Processed Food Is Associated With Higher Cancer Risk

One of the best things you can do for your health, in my view, is avoid processed foods and eat only minimally processed, whole foods. Besides helping you stay lean, they may help you avoid cancer, since processed food is associated with higher cancer risk.

Ultra-processed food and cancer

A new study found that consumption of ultra-processed food is associated with greater risk of cancer.

First of all, what are “ultra-processed foods”? Virtually all food that we eat is processed in some way; even if you hunt for your food, meat must be cut and cooked. Most of our food has seen the inside of a processing plant of some kind. Dairy products are pasteurized, some are fermented. Etc.

Ultra-processed foods are those that we would normally deem just “processed”. The study defines ultra-processed foods as:

mass produced packaged breads and buns; sweet or savoury packaged snacks; industrialised confectionery and desserts; sodas and sweetened drinks; meat balls, poultry and fish nuggets, and other reconstituted meat products transformed with addition of preservatives other than salt (for example, nitrites); instant noodles and soups; frozen or shelf stable ready meals; and other food products made mostly or entirely from sugar, oils and fats, and other substances not commonly used in culinary preparations such as hydrogenated oils, modified starches, and protein isolates. Industrial processes notably include hydrogenation, hydrolysis, extruding, moulding, reshaping, and pre-processing by frying. Flavouring agents, colours, emulsifiers, humectants, non-sugar sweeteners, and other cosmetic additives are often added to these products to imitate sensorial properties of unprocessed or minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations or to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product.

These are basically what you find in the middle aisles of the supermarket or in a fast-food restaurant.

Relative amounts of each type of food in the study:

Fig 1

They found that each 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed food consumed was associated with about a 10% increase in cancer risk. While that may not sound like a lot, I reckon many people eat a large proportion of their food as ultra-processed food, so they may have a much higher cancer risk.

The study showed association only, and causation is not proven.

The study’s authors suggested several mechanisms by which this food may cause cancer, including, additives and poor nutritional quality. Other ways they suggested that ring true (to me) are that they cause obesity, which raises the risk of cancer, and they cause a greater glycemic response, with higher blood glucose and insulin, which likely also raises the risk of cancer.

Here’s an example of whole, unprocessed food, one demonized by the health establishment:

Image result for steak

Here’s an example of ultra-processed food, one promoted by the health establishment:

Boost Original Complete Nutritional Drink, Chocolate Sensation, 8 fl oz Bottle, 24 Pack

In my opinion, you should do the opposite of what the health establishment recommends here.


PS: Another way to avoid cancer is to Muscle Up.



Leave a Comment:

Rob says April 3, 2018

I’m not at all surprised by their findings. Not only is the average Western diet pretty terrible, it’s getting worse, if anything. As with most everything these days, money and profit are the drivers behind this trend. There is big money to be made in promoting ultra-processed foods, whereas there’s not not nearly as much money to be made pushing broccoli and other whole foods.
Most people (and especially those under about age 50 or so) have eaten ultra-processed for so long now that they don’t even realize that much of it is not even real food. Sad but true.

Johnny says April 3, 2018

I have long suspected that many of the additives in processed foods (e.g. hydrolyzed anything) have direct effects on metabolism that cause weight gain and other problems. Perhaps making fat cells more insulin-sensitive? I would love to find more insights about this.

(This is in addition to the usual problems caused by processed carbs raising insulin and omega-6 oils causing inflammation and obesity.)

Montgomery says April 3, 2018

The central problem seems to be that those “ultraprocessed foods” feel much more, and more quickly, rewarding than unprocessed foods.
It is very, very difficult, or even impossible, to prevent people from doing something that feels more rewarding to them.
For example, sugar is proven to be addictive, and highly so (I also can attest to that myself).
Once a kid has tasted McDonalds products or the offerings from the supermarket’s sweet isle, it takes outright coercing and dictatorial control to make him eating, not even mentioning wanting, healthier options.
I know it from myself: It needs continuous willpower to eat the good stuff instead the delicious junk.
Willpower is a limited resource for everybody, and it seems some or even many have not even anything to begin with.
How to feed kids healthy when even for adults, who should have more self-control, it’s so difficult?

Another aspect:
The junk food’s 2nd most powerful lure (after it’s reward center activation powers) is the ubiquitous availability: Consider Coca Cola. It’s everywhere, in every store, in every restaurant, in schools’ and even gyms’ vending machines. Most people in the West have Coke near them all the time, at arms length, walked just by a Coke dispenser, or were very recently reminded of Coke by ads. Almost nobody would have to spend more than seconds or minutes to have a Coke available. The same goes for other junk food.
It is always nearby, always immediately available, always an immediately available reward.
People are lazy, and regularly suffer from lowered self-control due to stress or setbacks in life; and the junk food is practically always there, always tempting.
At least there is a method that works somewhat against this temptation: Always have decently tasting, pre-made healthy food available. This tends to work well, because once one has his mouth stuffed most of the temptation is gone. The trick is to have __immediately__ accessible health food at home or with you.
For those with better willpower: Instead of a burger or candy bar you can always choose to buy a piece of cheese, for example, and a bottle of water (or pre-made green tea without added sugars). Once you have eaten this, strength of will to more easily resist the junk food should return.

