We knew processed meats and potato chips weren’t great for us — but now it seems a gigantic category of foods, called “ultra-processed foods,” could be linked to common forms of cancer. French researchers at the Universite Sorbonne Paris Cité surveyed middle-aged women on their dietary habits and followed up for five years. Just a 10 percent increase in intake of “ultra-processed foods” increased the risk of cancer by 12 percent.
So eating more ultra-processed foods could increase your risk of cancer later in life, if the findings are correct. But what are ultra-processed foods?
The researchers’ category includes mass-produced packaged breads and buns, packaged snack foods, industrial-made desserts, sodas and sugary beverages, processed meats, instant noodles and soups, frozen or shelf-stable meals, and other food products made entirely from sugar, oils and fats, or other substances not normally used during cooking.
Whoa. That’s a lot of foods.
The category includes almost anything with ingredients added other than salt or other naturally-occurring ingredients like modest amounts of sugar or oil.
Before you panic, keep in mind that this study is not as definitive as some headlines might suggest.
The researchers asserted that these results should be interpreted as a “warning sign,” noting that further large-scale studies need to be conducted before we can draw a definitive conclusion.
There were some confounding factors involved. For instance, the people who tended to eat more ultra-processed foods also tended to be smokers, exercise less, consume more calories overall, and take oral contraceptives. All of these lifestyle factors have previously been linked to cancer.
The term “ultra-processed” could be interpreted as a confounding factor in itself. Professor Tom Sanders from King’s College London criticized the term, telling the BBC that the classification “seems arbitrary and based on the premise that food produced industrially has a different nutritional and chemical composition from that produced in the home or by artisans.”
However, as Sanders points out, “this is not the case.” Bread made at home and bread made in a factory often have the same nutritional value — and either kind can actually deliver a lot of health benefits.