After a long day at work, quickly put the currywurst in the microwave or warm up the creamy pasta. They are ready in no time, are filling and often taste delicious. We’re talking about highly processed foods. But consumption of ready meals, carbonated drinks, breakfast cereals, packaged breads and other highly processed foods could be linked to increases in cancer incidence and death.

That is the assumption of a research group at Imperial College London. “This study adds to the growing body of evidence that ultra-processed foods are likely to have adverse effects on our health, including our risk of cancer,” said study author Dr. Eszter Vamos in a statement.

Heavily processed foods are already linked to a range of health problems, including obesity, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Products often contain too much salt, fat and sugar. The additives contained ensure that the pesto in the glass or the frozen pizza has a long shelf life and a good consistency. Another minus point: Contamination with the carcinogenic substance acrylamide can occur during the production of carbohydrate-containing foods if they are heated too much. Or plasticizers such as phthalates or bisphenols can migrate into the food via the plastic packaging.

But: They are also practical and tasty – and not all highly processed foods are easily recognizable as such for consumers. So it’s no wonder that many people no longer cook freshly with vegetables, but quickly prepare a ready-made meal: In Germany, Great Britain, Canada and the USA, highly processed foods make up about half of the total energy intake, according to the German Society for Nutrition.

Ultra-processed foods, or UPFs for short, are highly processed foods in English. These are ready-to-eat products made from a combination of synthetic ingredients and food-based ingredients. They usually have a long shelf life, are cheap and very tasty. But: They often contain a lot of sugar, salt and fat. In the so-called NOVA classification, foods are classified from “unprocessed” at level one to “highly processed” at level 4.

Help for consumers

With the “Open Food Facts” product database, consumers can find out which foods are ultra-processed. There the nutritional information, the Nutri-Score rating and the rating of the NOVA classification are given.

So how did the scientists come to their assumption that eating ultra-processed foods increases the risk of cancer? The research team analyzed data from 200,000 adults from the UK biodatabase. The scientists had observed the health of the subjects for ten years and had them fill out a nutritional questionnaire twice. In total, the researchers related 34 different types of cancer to the consumption of highly processed foods.

The result: Higher consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with a higher risk of cancer overall and specifically ovarian and brain cancer. According to the study, the risk of dying from cancer is also increased if a lot of ultra-processed foods are on the menu.

But: With this study, the scientists cannot establish a direct connection between the increased risk of cancer and the consumption of ultra-processed foods. They also do not know which ingredients in the products could be responsible for this. So this means that the study provides the first evidence that people who eat a lot of highly processed foods have a higher risk of developing cancer or dying from it.

What was also seen was that people who consumed more ultra-processed foods behaved more unhealthily overall. They exercised less, smoked more and were more likely to suffer from diseases such as high blood pressure or diabetes. In addition, according to the study, high consumption is related to low income and level of education. In addition to the highly processed foods, these or other factors could also have a negative impact on the risk of cancer.

“Low-income households are particularly vulnerable to these cheap and unhealthy ultra-processed foods. Minimally processed and freshly prepared meals should be subsidized to ensure everyone has access to healthy, nutritious and affordable options,” said study author Dr. Kiara Chang in a statement about the study. She demands that the population must be protected from heavily processed foods.

Another point is that people who consume a lot of highly processed foods consume more calories and were therefore more likely to be obese in the study than subjects who hardly eat any ultra-processed foods. Because: Chips or cereals usually contain hardly any nutrients and fiber, but they provide a lot of sugar and saturated fatty acids. Obesity itself is considered a risk factor for certain types of cancer, including oesophageal cancer, kidney cancer and colon and rectal cancer.

A study from the USA also provides evidence that the consumption of many ultra-processed foods could increase the risk of colon cancer in men. More research is needed to truly prove that people who eat a lot of highly processed foods have an increased risk of cancer.

Sources: Imperial College London study, communication on the study, DGE, BMJ study, medical journal, German Cancer Society