Walking along the aisle of a grocery store, the shelves of ultra-processed foods do not cease to lure us into using our debit cards or taking those cash out of our pockets.

We can’t seem to take our eyes off that creamy Frappuccino or the mashed potato flakes. In our minds, that flavored granola bar with added sugar and preservatives is just the perfect snack to pack in our lunch boxes and the artificially flavoured cheese crackers are our go-to travel goodie.

For many years, most of us have heard about how bad these foods are for our bodies, so there’s no need for a refresher. But do you know that according to recent studies, these ultra-processed foods increase our risk of cancer?


A vast majority of the foods we consume are technically processed except we are taking milk directly from a cow or plucking almonds directly from a tree.

The International Food Information Council defines processing as “any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it is ready for us to eat.” This includes cooking, pasteurizing, canning and drying. Some definitions also include “refrigeration”.

However, just because our food has gone through some process doesn’t mean that our wholesome foods have suddenly become “junks”.

Summarily, processed foods are actually not the problem; ultra – processed foods are. “I would love to say there is a consensus on the definitions of processed and ultra-processed foods” says Carrie Gabriel, a registered dietician nutritionist “but I’ve seen plenty arguments on what qualifies as one or the other.

Despite this problem, ultra-processed foods are basically shaped by some common features. The change that turns a regular processed food into an ultra-processed one occurs in the last stage of food production known as “Tertiary Processing”.

While the primary stage of food processing involves harvesting grains, shelling nuts and slaughtering livestock, the secondary stage involves baking, cooking, canning, freezing and other such activities.

The tertiary stage however involves flavor injections, added fats and sugars and chemical preservatives which ultimately turn foods into the ultra-processed range.

According to a 2016 study, a long list of ingredients called “formulations” are primary indicators of ultra – processed foods. The study defined it as “Industrial formulations with five or more ingredients”.

Besides salt, sugar, oil and fats, these products include substances that are not used in culinary formulations. The authors of the study revealed that ultra-processed foods include any product which uses “additives” to imitate the unique features of real food.

All these “extras” are most certainly the culprits endangering our health.

These shiny, packaged, non-natural ultra-processed foods include fizzy drinks, sugary cereals, ready-to-eat packaged foods, packaged baked goods and snacks, reconstituted meat products – containing high levels of sugar, fat and salt but lacking in vitamins and fiber.

They are said to account for about 50 percent of total daily energy intake in several developed countries including the United States.


A study published by the BMJ reports a possible association between the intake of highly processed foods (ultra-processed foods) in the diet and cancer.

A team of researchers based in France and Brazil, embarked upon an evaluation of potential associations between cancer and the intake of ultra-processed foods, especially that of breast, prostate and bowel cancers.

Foods were categorized according to the level of processing and participants’ declaration made it possible for cases of cancer to be identified. Medical records and National databases spanning an average of five years validated these findings.

The results from this report suggest that the precipitously increasing consumption of ultra-processed food “may drive an increasing burden of cancer in the next decades.”

It was revealed that a 10% rise in the percentage 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 substantial association was found for prostate and colorectal cancers.

Further examination found no substantial link between less processed foods (such as freshly made unpackaged bread, canned vegetables and cheeses) and risk of cancer.

While consumption of fresh or slightly processed foods such as (fruits, vegetables, pulses, rice, pasta, eggs, meat, fish and milk) was linked to lower risks of overall cancer and breast cancer.

Nevertheless, the full implication of ultra-processed foods on our health and well-being, such as identifying the precise elements in ultra–processed foods that could lead to cancer are still under study.

According to Martin Lajous and Adriana Monge at the National Institute of Public Health in Mexico, this study provides “an initial insight into a possible link between ultra-processed foods and cancer” but “we are a long way from understanding the full implications of food processing for health and wellbeing.”

Though the actual causes of cancer remain mysterious, we must not only become more at alert but also more wary of what we put into our bellies.

Wouldn’t you rather choose quality and wholesome over quantity and comfort? Wouldn’t you think twice and check-in with your gut before putting those shiny, packaged, nothing-to-do-with-nature products into your shopping cart?

Our foods are more than just fuel and fillers, they reflect the kind of relationship we have with ourselves. The creamier the Frappuccino, the higher the risk of cancer and no one really wants to invest so much in untimely death.

So the next time you head to the grocery store should be the time you put an imaginary “skip this area” sign on the aisle of ultra – processed foods.


Wardah Abbas

Wardah Abbas is a writer and journalist with over six years experience. She writes on Lifestyle, Social Justice and Mental health.

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