This past week the news media ran some frightening headlines regarding consumer food choices and increased rates of various cancers. Consider the following examples:
- NBC: “Highly processed foods may raise cancer risk, study finds”
- USA Today: “Study suggests link between consumption of ultra-processed foods and cancer”
- CNN: “Ultra-processed foods linked to cancer”
- BBC: “Ultra-processed foods linked to cancer risk”
- Daily Mail Online: “Processed foods are driving up rates of cancer: Major study reveals the health threat including cereal, energy bars, sausages, and chocolate”
Are the media headlines justified by the actual study or is this another case of the naïve media being duped once again by junk science, an ongoing problem.
The headlines are based upon the study “Consumption of ultra-processed foods and cancer risk,” reported in the British Medical Journal, February 2018. The “study” followed the participants on average for five years, collecting what they considered relevant data involving over 100,000 participants’ lifestyle habits, which included diet, alcohol ingestion, body weight, exercise habits, etc. They obtained the data using an online questionnaire that collected two to three days’ worth of daily lifestyle habits every six months.
There are many problems with this study, but here are the five obvious ones – which should have been apparent to any journalists covering this piece and prevented the absurd headlines.
First: The study’s authors clearly state that the research “assessed the association [my emphasis] between ultra-processed food consumption and risk of cancer.” As I have pointed out in other articles, an association between two things does not show a cause-and-effect relationship, just an association. See principle No. 1 in this column.
Second: Self-reported lifestyle questionnaires are highly inaccurate and are contingent upon the participants reliably answering the questions. This type of data collection is impossible to validate, especially recall data, and the likelihood that most participants were honest regarding their self-reported body weight, exercise duration and frequency, alcohol intake, smoking habits, food intake, etc. is a major obstacle in taking this study seriously. Additionally, the study relied on only a two to three-day self-reported diet history every six months, which allegedly represented participants’ daily dietary habits over the entire six months. This is an unlikely assumption. Essentially, garbage in = garbage out.
Third: The authors attempt to equate much of the increased cancer rates in this population group with the increased intake of various chemicals, which, according to the authors, “have carcinogenic properties.” These chemicals include such items as acrylamide, purported endocrine disruptors such as bisphenol A, nitrites, aspartame, etc.
I have discussed the safety of most of these compounds in past articles, so I will not address it again. The only way these items are going to harm you, as Josh Bloom, Ph.D., director of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), has stated, is if the truck carrying the stuff happens to run over you. The purported carcinogenicity of these compounds is based upon studies of rodents that have been fed volumes of the compounds humanly impossible to consume. Additionally, 99.9 percent of the potential rodent carcinogens people eat are naturally occurring in food. For an excellent example of this, see the Holiday Dinner Menu from the ACSH.
Fourth: The authors use an unreliable reference as their source for the potential carcinogenicity of the chemicals they highlight in the article, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). The IARC has gained a reputation of fearmongering rather than identifying true health risks.
The American Council on Science and Health points out, “IARC has become a fringe group, seemingly more interested in scaring people than identifying actual health threats. Any organization that declares bacon to be as dangerous as plutonium has entirely lost its way” (“Glyphosate-Gate: IARC Scientific Fraud”).
The ACSH also points out in an April 20, 2017, report, “The IARC Credibility Gap And How To Close It,” that the IARC program on “Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks” must be reformed and brought into the 21st century – “or it should be abolished.” Additionally, “the IARC has continued to apply its classification system largely as if the last half-century of scientific research hadn’t happened, completely ignoring issues of dose and exposure that are fundamental to risk assessment as it has been practiced around the world for several decades. The result is an unhelpful, even absurdist, scheme, in which chemicals with orders of magnitude differences in cancer potency are placed in the same group.”
Fifth: The media’s and researchers’ failed to go with the obvious causative variable, poor overall lifestyle and dietary habits, not specific chemicals they wish to demonize. In a previous column, I described the LSD, the acronym for a Lousy Stinking Diet, which is exactly what the participants who were experiencing higher rates of cancer were on. The study clearly points out that those participants whose diets contained up to 50 percent of their total daily calories consuming ultra-processed foods were experiencing higher rates of cancer. Well, this amounts to a big DUH. The extreme lack of fruits, vegetables and whole grains in the diets of those experiencing higher rates of cancer should have made the conclusion of this study obvious. As an example, consider these compounds from produce and grains that play a role in the prevention of cancer: Alkylresorcinols, carotenoids, flavonoids, isoflavones, indoles, isothiocyanates, lignans, monoterpenes, tannins, etc., to name just a few of the thousands of plant chemicals missing from the diets. Additionally, if the participants in question adhered to such abysmal dietary habits, then they are likely to follow just as appalling a routine in relation to other lifestyle habits.
The essential point: The moderate inclusion of processed foods will not increase your risk for cancer; the exclusion of produce and grains will. Adhering to a completely irresponsible lifestyle, clearly indicated by the high-risk participants in this study, will certainly lead to increased rates of a myriad of negative health consequences. This is common sense.