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Eating more ultra-processed foods increases the risk of developing and dying from cancer, especially ovarian cancer, according to a new study of more than 197,000 people in the UK, more than half of whom were women.
Over-processed foods include prepackaged soups, sauces, frozen pizzas and ready-to-eat meals, as well as hot dogs, sausages, French fries, sodas, store-bought cookies, cakes, candy, doughnuts, ice cream, and more.
“Ultra-processed foods are made with industrially derived ingredients and often use food additives to adjust color, taste, consistency, texture or extend shelf life,” said first author Dr. Kiara Chang, a fellow at the National Institute for Health and Care Research at Imperial College London’s School of Public Health, said in a statement.
“Our bodies may not respond the same way to these ultra-processed ingredients and additives as they do to fresh and nutritious minimally processed foods,” Chang said.
However, people who eat more ultra-processed foods also tend to “drink more soda and less tea and coffee, and less vegetables and other foods associated with a healthy eating pattern,” said Dwayne Mellor, a registered dietitian. and senior teaching fellow at Aston Medical School in Birmingham, UK, in an email.
“This may mean that it may not be an effect specifically of the ultra-processed foods themselves, but instead reflects the impact of lower intake of healthier food,” said Mellor, who was not involved in the study.
The study, published Tuesday in the journal eClinicalMedicine, looked at the link between eating ultra-processed foods and 34 different types of cancer over a 10-year period.
The researchers examined information on the dietary habits of 197,426 people who were part of the UK Biobank, a large biomedical database and research resource that followed residents from 2006 to 2010
The amount of ultra-processed foods consumed by people in the study ranged from a low of 9.1% to a high of 41.4% from their diet, the study found.
The eating patterns were then compared to medical records that list both diagnoses and deaths from cancer.
Every 10% increase in ultra-processed food consumption is associated with a 2% increase in developing cancer and a 19% increased risk of being diagnosed with ovarian cancer, according to a statement issued by Imperial College London.
Cancer deaths are also on the rise, the study found. For every additional 10% increase in ultra-processed food consumption, the risk of dying from any cancer increased by 6%, while the risk of dying from ovarian cancer rose by 30%, according to the statement.
“These associations persisted after adjustment for a number of sociodemographics, smoking status, physical activity, and key dietary factors,” the authors wrote.
When it comes to cancer deaths among women, ovarian cancer ranks fifth, “accounting for more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system,” notes the American Cancer Society.
“The findings add to previous studies showing a link between a higher proportion of ultra-processed foods (UPF) in the diet and a higher risk of obesity, heart attacks, stroke and type 2 diabetes,” said Simon Steenson, nutrition scientist at the British Foundation for nutrition, a charity partly supported by food manufacturers and producers. Steenson was not involved in the new study.
“However, an important limitation of these previous studies and the new analysis published today is that the findings are observational and thus do not provide evidence of a clear causal relationship between UPF and cancer or the risk of other diseases,” Steenson said in an email. .
People who ate the most ultra-processed foods “were younger and less likely to have a family history of cancer,” Chang and her colleagues wrote.
Consumers of ultra-processed foods were less likely to be physically active and more likely to be classified as obese. These people are likely to have lower household income and education and live in the most disadvantaged communities, the study found.
“This study adds to the growing body of evidence that ultra-processed foods are likely to negatively affect our health, including the risk of cancer,” said Dr Esther Vamos, lead author of the study and clinical senior lecturer at Imperial College London’s School of Public Health in statement.
This latest study is not the first to show a link between high intake of ultra-processed foods and cancer.
A 2022 study examined the diets of more than 200,000 men and women in the United States for up to 28 years and found a link between ultra-processed foods and colorectal cancer—the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States—in men but not in women.
And there are “literally hundreds of studies (that) link ultra-processed foods to obesity, cancer, cardiovascular disease and overall mortality,” Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard Professor Emeritus of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, previously told CNN .
Although the new UK-based study cannot prove causation, only association, “other available evidence suggests that reducing ultra-processed foods in our diet can provide important health benefits,” Vamos said.
“Further research is needed to confirm these findings and understand the best public health strategies to reduce the widespread presence and harm of ultra-processed foods in our diet,” she added.