While ultra-processed foods are not known for their health qualities, new research published Wednesday in the BMJ further confirms the health risks involved in processed products.
Researchers discovered that people who consume more ultra-processed foods–including those with unrecognizable and unpronounceable words on the list of ingredients–demonstrate a higher risk of cancer. While most food is processed to some degree, ultra-processed foods are typically packed with higher calories, increased amounts of sodium, and an abundance of sugar.
Data and findings have long indicated that people who live on ultra-processed food tend to be more obese and overweight, with more cardiovascular problems and difficulties concerning diabetes. Studies have also found a correlation between consumption of processed meat and colorectal cancer.
Researchers located this new cancer link through an analysis of 24-hour dietary records of nearly 105,000 adults in the NutriNet-Sante cohort, a general population group in France. The individuals recorded what they ate from a list of 3,300 food items, which were then categorized by how processed they were–using a system called NOVA.
The scientists found that a 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet was associated with a significant increase of greater than 10% in terms of risks for overall cancer and breast cancer. The published study states: “Ultra-processed fats and sauces, sugary products and drinks were associated with an increased risk of overall cancer. Ultra-processed sugary products were associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.”
People who consumed more ultra-processed food also tended to smoke more and exercise less than the others, yet the study’s authors controlled these factors and still found the elevated cancer risk. “It was quite surprising, the strength of the results. They were really strongly associated, and we did many sensitive analysis and adjusted the findings for many co-factors, and still, the results here were quite concerning,” study co-author Mathilde Touvier said.
Unfortunately, ultra-processed occupy a growing part of the globe’s diet. A 2016 study found that 60% of the calories in an average American’s diet come from these types of foods, while a 2017 study confirmed that they make up 50% of the Canadian and U.K. diets. While more of the developing world is starting to eat this way, the authors advise a balanced and diversified diet as one of the most critically important public health priorities.
A balanced and diversified diet should be considered one of the most important public health priorities, the authors advise, by eating real, whole foods and trying to limit ultra-processed items.