Ultra-processed food increases cancer rates, new research shows

Nearly 20% rise in ovarian cancer for UPF-heavy diets, worrying research funded by World Cancer Research Fund shows

March 2023

Our Director of Research and Innovation, Dr Panagiota Mitrou, has been cited across the news media recently after the publication of a study, co-funded by World Cancer Research Fund, linking ultra-processed food (UPF) – which we all eat – to cancer.

The observational study – a collaboration between Imperial College London, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), Universidade de São Paulo and Universidade NOVA de Lisboa – used UK Biobank data to assess the diets of 200,000 middle-aged adults over 10 years.

Researchers found that every 10% rise in UPF in a person’s diet increased ovarian cancer incidence by 19%, and overall cancer incidence by 2%. UPF was also associated with a greater risk of dying from cancer; in particular ovarian and breast cancers.

This is the most comprehensive assessment of ultra-processed foods and cancer risk, and adds to the growing evidence linking these foods to cancer and other health conditions. The findings of an increased risk of cancer with high consumption of ultra-processed foods aligns with one of our Cancer Prevention Recommendations – which is to limit the consumption of ‘fast foods’ and other processed foods high in fat, starches or sugars. For maximum benefit, we also recommend that you make wholegrains, vegetables, fruit and pulses a major part of your usual diet – Dr Mitrou

> Read the research in eClinicalMedicine

Selected media coverage

Swapping out UPF lowers cancer risk

A separate study, also co-funded by World Cancer Research Fund, suggests that replacing processed and ultra-processed food and drink with minimally processed alternatives may reduce the risk of various cancer types.

Scientists from IARC found that substituting 10% of processed foods with an equal amount of minimally processed foods was associated with reduced risks of:

  • overall cancer
  • head and neck cancers
  • oesophageal squamous cell carcinoma
  • colon cancer
  • rectal cancer
  • hepatocellular carcinoma
  • postmenopausal breast cancer

The substitution of 10% of UPF with 10% of minimally processed foods was associated with reduced risks of:

  • head and neck cancers
  • colon cancer
  • hepatocellular carcinoma

Food processing has long been suspected to play a role in cancer development; however, data from large-scale epidemiological studies are scarce. These results provide important new evidence on the potential role of food processing in cancer development and can help to put in place public health nutrition policies – Dr Inge Huybrechts, scientist in the Nutrition and Metabolism Branch at IARC

> Read the research in The Lancet Planetary Health