Ultra-processed foods linked to cancer and premature death

by Jacob Fuller

Lauren Dempsey, MS in Biomedicine and Law, RN, FISM News 

In a new study published in the journal eClinical Medicine, researchers from Imperial College London are proving you truly are what you eat.

Researchers in the new study found that consuming ultra-processed foods is linked to an increased risk of death from breast and ovarian cancer as well as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and premature death.

The results detail how researchers evaluated 197,426 U.K. Biobank records to analyze the diets of middle-aged adults over a 10-year time span. The team specifically looked for different types of cancer and health risk factors and then compared it to ultra-processed food consumption.

The average consumption of ultra-processed foods was 22.9% of the total diet and ranged from 9.2% to 41.4% among participants.

After examining the data, the team found that individuals who consumed more ultra-processed foods had a greater risk of developing cancer overall, with the risk of cancer increasing as levels of ultra-processed food consumption also increased.

The team found that for every 10% increase in ultra-processed food consumed, there was a 2% increased risk of developing cancer overall and increased the overall risk of cancer death by 6%.

For women, the increase in ultra-process foods in their diet significantly increased the risk of ovarian cancer. The data indicated that this risk increased by 19% and the risk of death from ovarian cancer increased by 30%, while breast cancer mortality increased by 16%.


Dr. Eszter Vamos, a clinical senior lecturer in the School of Public Health at Imperial College London and an author of this study told Medical News Today, “The findings of this study on overall cancer risk are in line with what we know about the importance of a healthy diet in reducing our cancer risk.”

However, researchers still don’t know exactly why ultra-processed foods are linked to increased risk for cancer, but a growing body of research shows that there is a correlation.

A recent study from the U.S. found a 29% increase in the risk of colorectal cancer among men who consume ultra-processed foods. Additionally, two studies published in the BMJ highlight the health risks of eating ultra-processed foods, identifying a 62% increased risk of premature death and a 10% increased risk of heart disease.


Ultra-processed food lacks specific nutrients that are essential for the body to function. These foods are usually packaged and are made of ingredients that have been through the most changes from their original state, containing additives and preservatives.

These foods are made up of substances extracted from foods, like oils, fats, starches, and sugars as well as hydrogenated oils and emulsifiers. Ultra-process foods are categorized by a classification system called the NOVA food classification system which is used to identify and organize foods based on the levels of processing.

Ultra-processed foods make up the fourth category in this system and include sodas, energy or sports drinks, packaged cookies or baked goods, candy, prepackaged pizza, processed meats like chicken nuggets and fish sticks, sweetened and flavored yogurt, packaged bread and buns, breakfast cereal, and sweetened juices.

“The average person in the U.K. consumes more than half of their daily energy intake from ultra-processed foods. This is exceptionally high and concerning as ultra-processed foods are produced with industrially derived ingredients and often use food additives to adjust color, flavor, consistency, texture, or extend shelf life,” Dr. Kiara Chang, the first author of the study, said.

According to a Northwestern Medicine study, about 80% of Americans’ total calorie consumption comes from store-bought foods and beverages. Researchers evaluated more than 230,000 products finding that 71% of products such as bread, salad dressings, snack foods, sweets, and sugary drinks were considered ultra-processed foods.

While more studies need to be conducted, current research indicates that a healthy balanced diet is the best way to improve overall health and reduce the risk of chronic disease and cancer.