Researchers from the Imperial College of London’s School of Public Health have produced the most comprehensive assessment to date of the association between ultra-processed foods and the risk of developing cancers.
What are ultra-processed foods?
Ultra-processed foods are food items which have been heavily processed during their production, such as soft drinks, mass-produced packaged breads, many ready-to-eat meals and ready-to-eat breakfast cereals.
Ultra-processed foods are often relatively cheap, convenient and heavily marketed, often as healthy options. But these foods are also generally higher in salt, unhealthy fats, added sugars, and contain artificial additives.
It is well documented that ultra-processed foods are linked with a range of poor health outcomes including obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
About the study
The UK study of used UK Biobank records to collect information on the diets of 200,000 middle-aged adult participants. Researchers monitored participants’ health over a 10-year period, looking at the risk of developing any cancer overall, as well as the risk of developing 34 types of cancer. They also looked at the risk of people dying from cancer.
Higher consumption of ultra-processed foods was linked with a greater risk of developing cancer overall, and specifically with ovarian and brain cancers. It was also associated with an increased risk of dying from cancer, most notably with ovarian and breast cancers.
These associations remained after adjusting for a range of socio-economic, behavioural and dietary factors, such as smoking status, physical activity and body mass index (BMI).
Previous research from the team reported the levels of consumption of ultra-processed foods in the UK, which are the highest in Europe for both adults and children. The team also found that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with a greater risk of developing obesity and type 2 diabetes in UK adults, as well as greater weight gain in UK children extending from childhood to young adulthood.
The lead researcher said, “this study adds to the growing evidence that ultra-processed foods are likely to negatively impact our health including our risk for cancer.
“These foods are produced with industrially derived ingredients and often use food additives to adjust colour, flavour, 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.”
Recommendations to limit ultra-processed foods
The World Health Organization has previously recommended restricting ultra-processed foods as part of a healthy sustainable diet.
There are ongoing efforts to reduce ultra-processed food consumption around the world, with countries such as Brazil, France and Canada updating their national dietary guidelines with recommendations to limit such foods. Brazil has also banned the marketing of ultra-processed foods in schools. There are currently no similar measures to tackle ultra-processed foods in the UK.
The researchers note that their study is observational, so does not show a causal link between ultra-processed foods and cancer due to the observational nature of the research. More work is needed in this area to establish a causal link.
Source: eClinicalMedicine, January 31, 2023.
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