A new study led by researchers from Imperial College London and published in eClinicalMedcine suggests that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods may be linked to increased risks of developing and dying from cancer. Ultra-processed foods include fizzy drinks, mass-produced package breads, many ready meal and the majority of breakfast cereals.
“This study adds to the growing evidence that ultra-processed foods are likely to negatively impact our health including our risk for cancer. Given the high levels of consumption in UK adults and children, this has important implications for future health outcomes,” said lead senior author Eszter Vamos of Imperial College London’s School of Public Health. “Although our study cannot prove causation, other available evidence shows that reducing ultra-processed foods in our diet could provide important health benefits.”
Ultra-processed foods are often inexpensive and heavily marketed—sometimes even as healthy food options—but they are usually higher in salt, fat, sugar and contain a ranges of artificial additives. They are already linked to the development of other diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
The researchers used records of 200,000 middle-aged adults contained in the UK Biobank for their study and monitored their health over the course of a 10 years. They looked for overall cancer risk, as well as the risk of developing 34 specific types of cancer along with cancer mortality rates.
The data from the study showed that for every 10% increase in a person’s diet of ultra-processed food, they had a 2% greater risk of developing any kind of cancer, but 19% increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. Each 10% increase was also associated with an increased cancer mortality risk of 6% from all cancers, and 16% and 30% increased risk of mortality from breast cancer and ovarian cancer respectively. The investigators said all the links remained even after adjusting for a range of social determinants of health such as socio-economic, dietary, and behavioral factors such as smoking, exercise, and body mass index.
The team, which included researchers from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), University of São Paulo, and NOVA University Lisbon, has previously reported findings linking a diet high in ultra-processed foods to greater risks of obesity and type diabetes in adults in the U.K. and greater weight gain in U.K children, which extends into young adulthood.
“The average person in the UK consumes more than half of their daily energy intake from ultra-processed foods,” noted first author Kiara Chang of Imperial College London. “This is exceptionally high and concerning as ultra-processed foods are produced with industrially derived ingredients and often use food additives to adjust color, flavor, consistency, texture, or extend shelf life. Our bodies may not react the same way to these ultra-processed ingredients and additives as they do to fresh and nutritious minimally processed foods. This shows our food environment needs urgent reform to protect the population from ultra-processed foods.”
Some countries have taken steps to reduced ultra-processed food consumption with Brazil, France, and Canada updating their dietary recommendations in an attempt to lower their consumption. Brazil has taken the additional step of banning the marketing of these foods in schools. Further, The WHO and the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization have recommended restricting ultra-processed foods in the diet.
“Lower income households are particularly vulnerable to these cheap and unhealthy ultra-processed foods,” Chang said, further suggesting that fresh meals with minimal processing could be subsidized as a part of public policy to ensure all people have access to healthier food options.