Boxes of cake mix, which are considered ultra processed foods, on a packing line in a factory. Share on Pinterest
Consuming ultra processed foods has been linked to many negative health consequences. Andy Sacks/Getty Images
  • For many years, scientists have linked a healthy diet to a lowered risk for certain diseases.
  • Researchers from Imperial College London found that eating ultra-processed foods increases a person’s risk for developing cancer overall, specifically ovarian and brain cancers.
  • Scientists also found eating those foods heightens a person’s risk of dying from all cancers, especially ovarian and breast cancers.

Doctors have known for some time now that what we eat has a direct effect on our overall health.

The body requires specific nutrients to perform its routine tasks. And a healthy diet is linked to lowering a person’s risk for certain diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer, as well as promoting better mental health.

Now, researchers from Imperial College London say eating ultra-processed foods increases a person’s risk for developing all cancers, specifically ovarian and brain cancers. And these foods also heighten a person’s risk of dying from cancers, especially ovarian and breast cancers.

The study was recently published in the journal eClinical Medicine.

Ultra-processed foods make up the fourth category of the NOVA food classification system.

According to this classification system, a food is considered ultra-processed if it is:

  • an industrial-made food with five or more ingredients
  • made entirely or mostly from substances extracted from foods, such as oils, fats, sugars, and starches
  • includes food substances not normally found in culinary preparations, like hydrogenated oils and modified starches
  • features additives whose main purpose is to imitate aspects of natural foods such as flavors, colors, and emulsifiers

Examples of ultra-processed foods include:

  • sodas and “energy” or sports drinks
  • packaged cookies
  • candies
  • pre-prepared pizza and packaged meats
  • sweetened and flavored yogurts
  • “instant” soups and other mixes
  • sweetened juices
  • baked goods made with hydrogenated vegetable fat, emulsifiers, and other additives

Previous research shows eating ultra-processed foods increases a person’s obesity risk and can accelerate a person’s biological aging.

Additionally, consuming ultra-processed foods has been linked to a higher risk of heart disease, colorectal cancer, dementia, and all-cause mortality.

For this study, researchers used U.K. Biobank records to analyze the diets of 200,000 middle-aged adults. Scientists reviewed participants’ health over a 10-year time span, looking to see if they specifically developed 34 different types of cancer.

Upon review, the research team found people with higher consumption of ultra-processed foods had a greater risk of developing cancer overall.

For every 10% increase in ultra-processed food in a person’s diet, that person had a 2% increased risk of developing cancer overall.

Additionally, researchers found for every 10% increase in ultra-processed food consumption, a person increased their overall cancer death risk by 6%.

“The findings of this study on overall cancer risk are in line with what we know about the importance of a healthy diet in reducing our cancer risk,” Dr. Eszter Vamos, a clinical senior lecturer in the School of Public Health at Imperial College London and lead/senior author of this study told Medical News Today.

“There are many potential ways ultra-processed foods may increase cancer risk, and we need further research to better understand these,” she continued.

“UPFs have poor nutritional quality, are often high in salt, sugar, and unhealthy fats and low in fiber, and promote obesity — which is in itself a risk factor for many types of cancers. Ultra-processed foods may also contain potentially cancer-causing agents such as some controversial food additives, chemicals generated during food processing, and chemicals from packaging.”
— Dr. Eszter Vamos

In addition to overall cancer risk, Dr. Vamos and her team also found for every additional 10% of ultra-processed foods in the diet, a person increased their risk of developing ovarian cancer by 19% and dying from it by 30%.

“This is the first study to assess associations of ultra-processed food consumption with many different types of cancers, including ovarian cancer,” Dr. Vamos explained, adding: “We need further studies from other populations to confirm these findings.”

“However, previous studies suggest that diets high in unhealthy fats and low in vegetables may increase the risk of ovarian cancer,” she said.

“Ultra-processed foods may also promote inflammation that could contribute to cancer risk. Furthermore, some potentially cancer-causing agents such as acrylamide, which may be generated during processing, have been implicated.”
— Dr. Eszter Vamos

Researchers also found for every 10% increase in ultra-processed foods in a person’s diet, they raised their breast cancer mortality rate by 16%.

Dr. Parvin Peddi, a medical oncologist and director of Breast Medical Oncology for the Margie Petersen Breast Center at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, California, who was not involved in the study, reiterated that breast cancer has a known correlation with people who are overweight as they can have higher levels of estrogen, which promotes risk breast cancer.

“We do know that people who have ‘unhealthy habits’ like dietary habits, meaning they eat more fatty or they are overweight, and perhaps now ultra-processed foods, have an increased risk of breast cancer.”
— Dr. Parvin Peddi

Medical News Today also spoke with Dr. Steve Vasilev, a board certified integrative gynecologic oncologist and medical director of Integrative Gynecologic Oncology at Providence Saint John’s Health Center and Professor at Saint John’s Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, California, about this study and how ultra-processed foods may cause increased cancer risk. Dr. Vasilev was not involved in the study.

He said the “old school thought” was that various toxins from food processing, as well as added preservatives, lead to genetic mutations that cause cancer.

“That’s probably true to some extent. However, we now know since the Human Genome Project that there’s something called epigenetics, which basically is a study that looks at how genes are turned on and off. For example, if tumor suppressor genes are turned off, it will lead to diseases like cancer,” Dr. Vasilev explained.

However, he said that even if a person is born with the BRCA1 gene that increases their risk for developing breast and ovarian cancer, that does not necessarily mean that person will get one of those diseases. The epigenetics, he explained, leads to that gene being switched on or off in the body.

“So you do have a proactive ability to modulate which genes are turned on and off in your body. And what influences those, some of it is literally the toxins that accumulate from the preservatives and things like that in ultra-processed foods,” Dr. Vasilev added.

So how can people improve their diet to help decrease their cancer risk?

Kate Cohen, a registered dietitian at the Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, told Medical News Today that while correlation is not causation, medical experts know that around 50% of cancers can be prevented through diet and lifestyle changes.

“Hence diet is a controllable risk factor that every single one of us can and should take ownership of. You can’t control the physiology of how your body responds to food, but you can control what food you put into your body.”

Cohen, who was not involved in the study, also said this study gives doctors more ammunition to explain, encourage, instruct, and direct patients that a healthy diet has a direct effect on so many different health conditions.

“And now we see that breast, ovarian and other cancers may be on that list. If patients are at higher risk of developing any cancer — man or woman — doctors should be jumping up and down about this, as well as familiarizing patients with the other modifiable risk factors for cancer. We haven’t cured cancer, but we can cure bad diets.”
— Kate Cohen, dietitian