Research Highlights: Ultra-processed foods may be linked to cancer

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Paper: Consumption of ultra-processed foods and cancer risk: results from NutriNet-Santé prospective cohort, British Medical Journal, 2018; 360 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k322 (Published 14 February 2018) This is an open access journal, you can read the full text for free.

Main conclusion

From the paper’s abstract:

Conclusions In this large prospective study, a 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet was associated with a significant increase of greater than 10% in risks of overall and breast cancer. Further studies are needed to better understand the relative effect of the various dimensions of processing (nutritional composition, food additives, contact materials, and neoformed contaminants) in these associations.

A Guardian article on this study gives more information on what is considered ultra-processed foods:

Ultra-processed food is a definition created by a group of scientists led by Prof Carlos Monteiro in Brazil, a country which also has national dietary guidelines urging they be eaten as little as possible. The classification system, called Nova, puts foods into four groups – raw or minimally processed foods including seeds, fruit, eggs and milk; processed culinary ingredients such as oils and butter; processed foods including bottled vegetables and canned fish and cheeses; and ultra-processed, which are “formulations made mostly or entirely from substances derived from foods and additives”.

No real surprise, but great to see this is now starting to be identified and validated in the research.

The issue is not lack of nutrition but artificial ingredients

There are of course several issues with consuming ultra-processed foods:

  • no nutritional value
  • artificial ingredients and additives (trans fats are there as they are artificial)
  • usually high in sugar
  • usually high in salt
  • usually high in unhealthy fats

An interesting conclusion from the study is that statistical analysis shows that the lack of nutritional value does not seem to be the culprit here. Rather, the research team is looking into the artificial ingredients and additives used. But it will be difficult to untangle the effects of the high loads in sugar, salt and unhealthy fats. Ultra-processed foods tend to be unhealthy apart from the fact they’re ultra-processed.

What does this change?

Well, nothing if you already avoid these foods, which is of course what I’d recommend. If not, then without being conclusive, this is another data point to consider and it should make you question whether these edible creations really should be treated as food.

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