Higher consumption of UPFs increases the risk of cancer and long-term heart conditions

A STUDY, authored by 35 scientists from seven European countries and published in The Lancet, shows that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) increases the risk of cancer and the presence of two or more long term heart conditions.

Commenting on the study on X, Rob Percival, Head of Food Policy at the Soil Association, said, “The study affirms that ultra-processed diets are contributing to the accumulation of chronic morbidity and multi-morbidity – reinforcing the view that a more minimally processed diet should be a policy objective.

“It affirms that ultra-processed diets are likely contributing to poorer health for reasons which extend beyond nutrient composition – with alteration of the food matrix, additives and contaminants, endocrine pathways and the microbiome likely implicated.

“And it affirms that artificially sweetened drinks are probably contributing to poorer health outcomes, alongside sugar sweetened drinks – calling into question government policies focussed on sugar reduction via reformulation.”

The study, Consumption of ultra-processed foods and risk of multimorbidity of cancer and cardiometabolic diseases: a multinational cohort study, was a “prospective cohort study including 266,666 participants (60% women) free of cancer, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes at recruitment from seven European countries.” Foods and drinks consumed over the previous 12 months were assessed at baseline by food-frequency questionnaires and classified according to their degree of processing using Nova classification.

A spokesperson for the study said, “In the last two decades, the prevalence of people who developed more than one chronic disease has drastically increased, especially in high-income countries, with similar trends emerging in low- and middle-income countries. In Europe alone, around 50 million people are affected by multimorbidity, which is defined as the co-occurrence of at least two chronic diseases in an individual. Multimorbidity can result in reduced quality of life along with disability, functional decline, and substantial health care costs. Therefore, identifying preventable risk factors of multimorbidity is crucial to reduce its burden.”

The researchers examined the relationship of total and subgroup consumption of UPFs with the risk of multimorbidity defined as the co-occurrence of at least two chronic diseases in an individual among first cancer at any site, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes.

They found that, “After a median of 11.2 years of follow-up, 4461 participants (39% women) developed multimorbidity of cancer and cardiometabolic diseases.”

They said, “Higher UPF consumption was associated with an increased risk of multimorbidity of cancer and cardiometabolic diseases. Among UPF subgroups, associations were most notable for animal-based products, and artificially and sugar-sweetened beverages. Other subgroups such as ultra-processed breads and cereals or plant-based alternatives were not associated with risk.”

They concluded, “Our findings suggest that higher consumption of UPFs increases the risk of cancer and cardiometabolic multimorbidity.”

Commenting on the study, Rob Percival said, “We already knew that subcategories of UPF shape health outcomes in different ways. Soil Association has been talking about this for years. And while there is value in understanding which UPF are driving the most harm, the degree to which ‘better’ products can be disentangled is arguably limited. The issue is an ultra-processed food system; a political economy oriented towards industrial processing that prioritises shareholder profits over public health. To address the harms caused by UPF, we need to reconfigure the system as a whole.”

Read the full study

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