Studies Confirm Link Between Overly Processed Foods and Cancer

By Sara Bondell - September 02, 2022

Hundreds of studies have found that while foods such as hot dogs, ice cream and store-bought cookies may taste good, they can have a negative effect on your health. Two new studies have provided even more evidence that eating ultra-processed foods significantly increases risk for early death and chronic diseases, including cancer.

Ultra-processed foods have many added ingredients such as sugar, fat and artificial colors or preservatives. They are made mostly from substances extracted from foods, such as fats, starches and added sugars. Foods like frozen meals, sodas, hot dogs, packaged doughnuts, cold cuts and fast food all fall in this category.

Dr. Kathleen Egan, epidemiologist at Moffitt Cancer Center
Dr. Kathleen Egan, Cancer Epidemiology

“These overly processed foods are often high in added sugars and salt, low in dietary fiber, and full of chemical additives, such as artificial colors, flavors or stabilizers. People that consume a lot of calories from these foods tend to have a poorer quality diet overall,” said Dr. Kathleen Egan, an epidemiologist at Moffitt Cancer Center.

The first study followed more than 22,000 people in Italy and found that nutrient-poor and ultra-processed foods independently increased the risk of an early death, especially from cardiovascular disease.

The second United States-based study analyzed the diets of over 200,000 individuals and found a link between ultra-processed foods and colorectal cancer in men. Men who consumed the highest amount of ultra-processed food had a 29% higher risk of developing colorectal cancer compared to those who consumed the least.

“Many of the culprit foods are calorie dense and contribute to obesity, which is a well-established risk factor for most cancers and chronic diseases,” Egan said. “Controlled studies have shown that people consume ultra-processed foods at a faster rate — and consume more total calories per day and gain weight when compared to people who eat only unprocessed foods.”

The U.S. study did not find a link between ultra-processed food and colorectal cancer in women, but Egan says that could just be due to chance. However, she says other studies have also shown that associations of dietary patterns with colorectal cancer were more consistently significant in men. A possible reason could be the different roles that obesity, sex hormones and metabolic hormones play in men versus women.

“It should be pointed out that certain subgroups of ultra-processed foods were found to be associated with colorectal cancer in men or women and so the take home message is really the same: It’s best to avoid ultra-processed foods for better health outcomes,” Egan said.

In order to reduce cancer risk, choose healthy forms of protein and fat and eat whole grains, vegetables and fruit.

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