The Connection Between Highly Processed Foods and Increased Cancer Risk

Key Takeaways:

  • A significant rise in cancer risk has been linked to a 10% dietary increase in highly processed foods such as packaged snacks, carbonated drinks, and sweet cereals.
  • Ultra-processed foods have been particularly associated with a higher occurrence of breast cancer.
  • The link between cancer risk and processed foods is believed to extend beyond their low nutritional value, potentially involving other aspects of food processing, such as additives and contaminants.
  • Existing dietary recommendations encourage adopting a plant-based diet rich in fruits and vegetables, while avoiding processed foods and sugars.
  • Despite the observed relationship between cancer risk and processed food consumption, definitive evidence establishing a direct causal link is yet to be found.

If cancer is a concern for you, it may be time to reconsider the processed foods in your weekly grocery list.

A significant rise in cancer risk has been linked to a 10% dietary increase in packaged snacks, carbonated drinks, sweet cereals, and other highly processed products according to recent findings.

Processed Foods and Breast Cancer

High intake of mass-produced, ultra-processed foods correlated particularly with a higher occurrence of breast cancer. However, the tasty appeal of these food items that are normally high in sugar, salt, and fat, but lack vital nutrients might not be the only reason for the observed elevated cancer risk.

Unraveling the Underlying Causes

“We believe that the lower nutritional value of ultra-processed foods isn’t the sole factor responsible for this relationship,” expressed the study’s head author Dr. Bernard Srour, from the University of Paris.

What exactly is in these foods or their packaging that might spike cancer risk is unclear, Srour, a nutrition epidemiology unit biostatistician, added. “Further studies are required to dare into the effects of different aspects of food processing”, including nutritional composition, additives, and contaminants.

Supportive of Existing Dietary Recommendations

For Marjorie Lynn McCullough, the strategic director of nutritional epidemiology at the American Cancer Society, such findings are hardly shocking. “This research reinforces our long-standing advice: Adopt a predominantly plant-based diet abundant in vegetables and fruits, and exclude red meat, processed foods, and sugars,” said McCullough.

Processed Foods in Modern Diets

In several affluent nations, ultra-processed foods might constitute up to half of the daily diet. This includes commercially produced baked goods, snacks, ready-made meals, desserts, and products treated with preservatives other than salt like nitrites and also, childhood favorites like chicken nuggets and fish sticks.

Such items typically contain hydrogenated oils, modified starches, colorants, emulsifiers, texture enhancers, sweeteners, and other additives. However, linking any of these additives to specific risks is a complex process.

“Our understanding of the health and well-being implications of food processing is still in its infancy,” commented Martin Lajous, co-author of a study-accompanying editorial and a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston’s faculty researcher.

A Direct Causal Relation Yet to be Established

Higher risk for obesity, hypertension, and cholesterol levels has been associated with highly processed foods, but definitive evidence remains elusive.

This research does not yet establish ultra-processed food consumption as a direct cause of cancer, but merely points out that association between the two exists, cautioned Srour.

Additionally, people consuming more of highly processed foods are bound to be having fewer healthier food options, and thus, data needs to be interpreted cautiously, McCullough suggested. She pointed out that a diet abundant in processed foods is likely to contribute to weight gain, a well-known cancer risk factor, although she wasn’t involved in the study.

The Study Details and Findings

This study involved around 105,000 French men and women, with an average age of 43, who completed at least two online food intake questionnaires.

In order to isolate the role of foods in cancer risk, the researchers considered other key risk factors such as age, gender, education level, family history of cancer, smoking habits, and physical activity levels.

Beyond the general finding of a 12 percent rise in cancer risk with a 10 percent increase in ultra-processed food consumption, the researchers observed an 11 percent increase in the risk of breast cancer. Notably, there was no significant risk linked to colon or prostate cancer.

Furthermore, lower cancer overall risk and specifically breast cancer was linked to fresh and minimally processed foods like fruits, vegetables, rice, pasta, eggs, meat, fish and milk. But, Srour emphasized, these results need verification from large-scale studies in various populations and settings.

Additional Information

For more insights on diet and cancer, please visit the American Cancer Society.


Greetings from the trails and tracks! I'm Tim, but most folks know me as TJ. I've spent the last 5 years diving deep into the world of content writing, with a particular penchant for nutrition and the intricate science behind it. Every bite we take, every nutrient we consume, tells a unique story – and I'm here to unravel it for you.Beyond my keyboard, you'll often find me on a winding hiking trail or pushing my limits on a long-distance run. These pursuits not only keep me fit but constantly remind me of the vital role nutrition plays in fueling our passions and adventures.Through my writings, I aim to bridge the gap between complex nutritional science and everyday eating habits. Whether you're looking for the latest research updates, practical diet tips, or stories from the running track, I'm committed to serving you content that's as engaging as it is enlightening.So, lace up your shoes, grab a healthy snack, and join me in this exploration of food, science, and the great outdoors. Together, we'll journey towards better health and incredible experiences!
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