February 22, 2024

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Highly processed foods linked to increased risk of certain cancers

Consuming highly processed foods linked to increased risk of certain cancers



Consuming highly processed foods linked to increased risk of certain cancers

A large-scale study has found that a higher consumption of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) is associated with an increased risk of head and neck cancer and esophageal cancer.

Interestingly, the study discovered that obesity is not the primary factor leading to these cancers; rather, obesity is often a consequence of consuming excessive amounts of these processed foods.

The results underscore the need to explore factors beyond body fat to explain this association.

Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are often high in calories but low in nutritional value.

They typically include additives and ingredients not commonly used in home cooking, such as preservatives, emulsifiers, sweeteners, artificial colors, and flavorings.

Examples include ice cream, ham, sausages, candies, breakfast cereals, cookies, and carbonated beverages. Consumption of UPFs is associated with an increased risk of obesity.

Consuming highly processed foods linked to increased risk of certain cancers

A new study led by the University of Bristol investigated the relationship between UPF intake and the risk of head and neck cancer and esophageal cancer, as well as whether obesity is a contributing factor.

The first author and corresponding author of the study, Fernanda Morales-Bernstein, said, “In several observational studies, UPFs have been linked to weight gain and increased body fat. This makes sense, as they are generally tasty, convenient, and inexpensive, facilitating the consumption of a large number of calories. However, interestingly, in our study, the connection between consuming UPFs and upper digestive tract cancers does not seem to be explained by body mass index and waist-hip ratio.”

A study earlier this year found a positive correlation between higher consumption of UPFs and the risk of head and neck cancers and esophageal adenocarcinoma, a cancer originating from the mucous-secreting glands of the esophagus. The researchers of this study aimed to further investigate these findings.

They included 450,111 participants who had previously taken part in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study. The EPIC study recruited participants from 10 European countries and conducted nearly 14 years of follow-up; the majority of participants were between the ages of 35 and 69 at recruitment, with 70.8% being female.

The participants’ consumption of ultra-processed foods primarily included carbonated beverages, non-carbonated sweetened beverages, ultra-processed dairy products, ultra-processed bread, and ultra-processed meats. During the study, there were 910 cases of head and neck cancer and 215 cases of esophageal adenocarcinoma.

Analysis indicated that a 10% increase in UPF consumption was associated with a 23% increased risk of head and neck cancer and a 24% increased risk of esophageal adenocarcinoma. The increase in body fat could only explain a small portion of the statistical association between consuming UPFs and these upper digestive tract cancers.

Based on the findings related to body fat, there may be other mechanisms at play, such as the addition of emulsifiers and artificial sweeteners (linked to increased disease risk), as well as pollutants during food packaging and production processes.

The researchers caution that their findings may be influenced by certain biases, and notably, they found a curious association between increased UPF consumption and the risk of accidental death.

One of the co-authors, George-David Smith, said, “UPFs are clearly associated with many adverse health outcomes, but whether they truly cause these outcomes or whether the association is due to underlying factors such as general health behaviors and socioeconomic status is not clear, and the association with accidental death has caught people’s attention.”

However, given that the increase in body fat does not fully explain the association between UPFs and cancer, the researchers suggest shifting the focus away from weight loss treatments, such as semaglutide, as being unlikely to be of significant help in preventing upper digestive tract cancers related to consuming UPFs.

Considering the age of the EPIC study, further research is needed to identify the mechanisms beyond body fat that may contribute to the cancer risks found in this study and to replicate the results.

One of the co-authors, Inge Huybrechts, emphasized, “Long-term dietary tracking intake assessments in cohorts, taking into account contemporary consumption habits, are needed to replicate these study results because the dietary data in EPIC were collected in the 1990s when UPF consumption was relatively lower. Therefore, this association may be stronger in cohorts including recent dietary tracking assessments.”

The study was published in the European Journal of Nutrition.

Consuming highly processed foods linked to increased risk of certain cancers


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