Laboratory Equipment
2-15-18
by Seth Augenstein - Senior Science Writer

“Ultra-processed” foods, a litany of choices on modern menus spanning from packaged snacks to sodas, chicken nuggets, frozen meals and preservative-laden meat products, are a source of increased saturated fats, boosted sugar and salt levels, and lower amounts of fiber and vitamins.

They can be delicious, but new research says they may be deadly.

Eating and drinking more of these products is linked to an increased risk of cancer, according to a new study by a team of French doctors that is sure to elicit controversy.

The paper, appearing in the BMJ this week, holds that increasing intake of the ultra-processed items by 10 percent increases overall cancer risk by 12 percent.

This risk is separate of obesity and other secondary factors, according to the analysis, led by staff at the Université Sorbonne Paris Cité.

“A few studies have previously suggested that ultra-processed foods contribute to increasing the risk of cardiometabolic disorders – such as obesity, hypertension, and dyslipidaemia – but no previous perspective epidemiological study has evaluated the association between food processing and (the risk of) cancer,” they write.

The study population included 104,980 people from the NutriNet-Santé prospective cohort. Nearly 80 percent were women, and the mean age was 42.8 years.

The people were surveyed in-depth about their diet – the types of foods they ate, and how often they ate them. They were also asked about the lifestyle and health behaviors, including smoking and exercise, as well as alcohol intake and number of children, and other factors.

Over the course of the trial, which began in 2009 and ended in January 2017, the average follow-up period was five years.

During that follow-up, 2,228 cancer cases were diagnosed among the group. About half of those were in the most common categories: 739 breast cancers, 281 prostate cancers, and 153 colorectal cancers.

When adjusting for the other possible cancer-causing factors, such as smoking, the doctors said they isolated the linkage between the foods themselves and an increased cancer risk.

But experts have said the results should be greeted with caution. An accompanying editorial in the BMJ holds that the big French study is simply an “an initial step toward understanding.”

“Fiolet and colleagues provide an initial insight into a possible link between ultra-processed food-related exposures and cancer,” they write. “Their interesting results require replication and further refinement… We are a long way from understanding the full implications of food processing for health and well-being.

“Care should be taken to transmit the strengths and limitations of this latest analysis to the general public and to increase the public’s understanding of the complexity associated with nutritional research in free living populations,” they add.

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Over the last three years, more lifestyle choices have been linked to cancer than ever before. For instance, a British medical group connected any amount of alcohol to cancer in 2016 – and the American Society of Clinical Oncology followed suit this past November in a review of the evidence. Weight gain has been an increasing target for researchers, too – the CDC said this past October that about 40 percent of all American cancers are related to obesity.