Increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods such as packaged baked goods and snacks, fizzy drinks, sugary cereals and reconstituted meat products, may possibly raise the risk of developing cancers of the breast, prostate and bowel, researchers have warned.
Processed food that accounts for up to 50 per cent of the total daily energy intake in several countries, contains high levels of sugar, fat and salt and lacks vitamins and fibre.
The study found that a 10 per cent increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet was associated with a 12 per cent increase in overall cancer risk and 11 per cent increase in breast cancer risk.
“To our knowledge, this study is the first to investigate and highlight an increase in the risk of overall — and specifically breast cancer associated with ultra-processed food intake,” said the team led by Bernard Srour from the French Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm) in Paris.
In addition, processed foods may also raise the risk of obesity, high blood pressure and cholesterol.
For the findings, published in the British Medical Journal, the researchers studied over 104,980 healthy adults (22 per cent men and 78 per cent women) with an average age of 43 years.
Several well known risk factors for cancer, such as age, sex, educational level, family history of cancer, smoking status and physical activity levels, were taken into account.
Consumption of fresh or minimally processed foods such as fruits, vegetables, pulses, rice, pasta, eggs, meat, fish and milk was also associated with lower risks of overall cancer and breast cancer.
However, no significant association was found between less processed foods such as canned vegetables, cheeses and freshly made unpackaged bread and risk of cancer.
Policies targeting product reformulation, taxation and marketing restrictions on ultra-processed products and promotion of fresh or minimally processed foods may contribute to primary cancer prevention, the researchers suggested.