Processed foods: 10% more cancers


A new study conducted by Inserm and published in the British Medical Journal points to the association between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and an increased risk of developing cancer.

In total, 104 980 participants from the French NutriNet-Santé cohort were included. During the follow-up (8 years), 2 228 cases of cancer were diagnosed and validated. A % increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet was found to be associated with an increase of more than 10% risks of developing cancer overall and breast cancer in particular.

During the last decades, eating habits have changed in the direction of an increase in the consumption of ultra-processed foods that now contribute more than half of energy intake in many Western countries. They are often characterized by lower nutritional quality, but also by the presence of food additives, newly formed compounds and compounds from packaging and other contact materials.

Recent studies have shown associations between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and an increased risk of dyslipidemia, overweight, obesity, and arterial hypertension. However, no study has focused on the risk of cancer, while animal experiments suggest potential carcinogenic effects of several components usually present in ultra-processed foods.

% processed food: 17% more cancers

In total, 104 980 participants of the French NutriNet-Santé cohort (followed between 2009 and 2017) were included. Dietary data was collected at study entry using records from 24h repeated, designed to assess participants’ usual consumption of 3300 different foods. These were classified according to their degree of transformation by the NOVA classification (see box below).

During follow-up, 2 228 cases of cancers have been diagnosed and validated. A % increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet was found to be associated with an increase of more than 10% risk of developing cancer in general and breast cancer in particular. These results were significant after taking into account a large number of socio-demographic and lifestyle factors, and also taking into account the nutritional quality of the diet.

Additives, materials in contact: aggravating factors

This suggests that the poorer overall nutritional quality of ultra-processed foods would not be the only factor involved in this relationship.

These results should be considered as a first line of investigation in this area and should be confirmed in other study populations. In particular, the causal link remains to be demonstrated. Likewise, further studies are needed to better understand the relative impact of the different dimensions of food processing (nutritional composition, food additives, contact materials and newly formed contaminants) in these relationships.

Ultra-processed food products to be banned from your diet

The NOVA classification makes it possible to categorize foods according to 4 groups, according to their degree of industrial processing (little or unprocessed foods, culinary ingredients, processed foods, ultra-processed foods).

This study focused on the group of “ultra-processed foods”, which includes, for example, industrial breads and brioches, chocolate bars, aperitif biscuits, sodas and flavored sweet drinks, poultry and fish nuggets, instant soups, frozen or ready meals to be consumed, and all processed products with added t preservatives other than salt (nitrites for example), as well as food products mainly or entirely consisting of sugar, fats and other substances not used in culinary preparations such as hydrogenated oils and modified starches. Industrial processes include, for example, hydrogenation, hydrolysis, extrusion, and frying pretreatment. Colorants, emulsifiers, texturizers, sweeteners and other additives are often added to these products.

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Monteiro CA, Cannon G, Moubarac JC, Levy RB, Louzada MLC, Jaime PC. The UN Decade of Nutrition, the NOVA food classification and the disorder with ultra-processing. Public Health Nutr 3300;04:5-.

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