How the typical British diet is fuelling the risk of cancer
Foods that make up half of the typical British diet are fuelling the risk of cancer, a major study suggests.
Scientists said common daily fare - including most breakfast cereals, breads, snacks and convenience meals - appears to be endangering the nation’s health.
A number of studies have previously linked “ultra-processed” foods, which are mass produced, containing chemicals, colourings, sweeteners and preservatives, to cancer.
But researchers said the latest study by Imperial College London is the most comprehensive yet, involving almost 200,000 people aged between 40 and 69 who were tracked for over a decade, against the risks of 34 types of cancer.
They said the findings were particularly concerning because of the “exceptionally high” intake of processed foods in the British diet - making up around half of daily calories.
UK ultra-processed food diet 'exceptionally high'
For every 10 per cent increase in ultra-processed food in a person’s diet, the chance of cancer rose by two per cent, while cancer death rates were six per cent higher.
Some of the sharpest rises were seen in breast and ovarian disease, where cancer mortality was respectively increased by 16 and 30 per cent.
Researcher Dr Kiara Chang said: “The average person in the UK 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 colour, flavour, consistency, texture, or extend shelf-life.”
The study funded by Cancer Research UK and the World Cancer Research Fund could not prove the link, as it was observational research, based on recall of what people’s diets were, and could not prove cause and effect.
Other scientists noted that a high intake of such foods could be a marker of other poor diet choices.
But researchers called for warning labels to be placed on processed foods, urging people to limit their intake, and said the sugar tax should be extended to cover more processed products.
A number of countries, including France, Canada and Brazil, have updated dietary guidelines to limit such foods, but no such measures are in place in the UK.
Common ultra-processed foods
Ultra-processed foods usually contain ingredients that people would not add when they are cooking homemade food.
The most commonly eaten ultra-processed foods in the UK are shop-bought mass-produced bread, ready meals, various breakfast cereals, reconstituted meat products such as ham, sweets, and shop-bought biscuits, buns and cakes.
Previous studies have suggested a link between ultra-processed foods and heart disease, as well as obesity and type 2 diabetes.
In the new study, published in eClinicalMedicine, the team used UK Biobank data to examine the diets of 197,426 people. Their health was tracked over a decade and their risk of developing cancer or dying from it was also analysed.
The study found that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with a greater risk of developing cancer overall, and specifically ovarian and brain cancers. It was also associated with an increased risk of dying from cancer, most notably with ovarian and breast cancers.
These links held true even after adjusting for factors that may alter the results, such as exercise, smoking. body mass index (BMI) and deprivation.
Dr Panagiota Mitrou, director of research and innovation at the World Cancer Research Fund, said: “The findings in this first UK study of its kind are significant as this is the most comprehensive assessment of ultra-processed foods and cancer risk. This adds to the growing evidence linking these foods to cancer and other health conditions.”
Dr Mitrou said people should limit the consumption of “fast foods” and other processed foods high in fat, starches or sugars, adding: “For maximum benefit, we also recommend that you make wholegrains, vegetables, fruit and pulses a major part of your usual diet.”