Bowel cancer linked to ultra-processed foods, research suggests

Ultra-processed foods might carry a higher risk of bowel cancer, new study suggests (Anthony Devlin/PA) (PA Archive)
Ultra-processed foods might carry a higher risk of bowel cancer, new study suggests (Anthony Devlin/PA) (PA Archive)

Biscuits, sweets, cans of pop and sausages may increase a person’s risk of bowel cancer, a new study suggests.

Ultra-processed foods, which also include instant soups and noodles, sweet or savoury packaged snacks and sugary drinks, can increase a person’s risk, researchers said.

Academics in the US examined data taken from three major long-term health studies involving more than 46,000 men and almost 160,000 women.

Participants were tracked for 24 to 28 years.

During this time, some 3,216 cases of bowel cancer were identified.

The academics used data on cases and diets to determine risk for bowel cancer.

Compared to those who ate the lowest amount of ultra-processed food, men who ate the most were 29% more likely to have developed bowel cancer, but the link was not found among women.

When researchers looked at sub-groups of ultra processed food they found that women who consumed the highest quantities of ready meals had a 17% increased risk of bowel cancer compared to those in the lowest consumption group.

They also found that higher consumption of ready meals which contained meat, poultry or seafood led to an increased risk for men.

Among men, they also linked highest consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks to bowel cancer.

Those in the group which drank the most of these drinks were 21% more likely to develop bowel cancer compared to those who drank the least.

“High consumption of total ultra-processed foods in men and certain subgroups of ultra-processed foods in men and women was associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer,” the authors wrote in The BMJ.

They said that ultra-processed foods make up 57% of total daily calories consumed by American adults, a figure which has been continuously increasing over the last two decades.

Meanwhile, a separate study published in the same journal examined food consumption among Italian people.

Researchers examined data on almost 23,000 participants, 2,205 of whom died during the follow-up period.

They found that adults with the lowest quality diet and the highest ultra-processed food consumption were more likely to have died during the follow-up period when compared to those who had better diets and ate the least amount of ultra-processed food.

In an accompanying editorial, Brazilian researchers said that most ultra-processed foods are “made, sold, and promoted by corporations, typically transnational, that formulate them to be convenient (ready to consume), affordable (low-cost ingredients), and hyper-palatable, and thus liable to displace other foods and also to be over-consumed”.

They said ultra-processed foods include soft drinks; packaged snacks; commercial breads, cakes, and biscuits; confectionery; sweetened breakfast cereals; sugared milk-based and fruit drinks; margarine; and pre-processed ready-to-eat or heat products such as burgers, pastas and pizzas.

“Most ultra-processed foods are energy-dense products, high in fat, sugar, and salt, and poor in fibre and micronutrients,” they added.

“What is to be done? Everybody needs food, but nobody needs ultra-processed foods (with the exception of infant formula, in the rare cases in which infants do not have access to breast milk).

“The analogy is tobacco. The rational solution is official public policies, including guidelines and publicity advising avoidance, and actions, including statutes, designed to reduce production and consumption of ultra-processed foods, and to restrict or preferably prohibit their promotion.”