Consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer (CRC) in men, according to a large study published in the British Medical Journal.

When compared with men who had the lowest consumption of ultra-processed food, men with the highest consumption had a 29% higher risk of developing colorectal cancer, researchers found.

The researchers defined ultra-processed foods as those that are ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat, contain little or no whole foods, and are typically high in added sugar, fats, and refined starch. 

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Given that diet has been identified as a modifiable risk factor for CRC, the researchers sought to determine if the consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with the risk of CRC.

The study included 46,341 men and 155,907 women from 3 US-based cohorts — the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, the Nurses’ Health Study, and the Nurses’ Health Study II. CRC cases were confirmed via manual review of medical records and pathology reports.

Over a follow-up of 24 to 28 years, there were a total of 3216 CRC cases — 1294 in men and 1922 in women. 

In a multivariable analysis, the highest level of ultra-processed food intake was significantly associated with an increased risk of CRC among men (hazard ratio [HR], 1.29; 95% CI, 1.08-1.53; P =.01). This association was driven primarily by distal colon cancer (HR, 1.72; 95% CI, 1.24-2.37; P <.001). There was no significant association for proximal colon cancer or rectal cancer.

The specific types of ultra-processed foods associated with CRC risk in men included sugar-sweetened beverages (HR, 1.21; 95% CI, 1.01-1.44; P =.013) and meat-based ready-to-eat products (HR, 1.44; 95% CI, 1.20-1.73; P <.0001).

Overall, there was no significant association between ultra-processed food consumption and CRC risk in women (HR, 1.04; 95% CI, 0.90-1.20; P =.29). However, consumption of ready-to-eat or heat mixed dishes was associated with an increased risk of CRC among women (HR, 1.17; 95% CI, 1.01-1.36; P =.02). 

“[These] findings support the public health importance of limiting certain types of ultra-processed foods for better health outcomes in the population,” the researchers wrote. “Further studies are needed to better understand the potential attributes of ultra-processed foods that contribute to colorectal carcinogenesis.”


Wang L, Du M, Wang K, et al. Association of ultra-processed food consumption with colorectal cancer risk among men and women: Results from three prospective US cohort studies. BMJ. Published online August 31, 2022. doi:10.1136/bmj-2021-068921