Study: Processed Food May Increase Colorectal Cancer Risk

We’re all busy with the hustle and bustle of life.

It’s tempting to grab fast food or buy ready-to-eat food to avoid cooking after a long day.

But choosing those ultra-processed foods may cost you more than the money in your wallet.

We already know that processed food is bad for your health, but an August 2022 study in The BMJ suggests that consuming ultra-processed food may increase risk for a serious disease – colorectal cancer.

Let’s unpack these study results and what they mean for Latinos.

What Are Ultra-Processed Foods?

Ultra-processed foods – industrial ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat formulations made of little or no whole foods – now contribute 57% of total daily calories consumed by American adults, according to the study.

These foods are usually rich in sugar, oils/fats, and refined starch, which contribute to obesity – a risk factor for colorectal cancer.

Are You Really What You Eat?

men processed food
Average men’s diet in the study.

Researchers studied the demographics, medical conditions, and lifestyle (including diet) of approximately 159,907 women and 46,341 men over 24 to 28 years.

In that time, 1,294 cases of colorectal cancer among men and 1,922 cases among women were documented.

After analyzing data, researchers found that high total consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer in men.

Higher consumption of certain subgroups, including meat/poultry/seafood-based ready-to-eat products and sugar sweetened beverages, also increased men’s cancer risk.

women processed food
Average woman’s diet in the study.

In women, researchers observed a positive association with colorectal cancer for higher consumption of ready-to-eat/heat mixed dishes.

In conclusion, eating ultra-processed foods may pose a greater risk for colorectal cancer in men than women, but both sexes are at risk.

“The findings support the public health importance of limiting certain types of ultra-processed foods for better health outcomes in the population,” according to the study.

Latinos and Colorectal Cancer

Latinos face a variety of inequities that make it difficult to eat healthy, such as having a low income and living in a food desert.

For example, Latino neighborhoods have one-third fewer grocery stores and fewer farmer’s markets than non-Latino ones, according to a Salud America! research review.

These inequalities can result in higher consumption of unhealthy foods and an increased risk of obesity – an established risk factor for colorectal cancer.

While generally the mortality rates of colorectal cancer in the US are declining, the decrease is smaller among Latinos compared to non-Hispanic whites.

Colorectal cancer mortality rates remain stagnant among Latinos for a few potential reasons, including less access to health insurance and healthcare, resulting in delayed diagnosis and treatment and affordability of treatment.

What Can Latinos Do to Prevent Colorectal Cancer?

You can’t necessarily prevent cancer, but you can decrease your risk for the disease by making the healthiest choices possible.

You can also get screened for cancer, as appropriate.

San Antonio resident Linda Moreno, for example, had her first colonoscopy at age 33 because of her family history.

Doctors found and removed two polyps.

“Being Latina, I strongly encourage anyone with a family history of colorectal cancer to follow the screening guidelines,” Moreno said. “When you have a family history of cancer, it doesn’t matter what age you are—you need to get checked.”

“Colorectal cancer, like many cancers, can be treated if caught early. The best way to treat it is to prevent it,” said Alicia Logue, MD, a fellowship-trained colorectal surgery specialist at the Mays Cancer Center. “Finding growths called polyps in the colon or rectum and removing them can prevent colorectal cancer and the suffering it causes. Colonoscopy enables us to locate and remove these small growths early.”

You Can Help Researchers Address Colorectal Cancer (And Other Cancers)

You have the power to help current cancer patients and future survivors by participating in a clinical trial.

Historically, Latinos are underrepresented in clinical trials.

This lack of Latino representation makes it harder for researchers to learn more about Latino health and find treatments tailored for this group — which makes up 18.9% of the US population.

That’s why Dr. Amelie Ramirez, director of Salud America! and its home base, the Institute for Health Promotion Research (IHPR) at UT Health San Antonio, and Dr. Patricia Chalela, associate professor at the IHPR at UT Health San Antonio, are creating new ways to urge Latinos to volunteer for clinical trials thanks to a grant from Genentech, a member of the Roche Group.

Does diversity in clinical trials really matter?

Yes, just ask Willie Heard.

He was diagnosed with Myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), a group of bone marrow cancers in which the bone marrow does not produce enough healthy blood cells.

Heard didn’t hesitate to consider a clinical trial and is feeling better after treatment.

“The main reason [I joined the trial was] to help other people,” Heard said. “It meant a lot to me to participate, I really like participating in it.”

Through the Salud America! clinical trials page, you can find an open trial that is most beneficial to you and your familia!

“[Clinical research] can produce a substantial, sustained impact. And they can ensure everyone equitably benefits from scientific advances in cancer treatment, improved cancer outcomes, and reduced health care costs,” said Dr. Ramirez.


Read more on studies and clinical trials!

You can also advocate for Latino health.

Select your county and get a Health Equity Report Card by Salud America! at UT Health San Antonio.

In your report card, you will see maps, data, and gauges to compare health equity issues, including obesity rates and food access, to the rest of your state and nation.

You can email your Health Equity Report Card to local leaders to stimulate community change. Use the data in your materials or share on social media to raise awareness.

Get your Health Equity Report Card!

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