Food In Canada

New study reveals alarming link between ultra-processed foods and chronic diseases

By Food in Canada Staff   

Processing Health & Wellness Chronic diseases Editor pick healthy eating International Agency for Research on Cancer Ultra-processed foods

A groundbreaking study has found that the higher the consumption of ultra-processed foods, the higher the risk of suffering from a combination of chronic diseases including cancer, diabetes and heart disease, known as multimorbidity.

The multinational study involved 266,666 men and women from seven European countries, and the University of Vienna, in collaboration with the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC-WHO). Led by Reynalda Córdova, who received a DOC scholarship from the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW), and co-funded by World Cancer Research Fund International, the new research is based on data from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC).

The researchers discovered that the more ultra-processed foods consumed, the greater the risk of suffering from two or more long-term health conditions, such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

Specifically, associations were noted with animal-based products and artificially sweetened beverages (e.g. soft drinks).


Ultra-processed foods are convenient (long-shelf life, ready-to-eat), industrially manufactured foods with added ingredients or additives (eg modified starch, hydrogenated oils). Examples are soft drinks, sweet or savoury packaged snacks, processed meat, and pre-prepared frozen or shelf-stable dishes.

Reynalda Córdova said, “Our study highlights the importance of ensuring universal access to fresh and less processed foods. In addition, our findings emphasize the importance of a differentiated analysis of ultra-processed food subgroups. While certain groups, such as animal products and artificially and sugar-sweetened beverages, were associated with increased risk, other groups, such as ultra-processed breads and cereals or alternative plant-based products, showed no association with risk.”

Heinz Freisling, co-author and study lead at IARC, added, “These findings are of concern because ultra-processed foods comprise nowadays more than half of our daily food intake. Critics of the classification of certain foods as ultra-processed argue that the definition is impractical and that some foods classified as ultra-processed make important contributions to the nutrient intake of specific population groups (e.g. older adults).

“Such criticism should certainly be considered. However, our study emphasizes that it’s not necessary to completely avoid ultra-processed foods; rather, their consumption should be limited, and preference be given to fresh or minimally processed foods.”

Karl-Heinz Wagner, co-author and professor at the University of Vienna, said, “The results indicate that the existing dietary recommendations, focusing on the consumption of plant-based foods, are consistent with current findings on ultra-processed foods. This is another reason to reduce the high consumption of animal-based foods.”

Dr Helen Croker, assistant director of research and policy at World Cancer Research Fund, said, “What’s particularly significant in this large study is that eating more ultra-processed foods, in particular animal products and sweetened beverages, was linked to an increased risk of developing cancer along with another disease such as a stroke or diabetes. Our Cancer Prevention Recommendations include limiting processed foods high in fat, starches or sugarsavoiding processed meat and eating plenty of whole grains, vegetables, pulses and fruit.”

The study was co-funded by the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Cancer Research UK, the French National Cancer Institute and World Cancer Research Fund International.

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