Hot off the presses published February 14, 2018, in the British Medical Journal, a study found an association between consuming ultra-processed foods and cancer. What is completely expected is that certain “experts” have already been hard at work bashing the study. If you so desire, follow this link to the study in it’s entirety published on the BMJ’s website. A diet that includes a lot of highly processed foods loaded with sugar, fat, and salt may do more than raise the risk for overweight, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, researchers warn. They observed an increased cancer risk as well.
Since May 2009, persons from the general population in France have been recruited in a study of the association between nutrition and health. The study included 104,980 participants (mean age, 43 years) who were without cancer at baseline. The participants were enrolled from 2009 to 2017; 78% were female. The authors found that a 10% increase in the proportion of ultraprocessed foods in the diet was associated with an 11% increase in overall cancer risk. They noted that highly processed foods such as packaged baked goods, instant soups, reconstituted meats, frozen meals, and shelf-stable snacks also contain substances that may significantly increase overall risk for cancer and breast cancer. The results aslo found that consumption of ultraprocessed foods was associated with a 12% increase in the risk for breast cancer.
This data, while fascinating, shows mostly a correlation between ultraproccessed foods and cancer risks. Correlation does no equal causation but it can guide further research to determine how strong the correlation is between ultraproccessed foods and cancer or if this correlation is strong enough to be a cause. Reading Dr. Jack Wolfson’s book The Paleo Cardiologist, he makes the case that processed foods are for sure bad for our health and likely a source of the kind of body dysfunction which leads to cancer among other diseases. Experimental studies suggest that compounds formed during the production, processing, and storage of processed food may have carcinogenic properties. For instance, contaminants such as acrylamide can be produced during heat processing in processed fried potatoes, biscuits, bread, or coffee, the study authors say. “A recent meta-analysis found a modest association between dietary acrylamide and risk of both kidney and endometrial cancer in non-smokers,” they write.
Immediately this paper has had it’s detractors, including one Tom Sanders, DSC, PhD, professor emeritus of nutrition and dietetics, King’s College London. “This study appears to be focused on demonstrating that industrially processed foods increase the risk of cancer. The ultra-processed foods are focused on foods such as pot noodles, breakfast cereals, industrially processed bread, pizza, cakes, crisps, ready-to-eat desserts, meatballs and chicken nuggets, confectionery, and fizzy drinks, including those that are artificially sweetened. However, the definition excludes many homemade or artisanal foods, such as bread, cakes, biscuits, butter, meat, cheese, tinned fruit and vegetables, as well as sugar and salt used in domestic food preparation. 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.” What he seems to miss is that food produced at home isn’t having substances or chemicals added to it to increase it’s shelf life and storage. Perhaps he knows this but has other motives for trying to create a narrative that this paper is garbage and chemically processed foods are safe.
What do we do? Avoid processed foods as much as possible. This means they should not be a staple in your diet. A guilty pleasure once in a while likely won’t kill you but eating these every day is likely a cause or at least a contributing factor of our poor health. A relatively easy way to improve your nutrition is to incorporate the paleo diet into your life. Paleo is all about eating the way our ancestors did, hunting and gathering. If you are interested in learning more, we offer a class called Healthy Heart Through Paleo. It is based on Dr. Jack Wolfson’s book The Paleo Cardiologist. He is a practicing cardiologist who’s practice is based on dietary changes to improve heart health instead of prescribing medication. We offer this class about once a year in the office but we are able to present it at your place of work or to your group. Let us know if you are interested in having us speak.