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Highly Processed Food May Have Links With Cancer

15 February 2018

Although ultra-processed foods were linked to cancers in general, and breast cancer in particular, no association was found with prostate cancer or bowel cancer.

French researchers are claiming a link between highly processed foods and cancer.

Increasing the amount of ultra-processed food in a person's diet proportionately increases their risk of cancer, a large study has found.

These include packaged snacks and baked goods, sugary cereals, ready meals, fizzy drinks, and reconstituted meat products and they account for up to 50% of total daily energy intake in multiple developed countries.

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Foods were grouped according to degree of processing and cases of cancer were identified from participants' declarations validated by medical records and national databases over an average of five years. The results show that a 10 per cent increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet was associated with increases of 12 per cent in the risk of overall cancer and 11 per cent in the risk of breast cancer.

Sanders, who was not involved in the study, said the authors made statistical adjustments to accommodate for some of that, but he cautions that "the approach of categorizing dietary patterns that depend on industrially processed food in relation to disease risk is novel but probably needs refining before it can be translated into practical dietary advice".

"If confirmed in other populations and settings, these results suggest that the rapidly increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods may drive an increasing burden of cancer in the next decades."

Not all processed foods appeared to be equal. However, no significant associations were observed for colorectal and prostate cancers. Ultra-processed foods are foods which contain ingredients that are so unnatural that your great-great-grandma wouldn't recognize if she were still alive.

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A study of 19 European countries published earlier this month found 50.7 per cent of food sold in the United Kingdom is ultra-processed, compared with 46.2 per cent in Germany, 45.9 per cent in Ireland and 14.2 per cent in France. A 2017 study found that they make up 50% of the Canadian diet, and they make up more than 50% of the United Kingdom diet.

Consumption of fresh or minimally processed foods such as fruits, vegetables, pulses, rice, pasta, eggs, meat, fish and milk was also associated with lower risks of overall cancer and breast cancer.

But she added: 'They all have food additives, they all have compounds formed during the processing and heating of the products, and they have compounds that could come from the packaging itself.

The authors point out that the observational nature of the investigation means they can not say for certain that these types of processed food definitely cause cancer. Besides high levels of salt, fat and sugar, the food items also contained additives, preservatives, and flavourings.

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They say governments may need to take the findings into consideration when drawing up effective food and health policies to prevent cancer.

Highly Processed Food May Have Links With Cancer