Ultra-processing the causes of cancer

Diet is one of the most basic human concerns. And why shouldn’t it be? The human body needs food and water to survive. But perhaps over the last few decades there has been a sort of over-focus on foods, fads, low-carb diets, low-fat diets, high protein-diets and others that have been taken a bit to extreme. And when you realise that another of the human obsessions (at least the media one anyway) is exercise – low-intensity? high intensity? intervallic? strength? – you realise that these two can be a deadly combination. While they purport to help you lose inches, the amount of column inches they generate is amazing!

It is no surprise to find the Guardian reporting that ultra-processed foods can be linked to cancer in a recent study done by French researchers. Ultra-processed foods are those that have undergone processing that relies on chemicals outside the normal realm of preservation. In the kitchen, we normally put salt on meat to preserve it, but an ultra-processed food could be one that is cooked and then preserved using special chemicals to allow it to be stored in a can and have a long shelf life.

The diets of 100,000 people were studied and those individuals who consumed the highest proportion of processed food were found to have increases in the overall rate of cancer.

But because the consumption of processed foods covered a wide umbrella, it was difficult to isolate the specific chemical purporting to create a rise in cancer.

The rise in cancer may not necessarily be linked to a specific chemical either.

Certain chemicals might work in combination to create an increased cancer risk. The chemicals themselves may be safe, but may interact in unknown ways.

Furthermore, it might be a lifestyle issue anyway – as those who eat more ultra-processed foods are more likely to live a more stressful or hectic lifestyle, consume a higher-fat diet, exercise less and be more likley to smoke.

The risk of cancer is minimised with a reduction in smoking, and increased in physical activity, and a healthy diet that includes minimising the consumption of alcohol and eating fruits and vegetables. It is also perhaps managed by a comfortable level of stress. We could take the combination of these factors to give a “lifestyle score” to assess the risk of developing cancer, instead of looking at individual factors and trying to determine their individual impact. While certain individual factors do have a pre-dominant influence when taken far beyond the boundaries of normal well-being – for example, a person who drinks excessively and then develops cancer can have his cancer retrospectively linked to his alcohol consumption – the examination of how factors combine within a smaller boundary is perhaps useful research for the future. For example, if a person does not exercise, but eats healthily, is he or she more likely to develop cancer than someone who eats healthily but has a stressful lifestyle?

It is these kinds of combinations that could form the basis for useful research in the future.

The real health concern behind energy drinks

Could your regular normal drink give away your age? Possibly. It is conceivable that your pick-me-up in the morning is a general indicator of age. Those who prefer nothing more than a coffee are more likely to be working adults in their mid thirties or older. Those within the younger age brackets prefer to get a caffeine fix from energy drinks, the most popular among them being Red Bull, whose popularity has arguably been enhanced by its ability to be mixed with other drinks. Why is there this disparity in preference? It has been suggested that the older generation are more health conscious of the levels of sugar within the energy drinks and their effect, and hence avoid consuming them, while younger professionals who perhaps lead a more active lifestyle, including going to the gym, are more inclined to think they will somehow burn off the sugar over the course of the day, and they need the sugar to power them through the day, in addition to the caffeine.

Research suggests this kind of thinking pervades the younger generation, even right down to the teenage age group. In a bid to seem more mature, many are adopting the habits of those they see around them. The image of a twenty-something with energy drink in hand along with a sling bag, possibly a cigarette in the other, on the way to work, whatever work may be – perhaps a singer-songwriter? Or something with a socially glamorous title – is seemingly etched on the minds of youngsters as a life of having made it. This, coupled with the media images of celebrities on night outs with energy drinks in hand, to enable them to party the night through, have certainly promoted the rise of the energy drink among teenagers. It is arguable that energy drinks are the stepping stones from which the younger generation obtain their high before they progress to the consumption of alcohol. Research has demonstrated that it is usually within three years of starting energy drinks that a young adult progresses to consuming alcohol in the search of newer buzzes.

There are the obvious problems of over consumption of alcohol and it is of increasing concern that the copious amounts of energy drinks among young people prime them to reach for higher volumes of alcohol once they make the transition. Simply put, if a young person has habitually consumed three or four cans of Red Bull every day, and then progresses to try alcohol – usually the drink with the highest alcohol percentage, usually vodka for the same reason of the perception of being socially prestigious – then a starting point appears to be three or four shots of the alcoholic drink.

