Ultra-processed foods and cancer. Is there a link?

Last week a study published in the British Medical Journal has been receiving a lot of media attention. The study suggested that there is a link between consumption of highly processed foods and cancer.

The study

The study included 104,000 people, mainly middle-aged women, in France. Participants were followed for an average of 5 years. Using dietary data collected from 24-hour dietary recalls, the researchers classified foods according to their degree of processing. Ultra-processed foods are foods which have undergone multiple physical, biological and / or chemical processes.

The researchers found that a 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods consumed was associated with a 12% increase in the risk of overall cancer.

When interpreting this study it is important to consider a number of factors:

Foods classified as ultra-processed vary widely in their nutritional composition

Classifying foods by the degree of processing does not account for their nutritional composition. Many foods classified as ultra-processed are important sources of nutrients in the diet. Yoghurts and breads can be classified as ultra-processed along with confectionary and sugary drinks.

Study design

This study is observational by design and ultimately it cannot determine cause and effect, in other words it cannot say that the link between processed foods and cancer is not caused by another factor that the researchers did not account for.

Researchers found that those with high intakes of ultra-processed foods were more likely to smoke, have low levels of physical activity and have higher intakes of energy, fat, carbohydrates and sodium – behaviours which can also be linked to cancer.

The study only followed people for an average of 5 years, and of this dietary data was from the first 2 years. The study does not account for participants diet prior to the study period and as cancer can take a long time to develop this information may be important.

What does this mean?

Overall the study highlights an important area of research which requires further study. It does not change the current healthy eating guidelines for the public. To reduce your risk of cancer it is important to eat a varied diet, keep physically active, limit alcohol intake and don’t smoke.

The World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research have more information on the link between lifestyle and cancer risk.

Posted: 19/02/2018 12:09:14 by Anne Parle
Filed under: Cancer, Processed food


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