French health researchers found that regular consumption of foods with low nutritional quality was associated with an increased risk of several types of cancer. Their study was published Sept. 18 in the journal PLOS Medicine.
Overall, eating these foods was linked to colorectal cancer and cancer of the upper digestive tract and stomach. The study also found that women had a greater risk of liver cancer and postmenopausal breast cancer, while men were at greater risk of lung cancer.
Researchers analyzed dietary habits and medical history of 471,495 participants from 10 European countries. They looked at links between cancer and foods labeled by the Nutrient Profiling System of the British Food Standards Agency, which uses colors and grades to identify foods low or high in fat, saturated fat, salt or sugar. During 15 years, 49,794 people had been diagnosed with cancer — 12,063 with breast cancer, 6,745 with prostate cancer and 5,806 with colorectal cancer, the study found.
Junk food is notoriously unhealthy, but this new study says it can make a cancer diagnosis more likely. While other studies have showed similar findings — along with links to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other health problems — the large number of participants in the French study and the long period of time covered by the data are advantages when it comes to reliability.
The researchers admitted the study had some limitations. The information they analyzed was self-reported and may not have been completely accurate. They also said it was the first study to look at the link between the FSA's nutrient profiling system and disease in a large European sample, and they believe it supports front-of-pack nutrition labels using such a system.
Two authors of the study, nutritional epidemiologists Mélanie Deschasaux and Mathilde Touvier, told CNN that while the association between nutrition and cancer is well-known, it's easier to adjust diet through individual actions and public health policies than it is to change other risk factors.
Whether these particular findings will have any impact on consumers who buy and consume junk food is another question. The Trump administration, reportedly acting on behalf of soda and CPG manufacturers, pushed during renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement to limit warning labels on some types of junk food. Makers of sugary drinks and fatty products understandably want to avoid having to use on-pack warning labels since consumers might put items back on the shelf if they became aware of potential negative health impacts.
Meanwhile, the better-for-you trend has started dominating the marketplace and eclipsing unhealthy snacks and candies at retailers such as CVS. It's not likely U.S. retailers will suddenly toss out junk food and start featuring only healthy items, but they seem to be including options to accommodate a range of shoppers, including millennials with kids looking for fresh, natural, non-GMO, low- or no-sugar, and no artificial ingredients.
This trend may force more junk food brands to shift to healthier ingredients in order to keep and attract customers. It may also focus more attention on what constitutes a healthy product. A report late last year from the Cornucopia Institute said some snack bars claim to be organic, wholesome and nutritious, but actually contain cheap, conventional ingredients. The report suggested seven ways to clear up consumer confusion when choosing between junk food and healthier products.
Manufacturers of junk foods and beverages wanting to make their products stand out might consider modifying ingredients and recipes in order to make the kind of health claims to which consumers respond. While those steps might not work for everyone, they could cut through some of the confusion and show that product makers are concerned about public health and are doing their part to enhance it.