Highly processed foods make up a large part of the world’s diet. One study carried out in 2016 found that the average American diet consisted of 60% processed food. Studies in other nations have seen similar results; one study in Canada has shown that these types of foods made up 50% of individuals diets and a UK study produced similar figures.

These numbers are a growing concern among health professionals, especially since the majority of research shows that those who consume large amounts of processed foods are more likely to suffer from health conditions like heart disease and diabetes. They are also much more likely to be overweight or obese. Processed food has also been linked to an increased risk of some types of cancer.

Although the link between cancer and processed food has been suspected for some time, it hasn’t been scientifically proven in previous studies. However, new research has shown that individuals who eat a lot of “ultra processed foods” do in fact have a higher risk of cancer. This includes foods with high amounts of artificial flavours, additives, emulsifiers – which typically contain much more sugar and salt as well.

As part of this new study, researchers looked at the medical records of 105,000 adults in France. The individuals recorded their diet over a 24 hour period and the items were categorised using the NOVA system to see how processed they were. It was found that a 10% increased in the proportion of processed foods lead to a significant increase in the risk of cancer.

According to the study “Ultra-processed fats and sauces, sugary products and drinks were associated with an increased risk of overall cancer. Ultra-processed sugary products were associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.” Mathilde Touvier, co-author of the study commented that “It was quite surprising, the strength of the results. They were really strongly associated, and we did many sensitive analysis and adjusted the findings for many co-factors, and still, the results here were quite concerning.”

The authors also noted that other factors could have contributed to the results. For example, those who eat more processed food tend to take less exercise and smoke more than the general population. These factors were controlled during the study and even when taken into account, there was still a higher cancer risk to these individuals.

“What people eat is an expression of their lifestyle in general and may not be causatively linked to the risk of cancer. So it is necessary to rule out what are called cofounding factors,” said Tom Sanders, scientific governor of the British Nutrition Foundation and professor at King’s College London who was not involved in the study. He added that although these factors were taken into account, “the approach of categorizing 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.”

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