The price of convenient food
Long-term prospective data from the UK Biobank support the assumption that convenience foods and other ultra-high-processed (UPF) foods are hazardous to health. While higher UPF consumption has been linked to increased risk for obesity and cardiometabolic diseases, prospective evidence on cancer outcomes was limited so far. In February, a French-Brazil-Portuguese research team headed by Dr Eszter Vamos from Imperial College London demonstrated that UPFs such as breakfast cereals, protein concentrates, mass-produced packaged bread, cheese or ready meals are significantly increasing the risk of developing almost three dozens of different cancers. The most comprehensive assessment to date of the association between ultra-processed foods and cancer risk is not yet a proof that processed foods cause cancer, however, is an important risk factor.
Drawback for a growing branch?
It’s not yet clear if the study is bad news for organic foodstores selling ready meals or vegan protein makers as first author Kiara Chang told European Biotechnology magazine: “We assigned plant-based meat and dairy substitutes to the ultra-processed food category if they used artificial ingredients or additives [such as food additives to adjust colour, flavour, consistency, texture], but it is not within scope of this study to explore the difference between protein sources [such as insect, plant, microbial or cell-culture-based protein] so I am afraid we are not able to provide a comment at this stage.” However, consumers are well advised to pay attention to the degree of processing and the list of ingredients when buying supposedly healthy or sustainable food.
The study used UK Biobank records to collect information on the diets of 200,000 middle-aged adult participants. Researchers monitored participants’ health over a ten-year period, looking at the risk of dying from 34 types of cancer overall as well as the specific risk of developing each.
According to the study results, higher consumption of UPF was associated with a greater risk of developing cancer overall, specifically with ovarian and brain cancers. It was also associated with an increased risk of dying from cancer, most notably with ovarian and breast cancers.
For every 10% increase in UPF in a person’s diet, there was an increased incidence of 2% for cancer overall, with a 19% increase for ovarian cancer specifically. Each 10% increase in UPF consumption was also associated with increased mortality for cancer overall by at least 6%, with a 16% and a 30% increase for breast cancer and ovarian cancer, respectively. These links remained after adjusting for a range of socio-economic, behavioural and dietary factors, such as smoking status, physical activity and body mass index (BMI).
The team also confirmed earlier studies that found out that higher consumption of UPF was associated with a greater risk of developing obesity and type 2 diabetes, and a greater weight gain in UK children extending from childhood to young adulthood. “This study adds to the growing evidence that UPFs are likely to negatively impact our health,” said Vamos. “Given the high levels of consumption in UK adults and children, this has important implications for future health outcomes.”