Four breakfast foods that could raise mouth cancer risk after new study finding

Dr Hilary Jones on the health risks of 'ultra-processed' foods

Researchers who analysed the diets and lifestyles of nearly half a million people for more than a decade found those who ate more ultra-processed foods (UPFs) had a higher risk of developing cancers of the upper aerodigestive tract, including the oesophagus.

UPFs have long been linked with obesity, which comes with its own increased risk of developing several cancers.

The British Heart Foundation lists four foods, commonly eaten at breakfast, as ultra processed:

  • Sausages
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Mass-produced bread
  • Fruit-flavoured yoghurts

Despite their link to detrimental health effects, these foods are often far cheaper to buy and quicker and easier to prepare than healthier foods.

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Previous studies have identified a link between consumption of UPFs and cancer, including a recent British study which looked at the association between UPFs and 34 different cancers in the largest cohort study in Europe, the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) cohort.

Though obesity associated with a high consumption of UPFs is often blamed for the increased risk of cancers, this latest study proves it may not be the only factor to blame.

Researchers from the University of Bristol and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) sought to identify whether links between UPF consumption and head and neck cancers in the EPIC cohort could be explained by an increase in body fat.

The collaborative international study analysed diet and lifestyle data on 450,111 adults who were followed for approximately 14 years.

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Their results showed that eating 10 per cent more UPFs is associated with a 23 per cent higher risk of developing head and neck cancer, and a 24 per cent higher risk of cancer of the oesophagus (oesophageal adenocarcinoma).

Fernanda Morales-Bernstein, a Wellcome Trust PhD student at the University of Bristol and the study’s lead author, explained: “UPFs have been associated with excess weight and increased body fat in several observational studies.

“This makes sense, as they are generally tasty, convenient and cheap, favouring the consumption of large portions and an excessive number of calories.

“However, it was interesting that in our study the link between eating UPFs and upper-aerodigestive tract cancer didn’t seem to be greatly explained by body mass index and waist-to-hip ratio.”

The study’s authors suggested other mechanisms could potentially explain the associated higher risks with mouth and throat cancer – such as the presence of additives in UPFs including emulsifiers and artificial sweeteners previously associated with an increased risk of disease development.

In addition, the researchers theorise that contaminants from the packaging UPFs are kept in, as well as the manufacturing process, could help to explain the link between UPF consumption and mouth and throat cancer.

However, the authors of the study admit to possible biases in their study, which would explain evidence of an association between higher UPF consumption and an increased risk of accidental deaths, which is highly unlikely to be causal.

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