Countries need to implement better policies for food labeling so that consumers understand what they are buying.
The British Food Standards Agency developed their nutrient profiling system (FSAm-NPS) as a way to ensure that people are able to clearly see what the nutritional value is of any food product.
The system allows people to make informed dietary choices and be able to tell healthful foods from those with fewer or no benefits.
Systems similar to the FSAm-NPS have also been adopted by France and, more recently, Belgium, but many regions are yet to implement similar schemes.
Now, a set of worrying findings that link an increased risk of cancer with the consumption of foods that have a low nutritional quality may offer solid enough evidence for policy-makers to push for a more widespread use of nutrient profiling in food labeling.
The new study was conducted by Mélanie Deschasaux, at the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research in Paris, in collaboration with specialists from numerous other research institutions.
Deschasaux and colleagues published the results of their research in the journal PLOS Medicine.
Nutritional quality not to be overlooked
The investigators analyzed data collected from 471,495 participants from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition.
The median follow-up period was 15.3 years, and the volunteers provided information about their dietary habits as well as other relevant medical information, including cancer history.
Based on the information provided, the scientists calculated the associations between foods with various nutritional qualities and the risk of developing cancer.
In the study paper, Deschasaux and colleagues report that the participants who "[consumed] on average food products with a lower nutritional quality, were at higher risk of developing cancer overall."
More specifically, regular consumption of foods with low nutritional quality was associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer and cancer of the upper aerodigestive tract and stomach, as well as with lung cancer in the case of men.
For women, in particular, eating foods that are low in nutrients is tied to a higher risk of liver cancer as well as postmenopausal breast cancer.
The main limitation of the study was that it analyzed data that were self-reported by participants, so they may not have been fully accurate. However, the authors also explain that the study's strength lies in its size and the wealth of information that the team had access to and was able to evaluate.
"To our knowledge, this study was the first effort to investigate the association between the FSAm-NPS [Dietary Index] and disease in a large European cohort," the authors write.
Deschasaux and team think that their new findings are solid enough to call for the implementation of better policies in more countries regarding how foods are labeled.
"This [study]," the researchers claim, "supports the relevance of the FSAm-NPS as [an] underlying nutrient profiling system for front-of-pack nutrition labels, as well as for other public health nutritional measures."