BOSTON — Junk food is unquestionably an unhealthy choice when it comes to nutritious eating. However, a new study reveals just how dangerous eating “ultra-processed” foods is — finding an increased risk of cancer, heart disease, and premature death.
Tufts University and Italian researchers compared the consumption of ultra-processed foods among 46,341 men and 159,907 women to cancer data collected from several studies. The findings, published in The BMJ, found definitive links between a high consumption of ultra-processed foods and increased risks for cardiovascular disease, colorectal cancer, and even early death.
Some of the most common “ultra-processed” foods include sugary beverages, potato chips, candy bars, fast food, and even breakfast cereals.
Men in the top 20 percent in terms of ultra-processed food consumption displayed a 29-percent increased likelihood of developing colorectal cancer. That number remained high even after factoring in body mass index (BMI) and lifestyle factors such as smoking.
Junk food could raise heart disease risk by a third
A second study analyzed in the recent BMJ findings showed that people who consumed the most ultra-processed foods and beverages had a 19-percent higher risk of death from any illness. They were 32 percent more likely to die as a result of cardiovascular disease.
A group of Brazilian researchers back in 2009 described ultra-processed foods as “industrial formulations with five or more ingredients.” Such foods also include energy drinks, fried chicken, and white bread.
Cardiovascular mortality rates were nearly one-fifth higher for people with extremely high intakes of ultra-processed foods across all of the studies. Colorectal cancer and even breast cancer rates were significantly higher among people with higher-than-average consumption of ultra-processed foods.
On the other hand, Harvard Medical School defines unprocessed or minimally processed foods as “whole foods in which the vitamins and nutrients are still intact…may be minimally altered by removal of inedible parts, drying, crushing, roasting, boiling, freezing or pasteurization to make suitable to store and safe to consume.”
This is far from the first study to link processed foods and beverages to increased health risks. A 2018 European dietary analysis of more than 104,000 people found multiple associations between ultra-processed food consumption and overall breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer diagnoses. That study found a connection between a 10-percent increase in ultra-processed foods and a 10-percent uptick in participants’ overall risk for breast cancer.
In an editorial, researchers argue that no one “sensible wants foods that cause illness.” Their solution includes making supplies of fresh foods available, more attractive, and inexpensive. “Enacted, this will promote public health. It will also nourish families, society, economies, and the environment,” the researchers conclude in a media release.