Diets high in ultra-processed foods may elevate the risk of developing and dying from various types of cancers, according to a new study from Imperial’s School of Public Health in London.
Ultra-processed foods include those that undergo extensive processing during production. Food such as packaged chips, breakfast cereals, many frozen meals, carbonated drinks, cold cuts, hot dogs, candy and more usually fall into this category.
The study from the U.K. tracked the diets of 200,000 adults between the ages of 40 and 69 over a decade, using the NOVA food classification system to determine the level of food processing. Designed by researchers at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, NOVA groups foods into four groups: unprocessed, processed culinary ingredients, processed and ultra-processed.
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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 share of ultra-processed foods were more likely to develop cancers of all types — particularly ovarian and brain cancers.
Those who did have the disease were also more likely to die from it, especially ovarian and breast cancers.
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), socio-economic status, smoking status and alcohol consumption.
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The study found that for every 10% increase in eating ultra-processed foods, there was a 2% rise 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% rise in consumption of ultra-processed foods boosted the risk of a person dying from cancer by 6%.
The death risk spiked to 30% for ovarian cancer — and 16% for breast cancer.
"This study adds to the growing evidence that ultra-processed foods are likely to negatively impact our health, including our risk for cancer," Dr. Eszter Vamos, lead senior author for the study, said in a press release published on Imperial College London's website.
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"Given the high levels of consumption in U.K. adults and children, this has important implications for future health outcomes," he also said in the same release.
Any food that has been modified from its natural state — by adding salt, sugar, or oil, for example — is considered processed.
Even so, many foods can still have beneficial nutrients.
Some examples of healthier processed foods include frozen and canned beans, 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 eaten by people in the U.S. come from ultra-processed foods.
High consumption of ultra-processed foods has previously been linked to dementia and colorectal cancer.