Eating common ultra-processed foods may increase the risk of cancer, experts have found.
Breakfast cereals, mass-produced bread, ready meals, ice cream, ham and crisps are among the foodstuffs that a study funded by Cancer Research UK and the World Cancer Research Fund suggests may have some link to a higher risk of various types of cancer.
A team of researchers from Imperial College London which led the study said British people eat far too many ultra-processed foods – often called UPFs – and called for front-of-pack warning labels.
Dr Kiara Chang, who worked on the research, said the average person in the UK relies on UPFs for more than half of their daily energy intake, with poorer people more vulnerable to taking the cheap and unhealthy option.
She said: “Ultra-processed foods are everywhere and highly marketed with cheap price and attractive packaging to promote consumption. This shows our food environment needs urgent reform to protect the population from ultra-processed foods.” She also suggested subsidising the price of fresh food for lower-income households.
UPFs usually contain ingredients that people would not add when they are cooking homemade food such as chemicals, colourings, sweeteners and preservatives to extend shelf-life.
Not all processed food is bad. For example, the NHS says some foods need processing to make them safe, such as milk, which needs to be pasteurized to remove bacteria.
Previous studies have suggested a link between UPFs and heart disease, dementia, obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Researchers said the latest findings were based on observations where people reported what they had eaten and said any suggested link between UPFs and cancer cannot be proven.
In the study, published in eClinicalMedicine, the team used UK Biobank data to examine the diets of 197,426 people aged 40 to 69. Their health was tracked over a decade and their risk of developing cancer or dying from it was also analysed.
The study found that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with a greater risk of developing cancer overall, and specifically ovarian and brain cancers. It was also linked to an increased risk of dying from cancer.
The researchers found that for every 10 per cent increase in ultra-processed food in a person’s diet, there was a 2 per cent increased risk of cancer overall, and a 19 per cent increased risk for ovarian cancer specifically.
These links held true even after adjusting for factors that may alter the results, such as exercise, body mass index (BMI) and deprivation.
Dr Panagiota Mitrou, director of research and innovation at the World Cancer Research Fund, said the findings “add to the growing evidence linking these foods to cancer and other health conditions”.
She added that people should limit the consumption of “fast foods” and other processed foods high in fat, starches or sugars, adding: “For maximum benefit, we also recommend that you make whole grains, vegetables, fruit and pulses a major part of your usual diet.”