Ultra-processed foods linked to increased cancer risk, diabetes, and heart disease

The higher the consumption of ultra-processed foods, the higher the risk of suffering from a combination of chronic diseases including cancer, diabetes and heart disease, according to a new study.

14 November 2023

A groundbreaking study has found that the higher the consumption of ultra-processed foods, the higher the risk of suffering from a combination of chronic diseases including cancer, diabetes and heart disease – known as multimorbidity.

The multinational study involved 266,666 men and women from 7 European countries, and the University of Vienna, in collaboration with the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC-WHO). Led by Reynalda Córdova, who received a DOC scholarship from the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW), and co-funded by World Cancer Research Fund International, the new research is based on data from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC).

The researchers discovered that the more ultra-processed foods consumed, the greater the risk of suffering from 2 or more long-term health conditions, such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

Specifically, associations were noted with animal-based products and artificially sweetened beverages (eg soft drinks).

Ultra-processed foods are convenient (long-shelf life, ready-to-eat), industrially manufactured foods with added ingredients or additives (eg modified starch, hydrogenated oils) that are typically found in fast food restaurants or sold via supermarkets. Examples are soft drinks, sweet or savoury packaged snacks, processed meat, pre-prepared frozen or shelf-stable dishes, and more.

> What is ultra-processed food and why should we be worried?

> Ultra-processed food – we should be guided by facts not fear

Multimorbidity – a growing concern

People suffering from a combination of chronic diseases (multimorbidity) is a growing health problem worldwide. The findings of this study can inform preventive strategies to improve people’s health through dietary recommendations, health policies and interventions.

Reynalda Córdova said: “Our study highlights the importance of ensuring universal access to fresh and less processed foods. In addition, our findings emphasise the importance of a differentiated analysis of ultra-processed food subgroups.

While certain groups, such as animal products and artificially and sugar-sweetened beverages, were associated with increased risk, other groups, such as ultra-processed breads and cereals or alternative plant-based products, showed no association with risk.

Heinz Freisling, co-author and study lead at IARC, said: “These findings are of concern because ultra-processed foods comprise nowadays more than half of our daily food intake. Critics of the classification of certain foods as ultra-processed argue that the definition is impractical and that some foods classified as ultra-processed make important contributions to the nutrient intake of specific population groups (eg older adults).

“Such criticism should certainly be considered. However, our study emphasises that it’s not necessary to completely avoid ultra-processed foods; rather, their consumption should be limited, and preference be given to fresh or minimally processed foods.”

Karl-Heinz Wagner, co-author and professor at the University of Vienna, said: “The results indicate that the existing dietary recommendations, focusing on the consumption of plant-based foods, are consistent with current findings on ultra-processed foods. This is another reason to reduce the high consumption of animal-based foods.”

Dr Helen Croker, Assistant Director of Research and Policy at World Cancer Research Fund, said: “What’s particularly significant in this large study is that eating more ultra-processed foods, in particular animal products and sweetened beverages, was linked to an increased risk of developing cancer along with another disease such as a stroke or diabetes. Our Cancer Prevention Recommendations include limiting processed foods high in fat, starches or sugars, avoiding processed meat and eating plenty of wholegrains, vegetables, pulses and fruit.”

The study was co-funded by the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Cancer Research UK, the French National Cancer Institute and World Cancer Research Fund International.

Reynalda Córdova is a recipient of a DOC Fellowship of the Austrian Academy of Sciences at the Department of Nutritional Science in the working group of Prof Wagner and a PhD Student in the Vienna Doctoral School of Pharmaceutical, Nutritional and Sport Sciences.

Read the study

Consumption of ultra-processed foods and risk of multimorbidity of cancer and cardiometabolic diseases: a multinational cohort study
Cordova, Reynalda et al.
The Lancet Regional Health – Europe, Volume 0, Issue 0, 100771

> Read more about this research grant

About World Cancer Research Fund

World Cancer Research Fund examines how diet, nutrition, body weight and physical activity affect your risk of developing and surviving cancer. As part of an international network of charities, it has been funding life-saving research, influencing global public health policy, and educating the public since 1982. While society continues searching for a cure, World Cancer Research Fund’s prevention and survival work is helping people live longer, happier, healthier lives – free from the devastating effects of cancer. www.wcrf-uk.org and Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.

Preventing Cancer. Saving Lives