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Processed foods can cause you to pack on the pounds, but now there’s another reason to think twice before hitting the drive-thru. A study in The British Medical Journal finds ultra-processed foods are linked to an increased risk for cancer. According to study researchers, foods associated with the elevated danger include: 

  • Mass produced packaged breads and baked goods
  • Sodas and sweetened drinks
  • Instant noodles and soups
  • Sweet or savory packaged snacks
  • Industrialized confectionery and deserts
  • Meatballs, chicken nuggets and fish sticks
  • Reconstituted meats transformed with the addition of preservatives other than salt, such as nitrates
  • Frozen or shelf-stable meals
  • Food products made mostly or entirely from sugars, oils and fats

The researchers point out that people who tend to eat more ultra-processed foods tend to smoke more and exercise less, but despite these lifestyle factors, they still found a heightened cancer-risk associated with ultra-processed foods.

Ultra-processed foods often contain more fat, saturated fat, added sugar and salt, and have less fiber and vitamin density than their fresh food counterparts. Processing food creates carcinogenic compounds such as acrylamide and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. And these foods can contain food additives like sodium nitrite or titanium dioxide, which have been linked to cancer in animals. There is also concern chemicals from the packaging can leak into the food.

Moffitt Cancer Center dietitian Kate Allen encourages a diet balanced with fresh, whole foods in their natural form and minimally processed foods. She says, "Avoiding processed foods on the go is challenging and definitely requires thought.  Meal preparing several days in advance or the night before is encouraged."

If you have to eat on the go, Allen advises the following meal plan:

  • Breakfast - A fruit smoothie with added protein
  • Lunch/Dinner - Vegetarian burrito bowl or a Mediterranean summer salad
  • Snacks - Popcorn made with sea salt and sunflower oil,  trail mix or a piece of fresh fruit with a handful or two of nuts or seeds 

Before you clean out your pantry, keep in mind less-processed foods such as pasta, cheese and canned vegetables were not associated with an increased cancer risk. The researchers say more information is needed and they are a long way from understanding the full implications of food processing for health and well-being.

Food for thought as you select your next snack or meal.