Over the past decade and a half we have published numerous scientific studies linking the chemical additives in ultra-processed food with a variety of serious health outcomes. Among the adverse health effects linked with ultra-processed food that have been demonstrated in scientific and medical studies are an increased death risk, cognitive decline, depression and frailty, dementia, an increased risk for a stroke and a second heart attack, serious digestive conditions including IBD, diabetes, colon cancer, memory harm, and cardiovascular disease. Now, the results from a new longitudinal study conducted in the UK reveal even more bad news: The study suggests that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods may be linked to an increase of site-specific cancers, especially ovarian cancer in women, as well as an increased risk of death.
The study included a prospective cohort of UK Biobank participants aged 40–69 years. There were 197,426 people participating in the study and 54.6% were women. Study participants self-reported what they ate by completing 24-hour dietary recall surveys between the years 2009 and 2012 and were followed up until Jan 31, 2021. The food items reported as consumed were categorized according to their degree of food processing using the NOVA food classification system. Individuals’ ultra-processed food (UPF) consumption was expressed as a percentage of total food intake (g/day). Data were adjusted for baseline socio-demographic characteristics, smoking status, physical activity, body mass index, alcohol and total energy intake. The percent of daily intake of ultra-processed foods was then assessed against the risk of developing and/or dying from 34 different types of cancer over a period of 10 years.
The researchers found that a 10% increase in consumption of ultra-processed food was linked to a 2% increase in being diagnosed with any cancer and a 6% increase in dying from cancer of any kind.
The researchers also found that, with each additional 10% increase in consumption of ultra-processed food, there was a 19% increased risk for ovarian cancer and a 30% increased risk of dying from ovarian cancer. There was also a 16% increase in risk of dying from breast cancer with each 10% incremental increase in consumption of UPFs.
Further, an analysis of the top 25% tier of UPF consumption (those who consumed ultra-processed foods the most) versus the bottom 25% tier of UPF consumption (those who consumed UPFs the least) revealed a 7% higher risk of overall cancer, a 25% higher risk of developing lung cancer and a 52% higher risk of developing brain cancer in those people who consumed the most ultra-processed food as compared to those people who consumed the least amount of ultra-processed food. (source)
What is ultra-processed food exactly?
A disturbing 73% of the food supply in the United States is ultra-processed, according to Northeastern University’s Network Science Institute. Ultra-processed foods contain little, if any, natural, whole food and are mostly comprised of synthetic and industrialized food chemicals like flavorings, coloring/dyes, sweeteners, hydrogenated/hydrolyzed oils, emulsifiers and other stabilizers (to keep the ingredients consistent), and preservatives. Many of these additives themselves have been found in previous scientific studies to be linked with serious health outcomes. Examples of ultra-processed foods can be the more obvious types of foods like processed meats, fast food and snack foods, but they can also be items like yogurt, breakfast bars and frozen meals–including those marketed as “healthy”. Food products that contain more than five ingredients are typically ultra-processed, as are foods with numerous chemical additives on the ingredients label. These rules also apply to foods marketed as natural, vegan, vegetarian, healthy, and low-calorie.
The January 2023 results of the University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging found that 1 in 8 adults between the ages of 50 and 80 showed symptoms of addiction to highly processed foods, and recent research has shown that 1 in 5 people globally struggle with ultra-processed food addiction. (source)
For more information on the additives in ultra-processed foods and the health consequences linked with them, see our book: “The Food Hacker’s Handbook: A Guide to Breaking the Processed Foods and Additives Addiction” here.
Journal reference: Chang, K., et al. Ultra-processed food consumption, cancer risk and cancer mortality: a large-scale prospective analysis within the UK Biobank. Lancet Journal: eClinicalMedicine: 101840, Article in Press (published online February, 2023). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eclinm.2023.101840 Study (pdf)