Packet soups, reconstituted ham, tasteless ready-meals full of additives, desserts mega-sweetened with powdered milk… Within a few decades, our grandchildren will be astonished by what we were prepared to eat at the beginning of the 21st century. A crazy period when ‘fake-foods’ accounted for half our daily intake. For now though, this remains the sad reality while we wait patiently for these aberrations to disappear from our supermarket shelves and plates.
But the tide is beginning to turn
. After monitoring 100,000 people over a period of eight years, French scientists have just reported a link between consumption of ‘ultra-processed’ foods and an increased risk of cancer1
. In a nutshell, if you were to suddenly increase the percentage of ultra-processed products in your diet by 10%, it seems your overall risk of cancer would rise by 12%. Their study published in The British Medical Journal
(BMJ) only adds to the suspicions already surrounding these products, particularly in relation to obesity, diabetes, hypertension, inflammatory diseases and cardiovascular problems.
Which products constitute ‘ultra-processed’ foods?
Not sure which products count as ‘ultra-processed’? Take a tour of your supermarket and look for foodstuffs where the matrix structure has been completely changed. These are not processed foods like cheese, bread or pasta, but those which cease to contain anything natural, which have an endless list of ingredients on the back of the packet, and which are artificially loaded with fat, salt, sugar, glucose syrup, and preservatives, along with a whole host of additives to give them the look, taste and palatability of normal food. You can’t miss them: certain aisles contain little else (they’re thought to represent up to 80% of the packaged foods sold in supermarkets).2
Before these foods were technically classified as ‘ultra-processed products’, they were labelled together as the highly-evocative ’junk food’
. Sweet biscuits, blended wheat cereals, fast food, margarine, crisps, sausages, ice cream, reconstituted sliced bread, nuggets, savoury snacks – the list goes on and on. Mass distribution and marketing in the agro-food sector has succeeded in creating a widespread appetite for products that are easy to mass-produce (and therefore profitable), but have no nutritional benefit and which are actually quite harmful to our health.
How can you recognise ‘ultra-processed’ foods?
To help us identify them, the scientists came up with a list of factors: 3
- They are industrially-produced foods manufactured from five or more ingredients (hydrogenated oils, hydrolysed proteins, maltodextrins, soya lecithin, rice starch, glucose syrup, and inverted sugars, amongst many others.).
- They contain various additives designed to mimic the sensory properties of real food or mask the unpleasant ones of final products.
- They are products not found in such a form in Nature: they are processed by recombining elements to the point where the base food is no longer recognisable.
- They are cleverly and seductively-packaged, sometimes featuring claims or marketing slogans.
Such products do sometimes serve a purpose (army survival rations, treats, exceptional situations, sports or social events) but they should not account for over half our calorie intake, as is the case at the moment.
What’s more, Brazilian scientists have shown that the risk to health starts to rise significantly when such foods exceed 13% of our calorie intake. 4
Will this study change anything?
This is the first study
to really look at the risk of cancer in humans, though animal research had already pointed to several of the ingredients in ultra-processed foods as having carcinogenic effects. Further studies are therefore required before these products can be definitively considered to be carcinogenic.
In the meantime, we will now see the agro-food sector launching an absolutely classic strategy
typical of industries accused of selling products associated with risk factors for cancer.
Here’s an identikit of such a strategy:
to continue promoting the product known to be harmful, squeezing the maximum profit out of it for as long as possible.
While the risks remain have yet to be recognised by the entire scientific community: arrange for experts to contest the research findings and continually emphasise the absence of proof.
Relativize the risks, and appear willing to reduce them (by modifying the product’s composition or adding safety measures).
Admit the health risks but insist the product has other advantages, or even that it is essential to society.
Each stage needs to last as long as possible in order that the manufacture and promotion of the harmful product can continue. As more and more facts emerge over time, those involved start to modify their disinformation: they typically switch from saying the product is safe (or at least there’s no proof of a health risk) to talking about applying sense when using the product (“it’s the dose that makes the poison”).
They’re able to employ such a strategy because there’s a long interval (10-40 years) between exposure to risk factors and appearance of disease, which clearly benefits those propagating the disinformation.
