Ultra-Processed Foods May Be Linked to Higher Cancer Risks: UK Study

Higher consumption of ultra-processed foods may be linked to an increased risk of developing and dying from cancer, according to a new study based upon the health records of nearly 200,000 people in the United Kingdom.

In the study, published online in eClinicalMedicine, scientists defines ultra-processed foods (UPFs) as products made by assembling industrially-derived food substances and additives through extensive industrial processes.

Most soft drinks, mass-produced packaged breads, breakfast cereals, sweet packaged snacks, and ready-to-eat meals fall under this category.

“UPFs contain little or no whole foods and are often energy dense, high in salt, sugar and fat, low in fibre, and liable to overconsumption,” the scientists note. “They are aggressively marketed with strong brands to promote consumption and are gradually displacing traditional dietary patterns based on fresh and minimally processed foods.”

Looking at data from UK Biobank, a biomedical database containing health information of more than 500,000 volunteers, the scientists identified 197,426 middle-aged individuals who have completed 24-hour dietary records between 2009 and 2012.

Health Effects Over Time

During a 10-year follow-up period, 15,921 of them developed cancer, with 4,009 cancer deaths.

The analysis revealed a correlation between higher consumption of UPFs and a greater risk of developing cancer, especially ovarian and brain cancers. Specifically, for every 10 percent increase of UPFs in one’s diet, there was a corresponding 2 percent overall increase in cancer risk, with ovarian cancer showing a particularly greater increase in risk at 19 percent.

Similarly, the results showed that the risk of dying from cancer also increased with higher UPF intake.

For each 10 percent increase in UPF consumption, the overall cancer death risk grew by 6 percent, alongside a 16 percent and a 30 percent increase for breast cancer and ovarian cancer risks, respectively.

These associations held up even after controlling for a range of socioeconomic, behavioral, and dietary factors, such as smoking status, physical activity, and body mass index, according to the study.

“The average person in the UK consumes more than half of their daily energy intake from ultra-processed foods,” said Dr. Kiara Chang, the study’s leading author and researcher at 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.”

While the scientists noted that their findings are observational in nature and should not imply causality, they did speculate a number of ways UPFs could lead to higher cancer risks, including through the use of controversial food additives, contaminants formed during ultra-processing, and toxic contaminants migrated from food packaging.

Americans Also at Risk

A 2021 study in the United States suggests that the average American diet has shifted toward including more UPFs.

In the study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a team of scientists at New York University analyzed data from more than 40,000 adult participants of a federal survey about health and nutrition from 2001 through 2018.

The results showed that UPF consumption grew from 53.5 percent of calories in the beginning of the period studied (2001–2002) to 57 percent at the end (2017–2018).

“This is concerning, as eating more ultra-processed foods is associated with poor diet quality and higher risk of several chronic diseases,” said Filippa Juul, the study’s leading author and a professor at NYU School of Public Health.

“The high and increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods in the 21st century may be a key driver of the obesity epidemic.”

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Bill Pan
Bill Pan is a reporter for The Epoch Times.
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