Eating more ultra-processed foods may be linked to higher risk of some cancers

Study finds processed foods, obesity, and cancer link in European research.

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Obesity linked to processed foods may not be the only cause of cancer. Researchers analyzed data from 450,111 adults over 14 years, finding a connection between ultra-processed foods and cancer. They were published in the European Journal of Nutrition.

As we learn more about the health effects of eating processed foods, researchers from Bristol Medical School and IARC delved into the link between these foods and cancer. They focused on whether the unhealthy nature of many processed foods could explain the connection between head and neck cancer and esophageal adenocarcinoma. 

Their study in EPIC revealed that a 10% increase in processed food consumption is linked to a 23% higher risk of head and neck cancer and a 24% higher risk of esophageal adenocarcinoma. However, body fat explains only a tiny part of this association.

Fernanda Morales-Berstein, a Wellcome Trust PhD student at the University of Bristol and the study’s lead author, explained: “UPFs have been associated with excess weight and increased body fat in several observational studies. This makes sense, as they are generally tasty, convenient, and cheap, favoring the consumption of large portions and excessive calories. However, it was interesting that in our study, the link between eating UPFs and upper-aerodigestive tract cancer didn’t seem to be greatly explained by body mass index and waist-to-hip ratio.”

The study authors propose that factors other than obesity might be behind the link between processed foods and cancer. These could include additives like emulsifiers, artificial sweeteners, and contaminants from food packaging. However, they also caution that certain biases might influence their findings, citing an unexpected link between higher processed food consumption and increased risk of accidental deaths, which is likely not a direct cause.

George Davey Smith, Professor of Clinical Epidemiology and Director of the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit at the University of Bristol, and co-author on the paper, said: “UPFs are clearly associated with many adverse health outcomes, yet whether they cause these, or whether underlying factors such as general health-related behaviors and socioeconomic position are responsible for the link, is still unclear, as the association with accidental deaths draws attention to.”

The study authors propose that factors other than obesity might be behind the link between processed foods and cancer. These could include additives like emulsifiers, artificial sweeteners, and contaminants from food packaging. However, they also caution that certain biases might influence their findings, citing an unexpected link between higher processed food consumption and increased risk of accidental deaths, which is likely not a direct cause.

Despite the study finding that body fat isn’t a significant factor in the link between processed foods and upper-aerodigestive tract cancer, Fernanda Morales-Berstein warns that focusing only on weight loss treatments like Semaglutide may not significantly prevent these cancers related to processed food consumption. 

Dr. Helen Croker from the World Cancer Research Fund notes that the study adds to growing evidence connecting processed foods to cancer risk, supporting recommendations for a healthy diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, fruit, and beans to prevent upper-aerodigestive tract cancer.

In conclusion, this study challenges the assumption that obesity is the sole factor connecting ultra-processed foods to a higher risk of cancers in the mouth, throat, and esophagus. The findings suggest that additional factors, such as additives and contaminants in processed foods, may play a significant role in this association. This underscores the need for a more comprehensive understanding of the links between dietary habits and cancer risk beyond obesity.

Journal reference:

  1. Morales-Berstein, F., Biessy, C., Viallon, V. et al. Ultra-processed foods, adiposity and risk of head and neck cancer and oesophageal adenocarcinoma in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition study: a mediation analysis. European Journal of Nutrition. DOI: 10.1007/s00394-023-03270-1.

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