Ultra-processed food may increase risk of cancer

Ultra-processed food may increase risk of cancer

The foods in question include packaged baked goods and snacks, fizzy drinks, sugary cereals, ready meals and reconstituted meat products.

Even the accompanying commentary in the British Medical Journal warned against jumping to conclusions.

These "ultra processed" foods - made in a factory with industrial ingredients and additives - make up to half of the average person's diet in some developed countries and could be contributing to rising cancer levels, researchers said.

No significant association was found for prostate and colorectal cancers.

All of these foods contain high levels of sugar, fat and salt, and lack in vital vitamins and fibre.

The research was based on food diaries completed by 105,000 adults.

"The problem is that the definition of ultra-processed foods they have used is so broad and poorly defined that it is impossible to decide exactly what, if any, causal connections have been observed", he said in comments via the Science Media Centre. Chemicals added to processed foods also play a role.


The authors point out that the observational nature of the investigation means they can not say for certain that these types of processed food definitely cause cancer.

Women in the top quarter were 38 per cent more likely to develop postmenopausal breast cancer. And more of the developing world is starting to eat this way.

Some surveys in Europe, the USA and elsewhere have suggested that these foods contribute to between 25% and 50% of daily energy intake. The team assessed 3,300 different food products as part of the study and classed each by the level of processing they had been subjected to.

But he criticised the vagueness of the term ultra-processed.

Dr. Robert O'Connor, Head of Research at the Irish Cancer Society says 'the take home message is that i we engage in lifestyles that are unhealthy, including smoking, then there's a suggestion of an increase in cancer risks'.

The authors of the report have suggested that the rapidly increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods "may drive an increasing burden of cancer in the next decades". Consumption of fresh or minimally processed foods - such as fruit, vegetables, pulses, rice, pasta, eggs, meat, fish and milk - was associated with the lowest risks of overall cancer and breast cancer. This is because there might be several factors at play - for example, people who eat more processed foods might also be less physically active or have other risk factors.

In a linked editorial, Martin Lajous and Adriana Monge based at the National Institute of Public Health in Mexico, say this study provides "an initial insight into a possible link between ultra processed foods and cancer" but "we are a long way from understanding the full implications of food processing for health and wellbeing". It could, for instance, be linked to nutritional composition, food additives or contact with packaging materials.

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