Ultra-Processed Foods May Be Linked to Cancer

Janet Tiberian Author
By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
May 18, 2023
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You’re probably aware that processed foods and ultra-processed foods have a bad rap. Regularly eating these foods raise the risk for:

Studies also link regular consumption of ultra-processed food consumption with cancer. 

Processed foods and ultra-processed foods are different. Processed foods can include things like simple breads, nut butters and cheeses. Even with simple processed foods, there is a good chance that the manufacturer added oil, sugar or salt added to improve consistency and taste and prolong shelf life. They may been dried, crushed, roasted, boiled, frozen or pasteurized, stripping the food of some of its nutrients and fiber. 

Popular foods like chicken nuggets, frozen pizza or cookies are considered ultra-processed. Their packages usually list ingredients such as:

  • enriched white flour
  • hydrogenated oils
  • sugar
  • salt
  • artificial flavorings
  • artificial colorings
  • preservatives
  • stabilizers
  • emulsifiers as ingredients

Ultra-processed foods are convenient and usually more affordable than whole foods, which explains why 70% of supermarket food is either processed or ultra-processed. These foods are often laden in added fat, sugar and salt. They lack nutrients and trigger inflammation. These issues exist even in ultra-processed foods marketed as healthy choices like breakfast cereals, granola/protein bars and sports drinks. 

The Link to Cancer

Higher consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with an increased risk for developing overall cancer and brain cancer as well as an increased risk of dying from ovarian and breast cancers, according to a study published recently in The Lancet

In this study, researchers from the Imperial College London analyzed nutritional data collected between 2009 and 2012 from 200,000 middle-aged adults ages 40 to 69 years old. Participants were followed for 10 years. Results showed that 23% of participants’ total food consumption was comprised of ultra-processed foods. They also found:

  • 15,921 participants had developed cancer
  • 4,009 participants had cancer-related deaths 
  • A higher ultra-processed food consumption and a higher risk for overall cancer, ovarian cancer, breast cancer and cancer-related deaths 

“This study found a correlation between ultra-processed foods and risk for cancer and cancer mortality, particularly ovarian cancer in women,” says Bernard Kaminetsky, MD, medical director, MDVIP. “Unfortunately, it’s not the first study to sound the alarm on ultra-processed foods.”

Another study published in The BMJ found an association between ultra-processed food consumption and risk for colorectal cancer, the third most common type of cancer. In this study, researchers followed three large cohorts:

  • 46,341 of men from the Health Professional Follow-up Study (1986 through 2014)
  • 159,907 women from the Nurses’ Health Study (1986 through 2014)
  • 67,425 women from the Nurses Health Study II (1991 through 2015). 

Participants did not have cancer at the onset of the study. Dietary data was collected from them and analyzed every four years. Participants were divided into five groups based on their amount of ultra-processed food consumption and factored for body mass index and quality of the ultra-processed foods. After the 28-year follow-up period, results showed:

  • Men in the group with the highest ultra-processed food consumption had a 29% higher risk for colorectal cancer compared to men in the group who consumed the least.
  • Women who ate ultra-processed foods didn’t have a higher risk for colorectal cancer. 
  • Men who ate a lot of ready-to-eat products with meat, poultry or seafood bases or sugar-sweetened beverages had a higher risk for bowel cancer.
  • Women who consumed more ready-to-eat-or-heat foods (e.g., pizza) had a higher risk for colorectal cancer.

“Many studies have found an association between ultra-processed foods and serious health issues,” says Kaminetsky. “If you’re eating a lot of ultra-processed foods, you want to clean up your diet. Start by talking to your primary care doctor. They can guide you and if needed, refer you to a dietician.” 

Looking for a primary care physician? Consider partnering with an MDVIP-affiliated physician. Physicians in MDVIP-affiliated practices offer the MDVIP Wellness Program, which includes a nutrition screening. They can also customize a wellness plan for you that focuses on nutrition. You can use the MDVIP Connect portal, which has dietary plans, shopping lists and recipes. Find an MDVIP affiliate near you and begin your partnership in health »

About the Author
Janet Tiberian Author
Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES

Janet Tiberian is MDVIP's health educator. She has more than 25 years experience in chronic disease prevention and therapeutic exercise.

View All Posts By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
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