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Ultra-processed foods may cause cancer

NEW DELHI: Consumption of ultra-processed foods can increase a person’s cancer risk, a new research published in the latest issue of The British Medical Journal has concluded.

Ultra-processed foods may cause cancer


Aditi Tandon

Tribune News Service

New Delhi, February 18

Consumption of ultra-processed foods can increase a person’s cancer risk, a new research published in the latest issue of The British Medical Journal has concluded.

Titled, “Consumption of ultra-processed foods and cancer risk”, the research reached 1,04,980 participants aged at least 18 years and found that a 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet was associated with a significant increase of greater than 10% in risks of overall and breast cancer.

The researchers have said further studies are critical to better understand the relative effect of the various dimensions of processing —nutritional composition, food additives, contact materials, and neo-formed contaminants — in their association with cancer risk.

The study population was the one that’s already part of the NutriNet-Santé study, an ongoing web-based cohort launched in 2009 in France with the objective of studying the associations between nutrition and health. The research was conducted to find more risk factors for cancer, a global epidemic with over 14 million annual new cases. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, about a third of the most common neoplasms could be avoided by changing lifestyle and dietary habits in developed countries.

“Therefore, reaching a balanced and diversified diet should be considered one of the most important modifiable risk factors in the primary prevention of cancer. At the same time, during the past decades, diets in many countries have shifted towards a dramatic increase in consumption of ultra-processed foods. After undergoing multiple physical, biological, and chemical processes, these food products are conceived to be microbiologically safe, convenient and highly palatable. Several 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 between 25% and 50% of total daily energy intake,” the research notes. It says this dietary trend deserves investigation.

Authors note with concern that several 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, neo-formed contaminants — some of which have carcinogenic properties (such as acrylamide, heterocyclic amines, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) — are present in heat-treated processed foods as a result of Maillard reaction. Secondly, 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. Finally, ultra-processed foods contain authorised but controversial food additives such as sodium nitrite in processed meat or titanium dioxide for which carcinogenicity has been suggested in animal or cellular models,” authors argue.

The findings

  • The study found that a 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet was associated with an increase of more than 10% in risk of overall and breast cancer
  • According to American Institute for Cancer Research, about a third of the most common neoplasms could be avoided by changing lifestyle and dietary habits in developed countries
  • Ultra-processed foods contain authorised but controversial food additives such as sodium nitrite in processed meat or titanium dioxide for which carcinogenicity has been suggested in animal or cellular models

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