Is Ultra-Processed Food Linked to Cancer?

The Lempert Report: A French study found a correlation, but some are skeptical

A new study from France suggests the more processed a food a person eats, the greater their risk of cancer.

These ultra-processed foods included: mass-produced packaged breads and buns; sweet or savory packaged snacks such as crisps; chocolate bars and sweets; sodas and sweetened drinks; meatballs and chicken and fish nuggets; instant noodles and soups; frozen or shelf-life ready meals; and foods made mostly or entirely from sugar, oils and fats

The team at Universite Sorbonne Paris Cite used food surveys over two days to work out what 105,000 people were eating. Those included on the study, who were mostly middle-aged women, were followed for an average of five years. 

The results, published in the British Medical Journal, showed that if the proportion of ultra-processed food in the diet increased by 10%, then the number of cancers detected increased by 12%.

During the study:

  • On average, 18% of people's diet was ultra-processed
  • On average, there were 79 cancers per 10,000 people each year
  • Upping the proportion of processed food by 10% would lead to nine extra cancers per 10,000 people per year

The researchers go on to say that their study cannot say ultra-processed foods are a cause of cancer, and that more research needs to be done—especially as they report that people who ate a lot of ultra-processed foods had other behaviors that have been linked to cancer. 

They were much more likely to smoke, were less active, consumed more calories overall and were more likely to be taking oral contraceptives.

Doctor Ian Johnson, from the Quadram Institute in Norwich, England, said the study had "identified some rather weak associations,"and he criticized the vagueness of the term "ultra-processed." 

The bottom line is that while research such as this underscores the importance of eating well, with lots of fresh foods and vegetables, and maintaining a proper body weight, it can also confuse the facts and be more harmful than helpful.


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