And one of the drinks that helps bridge the divide between energy drinks and alcohol?

Red Bull mixed with vodka.

Ever seen the videos of young adults knocking down shots of vodka or whisky like a fun game?

It seems that imprinted in the social subconscious is the idea that part of maturity and social status is the ability to knock down many shots of high strength alcohol. These has implications for the health of the future generation.

But it is not just the alcohol time bomb that is worrying. Over consumption of energy drinks causes tooth decay and a high level of caffeine and side effects within the body now.

A study of over 200 Canadian teenagers found that consumption of energy drinks caused incidences of sleeplessness and increased heart rate. They also reported other symptoms such as nausea and headaches.

But while the tabloids, in their usual way, exaggerated the links in the way that tabloids do, claiming that energy drinks can cause heart attacks and trigger underlying stress-related conditions, only one in five hundred suffered seizures, but even these cannot be traced directly to the energy drinks.

Energy drinks not only have implications on health, through the impact of sugar and caffeine, but they are subtly dangerous because they blur the lines between non-alcoholic drinks and alcoholic ones, and make the latter more trendy and accessible. In a way, they are similar to vaping. Both are supposedly healthier imitations of what they are supposed to replace. Apparently vaping has no significant effect on the compared to smoking; energy drinks are non-alcoholic ways of obtaining a high or rush.

The problem, however, is that once users have had their fill of these – the so-called healthier options – these options actually compel the individuals to move on to the less healthier option. And when they embark on the more health impacting lifestyle choices – either alcohol or smoking – the patterns of dependency have already long been established.

So the dangers of energy drinks are not so much they cause sleeplessness and increased heart rates.

It is actually that they propel individuals towards alcohol dependency. The main research question that should be asked, is, “Have you been tempted to try alcoholic drinks mixed with energy drinks such as Red Bull?”

One cigarette a day can cost a lot

According to the newspaper headlines of late, teenagers should be kept away from cigarette exposure because of this worrying statistic.

A survey of over 216,000 adults found that over 60% of them had been offered and tried a cigarette at some point, and of these, nearly 70% went on to become regular smokers. The conclusion drawn was that there are strong links between trying a cigarette ones to be sociable and going on to develop it as a habit.

This of course ended up in the newspapers with headlines such as “One cigarette is enough to get you hooked”. The Mail Online, Britain’s go-to newspaper for your important health news (and I’m being ironic here) went a step further, saying one puff from a cigarette was enough to get you hooked for life. Never mind if you had one draw of a cigarette, felt the nicotine reach your lungs, then coughed in revulsion at the bitter aftertaste and swore that you would never again try a cigarette again. The Mail Online bets you would return to the lure of the dark side, seduced by its nicotine offers.

I digress.

While we all know that any event, repeated many times becomes a habit, the statistics in this case are a little dubious.

The study was conducted by Queen Mary University (nothing dubious in itself) but among the various concerns were what you might call the high conversion rate. Nearly 70% of those who tried a cigarette once went on to smoke regularly as a habit.

I’m not sure why the 70% is worrying. In fact, I wonder why it is not 100%! Surely, if you asked a habitual smoker, “Have you smoked a cigarette before?”, the answer would be a resounding “Yes”!

Unless you have caught someone in the act of sneakily smoking his virgin cigarette. But he wouldn’t yet be a habitual smoker.

Let’s establish the facts of the matter again.

216,000 adults were surveyed.

130,000 of them (60% of the adults) had tried a cigarette before.

86,000 (40%) have never smoked before.

Of the 130,000 who had tried a cigarette before, 81,000 (70%) went on to become regular smokers.

49,000 (30%) of those who tried a cigarette before either did not go on to smoke at all or did not smoke regularly.

Another way of looking at the data would be as follows:

216,000 adults surveyed.

135,000 adults do not smoke regularly or at all. Some did try once in the past.

81,000 adults smoke regularly and these people have obviously tried a cigarette before.

Suddenly the data doesn’t look sexy anymore.

The data was an umbrella studywhich means data was pooled rather than created from scratch through surveys. As previously examined, the final outcome is also dependent on the integrity of the original source.

Bias can also creep in because the data has not been directly obtained and inferences have been drawn.

For example, the influence of e-cigarettes and vaping on the results have not been scrutinised, because some of the data may have existed before then.

Before we leave it at this, here is another example of data bias:
216,000 adults were surveyed.

130,000 of them (60% of the adults) had tried a cigarette before.

