Plain language summary
Foods that are heavily processed tend to have high levels of total fat, sugar and salt and low levels of fibre and vitamins. They also tend to have high levels of contaminants (caused for example by high heat treatment), food additives and plastic packaging exposure. This large prospective population-based cohort study assessed the association between ultra-processed food consumption and the incidence of cancer. The study found that ultra-processed food intake was associated with a higher overall cancer risk and a higher breast cancer risk. A 10% increase in the consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with an increase of more than 10% greater risk of overall and breast cancer risk. The authors call for further studies to better understand the different elements of food processing and their association to cancer risk.
OBJECTIVE To assess the prospective associations between consumption of ultra-processed food and risk of cancer. DESIGN Population based cohort study. SETTING AND PARTICIPANTS 104 980 participants aged at least 18 years (median age 42.8 years) from the French NutriNet-Santé cohort (2009-17). Dietary intakes were collected using repeated 24 hour dietary records, designed to register participants' usual consumption for 3300 different food items. These were categorised according to their degree of processing by the NOVA classification. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES Associations between ultra-processed food intake and risk of overall, breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer assessed by multivariable Cox proportional hazard models adjusted for known risk factors. RESULTS Ultra-processed food intake was associated with higher overall cancer risk (n=2228 cases; hazard ratio for a 10% increment in the proportion of ultra-processed food in the diet 1.12 (95% confidence interval 1.06 to 1.18); P for trend<0.001) and breast cancer risk (n=739 cases; hazard ratio 1.11 (1.02 to 1.22); P for trend=0.02). These results remained statistically significant after adjustment for several markers of the nutritional quality of the diet (lipid, sodium, and carbohydrate intakes and/or a Western pattern derived by principal component analysis). CONCLUSIONS In this large prospective study, a 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet was associated with a significant increase of greater than 10% in risks of overall and breast cancer. Further studies are needed to better understand the relative effect of the various dimensions of processing (nutritional composition, food additives, contact materials, and neoformed contaminants) in these associations. STUDY REGISTRATION Clinicaltrials.gov NCT03335644.