Cancer and Processed Food – A New Study Officially Finds a Link

A new study of over 100,000 people’s eating habits in France found that a 10 percent increase in consumption of ultra-processed foods resulted in a 12 percent increase some cancers, confirming yet again that diet is a key component in disease prevention. Ultra-processed foods include soda, mass-produced bread, sweets, processed meats, and prepackaged meals, and this is the first scientific study to strongly link them to cancer. The study also established a massive database of the additives in specific foods, including commercial names and brands. The NutriNet-Santé cohort study concludes, “Further studies are also needed to better understand the relative effect of nutritional composition, food additives, contact materials, and neoformed contaminants in this relation. Rapidly increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods may drive an increasing burden of cancer and other non-communicable diseases.”

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Global Patterns

Let’s look at breast cancer. Common reasons given for the rise in breast cancer diagnoses include age, stress, obesity, lack of exercise, and having children later in life. Lifestyle choices are usually mentioned, but specific aspects of diet and lifestyle aren’t discussed. With this study, researchers noticed an increase of greater than 10 percent in the rates of breast cancer in response to ultra-processed food. This link mirrors trends happening throughout the world. Rapidly industrializing regions all over the world are all seeing a rapid rise in the incidences of breast cancer in conjunction with the increased presence of pre-packaged foods.


Since 2000, cases of breast cancer in China have increased by an average of 3.5 percent per year. Due to the country’s intense industrialization, rates of diagnosis are higher in cities than in rural areas. The move to urban areas has also increased the consumption of quick and easy to prepare pre-packaged meals and junk food offerings from Western companies like Kraft, Nestlé, and PepsiCo. Fast food sales are also a cause for concern, rising an average of 13 percent annually.

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Central and South America

The majority of the Western hemisphere is a large region, but the circumstances are remarkably similar. There were over 140,000 new cases of breast cancer reported in 2012, and estimates predict that number will increase 70 percent by the year 2030. The growth in cancer rates comes at a time when these countries are being inundated by gigantic multinational corporations that specialize in ultra-processed food like Nestlé and Coca-Cola. Fast food chains are also expanding aggressively in the region.

Why Is That?

Ultra-processed foods contain large amounts of fat, sugar, and additives, and have been tied to obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. It’s difficult to know whether the fat, sugar or additives are responsible for ultra-processed food’s link to cancer, as many additives, colorings, and sweeteners in those foods are linked to asthma, skin conditions, vomiting, intestinal distress, inflammation, autoimmune disorders, depression, fatigue, diabetes, periodontal disease, and hyperactivity, among other things. Taken individually, the ingredients in these foods constitute serious health concerns.

Who knows what happens when a product contains more than one of these additives together? We don’t. Until now, no one has been doing that science.

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The Cumulative Effect

Although the sales of processed and packaged foods are declining in the United States, these items still account for over half of all calories consumed in the country. They’re beginning to account for a much larger percentage of the world’s diet than ever before.

Even as deaths from breast cancer decrease, the number of diagnoses continues to rise. Improved standards of care account for fewer deaths, but incidences of cancer continue to increase because those standards don’t address the reason this is happening – our diet. This study is the first to make that connection and the first study that saw a definite increase in breast cancer in correlation with increased processed food consumption.

If we want to manage our health care system, we must manage our food system. They are the same thing.

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