Is Ultra Processed Food Linked To Cancer?

The Lempert Report
March 28, 2018

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

Lets start with which foods these researchers considered ultra-processed:

  • Mass-produced packaged breads and buns
  • Sweet or savoury packaged snacks including crisps
  • Chocolate bars and sweets
  • Sodas and sweetened drinks
  • Meatballs, chicken and fish nuggets
  • Instant noodles and soups
  • Frozen or shelf-life ready meals
  • Foods made mostly or entirely from sugar, oils and fats 

Next, the researchers conducted a study of 105,000 people which hinted that the more of such foods people ate, the greater their risk of cancer. The team - at Universite Sorbonne Paris Cite - used food surveys on two days to work out what people were eating. Those 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 the oral contraceptive.

Dr. Ian Johnson, from the Quadram Institute in Norwich, 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 like this underscores the importance of eating well, with lots of fresh foods and vegetables, and maintaining a proper body weight research like this can confuse the facts and be more harmful than helpful.