Processed food identified as villains

Fries and Burger on Plate

It started with Jamie Oliver having a down on chicken nuggets.  He was vilified by Mums who relied on feeding these to their kids as an easy, and they thought nutirtious way, of getting them to eat.

After Jamie got the flack, other chefs were scared to put their heads above the parapet.  But if we read the bulletins coming out of the reliable research centres, it became apparent that an awful of lot of what we stuffed into our mouths wasn’t doing us much good.

Then, I went in to hospital after a trip to A & E.  At home, I tend to eat sensibly, simply because I am all for encouraging farmers and local growers – so get food delivered from a small farm depot just outside the M25.  Every week Robert dumps a box of fresh produce, from freshly-churned butter to carrots black with soil – and I chomp my way through organic free-from, fresh, organic and genuinely old-fashioned food – I’m an old-fashioned relic myself.

I didn’t realise just how ‘free-from’ this food was, until I ended up in St. Mary’s hospital.  My first night I eat some hospital meal, and then spent the next few hours being sick.  There must have been so many preservatives in the food that my stomach wasn’t used to these, and rebelled.

Probably nothing wrong with the food – everyone else seemed to be eating it, but I couldn’t take the additives.  I did try to ask if I might have a boiled egg, or something simple – but that’s not possible -it’s got to have preservatives as it is all cooked 24 hours before it’s served.

BMJ (British Medical Journal) Study

So it was no surprise to read in the BMJ that a “Study suggests possible link between highly processed foods and cancer”.

A recent study published by The BMJ reported a possible association between intake of highly processed (“ultra-processed”) food in the diet and cancer.

The BMJ says that further study is needed, but results suggest “that the rapidly increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods may drive an increasing burden of cancer in the next decades”.

What are these ‘villains’?

Ultra-processed foods include packaged baked goods and snacks, fizzy drinks, sugary cereals, ready meals and reconstituted meat products – often containing high levels of sugar, fat, and salt, but lacking in vitamins and fibre. They are thought to account for up to 50% of total daily energy intake in several developed countries.- and that certainly includes the UK.

This is also a catalyst for higher risks of obesity, high blood pressure and cholesterol levels.  But firm evidence linking intake to risk of disease is still scarce.  However, this is the researchers being cautious, but more and more the finger is pointing  at what most of us acknowledge are foods not to be eaten – or in moderation.

What the research did

Researchers based in France and Brazil, set out to evaluate potential associations between ultra-processed food intake and risk of overall cancer such as breast, prostate, and bowel (colorectal) cancers.

Their findings are based on 104,980 healthy French adults (22% men; 78% women) with an average age of 43 years who completed at least two 24-hour online dietary questionnaires, designed to measure usual intake of 3,300 different food items  (NutriNet-Santé cohort study).

Foods were grouped according to degree of processing and cases of cancer were identified from participants’ declarations validated by medical records and national databases over an average of five years.

Several well known risk factors for cancer, such as age, sex, educational level, family history of cancer, smoking status and physical activity levels, were taken into account.

The results show that a 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet was associated with increases of 12% in the risk of overall cancer and 11% in the risk of breast cancer. No significant association was found for prostate and colorectal cancers.

Ultra-cautious Research

As I have found out, living on my own, and being very reliant in shopping direct from the farm, which has meant organic meat, free-range eggs, etc. unwittingly I have been eating an exemplary diet.  I can assure everyone this was pure laziness, as Robert and his team kept me supplied without me having to do any hard work!  But I seem to have found the right equation.

The study was an observational one, so no firm conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect, and the researchers point to some limitations. For example, they cannot rule out some mis-classification of foods or guarantee detection of every new cancer case.

However, anecdotally I have noticed that my stomach starts to ‘curl up’ if faced with processed food now, and if I still go ahead and eat what’ on my plate in a fast-food outlet, I often end up being sick.  My stomach just doesn’t seem to tolerate today’s sliced bread, processed meat or ‘home baked’ and packaged food.  And as for ‘hand cooked’, how can crisps in massive jumbo packs be ‘hand cooked’?


As the BMJ cautiously says, “To our knowledge, this study is the first to investigate and highlight an increase in the risk of overall – and specifically breast – cancer associated with ultra-processed food intake,”

But when you think about it, although our ancestors didn’t live as long, it often was TB, diptheria, scarlet fever, smallpox etc. that killed them – not cancer. So perhaps we should all think about

  • Food miles – fresher the better
  • Fresh – no preservatives
  • No additives – and beware that ‘fat free’ often means added sugar to compensate for taste
  • Cooking simply at home – then we know what has gone into food

And encourage restaurants who proudly print on their menus where food is sourced from, which farm rears their meat, how they catch their fish, and who grows their fruit and veg.  Let’s support them!

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