A study published in The Lancet Planet Health magazine in which the Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBELL) and the Catalan Institute of Oncology (ICO) have participated establishes that the consumption of processed foods increases the risk of suffering from cancer. The work has been led by the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organization (WHO).
This is the largest and most complete study that has ever been carried out in this regard, in which more than 450,000 people from 9 European countries have been included and up to 25 cancers have been considered. The data used was obtained from the European Prospective Study in Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) cohort. The results confirm an association between the consumption of processed and ultra-processed foods and cancer risk. In addition, this study provides strong evidence that replacing 10% of the processed or ultra-processed foods we eat with the same amount of minimally processed foods reduces the risk of cancer by between 4% and 5%.
Dr. Antonio Agudo, head of the Nutrition and Cancer research group at IDIBELL and the Catalan Institute of Oncology, author of the article states: “With the current incidence data in Spain, this would mean avoiding, annually, between 11,000 and 14,000 cases of cancer. The tumors that would benefit the most from this protective effect would be those of the digestive tract and breast cancer”.
The researchers of the study suggest that the consumption of ultra-processed foods could increase the risk of cancer due to its strong association with obesity, a known cancer risk factor. In addition, these products could also increase the risk of cancer through exposure to contaminants, additives, and other substances. However, it is not yet possible to identify the specific causes responsible for the observed effect.
What is considered a processed or ultra-processed food
On average, processed and ultra-processed foods accounted for 27% of the study participants’ daily intake, but provided more than 50% of calories. All of them reported detailed information on their daily consumption of food and drink, which was evaluated and classified according to an international standard scale.
This scale considers relatively simple products made with the addition of culinary ingredients as processed foods. Typical examples of processed foods are canned vegetables, fruits, and legumes; salted or sugared nuts and seeds; canned fish, and alcoholic beverages produced by fermentation. Ultra-processed foods are made from formulations of industrial ingredients that are not used in domestic culinary preparations. Examples are processed meats such as cold meats, carbonated soft drinks and energy drinks, packaged breads and pasta, or prepared dishes.
The Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBELL) is a biomedical research center created in 2004. It is participated by the Bellvitge University Hospital and the Viladecans Hospital of the Catalan Institute of Health, the Catalan Institute of Oncology, the University of Barcelona and the City Council of L’Hospitalet de Llobregat.
IDIBELL is a member of the Campus of International Excellence of the University of Barcelona HUBc and is part of the CERCA institution of the Generalitat de Catalunya. In 2009 it became one of the first five Spanish research centers accredited as a health research institute by the Carlos III Health Institute. In addition, it is part of the “HR Excellence in Research” program of the European Union and is a member of EATRIS and REGIC. Since 2018, IDIBELL has been an Accredited Center of the AECC Scientific Foundation (FCAECC).
Food processing and cancer risk in Europe: results from the prospective EPIC cohort study. Nathalie Kliemann et al. The Lancet Planet Health, 2023.