New evidence that ultra-processed foods are linked to cancer: study

New evidence that ultra-processed foods are linked to cancer: study

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Eating highly processed foods like chips, candy and fast food is an American way of life.

Ultra-processed foods make up an estimated 73% of the US food supply, according to a recent study, and the average American adult gets more than 60% of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods.

But our American way of life may be an American way of death, as new research links a diet of ultra-processed foods to a higher risk of cancer.

“This study adds to a growing pool of evidence suggesting a link between UPFs [ultra-processed foods] and cancer risk,” Dr. Helen Croker, assistant director of research and policy at World Cancer Research Fund International, which funded the study, said in a news release.

The new study, published in the European Journal of Nutrition, analyzed the diets of over 450,000 adults in 11 European countries who participated in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition, or EPIC.

The research revealed that people who ate 10% more ultra-processed foods than others had a 23% higher risk of head and neck cancer.


The average American adult gets more than 60% of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods.
The average American adult gets more than 60% of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

A junk food diet was also linked to a 24% higher risk of cancer of the esophagus, the tube that connects your throat to your stomach, which is the sixth most common cause of cancer-related death worldwide, according to the Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine.

To researchers’ surprise, however, the increased risk of cancer had little to do with junk food’s link to weight gain or obesity: A larger waist-to-hip ratio only explained 5% of the 23% higher risk for head and neck cancer, according to the study.

“In other words, if UPFs contribute to cancer risk, they do it to a small extent by contributing to obesity, and to a much larger extent by other mechanisms,” Dr. David Katz, a specialist in preventive and lifestyle medicine who was not involved in the study, told CNN.


"This study adds to a growing pool of evidence suggesting a link between UPFs [ultra-processed foods] and cancer risk," said one expert.
“This study adds to a growing pool of evidence suggesting a link between UPFs [ultra-processed foods] and cancer risk,” said one expert.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

“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 an excessive number of calories,” said Fernanda Morales-Berstein, a PhD student at the University of Bristol and the study’s lead author.

“However, it was interesting that in our study the link between eating UPFs and … cancer didn’t seem to be greatly explained by body mass index and waist-to-hip ratio,” Morales-Berstein added.

This points to other factors that may increase the risk of cancer from UPFs, such as additives like emulsifiers and artificial sweeteners, and contaminants like PFAS “forever chemicals” from food packaging and manufacturing.

“The association between a higher consumption of UPFs and an increased risk of developing … cancer supports our Cancer Prevention Recommendations to eat a healthy diet, rich in whole grains, vegetables, fruit, and beans,” said Croker.

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