Eating more such foods could put you at a higher risk of developing cancers of the mouth, throat and esophagus.
We have long known that our diets can impact not only our environment but our health as well, and a new study confirms this.
Eating more ultra-processed foods could put you at a higher risk of developing cancers of the upper aerodigestive tract, including the mouth, throat and esophagus, according to researchers at the University of Bristol and the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
They reached this conclusion by analysing diet and lifestyle data on more than 450,000 adults whose dietary habits were followed for 14 years. Their study adds to the evidence base on the carcogenic effects of ultra-processed foods, which have already been linked to an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and various forms of cancer.
Results from the new research now indicate that eating 10% more ultra-processed foods is associated with a 23% higher risk of head and neck cancer and a 24% higher risk of a cancer of the esophagus. Increases in body fat accounted only for a small proportion of the statistical association between ultra-processed food consumption and the risk of these upper-aerodigestive tract cancers, according to the scientists.
“Ultra-processed foods 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, favouring the consumption of large portions and an excessive number of calories,” explains Fernanda Morales-Berstein, a PhD student at the University of Bristol who was the study’s lead author.
“However, it was interesting that in our study the link between eating ultra-processed foods and upper-aerodigestive tract cancer didn’t seem to be greatly explained by body mass index and waist-to-hip ratio,” Berstein notes.
The experts theorize that common additives, including emulsifiers and artificial sweeteners, as well contaminants from food packaging may explain the link between the consumption of these foods and upper-aerodigestive tract cancer, at least to some extent.
“[These foods] are clearly associated with many adverse health outcomes, yet whether they actually cause these, or whether underlying factors such as general health-related behaviours and socioeconomic position are responsible for the link, is still unclear,” observes George Davey Smith, professor of clinical epidemiology at the University of Bristol.
The scientists stress that further research is needed to identify how food additives and contaminants may harm our bodies. That is why losing weight alone may not be enough alone for better health outcomes if people continue consuming ultra-processed foods in greater quantities.
“Focusing solely on weight loss treatment,” Berstein cautions, “is unlikely to greatly contribute to the prevention of upper-aerodigestive tract cancers related to eating these foods.”
Helen Croker, assistant director of research and policy at the World Cancer Research Fund, stresses that the new research “adds to a growing pool of evidence suggesting a link between ultra-processed foods and cancer risk,” which is why it is essential to “eat a healthy diet rich in wholegrains, vegetables, fruit, and beans.”