Row over cancer link to processed foods

Crunch time: “Ultra-processed” foods include things like crisps, ready meals, chicken nuggets and pot noodles. © Getty

Can factory-made food cause cancer? A study of over 100,000 people suggests that eating more ultra-processed food such as chicken nuggets and cake puts people at greater risk from cancer.

What’s happening

A sausage sandwich on white bread, washed down with a fizzy drink and topped off with a biscuit: an ultra-processed menu that could increase the risk of cancer, say experts at Sorbonne University. Not everyone is convinced, but it is a reminder that we should all think more carefully about our diet.

Find out more

Ultra-processed food is prepared on a large scale and may contain chemicals to make it taste nice, look good and last longer. Ready-to-eat meals, nuggets, pies and meaty foods like burgers and hot dogs, as well as ice-creams, chocolate and crisps, are considered ultra-processed.

The study of 104,980 adults found that eating 10% more ultra-processed food led to just over a 10% greater chance of having cancer.

This latest study raises questions about a link between ultra-processed food and the risk of cancer, but experts warn this is not enough to be considered proof. There are many other factors, like weight, exercise and lifestyle, which the study did not fully consider.

More studies are needed, but should we cut out ultra-processed foods anyway?

Some say…

Whether ultra-processed food is to blame for an increased cancer risk does not matter if you do not eat any at all. Food experts do agree that the fresher the food, the better it is for your body. Food that is fresh, or chilled, frozen, or tinned (and has not had anything more added) contains more fibre and more varied vitamins — eat that instead.

Others think…

Ultra-processed food is so easy and tasty that cutting it out “just in case” until further studies prove there is or is not a link to cancer seems silly. There are many things that were once thought to be bad for your health — such as eggs — which people now know are good for you. Focus on eating a wide variety of all types of food and being active.

You Decide

  1. How can we encourage people to eat less ultra-processed food?

Activities

  1. Look at different foods available and try to classify them according to whether they are ultra-processed, processed or minimally processed. Or even not processed at all — ie, raw. This way of defining foods was developed by scientists studying the issues of nutrition.

Some People Say...

“Real food doesn’t have ingredients. Real food IS ingredients.”

Jamie Oliver, chef.

What do you think?

Word Watch

Ultra-processed
Food made using up to five different types of ingredients in a factory, rather than a domestic environment.
Cancer
A disease where cells in the body develop abnormally — it can cause tumours and kill people.
Large scale
Scale is the size or extent; so in this case produced in thousands or millions.
Chemicals
Substances added to food, such as colouring, preservatives and flavours which are man-made, rather than naturally occurring.
Fibre
Because of their material and skins, vegetables are high in fibre and are good for digestion.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.