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Ultra-processed foods linked to cancer risk

Diets high in ultra-processed foods could be linked to an increased risk of developing and dying from cancer, a new study has found.

Researchers from Imperial College London’s School of Public Health found that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with a greater risk of developing cancer overall, and specifically with ovarian and brain cancers. It was also associated with an increased risk of dying from cancers.

For every 10% increase in ultra-processed food in a person’s diet, there was an increased incidence of 2% for cancer overall, and a 19% increase for ovarian cancer specifically.

Ultra-processed foods are food items which have been heavily processed during their production, such as fizzy drinks, mass-produced packaged breads, many ready meals and most breakfast cereals. They are generally higher in salt, fat and sugar than lesser processed products.

The first UK study of its kind used UK Biobank records to collect information on the diets of 200,000 middle-aged adult participants. Researchers monitored participants’ health over a 10-year period, looking at the risk of developing any cancer overall as well as the specific risk of developing 34 types of cancer. They also looked at the risk of people dying from cancer.

This study was funded by Cancer Research UK and World Cancer Research Fund and published in the eClinicalMedicine journal.

“Although our study cannot prove causation, other available evidence shows that reducing ultra-processed foods in our diet could provide important health benefits,” said Dr Eszter Vamos, lead senior author for the study, from Imperial College London’s School of Public Health.

“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,” Vamos added.

Previous research from the same team found that levels of consumption of ultra-processed foods in the UK are the highest in Europe for both adults and children. They also found that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with a greater risk of developing obesity and type 2 diabetes in UK adults, and a greater weight gain in UK children extending from childhood to young adulthood.

The study authors called for clear front of pack warning labels for ultra-processed foods to aid consumer choices, and the sugar tax to be extended to cover ultra-processed fizzy drinks, fruit-based and milk-based drinks, as well as other ultra-processed products.

Separately, the Soil Association has accused the UK government of failing to act on life-threatening health risks of ultra-processed foods after an investigation found a government healthy eating tool for families and children is promoting ultra-processed foods.

The Soil Association said the NHS Food Scanner App recommends biscuits, cakes, crisps, chocolate puddings and fizzy pop as “good” options for a healthy diet because they fall below its threshold of salt, sugar, or saturated fat.

“The government’s dietary advice is severely out of date and its failure to provide good advice is putting us all at risk,” said Soil Association campaign coordinator Cathy Cliff.