Consumption of ultra-processed foods increases the risk of 34 types of cancer (some rare)

Consuming ultra-processed foods contributes greatly to an increased risk of incidence and death from various types of cancer, including some rarer types, such as ovarian cancer. The conclusion comes from a study obtained exclusively by O Joio and o Trigo, which has just been published in the journal eClinicalMedicineand adds more evidence to what researchers in different fields have been talking about for years.

Led by Kiara Chang, public health policy researcher at Imperial College London, the study looked at the increase in incidence and deaths caused by 34 types of cancer in people aged 40 to 69.

To do so, the team of researchers collected dietary data between 2009 and 2012 from 197,426 people registered in the UK Biobank, a biomedical database covering half a million Britons, and followed them up to January 2021.

Image: Art The Jewel and the Wheat

One of the precautions the team took, Chang says, was not to include people who had the early stages of cancer. All participants did not have the disease when they entered the study. “At the end of the period, nearly 16,000 of these people developed some type of cancer and another 4,000 died of the disease,” says the researcher.

  • Every 10% increase in ultra-processed consumption increases overall cancer risk by 2%and the risk of women developing ovarian cancer increased by 19%.
  • This small increase in consumption also increased the risk of death from the disease overall (6%)breast cancer (16%) and ovarian cancer (30%).

According to Renata Levy, co-author and researcher at the USP Schools of Public Health and Medicine, the findings aren’t exactly surprising.

“It is a dense, but obvious result. This, depending on the conditions associated with cancer that these foods cause – such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity -, or on the nutritional imbalance that products rich in fat and low in protein bring Renata Levy, researcher at the USP Schools of Public Health and Medicine

There is also the effect of other components such as additives, artificial colors and emulsifiers. “They have been associated with changes in the gut microbiota and may be one of the mechanisms that, through prolonged and chronic accumulation, can trigger disease.”

While the result was within expectations, both Levy and Chang said they were surprised by the increased risk of developing brain and ovarian cancer, which are relatively rarer types of the disease. “We were able to see this because of the large number of people involved in the study,” Chang says. “Now, we have to wait to see if further studies confirm this trend we’ve detected,” says Levy, in turn.

The research is the first to establish a direct link between several specific types of cancer and the consumption of ultra-processed foods. Only two previous studies —one in France and another in the United States— have analyzed the relationship between unhealthy diet and the incidence of the most common cancers, such as breast, prostate and colorectal, with results in line with what was found in the study conducted in the United Kingdom United.

Research UP cancer - The tares and the wheat art - The tares and the wheat art
Image: Art of the Tares and Wheat

Consumption is on the rise in Brazil

According to the specialists interviewed by Joio, the research is important because the consumption of ultra-processed products is on the rise in Brazil.
According to the IBGE’s Household Budget Survey (POF), between 2002 and 2003 the presence of ultra-processed products on the Brazilian table was 12.6%, but between 2017 and 2018 consumption jumped to 19 .7%.

The distribution of this consumption, according to the IBGE, varies according to age:

  • among adolescents up to 18 years of age, ultra-processed foods occupy 26.7% of the diet;
  • among adults up to 59 years of age, consumption is 19.5%;
  • among people over the age of 60 it is 15.1%.

Snacks, cookies, instant noodles, frozen foods, sausages, sodas, and yogurts are some examples of ultra-processed foods.

Brazil loses 57,000 lives a year to the consumption of ultra-processed products, more than the number of homicides, which killed 45,500 Brazilians in 2019.

UPS Deaths - Denise Matsumoto/ O Joio and O Trigo - Denise Matsumoto/ O Joio and O Trigo
Image: Denise Matsumoto/ O Joio and O Trigo

For Larissa Brussa, doctor in genetics and research and development analyst at Grupo Fleury, the study provides very solid evidence on the relationship between cancer and the consumption of ultra-processed foods thanks to the large number of people involved and “because of the level of detail with which they look at different types of cancer, which is difficult to do in this type of analysis.”

Brussa says that although environmental conditions and genetic factors are different in the UK and Brazil, the findings are very likely to apply here and in other countries.

Renata Levy explains that, as in research linking smoking to lung cancer, the findings they found are valid for multiple scenarios and countries. “That’s because we adjusted the conditions for a number of factors, including alcohol consumption, family history of cancer, body mass index, obesity, to make sure we’re looking at the direct causes of the cancer. We made these changes to make sure. that we weren’t confused by other conditions or diseases.”

  • Nearly half of the calories (48.6%) consumed by study participants came from ultra-processed foods..

“The percentage is high, but it’s still a little lower than the average British consumption of 54%,” says Chang.

By way of comparison, according to the IBGE, more than half of the calories consumed by Brazilians (53.4%) come from natural or minimally processed foods. But this is not a reason to relax, says Ana Paula Natividade, doctor and researcher at the Sérgio Arouca National School of Public Health of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz).

With hunger affecting 33 million Brazilians and food insecurity affecting another 92 million, the contingent of people vulnerable to the consumption of ultra-processed products is immense. “The challenge is to end hunger and at the same time ensure that people have a minimally healthy diet,” he says.

An expensive but preventable disease

WHO data show that cancer is one of the leading causes of death worldwide.

  • In 2020, nearly one in six deaths were caused by the diseasewhich claimed nearly 10 million lives that year.

In Brazil, more than 230,000 people die of cancer and about 450,000 new cases are diagnosed each year, according to Inca (National Cancer Institute). Among Brazilians, the disease is the second leading cause of death.

While cancer carries a great emotional and financial cost to patients and their families, it also carries a great cost to public health.

According to Inca, spending for patients over the age of 30 with some type of cancer attributed to food, nutrition and physical activity will increase a lot in the next few years. In 2018, SUS spent 338 million reais on these cases. It is estimated that R$ 828 million will be spent in 2030, 145% more.

The largest expected increase in spending must be for cancers caused by the consumption of processed meat (bacon, salami, ham and sausage), mainly colorectal cancer. In 2018, BRL 28 million was spent on cases attributed to this use, and in 2030 this could increase to BRL 176 million, a leap of 529%.

The increase is justified: according to IBGE data, the consumption of this type of food practically doubled between 2008-09 and 2017-18, going from about 30% to about 60% among men and women over 20 years in Brazil.

If every Brazilian consumes less than 50 grams of ultra-processed meat a day, the savings for the health system could reach almost R$ 170 million by 2040.

For co-author Fernanda Rauber, who is also a researcher at the USP Schools of Public Health and Medicine, public policy to control the consumption of ultra-processed products is essential. In the UK, regulation is very poor, but here you believe food policies are advanced. “The Food Guide for the Brazilian Population 2014 has guided various public actions and policies such as the national school feeding program and the new nutrition labeling rules. We need to move forward in other measures, but we have this big difference compared to the UK.”

Consuming fewer ultra-processed products alleviates public health and saves lives. According to the Pan American Health Organization, 40% of cancer cases could be avoided by reducing the main risk factors, including the consumption of ultra-processed foods. Treatment in the early stages of the disease is also very important: 30% of cases can be cured if identified and treated appropriately early in the disease.

For Ana Paula Natividade, of Fiocruz, a major obstacle to reducing the consumption of ultra-processed products – and with it cancer and the other diseases it causes – is the strength of the food industry, whose lobby is transnational.

“Just as we have a Framework Convention setting out guidelines for tobacco control, we should have a similar treaty to limit the power of ultra-processed industries and the consumption of these products,” he argues.

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