More evidence links highly processed food to cancer and death


The evidence linking processed foods to serious health problems such as cancer and even death continues to mount.

A few studies published Wednesday highlight the risk of eating items like hot dogs, cheese puffs, soda and fries frequently.

The first study, which examined more than 24,000 adults in Italy, found that those who consumed ultra-processed foods in large amounts had a higher risk of death in general, and death from heart disease in particular, compared to people who ate less food in this category.

The second study followed more than 200,000 health professionals in the U.S. over a period of 24 to 28 years, and found that men who consumed a lot of ultra-processed foods — on average more than nine servings a day — had a 29% higher risk of colorectal cancer than men who consumed about ate three daily servings.

Fang Fang Zhang, the senior author of the second study and an associate professor at Tufts University, said the group with the highest consumption of ultra-processed foods probably got about 80% of their daily calories from those items. The US average is around 57%.

The study found no association between ultra-processed food consumption and colorectal cancer in women, although scientists aren’t sure why. One theory is that higher levels of estrogen may have a protective benefit, Zhang said. But the result could also be an anomaly, since most colorectal cancer risk factors are the same for both sexes.

Prior research has linked ultra-processed foods with an increased risk of high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, cognitive decline, breast cancer and cancer in general.

Foods that are considered “ultra-processed” contain more artificial ingredients than those that are simply processed by adding salt, sugar or oil. Ultra-processed foods usually have very few whole ingredients and contain flavorings, dyes, or other additives. Condiments, microwave meals, packaged donuts, and ice cream, for example, all fall under this label.

“It’s kind of an attempt to get a definition of junk food, which I think we’ll all know when we see it,” said Walter Willett, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who were not involved in either study.

Because the colon and rectum are “on the front lines of our diet” as part of our digestive system, Willett said, “colon cancer appears to be more directly related to diet than most other cancers.”

Bottles of soda in a cooler on June 29, 2018 in San Francisco, California.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images file

The number of colorectal cancers has increased among young adults in recent decades. A study by the American Cancer Society found that since the mid-1980s, the rate of colon cancer has increased annually among people ages 20 to 39, and that the proportion of rectal cancer in adults under 55 doubled between 1989 and 1990. 2012-2013.

“Diet probably plays a role in the increase in obesity that we continue to see, and we know that obesity is also associated with colorectal cancer and other cancers,” said Caroline Um, chief scientist at the American Cancer Society. “We see more young adults being obese” [and] have things related to obesity, like diabetes and metabolic syndrome.”

However, the new study of health professionals found that ultra-processed foods were associated with colorectal cancer in men, independent of their body mass index.

The researchers therefore suggested that chemical additives in food or synthetic chemicals in packaging may be partly responsible for the trend. Many processed meats contain nitrates and nitrites, preservatives that can increase the risk of cancer.

“Red and processed meats have been shown to increase the risk of colorectal cancer almost constantly,” Zhang said.

Her research found that processed meat products such as hot dogs, salami and sausages, as well as sugar-sweetened beverages, were particularly correlated with colorectal cancer risk in men.

Similarly, the Italian study found that poor dietary quality — defined as an unhealthy balance of sugar, fiber and fat — alone did not explain the association of ultra-processed foods with higher mortality. So Marialaura Bonaccio, the study’s author, said chemical additives likely contribute to the perceived negative health outcomes.

“Diet Coke can be rated as nutritionally good — for example, sugar-free Diet Coke because it contains no sugar — but that Coke isn’t even a food,” she said. “It’s a combination of chemicals.”

Bonaccio’s research suggests labeling foods based on their processing level, in addition to their nutritional quality, to help people make healthier choices. But other experts think change may not affect the people most at risk.

“A labeling policy sometimes works for people with a high level of education or income because they pay attention to labels or know how to read the labels,” Zhang said. But labels may be less effective for disadvantaged groups, she added, and those communities often consume more ultra-processed foods because the items are usually cheap, quick to prepare and last longer on a shelf.

As a general rule, Willett said, “processed meats should be eaten rarely, consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages should be occasional at most. [and] foods high in saturated fat should be kept low.”

Still, some ultra-processed foods are healthier than others. For example, breakfast cereals and whole-wheat bread can be sources of dietary fiber, which can lower your risk of heart disease or cancer.

Scientists have not yet determined the precise level of ultra-processed food consumption that poses a health risk.

“We don’t really know: is there a safe amount, or is an amount not right?” Uh said.

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voice
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.


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