Ultra-processed foods and cancer

This story was all over the news today:

“Ultra-processed foods may be linked to cancer, says study”

The Guardian, 15th Feb. 2018

The news comes from a French study that looked into whether cancer was associated with highly processed foods. As usual, the question is whether the actual results of the study warrant the hysteria currently playing out in the media? (Spoiler: the answer to that is almost always an emphatic NO!)

First things first; this is an excellent study, with well carried out data collection and good analysis of the results. The authors looked at 104,980 people, and asked them to fill out a daily survey about their diet. Using that data they compared cancer rates to the people’s self-reported diets.

The study found that high consumption of “ultra-processed foods” was associated with a 12% increased risk of cancer. In men, no one cancer type was specifically increased, in older women the foods were associated with an 11% increase in breast cancer.

These studies are notoriously difficult to interpret, mainly because, aside from their diet, there are numerous differences between people. In this study for example, the participants who consumed a higher amount of ultra-processed foods were more likely to be smokers, and less likely to be physically active.

Clearly, what people eat is only part of a larger lifestyle. People who eat healthily tend to be healthier in other areas of their lives, so it is very difficult to say that a specific dietary choice is actually causing cancer. The authors of this study tried to correct for things like this, but that is extremely difficult to do, something that was acknowledged by the authors in their paper.

It is also worth saying that the definition of “ultra-processed” is a hard one to pin down. The definition used in this study was based on a food classification system called NOVA, but this is still not very clearly defined, which means it is difficult to draw any practical conclusions from it. Unfortunately, in the media the term is wielded to mean anything that isn’t “natural”, despite this being wrong. For example, according to the classification used in this study, gluten-free artisanal bread is ultra-processed, as are vegan health shakes, and organic protein bars.

While this is a solid piece of research, the public reaction to it is likely to be misplaced. Unfortunately, it is likely to play into the “clean eating” fad, which is largely nonsense. It is now clear that the fashion for “clean eating” has legitimised eating disorders, and may in fact be doing far more harm than good.

However, as global consumption of processed food increases, it is very important that we understand their impact on health. This research clearly warrants more study, but these findings alone cannot offer practical advice to consumers. As always, if you have a varied diet and get a bit of exercise, there isn’t much to worry about!


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