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By Karen Alexander, Oncology Wellness Specialist


Does processed food increase your cancer risk?

Processed foods are prepared through physical or chemical treatments which result in significant change from its original state. It can be anything from frozen food, a meal replacement shake, or any complex preparation that combine ingredients such as sweeteners, spices, oils, flavors, colors, and preservatives.

For years, studies have suggested a link between highly processed foods and increased risk of obesity and other chronic diseases. A recent French study found a relationship between ultra-processed food and the risk of cancer.

Researchers reviewed diet records from about 104,980 adults to determine the percentage of ultra-processed foods in their diets. Dietary intakes were collected using repeated 24 hour dietary records, designed to register participants’ usual consumption for 3300 different food items with the NOVA system, which attempts to standardize the classification of processed food. The researchers found that for every 10 percent increase of ultra-processed foods in the diet there was an increase of 12 percent in risk of overall cancer and 11 percent in risk of breast cancer.

Other research published by Oxford University Press in 2017 found that high intake of red and processed meat and alcohol increase the risk of colorectal cancer. Milk and whole grains may have a protective role against colorectal cancer.

Although the link seems to be clear, researchers are waiting for more studies in order to find out if the increased risk of cancer is due to weight gain, nutrition composition (lack of protective nutrients such as fiber, enzymes, phytonutrients, etc.), packaging (contact materials), food additives, contaminants, hydrogenated oils, modified starches, colorants, emulsifiers, texturizers, and sweeteners.

The ultra-processed group included foods such as the packaged breads and buns, sweet or savory packaged snacks, industrialized confectionery and desserts, sodas and sweetened drinks, meat balls, poultry and fish nuggets, deli meats, instant noodles and soups, frozen or shelf stable ready meals, and other food products. The unprocessed or minimally processed foods included fresh, dried, ground, chilled, frozen, pasteurized, or fermented staple foods such as fruits, vegetables, pulses, rice, pasta, eggs, meat, fish, or milk.

Experts in cancer prevention recommend following a plant based diet such as the Mediterranean diet. For more information about Mediterranean diet and other great resources to facilitate your transition to a non-processed plant based diet please click here. For a broad variety of healthy recipes from the BBC please click here.

Best regards,
Karen Alexander, BSND, MSCN

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