A 10% increase in the risk of developing cancer has been linked with the consumption of “ultra-processed” foods according to a French study of 104,980 people. These foods are a creation of the agri-food industry: they have nothing to do with what is found in nature.
Frozen foods, fruity yogurts, snacks, frozen or non-frozen meals… an avalanche of “ultra-processed” products by the agri-food industry occupies the shelves in our supermarkets and on our plates. Yet, the added salt, sugar, preservatives, fats, many additives like sodium nitrite, titanium dioxide alter or destroy the nutritional qualities of foods that are widely consumed in the US and around the world. The industrial processes used also destroy the fibers normally contained in foods, also reducing the final amount of fiber consumed in out diet.
A new study, carried out in France, associating researchers from Inserm, INRA and Paris 13 University and published in the British Medical Journal, suggests that the consumption of foods called “ultra-processed” increases the risk of cancer: a 10% increase in ultra-processed foods in the diet is associated with a 12% increase in overall cancer risk and 11% increase in breast cancer risk. No significant associations are found for colon or prostate cancer.
According to a report by French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies INSEE, the share of ultra-processed meat, fish and vegetable products has more than doubled in recent years, reaching 41% in 2006 in France, to the detriment of products requiring more preparation. Today, it represents 80% of the country’s food consumption.
Junk food paves the way for breast cancer
Dietary habits of 104,980 French people, aged 43 years on average, were followed for 8 years, between 2009 and 2017: 228 cases of cancer were diagnosed. The People monitored in the NutriNet-Santé cohort completed a 24-hour online questionnaire at least twice to evaluate the consumption of 3,300 different foods.
A 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet is associated with a 6 to 18% increase in the risk of developing cancer in general and 2 to 22% for breast cancer risk. More specifically, “ultra-processed fats and sauces and sugary products and drinks are associated with an increased risk of cancer globally, and ultra-processed sweet products are associated with a risk of breast cancer,” according to the authors.
Presentation of these so-called “ultra-processed” foods
The “ultra-processed” category of the international Nova classification includes: sweets, desserts, ready meals, aperitif cakes, sugary drinks, processed meats such as meatballs or nuggets, industrial soups, pasta or frozen dishes. Basically, all products processed with the addition of a preservative that is not salt (nitrites). According to the Nova classification, recognized by the FAO and the Pan American Health Organization which lists foods according to their degree of industrial processing, these are all ultra-processed foods.
Also included in this category are spreads, cakes, energy bars, sausages, reconstituted fish, some cereal brands, fruit drinks, fruit yogurts, hamburgers, hot dogs, packaged breads, margarine or even food for infants. Globally, ultra-processed foods are those that are not found in nature. They are a creation of the agri-food industry. All these foods are loaded with sugar and calories and are at the same time less filling, that is to say, they do not give feeling of fullness and tend to be consumed more.
The habits of life of a society in a hurry
The success of these products lies mainly in the fact that they are inexpensive and easy to consume; a significant advantage for a busy society, obsessed with deadlines, time savings and instant results. Today, ultra-processed foods contribute to more than half of energy supplies from France, Germany, Spain, the United States or the United Kingdom.
The observational study, admitted by its authors, is only a first step and “merits careful and more detailed exploration.” The cause-and-effect link “remains to be demonstrated”, say the authors. There are other factors that can be taken into account, such as “smoking and low physical activity” which were much more common among participants who consumed a higher proportion of ultra-processed foods even though the analysis has been adjusted to take into account these factors.
But taking into account the confounding factors means that the researchers have taken into account in their statistical analysis the possible impact of other factors that may themselves be responsible for cancer. This is called an “adjustment”. Admittedly, this is not a prospective comparative study between the consumption of natural products and ultra-processed products, and nobody will pay to make one, and especially not the agri-food industry, but it is a very large study, extended over 8 years, on a well-identified population of a French register with scientifically well-designed dietary analyzes. The results must therefore be taken seriously, especially since they are convergent with other studies.
Why are they dangerous for your health?
In his book “Stop Ultra-Processed Foods! Let’s Eat Real”, Dr. Anthony Fardet, a researcher in preventive and holistic nutrition, draws a parallel between industrial food and the prevalence of chronic diseases. He also defines ultra-processed foods as products “whose natural origin we can not even recognize because their (their) matrix is modified”. Not to be confused with poorly processed foods, normally processed products and ultra-processed products.
“We must realize that the explosion of chronic diseases in Western countries has been concomitant with the influx of ultra-processed foods in supermarkets since the 1980s,” he explains. According to him, the visual aspect of these products is designed to seduce consumers. “Industries are trying to give back to the ultra-processed foods a taste and color lost in the process of destructuring, which partly explains why they are stuffed with additives.” But this is probably not the only cause: the addition of substances some of which are toxic (sodium nitrite, titanium dioxide …), packaging that can release toxic substances (bisphenol A in plastic packaging. ..) and the modification of the intestinal flora, the microbiota, are probably involved in these problems.
In the end, Dr. Fardet advises not to consume more than two servings of ultra-processed foods a day: “I’m not fiercely opposed to it.” Simply, I think we must realize that we must not abuse it at the risk of being the victim of various chronic diseases “.