As reported by the British Medical Journal, French scientists have found a link between ultra-processed foods and cancer. The study of 105,000 adults, mostly middle-aged women, found that the more ultra-processed foods you eat, the higher your risk of cancer. So what is an ultra-processed food and how is it different than a processed one? This is more than just an issue of semantics. The backbone of the study is a unique food classification system known as NOVA.

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NOVA food classification system breaks food into four categories. Group 1 is the unprocessed or minimally processed foods category. These are the edible parts of plants and animals and have had no substances added to the original food. Removing inedible parts, drying and similar processes are permitted for storage and consumption purposes. This category includes nourishing whole foods.

Processed culinary ingredients is the second group. These items are derived directly from the first group or from nature. Items in this group are rarely consumed on their own and some examples are salt, olive oil, and butter.  Preservatives and additives are allowed. Group 3 consists of processed foods. These generally contain only a few ingredients. Members of the processed foods group include cured meats, fresh bread, sugared nuts, and simple canned items like fish and fruit canned.

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Group 4 is the ultra-processed food and drink category. These are industrial formulas that have been designed with the express purpose of replacing the healthier foods found in groups 1 through 3. Ultra-processed foods contain at least five but usually many more ingredients and these ingredients are often only available in a factory setting.

Ultra-processed foods lean heavily on a murderer’s row of toxic artificial ingredients to make them shelf stable and marginally edible. Such health destroying heavy hitters are not found in nature and include high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, artificial dyes, flavor enhancers, hydrogenated oils, emulsifiers and a host of other toxic chemicals.

Ingredients and manufacturing processes are not all that distinguish ultra-processed foods. Just as important are the slick marketing campaigns and attractive packaging. Ultra-processed foods are highly profitable products and their sales depend on aggressively targeting children.

Ultra-processed foods pose a two-pronged threat. They are a direct risk to your health because of their industrial formulations and they also pose a general risk to society as a whole because of they are backed by unscrupulous marketing techniques. This is an important distinction, just as important as the fact that, unlike processed foods, ultra-processed foods contain ingredients that would have seemed inconceivable a few generations ago. In their pursuit of profit, multinational corporations are working hard to replace nourishing and healthful foods in your diet with ultra-processed garbage. This is simply unconscionable.

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With the most of the irredeemably unhealthy foods available lumped into the category “ultra-processed,” it is no surprise that scientists found a cancer link. It has long since been established that a widespread adoption of poor eating habits and ultra-processed foods is a major driving force behind the spike in cancer rates over the last several decades.

There’s a good chance that you eat some ultra-processed foods, and if this is the case reading the label is invaluable. There are thousands of ‘red flags’ to watch out for in the foods you eat, but a handful take the proverbial plastic-wrapped cake for worst of the worst. Make sure you avoid high-fructose corn syrup, synthetic trans fats, artificial flavors, monosodium glutamate, artificial colors, artificial sweeteners and preservatives.

Toxic ingredients play a huge role in the profitability of ultra-processed foods. Artificial flavors may have been initially used to make vile-tasting, ultra-processed foods palatable but food science has advanced to the point where ultra-processed foods are formulated to be addictive. Of course, without artificial colors, most ultra-processed foods would appear repulsive and unappetizing, which would contrast sharply with the gorgeous and nourishing whole foods they are trying to supplant in your diet.

Stripped of nutrients, ultra-processed foods would have no positive nutritional value to list on their label if not for the fact they are artificially fortified with synthetic vitamins. Shelf stability is just as crucial. Prolonged shelf life leads to greater profitability and when combined with fancy packaging it is a crucial pillar of their sales pitch. If you want to protect your health and avoid all ultra-processed foods, my nutrition plan is a great starting point.

 *Article originally appeared at Mercola. Reposted with permission.