A most recent study has suggested that eating ultra-processed foods can significantly raise the risk of cancer. The research done by researchers from various French institutions working as a team at Université Sorbonne Paris Cité has been published in the BMJ (British Medical Journal).
What are “ultra-processed” foods?
According to NOVA, a recently introduced food classification system, ultra-processed foods are foods that have undergone complex processing using chemicals that are almost always never found in the kitchen.
Actually, you can be eating processed foods everyday as simple examples of ultra-processed foods include chicken nuggets, sweetened drinks and sodas, meatballs, instant soups and noodles, shelf-life ready meals, chocolate bars, mass-produced packaged buns and bread, among others. Processed foods in general will give you belly fat and blood sugar spikes which can also result in serious health problems like Diabetes and Heart Disease according to the fitness magazine Lifetoliveit.
The team of researchers recruited adult participants in 2009 to feel online questionnaires about their health background and the foods they ate within the previous twenty-four hours. The food questionnaires were repeated every six months until January 2017. The researchers followed 104, 980 participants, who filled at least two questionnaires during the research period.
The team categorized the participants’ diets according to their ultra-processed proportions. The participants reported about their usual consumptions of over 3,300 different types of food items. The food items reported on were categorized according to their extent of processing based on the NOVA classification. Group one consisted of minimally processed or unprocessed foods like fruits, leafy greens, eggs, and milk while group two had the ultra-processed foods. For a list of highly processed foods to stay away from, LifeToLiveIt.com gives a number of such examples and the health risks that they pose.
The researchers sought to find out whether people who ate diets with high amounts of ultra-processed foods were more exposed to various types of cancer, or specifically to prostate, breast, or colon cancer and of course obesity. Ultra-processed foods are also extremely bad for the stomach and will cause a person to gain belly fat. Her analyses were based on such factors as alcohol intake and smoking, age and sex, physical activity, education level, family history, good nutrition, BMI, and overall energy intake. This was done to avoid counting individuals that were likely to develop cancer due to other reasons.
The results revealed that a 10 percent increase in ultra-processed food amounts in a diet led to a 12 percent increase in developing some kind of cancer. The researchers also found out that chances of developing breast cancer increased by 11 percent, although this was only true after menopause. The results, however, showed no increased risk of developing colorectal or prostate cancer.
During the study, 18 percent of the participants’ diets were ultra-processed. In every 1000 participants, 79 cancers were reported each year. Over the five years of follow-up, there were up to 2228 cancers reported among the participants.
“If these results are confirmed in different settings and populations, they suggest that the increased intake of ultra-processed foods might lead to a broadening cancer burden in coming decades,” reads the report in the BMJ. Mathilde Touvier, the study’s lead author, says that “the findings are very strong, consistent and somewhat compelling. But we must be cautious. It’s the first study, and we shouldn’t be alarmist. The findings need confirmation in other prospective research.”
The hypotheses that may explain the results
The researchers gave reasons why ultra-processed foods could be exposing individuals to specific types of cancers. Firstly, these foods are generally known to have very poor to no nutrition value. LifeToLiveIt mentions that Individuals who consume these foods often have a higher intake of calories, fat, sugar, and salt, but lower dietary fiber and nutrients. This eating pattern is usually associated with higher exposure to specific types of cancer besides also increasing the risk of obesity and belly fat gain, which further increases vulnerability to cancer.
Secondly, most additives used in many ultra-processed foods include a whitening agent called titanium dioxide, which is classified by the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) as possibly being carcinogenic.
Again, when the highly-processed foods are being produced through heat treatments, there can be contamination with such compounds as acrylamide, which has been shown to increase the risk of cancer in several lab tests. Some ultra-processed foods are packaged in plastic materials containing the contaminant BPA (bisphenol A). There is sufficient research showing that certain levels of exposure to this chemical may expose humans to cancer.
This is an important study as it is the first one that has evaluated the link between the amount of highly processed foods in diets and the subsequent risk to exposure to various types of cancer. While the results appeared to be predominant in women, similar trends were also observed in men.
The researchers urged governments to consider taking such measures as imposing marketing restrictions and higher taxation on these foods in a bid to cut their production.