The Link Between Sugary, Processed Food and Cancer

February 16, 2018

A large study of more than 100,000 French adults revealed a startling link: People who consume more processed food are much more likely to develop all kinds of cancers.

Most of the ultra-processed products were foods and beverages with a lot of sugar.

The finding held true for every category of adults in the study: men and women, exercisers and couch potatoes, younger and older people, smokers and non-smokers.

If scientists told you that there’s one lifestyle factor that might best predict whether you get cancer, you’d want to know, right?

Researchers in France may have found just that. After studying more than 100,000 adults for years, their results showed that eating processed food is more closely linked with cancer risk than one’s age, sex, body mass index, height, level of physical activity, smoking and drinking habits, calories consumed, or family history.

This harmful “ultra-processed” food, as the researchers called it, may include packaged sweet pastries and muffins, chips, candy, sodas, frozen dinners like meatballs and fish sticks, instant ramen noodles, sugary cereals, and pretty much anything else you can imagine that’s cheap and comes in a ready-to-go packet or container at the store.

The researchers estimate this junk food accounts for 25%-50% of the total daily energy intake of people who live in rich, developed countries like the US, France, and Canada.

To find the link between processed food and cancer, researchers combed through, on average, five years of medical records and surveys of previously cancer-free adult patients.

All the participants (a cohort of roughly 22% men and 78% women) agreed to fill out an online form detailing everything in their daily diet on about six days each year. Those surveys were meant to serve as comprehensive samples of what the study participants tended to eat in a single 24 hour period, with data from both weekdays and weekend diets.

The researchers then compared that data to the participants’ records in France’s national health system database to find out who was getting cancer and what their eating plan looked like.

The scientists noticed that participants who reported eating more ultra-processed, packaged foods tended to develop cancer more often than people who ate fresh stuff that was cooked at home or in restaurants. In fact, the study authors wrote that “a 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet was associated with significant increases of 12% in the risk of overall cancer, and 11% in the risk of breast cancer.”

On the other hand, French people who ate slightly less processed foods like canned goods, cheeses, and baguettes didn’t tend to report higher instances of cancer. And healthy eaters who ate fresh, unprocessed foods like fish, rice, and veggies were found to have the lowest rates of cancer.

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