To gain a clearer understanding of what could happen with ultra-processed foods, let’s take a look at the strategies employed by lobbyists for three risk factors, deemed to be class 1 by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer.
1) The tobacco industry
In 1950, British scientists Doll and Hill publish the first study to establish a direct link between smoking and lung cancer.
Cigarette manufacturers discover the same link in their research laboratories in 1953.
They launch media campaigns to deny these first scientific findings and try to promote research designed to refute the facts.
: In Le Nouvel Observateur, 24 February 1975, Pierre Millet, Director of SEITA (part of the Imperial Tobacco Group) declares that: “The relationship between tobacco abuse and a certain number of diseases (cardiovascular, cancer …) has never been scientifically established. […] it’s fashionable to target smoking. It’s no more or less responsible than other factors [...]
At the beginning of the 1980s, smoking is universally considered to be damaging to health. The tobacco industry shifts its position, focusing on minimising the importance and reassuring smokers
At the end of 1996, SEITA’s CEO, Jean-Dominique Comolli, claims that: “While it’s undeniable that smoking may be annoying for non-smokers, the risk of serious illness has not been demonstrated today.
At the end of the Nineties, the tobacco industry finally admits the risks but positions smoking as a ‘small pleasure’ which relieves stress in the same way as chocolate, coffee or wine5.
: “ Instead of being obsessed by health, everyone should be obsessed by pleasure, which promotes good health
” - a memo from Philip Morris unearthed from ‘tobacco documents’.
2) The asbestos industry
At the start of the 20th century, labour inspectors strongly suspect asbestos of causing work-related diseases.
The asbestos industry denies this, concealing for decades what they’d been the first to discover (the carcinogenicity of asbestos), preventing scientists from publishing results and engaging in huge disinformation campaigns6
From 1975, as studies increase, the asbestos industry admits the risks but claims asbestos can be used safely by taking precautions. It stresses how there are no alternatives to asbestos and how many jobs it generates.
: “The evidence available to date does not support the theory that asbestos-related diseases or impaired function develops after exposure to the concentrations of asbestos found in the majority of buildings.
“Exposure to low concentrations of asbestos presents no risk to health. The level of panic is unprecedented and the sums being spent on removing it are ridiculous.
”. Mme Sussman, an author connected to the asbestos industry, in February 1990.
Asbestos is banned in France in 1996. The asbestos industry attacks the court’s decision and begins to focus on other markets (China and Russia for example).
3) The processed meats industry
Our third case study concerns the nitrites and nitrates present in processed and certain other meats. These substances are injected into meat to speed up the salting process (it takes 90 days instead of nine months to produce ham using potassium nitrate, which significantly increases profits, and the process is almost instant with the more powerful sodium nitrite). The problem is that when they break down, nitrate and nitrite combine with organic compounds to produce carcinogenic molecules.
Beginning in 1924, French medical authorities consider the use of nitration agents in charcuterie to be potentially dangerous.
Manufacturers insist there’s no proof that nitrated charcuterie is damaging to health.
From 1975, cancer specialists understand how the use of nitrating additives increases the incidence of cancerous tumours. The processed meats lobby admits the risks but claims only minute traces are present.
: in 1992, the press representing these vested interests pours scorn on the health warnings, writing in Farmers weekly
: “ a man of average build would have to eat 11.35 tons of bacon a day to be at risk of cancer
”. For years, then, the risk is played down.
“We don’t believe there’s any point in alarming people and depriving them of charcuterie as the industry, aware of the phenomenon, only uses nitrites in tiny amounts. In addition, ascorbic acid (vitamin C) or erythorbic acid is added to brine to counteract the adverse effects”.
Hélène Doucet Leduc, Dt. P, in 1992.
In 2007, the World Cancer Research Fund advises against all consumption of processed meat. In 2015, after 30 years of epidemiological research and more than 800 compelling studies, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies processed meat as category 1 (ie, a ‘certain carcinogen’). According to the IARC, each 50g daily portion of such foods increases the risk of bowel cancer (the second most common cancer in France) by 18%.
The new strategy is thus multi-faceted.
