New Study Reveals A Link Between Ultra-Processed Foods And Cancer Risk

Many people enjoy a good hot dog at a ballgame or treat themselves to a scoop of ice cream on a special occasion. Busy work schedules make it easy to pop a ready-to-eat meal in the microwave and carry on with the day. Foods that were once infrequent quick fixes for a meal on the go or occasional indulgences have increasingly made up the majority of what some consume.  A new 2022 study from The BMJ links ultra-processed foods with colorectal cancer risk.

Ultra-processed foods now account for 57% of the daily calories consumed by Americans and are available in every aisle of the grocery store. They're present in the diets of adults, teens, and children from breakfast to dinner and each snack in between. Bread, cereal, sausage, and bacon, among other morning staples, have undergone considerable processing before they reach the table. Processed meats like hot dogs and the ketchup, mayonnaise, and other sauces and condiments that often accompany them are included in the list. How about ready-to-eat or heat meals and snacks like frozen pizza and popcorn washed down with a soda? You guessed it: process city.

According to CNN, many prepared foods contain chemical additives like artificial colors and stabilizers to extend the amount of time they can stay on store shelves without going bad. These ultra-processed foods often contain added salt, sugar, and ingredients extracted from whole foods or made in a laboratory. While these additives and flavors extend a product's shelf life, they shorten ours.

What the study found

The BMJ study that followed more than 200,000 participants for over 25 years found an increased risk of developing bowel cancer when over-processed foods were a prevalent part of their diets, especially in men (per CNN). Consumption of highly processed foods by both genders leads to obesity, inflammation, and cardiovascular disease, which is associated with increased cancer risk.

According to Eureka Alert, analysis of study results showed that men consuming processed meats, ready-made meals, and sugary beverages had the strongest association with the development of colorectal cancer. There was no direct link between women consuming processed foods and bowel cancer. This could be attributed to women's choice of ultra-processed foods — such as yogurt — which might counter the effects of other more harmful counterparts. More research is needed to identify whether women's lessened risk of developing bowel cancer from processed foods was affected by uncontrolled influences or by chance.

The study directly linked nutrient-lacking foods to an increased risk of developing chronic diseases that can shorten the lifespan of both men and women (per CNN). Cardiovascular disease was the most prevalent of the comorbidities caused by an unhealthy diet, especially when foods low in nutrients were also ultra-processed. Returning to a diet of whole foods and reserving ultra-processed foods for a rare treat can help clear the path to a longer, healthier life.