Is there a link between ultra-processed foods and brain cancer?

3 min read

A new study just published has highlighted a potential link between a diet high in ultra-processed food (UPF) and an increased risk of developing brain cancer. It was reported that “higher consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with a greater risk of developing cancer overall, and specifically ovarian and brain cancers”.

What does the data say?

In the most comprehensive study to date, researchers from Imperial College London’s School of Public Health used UK Biobank records to examine the diets of 197,000 middle-aged adults and monitor the risk of the participants developing or dying from cancer over a period of 10 years. 

The researchers focused on the amount of ultra-processed foods present in the diets of the participants, reporting that the average was 23% of the total amount of food eaten over a 24-hour period. Ultra-processed foods include breakfast cereals, industrially processed breads, ready to eat/heat food, carbonated drinks and others. 

After grouping patients into categories, ranging from low to high consumption – the researchers examined the rate of cancer incidence and mortality for all cancers, as well as for 34 specific types of cancer.

They found that for every 10% increase in ultra-processed food in a person’s diet, there was a 2% increase in the risk of developing cancer and a 6% increased chance of dying of cancer, particularly breast and ovarian cancer. 

The observed links between diet and cancer risk remained even after the scientists accounted for other factors, such as smoking, physical activity and body mass index (BMI). 

Why was brain cancer highlighted?

When looking into the effect of 10% more ultra-processed food in diets, the researchers found that there was an increased risk of developing cancer of 19% for ovarian cancer, 9% for brain cancer, 8% stomach cancer and 20% for cancer of the small intestine. There were a few instances where incidence reduced, such as head and neck cancers. 

However, when researchers compared individuals with the lowest UPF consumption with the highest – typically 41% of their diet –they found that participants had a 52% higher risk of brain cancer and 45% higher risk of ovarian cancer. It is worth noting here that comparing the group with the lowest consumption with the second and third groups, showed no increased risk of developing of brain cancer. 

Ultimately, this study was observational and cannot prove cause and effect i.e. the study cannot prove ultra-processed foods are affecting cancer rates and mortality. But the authors of the study suggested that “limiting UPF consumption may be beneficial to prevent and reduce modifiable burdens of cancer”.

Coincidentally, and also taking place at Imperial College, Dr Nel Syed at our Brain Tumour Research Centre of Excellence is undertaking research into tumour metabolism – what a brain tumour feeds on – and the role that the ketogenic diet could play in slowing tumour growth. It would appear that diet may have a part to play in both causation and cure.


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