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How can ultra-processed foods affect our health according to studies?

Another study links ultra-processed foods, which make up a majority of American diets, with increased risk of cancer and associated mortality.

New study links eating ultra-processed foods with risk of cancer and death

Eating a balanced diet that consists of healthy, natural foods has long been touted for living longer and reducing one’s chances of developing adverse health effects including cancer. Another study once again drives home the idea that decreasing your consumption of ultra-processed foods is a step in the right direction.

Studying records from the UK Biobank of more than 197,000 individuals over the past decade, nearly 55 percent of them women, researchers found that eating ever more proportions of these highly processed foods increased the risk of developing and dying from cancer. This latest study showed that the risk to the UK participants persisted even after taking into account “a range of socio-demographic, smoking status, physical activity, and key dietary factors.”

The dietary habits of the United Kingdom, where over half the of daily calorie intake consists of ultra-processed foods, are not a one-off. Their eating habits are matched by that of people in the United States and global dietary patterns are becoming “increasingly dominated by relatively cheap, highly palatable, and ready-to-eat ultra-processed foods.”

Increased consumption of ultra-processed foods associated with increase in developing cancer

The study carried out by researchers at National Institute for Health and Care Research at Imperial College London’s School of Public Health monitored participants’ health over the past decade. They looked at the risk of developing any cancer overall and specifically the risk of developing 34 types of cancer. Researchers also examined the risk of people dying from cancer.

The results showed that a greater risk of developing cancer overall was associated with a higher consumption of ultra-processed foods. Two that stood out were ovarian and brain cancers. Mortality risk was elevated most notably with ovarian and breast cancers.

According to the research, which is published in eClinicalMedicine, in collaboration with researchers from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), University of São Paulo, and NOVA University Lisbon, for every 10 per cent increase in ultra-processed food consumption, there was a 2 percent increase in developing cancer overall. In the case of ovarian cancer the incidence rate of being diagnosed rose to 19 percent.

The death rate from any cancer was 6 percent associated for every 10 percent increase in ultra-processed food consumed. Specifically, the risk from dying from breast cancer was 16 percent and ovarian cancer 30 percent.

The scientists discuss their results

“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 Eszter Vamos, lead senior author for the study, said in a statement.

“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.”

While this latest study might not be able to prove causation, other studies have shown that ultra-processed foods, which are generally higher in salt, fat, sugar, and contain artificial additives, are linked with a range of poor health conditions including obesity, type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

One such study was started in 2009 when more and more patients under age 50 were being treated for colorectal cancer. While more research is needed, the results show a pattern that is repeated among patients.

“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,” said Dr Kiara Chang, first author for the recent Imperial College study. “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.”