We all love convenient foods that are quick, easy, and delicious. Ultra-processed foods, such as packaged breads, fizzy drinks, ready meals, and most breakfast cereals, are popular for their convenience, cheap prices, and often attractive marketing, but a new study by researchers at the Imperial College London School of Public Health warns of the potential health risks such as an increased risk of developing and dying from cancer associated with their consumption. This new study is 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 that have been heavily processed during their production. These include fizzy drinks, mass-produced packaged breads, ready meals, and most breakfast cereals. These foods are often relatively cheap, convenient, and heavily marketed, often as healthy options. However, they are also generally higher in salt, fat, sugar, and contain artificial additives.
The Negative Impact of Ultra-Processed Foods
The consumption of ultra-processed foods has been linked to a range of poor health outcomes including obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. This latest study, published in eClinicalMedicine, is the most comprehensive assessment to date of the association between ultra-processed foods and the risk of developing cancer.
The study used UK Biobank records to collect information on the diets of 200,000 middle-aged adult participants. The researchers monitored the participants’ health over a ten-year period, looking at the risk of developing any cancer overall, as well as the specific risk of developing 34 types of cancer. They also looked at the risk of people dying from cancer.
Countries like Brazil, France, and Canada are among those that have recently updated their national dietary guidelines to include advice to limit the intake of ultra-processed foods. In addition, Brazil has restricted the advertising of highly processed meals in educational institutions. In the United Kingdom, there are no equivalent measures in place to address ultra-processed foods at this time.
The study found that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with a greater risk of developing cancer overall, specifically ovarian and brain cancers. It was also associated with an increased risk of dying from cancer, most notably ovarian and breast cancers.
For every 10% increase in ultra-processed food in a person’s diet, there was an increased incidence of 2% for cancer overall, and a 19% increase for ovarian cancer specifically. Each 10% increase in ultra-processed food consumption was also associated with an increased mortality for cancer overall by 6%, alongside a 16% increase for breast cancer and a 30% increase for ovarian cancer.
These links remained after adjusting for a range of socio-economic, behavioral, and dietary factors, such as smoking status, physical activity, and body mass index (BMI).
The Importance of Further Research
Lead senior author of the study, Dr. Eszter Vamos, says, “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.”
Dr. Kiara Chang, the first author of the study, adds, “The average person in the UK consumes more than half of their daily energy intake from ultra-processed foods. 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.”
Dr. Vamos emphasizes that “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
Rahul is a sports and performance consultant. Over the course of his 15-year career in the fitness sector, he has held positions as a strength and conditioning instructor, gym owner, and consultant.
He is deeply committed to assisting people in finding happiness and feeling good about themselves.
Rahul has a master’s degree in exercise science and is a certified NSCA CSCS and CISSN.