Your Weekly Checkup: Don’t Sabotage Your Health with Ultra-processed Foods

“Your Weekly Checkup” is our online column by Dr. Douglas Zipes, an internationally acclaimed cardiologist, professor, author, inventor, and authority on pacing and electrophysiology. Dr. Zipes is also a contributor to The Saturday Evening Post print magazine. Subscribe to receive thoughtful articles, new fiction, health and wellness advice, and gems from our archive. 

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As I ate my cereal for breakfast this morning, I read the ingredients listed on the box. In addition to the usual alphabet of vitamins, the cereal contained phosphorus, zinc, iron, magnesium, syrup, sugar, fats, and a variety of oils, salt, glycerin, molasses, soy, lecithin, corn starch…and the list went on. Can all these be good for me, I wondered?

According to a recent article in the British Medical Journal, ultra-processed foods packed with artificial flavors, additives, or emulsifiers typically contain more calories, sugar, fats, and salt than non-processed foods. People relying on such a diet tend to be more overweight and more likely to have cardiovascular problems or diabetes. A study in 2016 found that 50-60% of the calories in the average American, Canadian, and United Kingdom diets come from this kind of food, and more of the developing world is beginning to eat this way.

Several studies have also found a link between processed foods and cancer. Eating lots of processed meat like hot dogs is associated with an increased risk of bowel cancer. French researchers, analyzing 24-hour dietary records of nearly 105,000 adults in the NutriNet-Santé study, an ongoing web-based cohort launched in 2009, found that a 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed fats and sauces, sugary products, and drinks was associated with an increased risk for overall cancer, and ultra-processed sugary products were associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.

What might be the cause of a cancer relationship? Ultra-processed foods can contain contaminants with cancer-causing properties such as those found in heat treated processed foods. In addition, food packaging may contain carcinogenic materials that come in contact with the foods. Some food additives such as sodium nitrite in processed meat may be carcinogenic.

Importantly, food experts caution against strict interpretation of these results because of many confounding factors such as the lifestyle of those who eat these products: they may be more likely to smoke, not get enough exercise, and not eat healthy foods that might reduce risks of cancer.

What is the best advice? Eat a balanced and diversified diet containing real foods such as fresh, dried, ground, chilled, frozen, pasteurized, or fermented foods like fruits, vegetables, rice, pasta, eggs, meat, fish, or milk. Resist—as much as possible—mass produced packaged breads and buns; sweet packaged snacks, confectionery and desserts; and sodas and sweetened drinks. Avoid reconstituted meat products with added preservatives found in some meats, poultry, and fish nuggets. Instant noodles and soups, frozen or shelf stable ready meals, and other food products made mostly or entirely from sugar, oils and fats, modified starches, and protein isolates are probably not good, either. They often contain flavoring agents, colors, emulsifiers, humectants, non-sugar sweeteners, and other additives to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product.

If your conscience tweaks you after sneaking that jelly donut or a side of bacon with those eggs, remember what I’ve said before: moderation in all things, including moderation.