When it Comes to Food, Are You a Risk-Taker?

How would you rate yourself in terms of healthy eating habits? In a 2016 survey of 3,000 Americans, 75% of respondents said their diets were good, very good, or excellent. And yet, “…more than 80 percent of Americans fail to eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables. At the same time, many Americans overeat refined grains and sugar.”[i] What’s up with this apparent contradiction?

Part of the problem may be our perception of what’s presented to us in the media and on store shelves as “all natural” or “vitamin-enriched” or any of numerous other labels. I’m not accusing food manufacturers of deliberately deceiving us. However, the way healthy foods are processed and packaged may be compromising them.

Ultra-processed foods

There will always be a demand for food because, well, we all have to eat. And there are roughly 7.6 billion mouths to feed. In the U.S., we lead fast-paced lives filled with multi-tasking, and families that bear no resemblance to those in 1950s TV shows. In most two-parent households, both mom and dad are working full time outside of the home. In single-parent households, one frazzled person is busy being both mom and dad while also working full time. Who has time to shop for fresh foods, come home, prepare them, cook them, and clean up?

There is not only a need to generate enough food to feed the planet, but to do so in a way that makes eating convenient for busy households. This means the food industry is kept well-occupied doing the work of processing, packaging, marketing, distributing, stocking and selling what ends up on our plates.

We’ve all heard of processed foods. Now, a new French study of 105,000 people suggests we add a new term to our gastronomic vocabulary: ultra-processed foods.

What counts as ultra-processed? Here’s the list from a Feb. 15, 2018 news article[ii] about the study:

  • Mass-produced packaged breads and buns
  • Sweet or savory packaged snacks including potato chips
  • Chocolate bars and sweets
  • Sodas and sweetened drinks
  • Meatballs, poultry such as chicken nuggets or tenders, and fish sticks or nuggets
  • Instant noodles and soups
  • Frozen or shelf-life ready meals
  • Foods made mostly or entirely from sugar, oils and fats

The study, by Fiolet, et al. (2018)[iii] was published by the authoritative British Medical Journal. The authors cite the theory of the World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research, that about a third of the most common cancers could be avoided by changing lifestyle and dietary habits in developed countries. They describe what amounts to an illusion of food safety: “After undergoing multiple physical, biological, and/or chemical processes, these food products are conceived to be microbiologically safe, convenient, highly palatable, and affordable.” These foods are estimated to constitute 25-50% of our daily energy intake.

Hold it right there! Do we fully understand what ultra-processing does to food? I will quote key points from the study:

  1. “Ultra-processed foods often have a higher content of total fat, saturated fat, and added sugar and salt, along with a lower fibre and vitamin density…Beyond nutritional composition, neoformed contaminants, some of which have carcinogenic properties (such as acrylamide, heterocyclic amines, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), are present in heat treated processed food products.” 
  2. “The packaging of ultra-processed foods may contain some materials in contact with food for which carcinogenic and endocrine disruptor properties have been postulated, such as bisphenol A.”
  3. “Finally, ultra-processed foods contain authorised,22 but controversial, food additives such as sodium nitrite in processed meat or titanium dioxide (TiO2, white food pigment), for which carcinogenicity has been suggested in animal or cellular models.”

Perhaps you think this study is overstated, overblown, and downright alarmist – like some sort of foodie propaganda. However, its research and findings are backed up with 59 respectable papers.

Implications for overall cancer risk

The bottom line is a sobering calculation:  For every 10% increment of ultra-processed foods in your total diet, your overall cancer risk goes up by at least 10%. In addition, “These results remained statistically significant after adjustment for several markers of the nutritional quality of the diet (lipid, sodium, and carbohydrate intakes and/or a Western pattern derived by principal component analysis).”

Now that you know what not to eat, do you know what you should eat? My guess is, yes – so just do it!


[i] Allison Aubrey. “75 Percent of Americans Say They Eat Healthy — Despite Evidence To The Contrary.” NPR online. Aug. 13, 2016. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/08/03/487640479/75-percent-of-americans-say-they-eat-healthy-despite-evidence-to-the-contrary

[ii] James Gallagher. “Ultra-processed Foods ‘Linked to Cancer.’” BBC News online. Feb. 15, 2018. http://www.bbc.com/news/health-43064290

[iii] Fiolet T, Srour B, Sellem L, Kesse-Guyot E, Allès B et al. Consumption of ultra-processed foods and cancer risk: results from NutriNet-Santé prospective cohort. BMJ. 2018 Feb 14;360:k322. doi: 10.1136/bmj.k322.

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