LONDON — Eating junk food — which scientists often call ultra-processed foods — including sugary drinks, sliced bread, and ready-made meals may be increasing your risk of cancer with every bite. A new study warns that these foods are generally high in salt, fat, sugar, and contain artificial additives and can also lead to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. They are often cheaper, more convenient to buy, and heavily marketed in comparison to other, healthier options. Now, researchers say they can increase a person’s risk of death from cancer — especially among women.
“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 color, flavor, consistency, texture, or extend shelf life,” says study first author Dr. Kiara Chang from Imperial College London’s School of Public Health in a media release.
“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.”
Ultra-processed foods significantly increase cancers in women
The researchers used UK Biobank records to gather their data. They studied the diets of 200,000 middle-aged adults, monitoring their health over 10 years and looking at each person’s risk of developing any cancer overall, as well as the specific risk of developing 34 different types of cancer.
The team also looked into the risk of people dying from cancer. The study reveals that the higher consumption of ultra-processed foods displays a connection to a greater risk of developing cancer overall, while putting people more at risk specifically of ovarian and brain cancers. Eating too much junk food also displayed a link to an increased risk of dying from cancer, most notably from ovarian and breast cancers.
For every 10 percent increase in ultra-processed food in a person’s diet, there was an increased incidence of two percent for cancer overall and a 19-percent increase for ovarian cancer specifically. For adults, the more of these ultra-processed foods they ate, the higher the risk they had of developing obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
These links remained even after adjusting for a range of socioeconomic, behavioral, and dietary factors, such as smoking status, physical activity, and body mass index (BMI). The Imperial College London team have previously reported that levels of consumption of ultra-processed foods in the United Kingdom are the highest in Europe for both adults and children.
‘We need clear front of pack warning labels for ultra-processed foods’
The World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization has previously recommended restricting ultra-processed foods as part of a healthy sustainable diet. There are now ongoing efforts to reduce ultra-processed food consumption around the world.
Countries such as Brazil, France, and Canada have updated their national dietary guidelines with recommendations to limit such foods. Brazil has also banned the marketing of ultra-processed foods in schools.
“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,” Dr. Chang adds.
“Lower income households are particularly vulnerable to these cheap and unhealthy ultra-processed foods. Minimally processed and freshly prepared meals should be subsidized to ensure everyone has access to healthy, nutritious and affordable options.”
“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,” says senior lead author Dr. Eszter Vamos from Imperial College London’s School of Public Health.
“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.”
The study is published in the journal EClinicalMedicine.
South West News Service writer Alice Clifford contributed to this report.