Though the news was hardly surprising, the media went to town last week about a new French study linking ultra-processed food with cancer. Specifically, the analysis of data from over 100,000 adults found 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.
And just what is “ultra-processed” food according to these researchers? Just what you might imagine:
This group includes mass produced packaged breads and buns; sweet or savoury packaged snacks; industrialised confectionery and desserts; sodas and sweetened drinks; meat balls, poultry and fish nuggets, and other reconstituted meat products transformed with addition of preservatives other than salt (for example, nitrites); instant noodles and soups; frozen or shelf stable ready meals; and other food products made mostly or entirely from sugar, oils and fats, and other substances not commonly used in culinary preparations such as hydrogenated oils, modified starches, and protein isolates. Industrial processes notably include hydrogenation, hydrolysis, extruding, moulding, reshaping, and pre-processing by frying. Flavouring agents, colours, emulsifiers, humectants, non-sugar sweeteners, and other cosmetic additives are often added to these products to imitate sensorial properties of unprocessed or minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations or to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product.
The authors offered several reasons why such foods might contribute to cancer, from their lower nutritional quality to their additives; from contaminants that result from processing, such as acrylamide, to chemicals like BPA in food packaging.
All of these likely play some role. And along with them, we might also consider that ultra-processed foods tend to displace more healthful options, real food. So not only do you get potentially harmful ingredients; you also have deficits of essential vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, such as phytochemicals, which have been shown to protect against cancer.
Another thing to consider: Those who ate the most ultra-processed food also tended to be smokers and less physically active than those who ate the least. No doubt, there are other lifestyle factors not accounted for that could likewise have an impact on cancer risk.
In fact, research has suggested that as anywhere from 70 to 90% of all cancers may be due to environmental factors. Diet is just one factor. We also have to consider things like exposure to toxins, willingly – as with smoking, say, or drug use – or unwillingly, as in the case of pollution. We have to consider things like chronic stress, sleep quality, physical activity (or lack of it), and more.
Like most modern chronic illness, cancer is often multifactorial. There is no single cause. So while a healthful diet is the foundation of good health, it’s no panacea. In fact, because of other external factors, we may not even be getting the most out of the diet we do eat. We may need supportive therapies that address the systemic imbalances that may be keeping us from reaching the level of health we desire.
This is why, if you’re looking to truly and profoundly improve your health naturally, it’s best to consult with an integrative physician, who can help you put together the big picture of your current health and help devise a roadmap to get your health to where you want it to be.
We partner with you and respect you as the decision-maker. For you, of course, are the author of your own health and well-being.