Ultra-processed foods linked to cancers

Eating ultra-processed foods may be linked to increased risk of head and neck cancer and oesophageal cancer, researchers say today.

The work was carried out by research student Fernanda Morales Berstein and colleagues at the University of Bristol, UK.

They investigated the extent to which these cancers are linked to obesity, or other factors. To do so, they analysed information on 450,111 participants in the ongoing European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition study.

Participants were followed up over around 14 years, during which time 910 developed head and neck cancer, and 215 developed oesophageal cancer.

Analysis suggested that each 10% higher consumption of ultra-processed foods was linked to a 23% higher risk of head and neck cancer. The increase for oesophageal cancer was 24%.

A higher body mass index could partly explain the raised risk, but not fully, the researchers believe.

In European Journal of Nutrition today they conclude: “We reaffirmed that higher ultra-processed food consumption is associated with greater risk of head and neck cancer and oesophageal cancer.

“The proportion mediated via adiposity was small. Further research is required to investigate other mechanisms that may be at play.”

Ms Morales-Berstein said: “It was interesting that in our study the link between eating ultra-processed foods and upper-aerodigestive tract cancer didn’t seem to be greatly explained by body mass index and waist-to-hip ratio.”

Instead, it may be that additives including emulsifiers and artificial sweeteners may raise disease risk, as well as contaminants from food packaging and the manufacturing process.

Co-author Professor George Davey Smith cautioned that factors linked to consuming more ultra-processed foods, like general health-related behaviours and socioeconomic position, may be responsible for links to disease.

Morales‑Berstein, F. 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 22 November 2023; doi: 10.1007/s00394-023-03270-1

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