5 swaps to help you cut down on heavily processed foods – as new study links them to cancer

Lisa Salmon, PA

Most people know consuming too much processed food – like salami, ham and many ready-meals and breakfast cereals – isn’t good for our health. Now, a new study suggests ultra-produced foods may be linked to an increased risk of cancer.

Researchers at Imperial College London found higher consumption of ultra-processed foods (UPF) was associated with a greater risk of developing cancer overall, and specifically ovarian and brain cancers. It was also associated with an increased risk of dying from cancer, particularly ovarian and breast cancers.

The observational study, funded by Cancer Research UK and the World Cancer Research Fund, used UK Biobank data to examine the diets of more than 197,000 people aged 40-69, and found that for every 10% increase in ultra-processed food in a person’s diet, there was a 2% increased risk of cancer overall, and a 19% increased risk for ovarian cancer.

The researchers point out that UPFs are often relatively cheap, convenient and heavily marketed – often as healthy options.

But they’re also often higher in salt, fat, and sugar and contain artificial additives, and it’s already well-documented that they’re linked with poor health including obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. However, the researchers say the average UK person consumes more than half of their daily energy intake from UPFs

Lead senior author, Dr Eszter Vamos says: “This study adds to the growing evidence that ultra-processed foods are likely to negatively impact our health, including our risk for cancer. Although our study cannot prove causation, other available evidence shows that reducing ultra-processed foods in our diet could provide important health benefits.”

But, when these foods are such a big part of our diets, how can we reduce our intake?

“UPFs are a general description of mass-produced foods low in nutrients and high is salt, sugar and additives,” explains nutrition consultant Ursula Arens.

Lots of factors can influence our diets – and how much money and time we have available to choose and prepare foods.

As a general rule of thumb though, Arens says it’s a good idea to: “Have less foods that are high in fat, high in salt and white flour, and go for wholemeal flour, wholegrain cereals and fruit and veg. Put a bit more time into preparing foods, and choosing fresh ingredients,” she adds.

Keen to cut down on how much UPFs you consume? Arens talks us through some food swaps to consider…

SWAP: Sugary cereals for wholegrain unsweetened high-fibre cereals

Instead of processed sugary breakfast cereals, Arens suggests going for cereals like wheat biscuits, muesli or bran flakes. However, breakfast choices can be confusing, she acknowledges – and at the end of the day, you want to give your children something they’ll actually eat.

Child finishing a bowl of cereal
Breakfast cereals can be loaded with sugar (Alamy/PA)

“You can get a bag of wholegrain oats, nuts and seeds etc and a few raisins and make your own muesli – it’s not rocket science but you may need to buy a lot of ingredients. And the question is, if you put this home-made muesli down for your five-year-old child, will they eat it? That’s the practical reality,” says Arens.

It might be more realistic to look at the sugar content on cereal boxes, she says, and go for those that have less sugar and more fibre.

SWAP: Sugary canned drinks for tea or diluted fresh juice

Instead of picking up a can of sugary pop, Arens suggests choosing tea, herbal teas and diluted fresh juice – or, even better, plain old water.

SWAP: Sliced white wrapped bread for wholegrain crispbreads or oatcakes

Crisp bread with humous, tomato and cucumber
Can you cut down on processed white bread? (Alamy/PA)

Most people buy bread from supermarkets and simply don’t have time to make their own. “If you make bread at home, as some people did during the pandemic when they had lots of time, if you’re using white flour I’m not sure that’s better for health than shop-bought bread,” says Arens. “If you’re using wholemeal flour and milled it yourself – fine, but that’s a fantasy!

“Try wholegrain crispbreads or oatcakes instead – you’ll get used to them!”

SWAP: Crisps for unsalted nuts, seeds or fruit

Crisps are often very salty. Arens says too much salt can be linked to upper tract cancers (it’s also a key cause of high blood pressure), and points out: “In China, where they have a lot of dry, salted fish, they have increased risk of oesophageal cancers and throat cancers.

“Keep things like crisps and biscuits as occasional treats. Crisps are high in salt and, especially if you’re overweight, they’re just not a healthy daily item to have. Try a piece of fruit instead.”

Unsalted nuts are also a great snack: “They are high in calories but they also help fill you up and come with lots of nutrients.”

SWAP: Sausages, bacon or ham for humous, egg or cheese

Woman eating a fry up on her lap outdoors
Moderation is key (Alamy/PA)

Arens points out that processed meats like bacon and salami are classed as a category one cancer risk, saying: “There’s agreement that processed meat is positively associated with cancer risk, specifically of the colon.”

She suggests choosing healthier options such as humous, egg or cheese instead.

It’s still a question of balance, however – and a little of what you fancy probably won’t be too harmful if it’s enjoyed in moderation. “If you have a fry-up with bacon etc once a month, that’s fine,” Arens adds. “But if you’re having ham and salami sandwiches every day, that’s probably not a good idea.”