Study Associates High Consumption of Ultra-Processed Food With Risk of Cancer


Ultra-processed food consumption linked to an increased risk of developing and dying from ovarian cancer and breast cancer.

A diet that is high in ultra-processed foods may increase the risk of developing multiple cancer types, according to findings made by investigators from Imperial College London, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), University of São Paulo in Brazil, and NOVA University Lisbon in Portugal, which was published in eClinicalMedicine.

Incidence rate for cancer increased by 2% with every 10% increase in dietary ultra-processed food. Ultra-processed food was particularly associated with an increased risk of developing and dying from ovarian and breast cancers.

“The average person in the UK consumes more than half of their daily energy intake from ultra-processed foods. This is exceptionally high and concerning as ultra-processed foods are produced with industrially derived ingredients and often use food additives to adjust color, flavor, consistency, texture, or extend shelf life,” said Kiara Chang, first author, Imperial College London’s School of Public Health, in a press release.

Ultra-processed foods—such as soda, mass-produced packaged bread, numerous types of ready-made meals, and many breakfast cereals—are high in salt, fat, sugar, and laden with artificial additives, attracting consumers with affordable pricing and attractive packaging, Chang explained.

Ultra-processed foods have been shown to worsen a person’s risk of developing obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, however, the impact on cancer risk is less understood. Investigators conducted a study of 200,000 middle-aged adult patients identified in the UK Biobank. They evaluated patient health over 10 years, examining the risks of developing any cancer, the risk of developing 1 of 34 prespecified types of cancer, or the risk of death from cancer.

Investigators estimated that every 10% increase in ultra-processed food increased a person’s risk of overall cancer-related mortality by 6%. A 10% dietary increase of ultra-processed foods also increased a person’s risk of breast cancer mortality by 16%. This risk was nearly doubled for ovarian cancer mortality (30%).

Investigators also addressed risks associated with socioeconomic, behavioral, and dietary factors such as smoking status, physical activity, and body mass index (BMI). They observed similar links between a diet high in ultra-processed foods and the risk of developing and dying from cancer.

Chang recommended that the warning labels on ultra-processed food labels be written in clear font for consumers. The investigators also suggest taxing ultra-processed fizzy drinks, fruit- and milk-based drinks, and other ultra-processed products with a sugar tax, and subsiding nutritious, affordable food to improve access across income levels.

The World Health Organization and United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization propose restricting ultra-processed foods. Brazil, France, and Canada have initiated nationwide efforts to limit ultra-processed foods by updating national dietary guideline recommendations, although the UK has not done the same.

“This study adds to the growing evidence that ultra-processed foods are likely to negatively impact our health including our risk for cancer. Given the high levels of consumption in UK adults and children, this has important implications for future health outcomes,” said Eszter Vamos, the study’s lead senior author, Imperial College London’s School of Public Health, in the press release.


Imperial College London. Ultra-processed foods may be linked to increased risk of cancer. News Release. January 31, 2023. Accessed February 1, 2023.

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