More bad news about our addiction to “fast food”. Another study points to a link between increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods and proportional rise in cancer risk.
The recently published study followed 105,000 middle aged individuals from Europe, New Zealand, North and South America for an average of 5 years and found that for every 10% rise in the proportion of ultra-processed foods consumed, there was a 12% higher risk of cancer.
The latest estimates of worldwide figures suggest that there were 14.1 million new cases of cancer in 2012, and that this number is expected to climb to 24 million by 2035.
In the United States—where cancer is the second most common cause of death—the American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that there will be around 1.7 million newly diagnosed cases of cancer in 2018 and more than 609,000 deaths due to this disease.
According to the ACS, at least 42% of newly diagnosed cases of cancer are preventable. These include 19% in which smoking is the main cause and 18% that result from a combination of factors, including “poor nutrition.”
Researchers cite evidence which suggests that many countries are shifting toward higher consumption of “ultra-processed foods,” i.e. food that has undergone several “physical, biological, and/or chemical processes.”
Unfortunately 25%–50% of daily energy intake in a modern Western Diet is from ultra-processed foods, such as:
- mass produced packaged breads and buns
- sweet or savory packaged snacks
- industrialized confectionery and desserts
- sodas and sweetened drinks
- meatballs, poultry and fish nuggets, and other reconstituted meat products transformed with the addition of preservatives, other than salt (for example, nitrites)
- instant noodles and soups
- frozen or shelf stable ready meals
- and other food products made mostly or entirely from sugar, oils and fats, and other substances not commonly used in culinary preparations such as hydrogenated oils, modified starches, and protein isolates
Industrial processes notably include hydrogenation, hydrolysis, extruding, moulding, reshaping, and pre-processing by frying.
Flavoring agents, colors, emulsifiers, humectants, non-sugar sweeteners, and other cosmetic additives are often added to these products to imitate sensorial properties of unprocessed or minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations or to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product.
Processed foods are higher in added sugar and salt, as well as total fat and saturated fat, and they are lower in fiber and vitamins.
These neo-formed contaminants have carcinogenic properties (such as acrylamide, heterocyclic amines, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and are present in heat treated processed food. There is an association between dietary acrylamide and risk of both kidney and endometrial cancer in non-smokers.
In addition, the European Food Safety Agency judged acrylamide as geno-toxic, causing long-term adverse effect on the genome, and can affect offsprings.
Another concern is that due to contact with packaging materials, ultra-processed foods may become contaminated with potentially cancer causing substances like BPA, which act as endocrine disruptors (causing obesity, insulin resistance, diabetes, infertility, breast cancer, etc.).
Also, these foods contain additives, which may cause cancer. These additives include the processed meat additive, sodium nitrite and the white food pigment, titanium dioxide.
Ultra-processed foods have also been associated with a higher glycemic response and a lower satiety effect that contribute to weight gain and risk of obesity.
Obesity is recognized as a major risk factor for post-menopausal breast, stomach, liver, colorectal, esophagus, pancreatic, kidney, gallbladder, endometrium, ovary, liver, and prostate cancers, as well as hematological malignancies, like leukemia.
Most ultra-processed foods, such as dehydrated soups, processed meats, biscuits, and sauces, have a high salt content and are associated with an increased risk of gastric cancer.
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 Consumption of ultra-processed foods and cancer risk: results from NutriNet-Santé prospective cohort BMJ 2018; 360 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k322 (Published 14 February 2018)Cite this as: BMJ 2018;360:k322