Researchers found that just a 10% increase in ultra-processed foods led to a 12% higher risk of cancer — in particular, breast cancer. To select individuals for the study, scientists tapped 104,980 participants from a previous cohort study. 78% of that group were women, and the median age of all participants was 42.8 years. To evaluate their diet, participants visited a lab three times every six months for two years.
Each participant was asked what they had consumed in the last 24 hours. “Dietary intakes were collected using repeated 24-hour dietary records, designed to register participants’ usual consumption for 3,300 different food items,” researchers’ wrote. They evaluated each item and how processed it was using the NOVA food classification.
This study is particularly poignant since the global consumption of processed foods is increasing. According to several recent surveys, 25-50% of the daily calorie intake comes from ultra-processed foods. In America, around 1.7 million new cancer diagnoses are given each year, and over 609,000 deaths occur as a result of cancer. In fact, cancer is the second most common cause of death in the U.S., right behind heart disease. Processed foods, in addition to increasing one’s cancer risk, also contribute to weight gain, which can further elevate risk.
These are items that have been altered significantly from their natural state. Fresh fruits and vegetables, natural meat or fish—that has not been reconstituted—and beans, seeds, and legumes are perhaps the furthest things from it. Processed foods include those that have been changed in significant ways either chemically, biologically or physically.
Usually, ultra-processed foods bear little resemblance to the ingredients they originate from. Many health experts believe it’s the additives and preservatives, usually a long list of chemicals, that are the most dangerous aspects of these vittles. Such chemicals include artificial colors, humectants, emulsifiers, artificial sweeteners, and flavoring agents.
Besides chemical additives, these foods are usually also high in refined sugar, fat—particularly saturated fat, and salt, and are low in fiber and vitamins and minerals. Those foods to particularly watch out for include sodas and sugary drinks, instant noodles and soups, fish sticks, chicken nuggets, and other reconstituted meat products, candy bars and sweets, frozen or ready-to-eat meals, sweet or savory packaged snacks, potato chips, and mass-produced, packaged breads and buns.