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New research says ‘ultraprocessed’ food creates health risks, certain cancers

Studies in Italy and the United States offer more reason to prepare meals with whole foods that are as close to natural as possible

SHARE New research says ‘ultraprocessed’ food creates health risks, certain cancers
An “ultra-processed” lunch including brand name macaroni and cheese, chicken tenders, canned green beans and diet lemonade.

An “ultra-processed” lunch including brand name macaroni and cheese, chicken tenders, canned green beans and diet lemonade is pictured in a 2019 handout. Two new studies add to a growing body of research suggesting prepping meals yourself and keeping the food you consume as close to its natural state as possible is a healthier consumption choice.

Paule Joseph, Shavonne Pocock, National Institutes of Health via Associated Press

In the fast pace of living, it’s super easy to skip foods that need to be prepared and reach for edible shortcuts, like prepackaged soups and baked goods and oven-ready fare.

But two new studies add to a growing body of research suggesting prepping meals yourself and keeping the food you consume as close to its natural state as possible is a healthier consumption choice.

“Ultraprocessed” foods have been linked to health conditions — and now two new studies suggest they can increase the risk of certain cancers, heart disease and early death. And the more of them you consume, the greater the risk, though both studies noted they found a correlation, not causation.

Men are at greater risk of colorectal cancer, while both women and men who consume a lot of ultraprocessed foods face higher odds of heart disease, according to the two studies, one from Italy and the other from the United States, published Wednesday in the British medical journal The BMJ.

We’re all familiar with ultraprocessed foods, a category that includes everything from frozen pizza and prepackaged soups to sauces, fries, sodas, prepackaged pastries, fizzy drinks, and a slew of snacks and sugary cereals, among others. They also often contain a lot of added sugar, fat and salt.

That they may not be health foods is not a surprise.

“Literally hundreds of studies link ultraprocessed foods to obesity, cancer, cardiovascular disease and overall mortality,” Marion Nestle, who has written books about food politics and marketing and is a professor emerita of nutrition and food studies at New York University, told CNN.

“These two studies continue the consistency: Ultraprocessed foods are unambiguously associated with an increased risk for chronic disease,” said Nestle, who was not part of the research.

The study in the United States followed more than 200,000 men and women for a couple of decades, finding clear increased risk of colorectal cancer among men who ate ultraprocessed foods. It didn’t find the same risk for women, but noted their risk did go up with heat-and-eat meals.

The researchers said that the men in the group that ate the most ultraprocessed food had a 29% higher risk of developing colorectal cancer, compared to those who consumed such foods at the lowest levels.

“Processed and ultraprocessed meats, such as ham, bacon, salami, hotdogs, beef jerkey and corned beef, have long been associated with a higher risk of bowel cancer in both men and women, according to the World Health OrganizationAmerican Cancer Society and the American Institute for Cancer Research,” CNN reported, adding the studies showed that all ultraprocessed foods played increased cancer risk at least some.

As for why women had different risk, the researchers had theories but not proof. It’s possible that women choose different ultraprocessed foods and that makes a difference, one noted. Another suggested that weight, sex, hormones and other factors may be responsible for the difference.

The U.S. study showed that eating one category of ultraprocessed foods — dairy, especially yogurt — may be protective against colon cancer, as those who ate more of it had lower risk of colorectal cancer.

The Italian study tracked 22,000 people for 12 years in a region in Italy, comparing the ill effects of foods high in sugar and trans fats and saturated fats against ultraprocessed foods in contributing to chronic disease and early death.

The study found higher risk of all-cause death and death from heart disease among adults who ate the most ultraprocessed foods, compared to those who ate the least.

Risk can be reduced with different food choices.

According to MedPage Today, “In an accompanying editorial, Carlos Monteiro, MD, PhD, and Geoffrey Cannon, MA, both of the University of São Paulo in Brazil, noted that ‘the overall positive solution includes making supplies of fresh and minimally processed foods ... available, attractive and affordable. And sustaining national initiatives to promote and support freshly prepared meals made with fresh and minimally processed foods, using small amounts of processed culinary ingredients and processed foods.”

And if you’re still not clear what ultraprocessed foods are, CNN described them this way: “ready-to-eat-or-heat industrial formulations that are made with ingredients extracted from foods or synthesized in laboratories, with little or no whole foods.” It said they are “often high in added sugars and salt, low in dietary fiber, and full of chemical additives, such as artificial colors, flavors or stabilizers.”

The MD Anderson Center adds, “They generally have long lists of ingredients, many of which you won’t recognize, like substances for bulking, de-foaming, emulsifying and bleaching.”