But for the first problem, that most junk food tastes vastly superior, is superiorly rewarding, I know no solution.
If I had no knowledge of these matters or zero self control, I would only drink sugary soft drinks and eat fast food and sweets of all kinds and never even consider unprocessed foods. My food instinct commands it, but my instinct is wrong, or rather: My instincts are exploited masterfully by the junk food creators.

    P. D. Mangan says April 3, 2018

    I agree with all of that, Montgomery. Even with the knowledge that junk food is unhealthy, many people will not refrain from eating it, either through lack of caring or because it’s too difficult.

mark sanders says April 3, 2018

Just out of curiosity, how would you classify whey protein powders as far as processing goes?

    P. D. Mangan says April 4, 2018

    Good question. Whey protein powder may be among the most processed foods that I eat. When milk curdles, the liquid fraction left over is the whey, and for protein powder, that’s dried, then flavorings (may be) added. For most of them, there’s little in the way of bad ingredients added, such as sugar or seed oils. Since the kinds I use don’t have those ingredients, and since they represent only a small fraction of my total calories, I consume them. Depending on how you look at it, basic protein powders may fall in some middle, grey area between whole and processed foods, but it’s a good idea to consider their (semi) processed nature and not overdo them.

Bob says April 4, 2018


What are your thoughts on protein supplements like whey protein powders? Are they too processed, or are they okay to use to get more protein for muscle building?

Also, what’s your view on cast iron skillets for cooking? I’ve heard that some people use them to get more iron in their bodies. If we’re trying to reduce iron intake, should we avoid cooking with them?

Thanks, keep up the great work.

    Bob says April 4, 2018

    Looks like somebody above already asked about whey protein powders. Sorry about that. I posted before reading all the comments. In that case, I’ll ask a different question regarding protein supplementation. Do you think whey protein based supplements are the only ones worth taking, or are non whey based protein supplements like Muscle Milk okay in your opinion?

      P. D. Mangan says April 4, 2018

      Hi Bob, I think other protein supplements can be worth taking, although whey seems to have the most evidence in its favor. The problem with supplements like Muscle Milk is all the stuff besides protein that’s in it. From Muscle Milk Amazon page: WATER, ORGANIC MILK PROTEIN CONCENTRATE, ORGANIC CANE SUGAR, ORGANIC MALTODEXTRIN, ORGANIC CANOLA OIL, ORGANIC SUNFLOWER OIL, NATURAL FLAVORS, POTASSIUM CITRATE, SODIUM PHOSPHATE, POTASSIUM CHLORIDE, CARRAGEENAN, SEA SALT, ORGANIC STEVIA EXTRACT.

      Sugar and seed oils.

        Bill says April 4, 2018

        Organic but still garbage !

          P. D. Mangan says April 5, 2018

          Exactly. Unfortunately, people are easily enough fooled by the word “organic” that they can throw all kinds of garbage in there and customers still think it’s healthy. “ORGANIC SUNFLOWER OIL” – will fry your arteries and liver but at least no insects died while making it.

James Gordon says April 8, 2018

Where did you study ‘microbiology’? Which university or college are you registered with? Would you be happy to arrange a live debate of your credentials for a bbc news programme? Best, James.

    P. D. Mangan says April 9, 2018

    Bring it on – I’d love to talk on the BBC, can you arrange it?

    Richard says April 11, 2018

    Why is microbiology placed in quotations? You don’t think its a real discipline? As for a debate of credentials, that sounds far less interesting than a debate about the issues Mangan likes to raise. For example, the importance of muscle building and maintenance, and the dangers of iron overload He does not pretend any credentials apart from an ability to read and understand peer reviewed scientific papers.

Ashish Roy says June 29, 2018

PD, you’re amazing. I’ve been lurking around for a while now and this is my first comment. I see some Gordon hate coming your way but again, if there are no haters, we won’t exist. I want to be like you when am 63. Am 37 right now and your advise on this blog has had some serious positive effect on how I live my life, what I think and what I put in my mouth.

Thank you
Ashish Roy

    P. D. Mangan says June 29, 2018

    Thank you, Ashish, glad I’ve had a positive effect, that’s what I strive for. I just follow the research where it leads, though I suppose no one is free of biases. More recently, I feel like I try to incorporate more of the Pareto principle, so instead of getting bogged down in minor interventions or details of cell biology, I’m trying to write more on what really matters, and food is very important, the one modifiable thing everyone is involved in (if that makes sense).

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