86,000 (40%) have never smoked before.

We can conclude that 100% of the 86,000 who have never smoked a cigarette in the past have never smoked a cigarette.

You can see the absurdity more when it’s spelt out more in words than in numbers.

If research is costly and expensive, in terms of money and time, then why is it wasted on these?

One reason is that it keeps academics and researchers in their jobs, if they produce findings that are financially low-cost but can stave off the question of what they actually do, and their purpose.

This kind of research is the academic version of the newspaper filler article, one that columnists generate based on the littlest of information, in order to fill the papers with “news”, that actually mask the fact that they are there to sell advertising space. And in this, columnists and researchers are at times colluding for the same purpose. Vultures who tear at the carcass of a small rodent and then serve up the bits as a trussed up main meal.

Unethical? Who cares, it seems. Just mask the flawed process and don’t make it too obvious.

Your daily sausage roll may exact its revenge on you in good time

Ever wonder why people go on a vegetarian or a vegan diet? There are many reasons I can think of.

The most common one is that people are very much against animal cruelty. People who avoid eating animal-based products are against the farming of animals, because they are convinced that animals are treated inhumanely. For example, battery hens are kept in small cages in large densities. Imagine if you and your fellow co-workers were put together in a small room, without any desks, and told to make the most of it. You’d all be up in arms about the way you were treated. The only difference between you and hens is that hens can’t protest about it.

The transition to a vegan diet is not just about not eating animals, although this can be a factor too. Vegans are against the eating of animal meat because of the way farm animals are killed. Cows, pigs and chickens, the main farm animals that are killed to provide the common English foods such as the English breakfast comprising sausages, bacon and eggs, are – in the opinion of vegans – inhumanely killed, despite the best of measures.

Do you know how a chicken is killed before it ends up deep fried in bread crumbs and served with your chips and bottle of cola? There are two main ways. The first is by electric methods. First of all, the birds are shackled to a conveyor belt by their legs, upside down. Needless to say, they don’t willingly walk to the machine and pick their positions. There is a lot of fluttering about, human exasperation, and rough handling of the birds which may result in broken bones – who cares, right? After all, the bird is going to be dead soon – before the conveyor belt brings the birds upside down into a water bath primed with an electric circuit. The moment the bird’s head touches the water, it is electrocuted to death.

The second method involves gassing to death. Birds are transported in their crates and exposed to suffocation. This method is arguably more humane, supporters say, because the birds are not manhandled. But don’t be fooled into thinking the bird’s welfare is under consideration. It is a faster, less human-intensive way of killing the birds. Sling them in the box and gas them to death. No messing around trying to catch the flapping things. Avoiding the need to shackle them also saves time.

There is a third reason often quoted for going further in being a vegan. Cows produce vast amounts of methane and if everyone stopped eating beef, it would be better for the enviroment. In this instance, it is not so much for the animal’s welfare, but more for the sake of avoiding the environmental pollution by the animal.

There may soon be another fourth reason for avoiding meat. Processed meats – which have been preserved using methods such as salting, curing, smoking or adding preservatives – have been linked with cancer.

A study involving 262,195 UK women showed links of breast cancer and processed meat. Postmenopausal women who ate processed meat had a 9% higher chance of getting breast cancer than women who ate no processed meat. Those who consumed more than 9g of processed meat had a 21% chance of getting cancer in comparison to those who avoided it altogether.

The study is significant because the sample size is large – not just 100 women, or a small negligible figure whose results may bias findings, but over 250,000 women; more than enough to be taken seriously.

The women were all between the ages of 40-69 and free of cancer when they were recruited for the study before 2010. They were followed for a period of seven years and the results examined.

Process meats are thought to possibly cause cancer because the methods involved in processing the meat may lead to the formation of cancer-causing compounds called carcinogens.

What is not so clear is whether it was the eating of processed meats in isolation that caused the development of cancer. There are other factors that should be taken into account, of course, such as alcohol, exercise, work stress, lifestyle factors and body mass index. Certain ethnicities may also be prone to developing cancer because of other dietary factors such as cooking with oil, ghee or lard.

The results also did not suggest that the findings would be equally applicable to men.

Nevertheless, it would be a good idea, if you were an older woman, to avoid eating processed meat every day. Instead the consumption could be limited to once every other day, or eating it as an occasional treat. Or cut out the meat completely – a switch to a vegetarian or a vegan diet would not only be good for your health. You would be considering the environment too.