Eating Processed Food Increases Your Risk Of Cancer, A New Study Shows, But Don't Freak Out

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Researchers have been telling us for years that our favorite processed and modified foods could leave us vulnerable to certain cancers. But a huge new study published in The British Medical Journal has reconfirmed the association and the risk of getting cancer from ultra-processed foods.

But what's the difference between processed and ultra-processed? Basic, processed foods are not nearly as complex as they sound. An example sited in the study is the difference between a fruit compote and a packaged, mass-produced dessert. The compote is considered processed because even though it's made of all natural ingredients, they're not naturally occurring — for example, the chef has added salt and sugar to enhance the flavoring. The mass-produced dessert that has other additives like artificial flavoring, texturizers, hydrogenation, modified starches or proteins, and has undergone industrialized manufacturing would be considered ultra-processed. AKA, when you look at the nutritional information on food packaging and can't recognize any of the ingredients, it's likely ultra-processed.

John Sciulli/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

But the most interesting part of this study is perhaps not the new classification of food processing practices, but rather the link these practices have to cancers and overall health. In the study, 104,980 adults were observed from 2009 to 2017 to see what their eating and drinking habits were, and how their health was affected by them. And what the researchers found was that evenly distributed between men and women, "a 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet was associated with a significant increase of greater than 10% in risks of overall and breast cancer."

The foods that were the biggest culprits? Candy, sodas, starchy foods, and breakfast cereals — yes, even our beloved breakfast cereals made the list. Additionally, and maybe not surprisingly, processed meats, including sausage and bacon. And, dehydrated soups (which we often regard as "healthy") are also listed for their extra high salt content — which has been linked to gastric cancer.

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

And to some extent, the greater question still remains unanswered. Why do these foods increase the risk of cancer? For now, the researchers can only hypothesize. Based on what they know of the foods and their process, researchers believe that the industrialization of the culinary world has made room for many new variables that are likely direct culprits. One hypothesis is that the biological underlying cause of the link to cancer is the poor nutritional quality of the food that's ultra-processed. Essentially, the nutrition-less additives take up more room than the nutritional elements, which causes us to intake even more of these types of foods to satisfy our nutritional values. Another hypothesis is that during the industrial process of making these foods, certain non-culinary ingredients are altered into chemical compounds that are more likely to cause cancer — this could be through heat or packaging practices. Both ideas are totally scary and totally plausible.

But the reality for many of us is that it's nearly impossibly to avoid all processed foods. And while the health risks are real, and should be absorbed into the fabric of our understanding of nutrition, processed foods aren't going anywhere. Many people will continue to eat it because they don't have other options, and many people will continue to eat them because they simply like it — hey, I'm not kicking cereal to the curb any time soon. So the best piece of advice we can take from this reaffirming study is that when there's a choice, we should gravitate towards foods that are as close to their natural condition as possible — to avoid any mystery ingredients and compounds that we don't yet have a comprehensive understanding of their long term effects. Swap out a chicken nugget for a piece of chicken breast, a soda for a sparking water, a piece of candy for a piece of fruit — make little changes when you have the opportunity to.