Some ultra-processed foods may increase risk of cancer, heart disease

Evan Walker
Evan Walker TheMediTary.Com |
A worker checks chicken nuggets on a conveyor belt a food processing factoryShare on Pinterest
Food factory Cargill’s employee checks the chicken nuggets before being breaded coming out the conveyor belt inside the factory in Orleans, Central France, on October 9, 2023. Image credit: GUILLAUME SOUVANT/Getty Images
  • A diet rich in ultra-processed foods is associated with the development of multiple chronic conditions, according to a new study.
  • Particularly likely to lead to concurrent cancers, diabetes, and heart problems are animal-based ultra-processed foods and artificially and sugar-sweetened drinks.
  • Although this study found no such link between ultra-processed foods such as breads, cereals, or plant-based alternatives, experts caution against their overconsumption.
  • An issue with identifying ultra-processed foods is that they are typically categorized according to their degree of processing, with less emphasis on nutritional value.

The consumption of ultraprocessed foods has been linked to various individual chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Now, a large study confirms that they are also linked to comorbidities, or combinations of such diseases.

The study finds that there is a 9% increase in the likelihood of developing cardiovascular and cardiometabolic comorbidities for those whose diet consists of a significant amount of ultra-processed foods.

The greatest increase in risk, according to the study, was for animal-based products and artificially and sugar-sweetened beverages.

The researchers found no similar association between ultra-processed breads and cereals, plant-based alternatives, and comorbidities.

The study is an analysis of data from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC). This is an ongoing prospective cohort study of associations between cancer and other diseases, and lifestyle, diet, genetic, and environmental risk factors.

For the new study, the researchers looked at data from 266,666 participants. The foods they ate were ranked based on their level of processing according to the NOVA index. There was a median 11.2 years of follow-up to track the development of chronic diseases.

The study is published in The Lancet Regional Health – Europe.

There is no universal agreement on exactly what attributes define a problematically processed food. This is largely because most modern foods, unless sourced directly from the location in which they are grown, involve some measure of processing.

Processed foods may include such healthy food items as tofu, simple bread, canned tuna or beans, and cheese. However, it is ultra-processed foods, or UPFs, that are of greatest concern.

The standard embraced by most researchers is the NOVA index, developed by Carlos Monteiro and colleagues at the Sao Paolo University in Brazil.

The new study’s senior investigator, Dr. Heinz Freisling, scientist in nutrition and metabolism for the World Health Organization, explained how the index works:

“NOVA classifies foods not according to their nutrient profile, but according to their degree of processing into four categories: fresh or minimally processed, culinary ingredients, processed, and ultra-processed.”

Michelle Routhenstein, preventive cardiology dietitian at, who was not involved in the study, described the final category as “foods that are made exclusively using a combination of industrial processes.”

Since the degree of processing alone does not tell the entire story — ingredients matter as well — there remains room for personal opinions on the matter.

For Dr. Freisling, “[u]ltra-processed foods are foods that cannot be prepared at home because of a lack of both machinery needed for preparation, and ingredients that are characteristic for ultraprocessing. Examples of such ingredients are colorants, artificial sweeteners, food preservatives, and more.”

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