Ultra-Processed Food May Increase Risk of Head and Neck Cancer

Scientists found an association between ultra-processed food consumption and head, neck, and esophageal cancers, and only some cases were obesity related.

Ultra-processed foods have come under fire due to several recently published studies. For example, research published in January of this year found links between ultra-processed food consumption and an increased risk of cancer — especially ovarian cancer.

In addition, studies suggest that highly processed food and artificially sweetened drinks may increase the risk of depression, dementia, and multiple health conditions.

Some experts say ultra-processed foods might also contribute to food addiction, which could lead to obesity. According to the CDC, obesity and overweight are associated with a heightened risk of developing 13 types of cancer.

Now, a new study published on November 22 in the European Journal of Nutrition found that people who consume ultra-processed foods may be at higher risk of specific types of head and neck cancers, and body fat index (BMI) might only account for some of the increased risk.

Do ultra-processed foods cause cancer?

To conduct the study, scientists examined data from 450,111 participants involved in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study during the 1990s. The researchers wanted to determine whether body mass index or waist-to-hip ratio played a role in the associations between ultra-processed food consumption, head and neck cancer, and esophageal adenocarcinoma.

After following the participants for an average of 14 years, the scientists found that those who had a 10% higher consumption of ultra-processed food were 23% more likely to develop head and neck cancer and had a 24% higher risk of developing esophageal adenocarcinoma.

However, having a higher BMI only accounted for some of the cancer cases. For example, higher body fat levels explained 13%, and hip to waist ratio explained 15% of the heightened esophageal cancer risk. Moreover, elevated waist-to-hip ratio only explained 5% of the higher risk for head and neck cancer.

In addition, the scientists observed an association between accidental death and ultra-processed food consumption, which may indicate other factors contributed to the study's findings, such as socio-economic status or lifestyle choices.

Nonetheless, although the study did not prove ultra-processed foods cause head and neck cancer, the scientists suggest the potential presence of cancer-causing compounds in highly processed foods may partly explain the study's findings. Still, they say more research is needed to fully understand the role ultra-processed foods may have in the development of these types of cancer.

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