French researchers have suggested a link between higher consumption of highly processed foods and increased cancer risk, Reuters reports.
The study, published in The BMJ, looked at dietary surveys from about 105,000 cancer-free adults. After five years, the overall risk of developing cancer was 12% higher with every 10% increase of highly processed food, while the risk of developing breast cancer was 11% higher.
The study's authors wrote that some highly processed foods contained additives that were suspected carcinogens. However, compared to participants who generally avoided ultra-processed foods, those who ate the most were more likely to be current smokers, were less active, had received less education, and consumed more sugary drinks and fatty, starchy foods. The researchers noted the link between ultra-processed food and cancer risk needed further exploration before it could be confirmed.
For food and drink manufacturers, this study — and the publicity it has received — gives even more reason to clean up product labels, ensuring they use the best quality ingredients and cut out artificial additives. This is already a major trend; nearly a third of new food and drink products launched last year carried claims associated with naturalness, such as GMO-free, no preservatives/additives and organic, according to Mintel data.
But this latest study uses such a broad definition of "ultra-processed" food that it is unlikely to affect consumer attitudes to any specific ingredients. Although the researchers singled out ingredients like titanium dioxide and nitrites that have previously been identified as possible carcinogens, they acknowledged that it is impossible to work out which dietary elements might account for higher cancer risk in this particular study, if any. In fact, they found the biggest associations with cancer risk were with higher intakes of sugary drinks and fatty and sugary desserts, which are not big contributors of these additives.
Previous research has suggested that consumers are skeptical of food processing itself, perceiving whole foods like nuts, yogurt and fruit as healthier than those same ingredients when they are processed as nut butters or fruit blended yogurt, for example. And consumers are already avoiding sugary, fatty processed foods in favor of fresh, whole foods.
Another way of looking at the study is as confirmation of what we already know about unprocessed foods. That is, eating a diet containing fresh fruit and vegetables and whole grains is linked to a lower cancer risk.
Manufacturers have taken note, and fresh prepared foods have reached $25 billion in annual sales as consumers have become more willing to pay for fresh, wholesome foods that also offer the convenience of packaged foods.