Ultra-processed foods are categorised as factory-made items with long ingredient lists of additives, preservatives, flavourings and colours, along with high levels of salt, fat or sugar. The term was coined by a group of scientists, led by professor Carlos Monteiro in Brazil—based on the country’s national dietary guidelines. According to a special issue of the journal Public Health Nutrition, which studied data from 19 European countries: half of all the food bought by families in the UK is ultra-processed.
The team of French researchers, who are based at the Sorbonne in Paris, based their calculations on approximately 105,000 adults’ health records from the NutriNet-Santé cohort study. These records detailed the eating habits of the participants, listing the intake of their usual food items. They discovered a 10 percent increase in ultra-processed foods in the diet, which was associated with a 12 percent increase in various forms of cancer. When the teams probed further, they found that an 11 percent rise in breast cancer was sparked, but no noticed significant upturn in prostate or colorectal cancers.
While ultra-processed foods have previously been associated with obesity, the links with cancer are new. Mathilde Touvier, lead author of the study remarked: ‘The results are very strong—very consistent and quite compelling.’ While the findings are nothing short of alarming, she advises that more research needs to be done to confirm their work. ‘But we have to be cautious, it is the first study. We should not be alarmist. These results need to be confirmed in other prospective studies,’ she added.
Now the task is to uncover precisely what wider ramifications there may be for the UK and for the rest of the globe. ‘If confirmed in other populations and settings, these results suggest that the rapidly increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods may drive an increasing burden of cancer in the next decades,’ read a comment from paper in the British Medical Journal.
Since ultra-processed foods were linked with cancer, debates have sprouted as to why. Processing methods tend to strip food of most of their nutrients—a reason that many experts believe accounts for the possibly negative influence they have on our health. However, Touvier does not agree with this conclusion. ‘We did a statistical analysis to try to see if the whole association was only due to poor nutritional quality. But the results do not depend on that,’ she said.
Touvier and her team will now embark on a mission to analyse the properties and effects of specific additives, so as to grasp a better understanding of them. Their aim is to ‘…be able to quantify the chronic exposure [of people] to the food additives.’ In the coming years they may even set their sights on combinations of additives in order to see if there is a ‘cocktail effect’ that consumers should be aware of.
There has been opposition to Touvier’s methods; questions have been raised as to whether it was accurate or practical to group foods as ultra-processed. Tom Sanders, professor emeritus of nutrition and dietetics at King’s College London, was one such critic. His contention is that stricter guidelines should be put in place to determine which foods fall within this category: ‘The term ultra-processed food is difficult to define in terms of food quality, and is not widely used by nutritional scientists,’ he said. ‘From a nutritional standpoint, this classification seems arbitrary and based on the premise that food produced industrially has a different nutritional and chemical composition from that produced in the home or by artisans. This is not the case.’
‘The approach of categorising dietary patterns that depend on industrially processed food in relation to disease risk is novel but probably needs refining before it can be translated into practical dietary advice,’ he added.
Touvier’s research team will continue their investigations into ultra-processed foods’ links with cancer in order to ensure that everybody is aware of the risks and has access to safe and affordable food.
Read more on Celebrity Angels about nurturing your diet.