Ultra-processed foods 'linked to cancer'

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People who tended to eat more ultra-processed food also tended to smoke more and exercise less than the others, but the authors controlled for these issues and still found the elevated cancer risk.

(Past research has found that Americans get 61% of their calories from highly processed foods.) In the new study, researchers found that, among nearly 150,000 French adults, a 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in a person's diet was correlated with a 12% higher risk of cancer.

While some studies have linked ultra-processed foods to an increased risk of obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels, strong evidence linking them to cancer has been lacking.

A study of 19 European countries by the the University of Sao Paulo recently found that United Kingdom families buy more ultra-processed food than any others in Europe, amounting to 50.7 per cent of the diet.

The study also found that there was a significant cancer link between less processed foods, such as canned vegetables, cheese and fresh bread. These foods often contain high levels of sugar, fat, and salt, and lack in essential vitamins and fibre.

The researchers emphasised that at this stage it was just an observational study, and no firm conclusions could be drawn about ultra-processed food consumption and risk of cancer.

They were 23 per cent more likely to develop cancer of any type over the next five years than those in the bottom quarter, whose diet was only 8 per cent ultra-processed food.

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"If confirmed in other populations and settings, these results suggest that the rapidly increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods may drive an increasing burden of cancer in the next decades", the researchers said.

A study published by The BMJ today reports a possible association between intake of highly processed ("ultra-processed") food in the diet and cancer.

Risk factors for cancer, such as age, sex, educational level, family history, smoking status and physical activity levels, were factored in.

Also, they are unable to say which part of the processing chain might be responsible for any increase in cancer risk.

It will take further research to understand which of these hypotheses, if any, is valid, Touvier says, so it's too soon to panic.

"Eating a balanced diet, avoiding junk food and maintaining a healthy weight are things we can all do to help stack the odds in our favour", noted Bauld.

They point to several challenges, such as identifying the precise elements in ultra-processed foods that could lead to cancer, and the potential impact of other unmeasured factors on the results. He said it chimed with the key concerns of his organisation's Real Bread Campaign and Sugar Smart initiative that "eating processed food may not be as good for you as eating unprocessed and minimally processed food".

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