Eating too many instant foods is associated with a higher risk of cancer.

By Jaime Milan
February 20, 2018
Photo: Westend61 / Getty

You already know it’s not healthy to eat microwave meals, fast-food nuggets or bags of chips—but according to a new study, a diet that includes these things even just a few times a week is associated with a major health drawback.

Research from The BMJ has found a correlation between those who eat ultra-processed foods and an increased risk of cancer.

Ultra-processed foods are products that use additives such as sweeteners, emulsifiers, preservatives, and artificial colors and flavors. They’re often high in calories, and high in sugar, fat, and sodium.

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One way to easily spot ultra-processed foods? Take a look at the nutrition label—if you spot a laundry list of unpronounceable or unrecognizable ingredients, there’s a good chance it’s ultra-processed.

According to the study, ultra-processed foods include things like cakes, chicken nuggets, sodas, processed meat, instant noodles, and chocolate bars. But it also includes mass-produced bread, and "frozen or shelf-stable ready meals." So even if those meals claim to be healthy, they may not be (here are 4 "healthy" buzzwords to beware of when shopping).

Researchers observed the diets of over 100,000 adults who used a system called NOVA to log their meals. Researchers then catalogued the 3,300 foods subjects ate by how “processed” they were.

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The study found that a 10% increase in eating ultra-processed foods was associated with a 12% increased risk of cancer—and an 11% increased risk of breast cancer.

The study says, “Ultra-processed fats and sauces, sugary products, and drinks were associated with an increased risk of overall cancer, and ultra-processed sugary products were associated with risk of breast cancer."

It's important to note that more studies have to be done before anyone can say that eating ultra-processed foods cause cancer. This study just found a correlation. There may be other factors relating to people who eat more ultra-processed foods that negatively affect their health.

The bottom line: A balanced diet rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables beats out packaged foods with no nutritional value any day.