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Ultra-Processed Foods May Be Linked to Increased Risk of Cancer

According to an observational research done by Imperial College London, consuming more ultra-processed foods (UPF) may raise the chance of getting cancer and dying from it.


An observational study conducted by Imperial College London reveals that greater consumption of ultra-processed foods (UPF) is associated with a higher risk of developing and dying from cancer.


  • Objective: Determining association between UPF consumption and cancer risk
  • Design: Perspective Cohort
  • Participants: UK Biobank (N = 197426, aged 40–69 years, 54.6% women)
  • UPF consumption: 22.9% in total diet (SD 13.3%)
  • Cancer incidence: 15,921 individuals
  • Cancer-related death: 4009 individuals
  • Conclusion: UPF may increase cancer burden and mortality

Researchers at Imperial’s School of Public Health have conducted the most thorough study to date of the link between ultra-processed foods and cancer risk.

The first UK research used UK Biobank records to collect food data from 200,000 middle-aged adults. Over 10 years, researchers examined participants’ risk of developing any cancer overall and 34 specific types of cancer. They also examined cancer mortality risk.

The study indicated that a higher intake of ultra-processed foods was connected with an increased risk of acquiring cancer overall, and specifically with ovarian and brain malignancies. It was also connected with an increased chance of dying from cancer, most notably with brain and ovarian cancer.

The Imperial team collaborated with experts from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the University of So Paulo, and NOVA University Lisbon to conduct the study, which is published in eClinicalMedicine (Chang et al., 2023).

Ultra-processed foods are those that have gone through a long list of chemical processing which often results in unhealthy chemical additives, food modifications, and the addition of unhealthy levels of sugar, fat, and salt.

They’re often packaged and marketed as convenience foods, like cookies, cakes, chips, and sodas. They also might include pre-packaged microwaveable meals, desserts, ice creams, and sweetened beverages.

Ultra-processed foods are now widely known to be associated with a number of detrimental health consequences, such as type-2 diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.

For every 10 percent increase in ultra-processed foods in a person’s diet, there was a 2 percent rise in the risk of cancer and a 19 percent increase in the incidence of ovarian cancer.

Each 10 percent increase in eating ultra-processed foods was also linked to a 6 percent increase in cancer deaths overall, as well as a 16 percent increase in breast cancer deaths and a 30 percent increase in ovarian cancer deaths.

“This study adds to the mounting evidence that ultra-processed foods are likely to affect our health negatively, including our risk for cancer,” said Dr. Eszter Vamos of Imperial College London’s School of Public Health. Given the high levels of consumption among adults and children in the United Kingdom, this has significant consequences for future health outcomes.

Decrease Your Cancer Risk

The researchers noted that their study is observational, so it doesn’t show a cause-and-effect relationship between ultra-processed foods and cancer. More work needs to be done in this area to find a link between the two.

  • Even though the causal link between ultra-processed foods and cancer risk has yet to be established, it’s clear that reducing your intake of these types of products is an important way to reduce your risk. Here are some steps you can take to limit your intake of ultra-processed foods:
  • Choose fresh or minimally processed foods – instead of purchasing highly packaged or pre-prepared options, go for fresh or minimally processed foods.
  • Read food labels – when selecting store-bought foods, make sure to read the ingredients list and nutrition information to identify any products that are highly processed or contain added sugars, fats, and/or salts.
  • Cook at home – when possible, cook your meals at home using fresh ingredients for maximum nutrition and minimum added ingredients.

Ultimately, reducing your intake of ultra-processed foods is one of the most effective ways to reduce your risk of developing cancer. So be sure to monitor your consumption and choose healthier options when possible.

Related Publication

Chang, K., M. J. Gunter, et al. (2023). “Ultra-processed food consumption, cancer risk and cancer mortality: a large-scale prospective analysis within the UK Biobank.” eClinicalMedicine.


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