If you’ve hung around us here for more than a minute, you know that we’re big believers that what we eat significantly impacts our health.
And you know that ultra-processed foods like candy, soft drinks, pizza, and chips obviously don’t contain enough beneficial nutrients the body requires. Generally speaking, the more ultra-processed foods people eat, the worse their overall nutrition and health are.
Previous research has shown that eating ultra-processed foods is associated with obesity and heart disease.
In 2018, New York University investigators analyzed US federal government data. They found that the proportion of ultra-processed foods in Americans’ diets grew from 53.5% of calories in 2001-2002 to 57% in 2017-2018. Conversely, consumption of whole foods fell from 32.7% to 27.4% of calories, primarily due to people eating less meat and dairy.
Two large-scale studies have recently linked overconsumption of “ultra-processed foods” to an increased risk of various ailments, including cancer and possibly premature death — if you want to call death an “ailment.”
The authors defined ultra-processed food as “industrial formulations made entirely or mostly from substances extracted from foods (oils, fats, sugar, starch, and proteins), derived from food constituents (hydrogenated fats and modified starch), or synthesized in laboratories from food substrates or other organic sources (flavor enhancers, colors, and several food additives used to make the product hyper-palatable).” The definition is based on the NOVA Food Classification System. The paper published on August 31 in The British Medical Journal (BMJ) includes two studies conducted in the United States and one in Italy.
The US study observed 200,000 people (59,907 women and 46,341 men) for up to 28 years. Each participant completed a questionnaire every four years, recording how often they ate about 130 foods, ranging from non-processed foods like fruit to ultra-processed like frozen pizza or soda. The long-range surveys found a link between ultra-processed foods and colorectal cancer in men but not women. For example, men who consumed ultra-processed food had a 29% higher risk of developing colorectal cancer than those who did not eat a lot of the ultra-processed foods. The results of the Italian study found similar dangers in ultra-processed foods.
Why only in men? Researchers aren’t sure.
Mingyang Song, a co-senior author on the study and assistant professor of clinical epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, added that “Further research will need to determine whether there is a true sex difference in the associations, or if null findings in women in this study were merely due to chance or some other uncontrolled confounding factors in women that mitigated the association.”
Researchers have also connected processed meats with a higher risk of bowel cancer in both men and women. The connection remained even when accounting for factors like dietary quality and body-mass index. This new study found that all types of ultra-processed foods, not just meats, played a role.
In the press release, the lead author and a postdoctoral fellow at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts, Lu Wang, said,
“We started out thinking that colorectal cancer could be the cancer most impacted by diet compared to other cancer types. Processed meats, most of which fall into the category of ultra-processed foods, are a strong risk factor for colorectal cancer. Ultra-processed foods are also high in added sugars and low in fiber, which contribute to weight gain and obesity, and obesity is an established risk factor for colorectal cancer.”
The Italian study started in 2005 and observed 22,000 people in the Molise region. Its purpose was to assess cancer, heart disease, and brain disease risk factors. The research, also published in the BMJ, compared the function of nutrient-poor foods with ultra-processed foods in developing early death and disease.
“Our results confirm that the consumption of both nutrient-poor or ultra-processed foods independently increases the risk of mortality, in particular from cardiovascular diseases,” said Marialaura Bonaccio, epidemiologist of the Department of Epidemiology and Prevention at the IRCCS Neuromed of Pozzilli and lead author of the study, in a press release.
The team found that the ultra-processed foods were “paramount to define the risk of mortality” when the two types of food were compared, according to Bonaccio.
“This suggests that the increased risk of mortality is not due directly (or exclusively) to the poor nutritional quality of some products, but rather to the fact that these foods are mostly ultra-processed.”
So what’s the takeaway?
To decrease any adverse risk, the researchers recommend replacing ultra-processed foods with unprocessed or minimally processed foods.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, this isn’t shocking news. Eating a variety of live, fresh, whole foods has been the top recommendation from organizations like ours for decades. If you’re eating your colors, keep it up! If you needed another reason to finally make the switch, let this be it!