The phrase “ultra-processed” is used to describe foods considered unhealthy due to high amounts of unhealthy components. For example, foods high in saturated fat, sodium or sugar are often classified as ultra-processed.
These foods include sugary drinks and many prepackaged snack foods. Many families eat ultra-processed foods without thinking twice because they are readily available. It is far easier to grab a processed snack than to cook a meal. If you have a busy schedule, ultra-processed foods are even more convenient. You can find them almost anywhere and consume many of them on the go. However, there is a price to pay for this convenience.
There are many known health risks associated with eating too many ultra-processed foods. Ultra-processed foods contribute to diabetes and obesity. Recently, new information shows processed foods are even more dangerous than originally suggested. Specifically, there are links between processed food consumption and elevated cancer risk factors. Below is more information on the relationship between cancer development and ultra-processed food consumption.
Almost every food you eat or beverage you drink is processed in some way. However, ultra-processed foods are processed to an extreme degree. They often contain many chemicals, additives and other components most people cannot identify. Ultra-processed foods are typically quick, convenient foods. For example, most foods ordered at fast food restaurants are ultra-processed. The same is true of most packaged snack foods you see in convenience or grocery stores. These foods are known for being high in sugar, salt or fat.
One reason scientists are now warning ultra-processed foods can increase your cancer risks is due to the definition of ultra-processed foods expanding. A 2018 study noted ultra-processed foods also contain multiple additives not normally considered when weighing the dangers of processed foods.
One is an additive commonly found in processed meats called sodium nitrate. Another is a food dye called titanium dioxide. Both are approved for use in food processing. However, they have potential cancer-causing properties, as found in recent studies. The exact results are still being debated in the scientific community as of the writing of this article.
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Researchers conducting the 2018 human study also noted carcinogenic materials are sometimes present in the packaging materials used to contain certain types of ultra-processed foods. These carcinogens can seep into foods from the packaging, making them hidden risk factors for the development of cancer. When you shop, you must consider how the foods you purchase are packaged, as well as their actual ingredients, to avoid hidden carcinogens.
The components not found in ultra-processed foods also define them. You must recognize their absence when considering the health risks such foods pose. Some of those components can strengthen your body. Without them, you are more susceptible to cancer and other illnesses. For example, many processed foods lack sufficient amounts of the following:
Consumption of processed foods is common in developed countries. According to data collected in 2016, 60 percent of the calories consumed by an average U.S. resident come from processed foods. In 2017, a study noted similar statistics in the United Kingdom and Canada. In each, an average diet consisted of 50 percent calories derived from ultra-processed foods.
Processed food consumption rates are also rising in other developing countries. The availability of such foods makes them tempting, but new cancer study results suggest you must resist the temptation to eat too many to protect your health.
In 2018, the former British Medical Journal, now known as the BMJ, published the results of a new study investigating the potentially cancer-causing nature of ultra-processed foods. Approximately 105,000 adult test subjects participated in the study, which took place in France. The subjects received a list of 3,300 foods and recorded each listed food they ate for the five-year duration of the study. Scientists analyzed the data in the food journals using processing values assigned to each type of food.
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By the end of the study, over 2,200 participants were diagnosed with cancer. The results indicated a 10 percent or greater increase in breast cancer risks after a 10 percent increase in processed food consumption. Risks for other types of cancer also increased by similar amounts. Scientists discovered test subjects who consumed less processed foods had no significant increase in cancer risks. Such foods included:
The 2018 study on the potential correlation between processed foods and increased cancer risks is cause for concern. However, researchers caution more investigation is needed to make real determinations about the exact ramifications of consuming processed foods as they relate to cancer risks because of the variables involved. However, the researchers did take many of those variables into account, including:
Experts agree, when you eat them in moderation, additional cancer risks from ultra-processed foods are minimal. However, according to representatives from the Mexican National Institute of Public Health, ultra-processed foods may be partially responsible for the rising cancer rates occurring across the globe.
If you are wondering exactly how much ultra-processed food is safe for you to eat, experts do not have a specific answer. They caution against trying to cut processed foods out of your diet entirely, so you do not need to panic when eating an occasional convenient snack or fast food meal. However, you must do your best to maintain a healthy, balanced diet to limit the cancer risks and the other health risks associated with such foods, such as obesity.
It is easy to eat too many ultra-processed foods when you have a busy schedule. If you cannot find time to cook, they are quite tempting. To protect your health and limit how many you eat, you must keep healthier foods like fresh fruits readily available. Experts also recommend you take other steps to limit your risk of cancer other health issues, such as:
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