Colon cancer risk from highly processed foods

Quickly and cheaply prepared, but fiber-free and high in calories: heavily processed foods contain a lot of sugar and salt as well as other additives. Instead, it lacks components such as vegetables, legumes, nuts and fruit, in other words much of what experts recommend for a healthy diet. If these foods have also undergone many stages of industrial processing, experts speak of “ultra-processed foods”.

In a recent US study, scientists investigated whether and how ultra-processed foods affect colon cancer risk.

Ultra-processed foods can increase the risk of colon cancer

The researchers evaluated the eating habits of around 200,000 people over a period of nearly 30 years, which were collected in 3 different observational studies. In the studies, participants were regularly questioned about their diet, lifestyle, and health status.

The analysis showed a link between foods from the ultra-processed food group and some forms of colon cancer.

The association with an increased risk of colon cancer was shown in men who consumed more ultra-processed foods. In women, however, the effect was less pronounced and more dependent on the type of ultra-processed foods they consumed.

Processed foods are different

Much of the food is somehow industrially processed, albeit to varying degrees. Therefore, a distinction between “processed” and “unprocessed” is often insufficient. It is more important, for example, if a food contains fat, sugar, salt or other additional additives.

The study authors used the so-called NOVA classification to classify foods. This groups foods according to the degree of processing:

  • Group 1 – unprocessed or lightly processed foods: Slightly processed means that a food can be industrially modified (eg dried, ground, frozen), but no other substances such as sugar or salt are added.
  • Group 2 – Processed ingredients: These include, for example, oils, sugar and salt, which are foods that are obtained by pressing or refining and which are used as ingredients in cooking.
  • Group 3 – processed foods: This includes foods that have added salt, sugar, or other Group 2 ingredients. An example is pickled vegetables, but it also includes cheese and many types of bread.
  • Group 4 – Ultra-processed foods: By “ultra-processed” we mean foods that have undergone numerous industrial processes and often have added additional ingredients. This includes, for example, ready meals such as packed soups or frozen pizzas, but also desserts, sugary and / or carbonated drinks.

The problem is …

… freshly processed ingredients and energy-dense foods as well as ultra-processed foods are often particularly cheap and taste better. As a result, they are consumed in larger quantities.

How do i recognize ultra-processed foods? Experts recommend looking at the list of ingredients: if a food contains at least one ingredient that is not normally used in cooking, this indicates heavy processing.

More research is needed

In the study, the authors observed an association between ultra-processed foods (NOVA group 4) and colorectal cancer. The findings suggest that reducing the consumption of highly processed foods may reduce the risk of colorectal cancer. However, the link to the study cannot be clearly demonstrated.

It is also unclear why men were more affected than women in the study. Other research also suggests that ultra-processed foods may also increase the overall risk of death. More research is therefore needed to further clarify the influence of diet on cancer risk.

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