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Consumption of Ultra-Processed Foods Linked to Higher Cancer Risk

May 2023 Vol 16, No 3

The consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with an increased risk for cancer and cancer-related death, according to findings from a recent study (Chang K, et al. eClinicalMedicine. 2023;56:101840).

“Besides their poorer nutritional composition, ultra-processed foods may additionally increase cancer risk through neo-formed contaminants during industrial processing, use of some controversial food additives, and certain materials of packaging implicated in exhibiting carcinogenic and/or endocrine disrupting properties,” wrote Kiara Chang, MSc, Research Fellow, Imperial College London School of Medicine, England, UK, and colleagues.

They explained that the worldwide consumption of ultra-processed foods has been increasing rapidly over the past several decades, and the United Kingdom and the United States are leading consumers, with these foods exceeding 50% of daily calorie intake. Evidence has been growing regarding the link between higher ultra-processed food consumption and increased risks for adverse health outcomes, including obesity, type 2 diabetes mellitus, and all-cause mortality. However, prospective evidence on the association between eating ultra-processed food and cancer outcomes has been limited to a few studies assessing the incidence of common cancers or total cancer-related mortality.

The researchers explored the link between ultra-processed foods, cancer risk, and cancer-related death for 34 cancer types. The study population included 197,426 British adults aged 40 to 69 years. All participants completed a 24-hour diet recall assessment between 2009 and 2012 and were followed through January 2021.

Foods consumed were grouped according to the extent of processing. Ultra-processed foods include soft drinks, factory-made bread, ready-to-eat meals, breakfast cereal, and several other common items.

The results showed that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with a greater risk for developing cancer overall, and specifically with ovarian and brain cancers. It was also associated with an increased risk for dying from cancer, most notably from ovarian and breast cancers.

Chang and colleagues reported that with every 10% increase in ultra-processed food in an individual’s diet, the overall risk for cancer increased by 2%, whereas the risk for ovarian cancer rose by 19%. In addition, with every 10% increase, mortality from cancer overall, breast cancer, and ovarian cancer increased by 6%, 16%, and 30%, respectively.

These links remained even after adjusting for a range of socioeconomic, behavioral, and dietary factors, such as smoking status, physical activity, and body mass index.

The researchers acknowledged also that because the study was observational, it does not show a causal link between ultra-processed foods and cancer risk.

“Although our study cannot prove causation, other available evidence shows that reducing ultra-processed foods in our diet could provide important health benefits. Further research is needed to confirm these findings and understand the best public health strategies to reduce the widespread presence and harms of ultra-processed foods in our diet,” they wrote.

“Lower income households are particularly vulnerable to these cheap and unhealthy ultra-processed foods. Minimally processed and freshly prepared meals should be subsidised to ensure everyone has access to healthy, nutritious, and affordable options,” they concluded.

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