Eating large quantities of highly processed food could be linked to a greater risk of developing and dying from cancer, researchers have said.

Food and drink including ready-made meals, many breakfast cereals, mass-produced packaged bread and fizzy drinks could pose a significant risk of developing certain cancers, the large-scale study has suggested.

The study, which was led by Imperial College London and looked at the data from 20,000 adults over 10 years, found that eating these types of food was linked to an increased risk of developing cancer overall, in particular with brain and ovarian cancers.

In terms of mortality these food choices were also linked to a greater risk of dying from cancer, specifically with breast and ovarian cancers.

With the UK having one of the highest rates in Europe for the consumption of ultra-processed food, researchers say their findings could have significant implications for public health.

Lead senior author Dr Eszter Vamos, from Imperial College London’s School of Public Health, said: “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.

“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.”

In the first study of its kind, the research team found that:

  • For every 10% increase in the amount of ultra-processed food that a person consumes, there was an increase of 2% in overall cancer incidence, with a 19% increase for ovarian cancer
  • Every 10% increase in the amount of ultra-processed food consumed was linked to an increase of 6% in mortality for cancer overall, with a 16% increase for breast cancer and 30% increase for ovarian cancer.

Ultra-processed foods usually have higher levels of salt, fat and sugar and have artificial additives. Previous research has shown that they are associated with poor health, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity.

First author Dr Kiara Chang, from Imperial College London’s School of Public Health, said: “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 colour, flavour, 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. However, ultra-processed foods are everywhere and highly marketed with cheap price and attractive packaging to promote consumption. This shows our food environment needs urgent reform to protect the population from ultra-processed foods.”

Dr Chang added: “We need clear front of pack warning labels for ultra-processed foods to aid consumer choices, and our sugar tax should be extended to cover ultra-processed fizzy drinks, fruit-based and milk-based drinks, as well as other ultra-processed products.

“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.”

Read the study in eClinicalMedicine.

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