A link between highly processed foods and cancer has been suggested by French researchers.
They classified foods including cakes, chicken nuggets and mass-produced bread as “ultra-processed”.
A study of 105,000 people hinted the more of such foods people ate, the greater their risk of cancer.
A lot of caution is being expressed about the study, but experts said a healthy diet is best.
What counts as ultra-processed
- Mass-produced packaged breads and buns
- Sweet or savoury packaged snacks including crisps
- Chocolate bars and sweets
- Sodas and sweetened drinks
- Meatballs, poultry and fish nuggets
- Instant noodles and soups
- Frozen or shelf-life ready meals
- Foods made mostly or entirely from sugar, oils and fats
Diet is already known to affect the risk of cancer.
Being overweight is the biggest preventable cause of the disease after smokingand the World Health Organization says processed meat does slightly increase the risk of cancer.
But what about ultra-processed foods?
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, 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 concluded: “These results suggest that the rapidly increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods may drive an increasing burden of cancer in the next decades.”
But they said the findings need to “be confirmed by other large-scale” studies and research was needed to establish what could be behind the link.
A ‘warning signal’
This study is far from the definitive take on ultra-processed foods and cancer.
It cannot say ultra-processed foods are a cause of cancer.
There are also factors that muddy the waters as people who ate a lot of ultra-processed foods had other behaviours 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.
While the researchers did adjust their analysis for this they say their impact “cannot be entirely excluded”.
Prof Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK’s prevention expert, said: “It’s already known that eating a lot of these foods can lead to weight gain, and being overweight or obese can also increase your risk of cancer, so it’s hard to disentangle the effects of diet and weight.”