Ultraprocessed Food May Heighten Risk of Head and Neck Cancer and Esophageal Adenocarcinoma

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A higher consumption of ultraprocessed foods may be associated with the development of cancer of the upper–aerodigestive tract such as head and neck cancer and esophageal adenocarcinoma, according to a recent study published by Morales-Berstein et al in the European Journal of Nutrition. The new findings suggested that obesity may not be the only factor to link ultraprocessed foods to the development of these types of cancers.

Several previous studies have demonstrated a correlation between ultraprocessed foods—which typically have an unhealthy nutritional profile—and the development of 34 different types of cancer.

Study Methods and Results

In the new international study, the researchers analyzed the diets and lifestyle habits over a period of approximately 14 years of 450,111 adult patients participating in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition cohort. The researchers sought to establish whether the association between ultraprocessed food consumption and head and neck cancer or esophageal adenocarcinoma could be explained by an increase in body fat.

The researchers discovered that 10% greater intake in ultraprocessed foods was associated with a 23% higher risk of head and neck cancer and a 24% higher risk of esophageal adenocarcinoma. However, increased body fat explained only a small proportion of the statistical association.


“[Ultraprocessed foods] 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, favoring the consumption of large portions and an excessive number of calories. However, it was interesting that in our study, the link between eating [ultraprocessed foods] and upper–aerodigestive tract cancer didn’t seem to be greatly explained by body mass index and waist-to-hip ratio,” underscored lead study author Fernanda Morales-Berstein, PhD, of the University of Bristol. “Focusing solely on weight loss treatment, such as semaglutide, is unlikely to greatly contribute to the prevention of upper–aerodigestive tract cancers related to eating [ultraprocessed foods],” she noted.

The researchers proposed that other mechanisms could explain the association. For instance, additives including emulsifiers and artificial sweeteners—which have been previously linked to disease risk—as well as contaminants from food packaging and the manufacturing processes may partly explain the link between ultraprocessed food consumption and upper–aerodigestive tract cancer.

“[Ultraprocessed foods] are clearly associated with many adverse health outcomes, yet whether they actually cause these, or whether underlying factors such as general health-related behaviors and socioeconomic positions are responsible for the link, is still unclear,” stated co–study author George Davey Smith, FRS, MD, DSc, MSc, FMedSci, FRCP, FFPH, Professor of Clinical Epidemiology and Director of the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit at the University of Bristol.

The researchers emphasized that more research is needed to further identify mechanisms that may contribute to the link between ultraprocessed foods and head and neck cancer and esophageal adenocarcinoma.

“This study adds to a growing pool of evidence suggesting a link between [ultraprocessed foods] and cancer risk. The association between a higher consumption of [ultraprocessed foods] and an increased risk of developing upper–aerodigestive tract cancer supports our Cancer Prevention Recommendations to eat a healthy diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and beans,” concluded Helen Croker, PhD, Assistant Director of Research and Policy at the World Cancer Research Fund.

Disclosure: The research in this study was funded by the World Cancer Research Fund. For full disclosures of the study authors, visit

The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.