July 30, 2021
Dr. Gwen Y. Reyes-Amurao, M.D.
Everyone knows about it. Eating processed food, whatever type it is, will always have deleterious effects on the body. Backed up by clinical studies and medical evidence; a diet rich in ultra-processed food or anything processed, for that matter, will lead to an increased risk of having cancer. One wonders the extent to which ultra-processed can be defined; and if it leads to illness, which types can it really cause?
Ultra-Processed Food Defined
Technically speaking, food that undergoes any type of handling can already be classified as processed food. Blanching vegetables, freezing meat, mixing flour and butter to a dish are just some of the processing techniques applied daily. The creation of ultra-processed food goes far beyond simple cooking techniques and food handling. In a study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in 2016, ultra-processed foods were defined as industrial formulations which, aside from salt, sugar, oils and fats, include substances not used in ordinary cooking preparations. These formulations, additives in particular, are used to imitate sensorial qualities of minimally processed food in their culinary preparations. The BMJ also defined food types according to the extent to which they were processed:
The definition may sound a bit technical. Citing specific examples of ultra-processed food may help recognize them and these are some:
Researchers found that those who consume a diet rich in ultra-processed food were getting a large amount of added preservatives, as well as an oversupply of sugar. So much so that sugar made up more than 20% of the total calories provided by the ultra-processed food, which was 10% more than the recommended sugar intake in the USDA dietary guidelines.
The Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI) of the Philippines in its survey discovered that majority of Filipino households had the following products in their kitchen: rice, coconut oil, salt, egg, garlic, chicken, 3-in-1 instant coffee, soy sauce, monosodium glutamate (MSG), sugar (both brown and white), tomatoes, eggplants, powdered milk, vinegar, bread, carrots, and instant food mixes (like sinigang and coconut powder). If we take into consideration the definitions mentioned above, more than half of the items in this list would fall under the category of ultra-processed food. This suggests that Filipinos consume processed food almost every day, which have made them a household staple.
Because of the busy and fast-paced lives Filipinos have nowadays, quick and easy to prepare meals and instant food plans can sometimes be the only options. This is the reason why canned goods and ultra-processed meats like bacon, sausages, ham and easy-open food packs have now fallen at the top of most Filipino grocery. In a demographic survey conducted by Nielsen in 2014, they discovered that 25% of consumers eat out at fast food restaurants at least once a week (14% increase from 2013) with most of them turning to convenience stores that offer prepared meals and ready-to-eat meal options.
Dining out in good traditional restaurants may be a healthier option for some especially when the ingredients used are fresh, organic or are minimally processed, and the manner of which the food was prepared is actually healthy. When eating in fast food joints though, food preparation and sources are never guaranteed and will most likely be rich in saturated fat (such as burgers, fries and fried chicken) or filled with additives and preservatives that make them taste like minimally processed food. Sadly, Filipinos aren’t the only ones turning to fast food, quick meals and instant food sources. Studies show that consumption of ultra-processed food has now become a trend in many diets all over the world.
Ultra-Processed Food, Illness and Cancer
A comprehensive research by the BMJ analyzed the diet of 105,000 middle-aged individuals in the NutriNet-Sante Cohort Study. It has been found that a mere 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet was associated with a significant increase of 12% in the risk of overall cancer. With this large group studied within a span of a few years, there was noted increased risk in breast cancer in postmenopausal women, prostate cancer in men less than 40 years of age, and colorectal cancer in both men and women. These risks were associated with the following important factors:
With the three factors mentioned, significant increase in overall cancer risk was observed. Needless to say, there are other illnesses that can actually arise when large quantities of processed food are found in the diet. Aside from malignancies, ultra-processed food intake was also associated with a higher incidence of dyslipidemia, obesity, and hypertension. This was mainly because of the high salt, sugar, fat, and the low fiber and micronutrient content found in processed food.
High sodium diets are associated with increased risk of gastric illness which can eventually lead to stomach cancer. With these ultra-processed types of food, large amounts are often required in order to feel satisfied or full because most of them lack water or fiber that leads to early satiety. This is why more calories are consumed in the diet, leading to weight gain, obesity, and cardiovascular problems. Sugar also immediately shoots up a few minutes after consumption, increasing the risk of high blood sugar or diabetes.
Healthy Lifestyle Choices
According to the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) and the American Institute for Cancer Research, about a third of the most common malignancies can be avoided by simply changing lifestyle and dietary habits. Incidentally, in the same study mentioned earlier, consumption of minimally or unprocessed foods was associated with lower risks of overall cancer. Eating healthy, exercising regularly, and avoiding alcohol and tobacco are just some of the lifestyle changes often recommended.
For those who love meat, who simply cannot do away with red meat or processed meats, the FDA recommends limiting the amount found in the diet. They recommend eating no more than 16 ounces of cooked red and/or processed meat per week, which is roughly the size of a deck of cards weekly. Consumption of processed meats is associated with the high risk of developing colorectal cancer. The WCRF suggests these simple ways in order to reduce processed meat consumption:
Tips to Avoid Processed Food
To avoid ultra-processed food, it is important to first know what or which ones they are. With the definition and examples mentioned earlier, it would be much easier to identify which foods are processed and which are not. The following are simple, yet helpful tips that will surely help decrease processed food consumption, and ultimately decrease risk for illness and cancer.
Although easier said than done, all it really takes is a conscious decision to eat healthy and live a healthy life even before showing any signs of illness. Avoid smoking or drinking too much alcohol. Make small dietary changes. Choose healthier options like eating chicken instead of steak or snack on an apple instead of chips. Beginning is always the hardest part, so making a few lifestyle changes as early as now is always a good start.