People who consume a lot of ultra-processed food (aka junk food) are at higher risk for high blood pressure, heart disease and metabolic disorders such as diabetes. Now, researchers in the UK have added cancers of the mouth, throat and esophagus to the list of possible outcomes.
Negative Consequences of Ultra-Processed Food:
The investigators analyzed data from more than 450,000 adults in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition. These volunteers constitute the EPIC cohort. Scientists collected data on their diets and their health (European Journal of Nutrition, Nov. 22, 2023). The follow-up lasted 14 years on average.
Those who consumed 10 percent more ultra-processed foods were at 23 percent higher risk for head and neck cancers. In addition, their risk for esophageal adenocarcinoma was 24 percent higher than that of people consuming little or no junk food. Although the researchers had initially suspected that most of the risk could be attributed to increased body fat among junk food lovers, that did not turn out to be the case. Something else about ultra-processed foods may be responsible.
This is not the first study to find a link between junk food and cancer. Here are the details on one of the earlier studies with similar findings.
The NutriNet-Santé Study of Junk Food:
That seems to be the conclusion from a study published in The BMJ (Fiolet et al, BMJ, Feb. 14, 2018). The research, which followed the dietary habits and health of 104,980 French adults from 2009 to 2017 establishes a link between ultra-processed foods and an elevated risk of cancer. For every 10 percent increase in ultra-processed food in the diet, the investigators saw a 12 percent increase risk of overall cancer. Breast cancer risk rose by 11 percent.
What Counts as Junk Food?
The researchers asked the study participants about their consumption of ultra-processed foods such as sugar-sweetened carbonated beverages, packaged sweet or savory snacks, mass-produced packaged breads and buns, sugary cereals, instant noodles and soups, fish and chicken nuggets and shelf-stable ready meals. These food products make up one-fourth to one-half of calories consumed in many industrialized countries. They often contain hydrogenated oils, modified starches and protein isolates.
What Should You Be Eating?
The researchers contrasted these ultra-processed foods with minimally-processed foods. They include fruits, vegetables, beans, pasta, rice, eggs, milk, fish or meat prepared by freezing, chilling, cooking or fermenting. The authors of the study point out that this research question is of great interest to the NutriNet-Santé volunteers.
If you too would like guidance on how to cook delicious meals, you may be interested in our book Recipes & Remedies From The People’s Pharmacy. It is currently on sale, and offers recipes from many of the nutrition researchers we have interviewed over the years.