The Link Between Ultra-Processed Foods and Cancer


By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder

They say you are what you eat. If this is true and you eat a lot of ultra-processed foods, you may be “cancerous.”

According to a recent study, a 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet is associated with a 12% increase in the risk for overall cancer and 11% increase in the risk for breast cancer.

Various surveys (in Europe, the US, Canada, New Zealand, and Brazil) “assessing individual food intake, household food expenses, or supermarket sales have suggested that ultra-processed food products contribute to between 25% and 50% of total daily energy intake.”

What are ultra-processed foods?

The study breaks it down for you by categorizing food into four different groups:

  • Unprocessed or minimally processed food. This includes fresh, dried, ground, chilled, frozen, pasteurized or fermented staple foods such as fruits, vegetables, pulses (legumes), rice, pasta, eggs, meat, fish or milk.
  • Processed culinary ingredients. This includes salt, vegetable oils, butter, sugar and other substances extracted from foods and used in kitchens to transform unprocessed or minimally processed foods into culinary preparations.
  • Processed food. This includes canned vegetables with added salt, sugar coated dried fruits, meat products preserved only by salting, cheeses, freshly made unpackaged breads and other products manufactured with the addition of salt, sugar or other substances of the “processed culinary ingredients” group.

Keep in mind, as much of an oxymoron as it sounds, there are ultra-processed fruits and vegetables. It may be difficult to see a fruit or veggie as being processed, but if there is added sugar and salt that food definitely qualifies as being processed.

  • Ultra-processed food. This includes:
    • Mass produced packaged breads and buns, sweet or savoury packaged snacks, industrialised confectionery and desserts.
    • Sodas and sweetened drinks.
    • Meatballs, poultry and fish nuggets and other reconstituted meat products transformed with addition of preservatives other than salt (for example, nitrites).
    • Instant noodles and soups, frozen or shelf stable ready meals and other food products made mostly or entirely from sugar, oils and fats and other substances not commonly used in culinary preparations, such as hydrogenated oils, modified starches and protein isolates.

According to the study, “ultra-processed foods contain authorised, but controversial, food additives such as sodium nitrite in processed meat or titanium dioxide (TiO2, white food pigment), for which carcinogenicity has been suggested in animal or cellular models.”

More than 250 different additives are authorized for addition to food products in Europe and the US.

And “[s]everal characteristics of ultra-processed foods may be involved in causing disease, particularly cancer. Firstly, ultra-processed foods often have a higher content of total fat, saturated fat, and added sugar and salt, along with a lower fibre and vitamin density.”

“Beyond nutritional composition, neoformed contaminants, some of which have carcinogenic properties (such as acrylamide, heterocyclic amines, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), are present in heat treated processed food products as a result of the Maillard reaction.”

Additionally, the packaging of some of these foods may pose a problem.

“The packaging of ultra-processed foods may contain some materials in contact with food for which carcinogenic and endocrine disruptor properties have been postulated, such as bisphenol A.”

A common food additive called titanium dioxide (TiO2) has nanoscale particles and is used as a whitening agent or in packaging in contact with food or drinks to provide a better texture and antimicrobial properties. Experimental studies, mostly with rodents, found evidence that this additive could initiate or promote the development of pre-neoplastic lesions in the colon and chronic intestinal inflammation.

This recent study we are discussing is important, because to the researchers’ knowledge it was the first prospective study to look at the association between the consumption of ultra-processed food products and incidence of cancer, based on a large cohort study with detailed and up to date assessment of dietary intake. Prospective studies watch for the development of diseases.

The study involved 104,980 participants (22,821 men and 82,159 women), 18 and older (median age 42.8 years).

Their dietary intakes were collected using repeated 24 hour dietary records, and these records took inventory of the participants’ consumption of 3,300 different food items. They also calculated mean daily alcohol, micronutrient and macronutrient intake and energy intake.

During follow-up, 2,228 first incident cases of cancer were diagnosed and validated. There were 739 breast cancers (264 premenopausal, 475 postmenopausal), 281 prostate cancers and 153 colorectal cancers.

Main food groups contributing to ultra-processed food intake were sugary products (26%) and drinks (20%), followed by starchy foods and breakfast cereals (16%) and ultra-processed fruits and vegetables (15%).

More specifically, ultra-processed fats, sauces and sugary products and drinks were associated with an increased risk of overall cancer. Ultra-processed sugary products were associated with risk of breast cancer.

“Compared with the lowest quarter, participants in the highest quarter of ultra-processed food intake tended to be younger, current smokers, and less educated, with less family history of cancer and a lower physical activity level. Furthermore, they had higher intakes of energy, lipids, carbohydrates, and sodium, along with lower alcohol intake. Although there was a higher proportion of women than men in this cohort, the contribution of ultra-processed foods to the overall diet was very similar between men and women,” according to the study.

So why do ultra-processed foods cause cancer?

The study says, “[a]lthough not the unique determinant, excessive energy, fat, and sugar intakes contribute to weight gain and risk of obesity, with obesity recognised as a major risk factor for post-menopausal breast, stomach, liver, colorectal, oesophagus, pancreas, kidney, gallbladder, endometrium, ovary, liver, and (advanced) prostate cancers and haematological malignancies.”

“For instance, body fatness in post-menopausal women is estimated to contribute 17% of the breast cancer burden. Furthermore, most ultra-processed foods, such as dehydrated soups, processed meats, biscuits, and sauces, have a high salt content. Foods preserved with salt are associated with an increased risk of gastric cancer.”

How can you be proactive?

The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that there will be around 1.7 million newly diagnosed cases of cancer and more than 609,000 deaths to the disease in 2018.

Let’s prove this estimate wrong!

After all, it is reported that about 42% of cancer cases and 45% of cancer deaths in the United States are linked to modifiable risk factors (like diet).

You can be proactive by sticking to whole foods. A general rule of thumb is that if something comes in a package or the frozen food section (other than plain frozen fruit and vegetables), it is processed. It is hard to completely eliminate these foods, but it is possible with hard work and a lot of home cooking. Just reducing processed foods may make a big difference.

So on your next trip to the grocery store, make the produce section the bulk of your groceries. Buy fresh meats and seafood. Avoid meats, like salami and pepperoni.

I know it’s hard, but leave the pastries and donuts on the shelves. These are definitely ultra-processed. Try baking at home with healthy ingredients, like carrots.

If you are buying something packaged, look at the nutritional label. If there are tons of additives and names of ingredients you can barely pronounce or recognize, leave it on the shelf.

And remember, you don’t need salt and other additives to make your food taste good. There are plenty of herbs and spices that can enhance the flavor of simple, whole foods. You do not need that packaged taco seasoning! It is nothing but added salt, food coloring agents and other additives.

It is also extremely important to make sure you are eating nutrient-dense foods (like fresh fruits and vegetables) to make sure that you are getting vitamins and minerals that may help decrease your overall cancer risk.

Finally, one of the best things you can do is ensure that your body is nutritionally balanced so that you are in the best condition to fight cancer and other diseases. Nutritional testing can help you determine if your body is absorbing the right amount of nutrients, such as the vitamins, minerals, fats and amino acids, that may keep cancer at bay.

If you do have nutrient deficiencies and imbalances, you may have to tweak your diet and take good quality supplements.

Enjoy your healthy life!

The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.   


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