smoking, age, sex, education level, and family history.
The results showed a 10% increase in the consumption of ultra-processed foods resulted in a 12% increase in the overall risk of cancer, and an 11% increase in the risk of breast cancer. No link was shown for prostate and colorectal cancers.
“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,” the authors write.
No link to cancer was seen in less-processed foods like canned vegetables or packages of fresh bread, while fresh or minimally-processed foods like produce, poultry, eggs, or pasta showed a small risk.
“Care should be taken to transmit the strengths and limitations of this latest analysis to the general public and to increase the public’s understanding of the complexity associated with nutritional research in free living populations,” the researchers conclude.
The full study was published Feb. 14, 2018 in The BMJ.