Ultra-processed ‘Junk’ Foods May Increase Cancer Risk

Researchers found evidence that eating a high amount of ultra-processed food may raise the risk of cancer and cancer-related mortality.

Ultra-processed foods, such as frozen dinners, processed meats, and sweetened breakfast cereals, are cheap and convenient. But, according to a new study, these inexpensive and easy-to-prepare foods might actually come at a cost to health and wellbeing.

The study, published in eClinicalMedicine, found that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with an increased risk of cancer — especially ovarian and brain cancer. The scientists also found that eating a high amount of ultra-processed foods increases the risk of dying from cancer overall.

To conduct the research, scientists from the Imperial College London School of Public Health recruited 197,426 participants aged 40 to 69 from the UK Biobank. Between 2009 and 2012, the participants completed 24-hour dietary logs recording food items they consumed. The research team then followed up on the participants until the end of January 2021 to determine how many had developed one or more of 34 types of cancer.

After examining the data, the team found that ultra-processed foods comprised an average of 22.9% of the participant’s total diets. In addition, 15,921 individuals developed cancer, and 4009 cancer-related deaths occurred during the follow-up period.

On further examination, the team found that for every 10% increase in ultra-processed food consumption, there was a 2% rise in cancer incidences, with a 19% increase in ovarian cancer specifically.

In addition, every 10% increase of ultra-processed food in a person’s diet was associated with a 6% increased risk of overall cancer-related mortality. It was also associated with a 16% increase in breast cancer and a 30% increase in ovarian cancer-associated deaths.

Moreover, these associations between high ultra-processed food intake and cancer remained even after the scientists adjusted the data for socioeconomic, dietary, and behavioral factors such as smoking, physical activity, and alcohol consumption.

According to the study, these findings suggest that eating a high amount of ultra-processed foods is associated with a greater risk of overall cancer — specifically ovarian and brain cancer — and a heightened risk of overall, ovarian, and breast cancer-associated mortality.

However, the scientists note that because their study was observational, the results do not prove that ultra-processed foods cause cancer.

Still, the team suggests that reducing the consumption of ultra-processed foods may help lower the risks of all types of cancer and cancer-related mortality.

Lead lead senior author Dr. Eszter Vamos said in a news release, 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."


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