Diets rich in ultra-processed foods may raise the risk of developing and dying from various types of cancer, according to a new study from London’s Imperial School of Public Health.
Ultra-processed foods include those that undergo extensive processing during production. Foods like packaged chips, breakfast cereals, many frozen meals, carbonated drinks, luncheon meats, hot dogs, candy bars, and more generally fall into this category.
The UK study tracked the diets of 200,000 adults between the ages of 40 and 69 for a decade, using the NOVA food rating system to determine the level of food processing. Designed by researchers at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, NOVA groups foods into four groups: processed, unprocessed, processed, and ultra-processed culinary ingredients.
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The researchers in London also looked at the frequency of cancer diagnoses and cancer-related deaths among that same group of adults.
The study found that people who ate a higher proportion of ultra-processed foods were more likely to develop cancers of all kinds, particularly ovarian and brain cancers.
Those who had the disease were also more likely to die from it, especially ovarian and breast cancer.
The Imperial study noted that the link between ultra-processed foods and cancer persisted even after adjusting for factors such as physical activity, body mass index (BMI), socioeconomic status, smoking status and alcohol consumption.
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The study found that for every 10% increase in consumption of ultra-processed foods, there was a 2% increase in the risk of developing any type of cancer.
That risk jumped to 19% for ovarian cancer.
The same link was seen with mortality: every 10% increase in consumption of ultra-processed foods increased a person’s risk of dying from cancer by 6%.
The risk of death shot up to 30% for ovarian cancer — and 16% for breast cancer.
“This has important implications for future health outcomes.”
“This study adds to mounting evidence that ultra-processed foods are likely to negatively impact our health, including our risk of cancer,” said Dr. Eszter Vamos, the study’s lead author, in a statement. press release published on Imperial College London’s website.
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“Given the high levels of consumption in adults and children in the UK, this has important implications for future health outcomes,” it also said in the same statement.
Any food that has been modified from its natural state, for example by adding salt, sugar, or oil, is considered processed.
Even so, many foods can still have beneficial nutrients.
Some examples of healthier processed foods include beans, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables, according to the American Heart Association.
Ultra-processed foods contain many added unhealthy ingredients, such as preservatives, artificial colors and flavors, hydrogenated fats, and extra salt or sugar.
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A study published in The BMJ, a medical trade journal, found that nearly 58% of the calories consumed by people in the US come from ultra-processed foods.
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The high consumption of ultra-processed foods has previously been linked to dementia and colorectal cancer.