4) The agro-food industry
- Claim that it’s impossible to produce processed meats without the use of nitration additives: and even claim it’s the only way of combatting botulism – this, despite the fact that hundreds of manufacturers in Europe produce such meats without using nitration. Their secret? They don’t rush it and rely on traditional methods.
- Constantly emphasise the number of jobs generated by agro-food businesses (440,926 employees).
- Insist on the right to enjoy yourself we’re all going to die of something, so eat well and enjoy yourself”).
The ultra-processed foods industry is highly likely to follow a similar strategic path if further studies confirm what has long been suspected: that their products are ticking time bombs. In the meantime, the current strategy is at stage 1: blanket denial
Catherine Chapalain, Chief Executive of ANIA (the French National Association of Food Industries) has already thrown down the gauntlet: “so far, only a correlation, rather than a causal link, has been shown between ultra-processed foods and increased risk of cancer
”. Her intervention is supported by an ‘editorial’ in the same medical journal, signed by two researchers in response to the study published just a few days before. According to them, the study’s findings are distorted by factors such as “smoking and physical activity” and it’s therefore important “not to draw hasty conclusions
”. When you dig a little deeper, however, you notice that one of the editorial’s authors declares a conflict of interest: he’s the recipient of a grant from AstraZeneca, an international biopharmaceutical group, the agro-food activities of which enabled the creation of the giant Syngenta7
Don’t wait for phase 2: seize the initiative
This stage of denial by agro-food interests will not last long. But you don’t have to wait for another alert before taking action!
Starting today, you can make the decision to reduce your consumption of these ‘fake foods’
which are undermining your health. And don’t for a minute fall for the industry’s arguments:
You will not be harming jobs:
by choosing good quality products, you’ll be valuing other sectors and helping to promote healthier eating.
You won’t be depriving yourself:
when you cook healthy products yourself, the pleasure increases tenfold and can also be shared.
And if you don’t manage to sufficiently reduce your intake of these foods (due to lack of time, for example), you can still take steps to combat the effects of the ingredients they contain which are thought to promote cancer and cardiovascular problems: the preservatives, trans fatty acids, pesticides, sweeteners … All these chemicals make your oxidative stress levels shoot up and are associated with the development of cancer. To reduce them, there are two solutions: increase your consumption of fruit and vegetables (which is bound to happen if you cut right down on ultra-processed foods) and/or supplement with natural source antioxidants such as those combined in the excellent formulation AntiOxidant Synergy
(extracts of pine bark, grapeseed, pomegranate and sea buckthorn).
If you want to find out more about the fake foods that have found their way onto our plates, Dr Anthony Fardet, a researcher in preventive and holistic diets, has just published an excellent book called Halte aux aliments ultra-transformés ! Mangeons vrai (Call time on ultra-processed products. Let’s eat real food!)
1. Fiolet Thibault, Srour Bernard, Sellem Laury, Kesse-Guyot Emmanuelle, Allès Benjamin, Méjean Caroline et al. Consumption of ultra-processed foods and cancer risk: results from NutriNet-Santé prospective cohort BMJ 2018; 360 :k322 http://www.bmj.com/content/360/bmj.k322
2. Luiten, C. M., I. H. Steenhuis, et al. (2016). « Ultra-processed foods have the worst nutrient profile, yet they are the most available packaged products in a sample of New Zealand supermarkets », Public Health Nutr 19(3) : 530-538.
3. Monteiro, C., G. Cannon, et al. (2016). « The star shines bright » World Nutrition 7(1-3) : 28-38.
4. Louzada, M.L., Baraldi, L.G., Steele, E.M. et al. « Consumption of ultra-processed foods and obesity in Brazilian adolescents and adults », 2015, Prev Med 81:9-15.
5. Gérard Dubois, Le rideau de fumée : les méthodes secrètes de l’industrie du tabac. Seuil, 2003. Page 290.
6. Gisèle Umbhauer, « De l’amiante au chrysotile, une évolution stratégique de la désinformation », Revue d'économie industrielle, 131 | 2010, 105-132.
7. Monge Adriana, Lajous Martin. Ultra-processed foods and cancer BMJ 2018; 360 :k599