Eating lots of ultra-processed foods can lead to mouth and throat cancers, a worrying new study has revealed.
Researchers who analyzed the diets and lifestyles of nearly half a million people for more than a decade found that those who ate more ultra-processed foods (UPFs) had a higher risk of developing cancers of the upper aerodigestive tract, including the esophagus.
UPFs such as ready meals, cookies, soft drinks and chips have long been linked with obesity, which comes with its own increased likelihood of developing several cancers.
But scientists at the University of Bristol have now also identified a link between processed food products and cancers of the mouth and throat.
The authors of the study, published in the European Journal of Nutrition, say this link could be down to additives in UPFs and contaminants from their packaging.
Popular UPFs include crisps, fried snacks, processed meats, mass-produced bread, fizzy drinks, sweets and chocolate, ice cream, biscuits, cakes, fruit-flavored yogurts, ready meals, chips and some alcoholic spirits including gin, rum and whisky.
Despite their widely known detrimental health effects, these foods are often far cheaper to buy and quicker and easier to prepare than healthier foods.
Previous studies have identified a link between consumption of UPFs and cancer, including a recent British study that looked at the association between UPFs and 34 different cancers in the largest cohort study in Europe, the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) cohort.
Though obesity associated with high consumption of UPFs is often blamed for the increased risk of cancers, this latest study proves it may not be the only factor to blame.
Researchers from the University of Bristol and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) sought to identify whether links between UPF consumption and head and neck cancers in the EPIC cohort could be explained by an increase in body fat.
The collaborative international study analyzed diet and lifestyle data on 450,111 adults who were followed for approximately 14 years.
Their results showed that eating 10 percent more UPFs is associated with a 23 percent higher risk of developing head and neck cancer, and a 24 percent higher risk of cancer of the esophagus (oesophageal adenocarcinoma).
Fernanda Morales-Bernstein, a Wellcome Trust PhD student at the University of Bristol and the study’s lead author, explained: “UPFs have been associated with excess weight and increased body fat in several observational studies.
“This makes sense, as they are generally tasty, convenient and cheap, favoring the consumption of large portions and an excessive number of calories.
“However, it was interesting that in our study the link between eating UPFs and upper-aerodigestive tract cancer didn’t seem to be greatly explained by body mass index and waist-to-hip ratio.”
The study’s authors suggested other mechanisms could potentially explain the associated higher risks of mouth and throat cancer – such as the presence of additives in UPFs including emulsifiers and artificial sweeteners previously associated with an increased risk of disease development.
In addition, the researchers theorize that contaminants from the packaging UPFs are kept in, as well as the manufacturing process, could help to explain the link between UPF consumption and mouth and throat cancer.
However, the authors of the study admit to possible biases in their study, which would explain evidence of an association between higher UPF consumption and an increased risk of accidental deaths, which is highly unlikely to be causal.
George Davey Smith, Professor of Clinical Epidemiology and Director of the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit at the University of Bristol and co-author on the study, said: “UPFs are clearly associated with many adverse health outcomes, yet whether they actually cause these, or whether underlying factors such as general health-related behaviors and socioeconomic position are responsible for the link, is still unclear, as the association with accidental deaths draws attention to.”
Professor Inge Huybrechts, Team head of the Lifestyle exposures and interventions team at IARC, added: “Cohorts with long-term dietary follow-up intake assessments, considering also contemporary consumption habits, are needed to replicate these study’s findings, as the EPIC dietary data were collected in the 1990s when the consumption of UPFs was still relatively low.
“As such, associations may potentially be stronger in cohorts including recent dietary follow-up assessments.”
Ms Morales-Bernstein and her co-authors admitted that further research to identify other mechanisms such as food additives and contaminants was needed to accurately explain the observed links of their study.
However, as body fat did not sufficiently explain the link between UPF consumption and upper-aerodigestive tact cancer risk in the study, Ms Morales-Bernstein suggested that focusing only on weight loss was unlikely to prevent cancers related to eating UPFs.
“Focusing solely on weight loss treatment, such as Semaglutide, is unlikely to greatly contribute to the prevention of upper-aerodigestive tract cancers related to eating UPFs,” she said.
Praising the latest study, Dr. Helen Croker, Assistant Director of Research and Policy at the World Cancer Research Fund, added: “This study adds to a growing pool of evidence suggesting a link between UPFs and cancer risk.
“The association between a higher consumption of UPFs and an increased risk of developing upper-aerodigestive tract cancer supports our Cancer Prevention Recommendations to eat a healthy diet, rich in wholegrains, vegetables, fruit, and beans.”
Produced in association with SWNS Talker
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