Can what you eat and drink cause cancer?

Patsy Westcott / 18 April 2018

Almost one in ten UK cancer cases a year are linked to diet. Find out what to leave off your shopping list.

What we eat – and often what we don’t – can impact our risk of developing cancer big time with almost one in ten UK (9%) cases each year linked to diet, according to Cancer Research UK.

Experts point a finger at too few fruit and vegetables, too little fibre, too much red and processed meat and/or too much salt as key culprits. But new dietary risk factors are now emerging. Here are two to be aware of…

Informative, in-depth and in the know: get the latest health news and info with Saga Magazine. Find out more

Ultra-processed foods and cancer

We all know to watch our intake of fast foods for the sake of our waistline. And now a new French study has linked such a diet to a higher risk of cancer.

The study, which highlighted the eating habits of 104,980 men and women, found that every 10% increase in the proportion of what the researchers dubbed ultra-processed foods saw a 12% increase in the risk of overall cancer as well as 11% increase in the risk of breast cancer.

What are ultra-processed foods?

The term ultra-processed comes from the NOVA classification system which categorises foods based on the nature and extent of food processing.

Ultra-processed foods are products that have a closer link with a food factory than a farmer’s field. Think

  • industrially-produced sliced bread
  • packaged snacks such as crisps
  • packaged sweets and desserts
  • soft drinks
  • instant noodles and soups
  • meat balls
  • poultry and fish nuggets
  • other reconstituted meat products

Ultra-processed foods tend to be loaded with fat, sugar and salt and low in fibre, vitamins and minerals.  But that’s not all say the researchers.  Apart from their low nutrient value such foods are full of additives, substances from packaging, and compounds formed during production, processing, and storage.

"Eat food, not too much, mostly plants." Michael Pollan

The take home message? You can’t do better than heed the words of US food campaigner Michael Pollan, "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants."

Hot drinks and oesophageal cancer

Like your tea hot, hot, hot? You might want to let it cool before you take a sip, especially if you smoke and/or like a regular tipple.

A large Chinese study of more than 450,000 men and women aged 30-79 years found that hot tea drinkers who also, drank alcohol regularly and smoked had a five-fold higher risk of oesophageal cancer (cancer of the gullet). The risk was also raised in those who either smoked or drank alcohol regularly and drank hot tea.

The reason? The researchers suggest that very hot tea may damage the lining of the oesophagus, which in turn contributes to cancer risk. It’s not the first time hot drinks have been linked with a higher risk of oesophageal cancer. Back in 2015 Chinese researchers looked at 39 studies which included 42,475 participants and concluded that both hot drinks, such as tea and coffee, and hot foods significantly increased the risk of the disease.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.