Ultra-Processed Foods Linked to Greater Cancer Risk, Study Finds

By Corrie Pellegrino - February 14, 2023

Everyone has done it. Popped in a frozen pizza for a quick dinner or gulped down a soda during a lunch break. It’s never the ideal choice, but a new study published in the journal eClinicalMedicine shows that increased consumption of ultra-processed foods like these is associated with a greater risk of cancer.

Ultra-processed foods are grab-and-go grocery store staples like prepackaged snacks and cookies, breakfast cereals, sodas and ready-to-eat microwave meals. They are typically high in salt, sugar and fat, and low in fiber. They also contain little to no whole foods, such as unprocessed fruits and vegetables, which are crucial for a healthy diet.

In the United Kingdom-based study, ultra-processed foods made up an average of 22.9% of the participants’ diets, with a range of 9.1% on the low end to 41.4% on the high end. The study, funded by Cancer Research UK and World Cancer Research Fund, tracked more than 197,000 people from the UK Biobank, which includes people aged 40 to 69 from across England, Scotland and Wales. Researchers tracked participants’ dietary habits from 2009 to 2012. Over a 10-year follow-up period, 15,921 participants developed cancer and 4,009 cancer-related deaths were reported.

In particular, researchers noted that for every 10 percentage point increase in consumption of ultra-processed foods, there was a 2% increase in overall cancer risk and a 19% increase in ovarian cancer risk. Every 10 percentage point increase in consumption was also associated with a 6% increased risk of dying from any type of cancer, as well as a 30% increased risk of dying from ovarian cancer and a 16% increased risk of dying from breast cancer.

Headshot of Dr. Shelley Tworoger
Dr. Shelley Tworoger, Associate Center Director, Population Science

Although the study focused on the risk posed by ultra-processed food, Moffitt Cancer Center experts point out that it’s important to pay attention to your diet as a whole.

“We want people to recognize that some ‘whole foods’ may also increase risk for cancer or mortality due to cancer,” explained Shelley Tworoger, Ph.D., associate center director of Population Science at Moffitt. She stressed that red meat is considered a whole food but intake should be limited.  

Doratha A. Byrd, Ph.D., who researches modifiable dietary exposures to cancer risks, explains that ultra-processed foods and certain whole foods like red meat can disrupt the intestinal barrier and promote inflammation, increasing the risk for cancer.

headshot of Dr. Doratha A. Byrd
Dr. Doratha A. Byrd, cancer researcher

What foods does she recommend for lowering your cancer risk? “A diet high in a diversity of fruits and vegetables, fish, legumes, whole grains and healthier fats such as nuts and olive oil, and low in processed and refined foods, added sugars, and red and processed meats,” Byrd said.

Remember, almost half of all cancer deaths could be prevented. One of the risk factors you have control over is your diet. So the next time you're at the grocery store, be on the lookout for healthy options.

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