From cakes and crisps to habitat destruction: new research on how to prevent cancer

16 November 2020

World Cancer Research Fund International (WCRF) has awarded 13 new grants, worth £3.5 million, to researchers and institutions in the UK, the rest of Europe, and Australia. The projects funded cover a range of cancers, such as bladder, breast and bowel, and will investigate how diet, weight, and physical activity affect the risk of developing or surviving cancer.

The charity made the decision to continue its grant programme this year, against a backdrop of widespread cuts to research funding due to the COVID-19 pandemic; UK organisations have reported an estimated £61–£167 million reduction in funds for cancer research1. However, WCRF – which receives no government funding, and is largely supported by public donations – managed to raise enough early on in its financial year (Oct 19-Sept 20) to enable the programme to continue.

Dr Anna Diaz Font, Head of Research Funding at WCRF, said: We did not take this decision lightly, but as a charity whose aim is to prevent cancer and help those who survive cancer, we thought it was vital to continue supporting researchers – thanks in no small part to the continued generosity of our loyal supporters. These are uncertain times and the picture may be bleaker for us next year, but for now – at a time when so much research has been put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic – we believe it is more important than ever to work together to prevent cancer.”

One of the 13 projects will research whether or not eating ultra-processed foods – like biscuits, cakes, ready meals, and crisps – increases the risk of developing cancer. With 56% of the food consumed in the UK considered to be ultra-processed2, this research project is especially vital in the current climate: as people spend more time at home due to lockdown, there is the potential to become more reliant on processed foods due to their longer shelf-lives3

Another of the research projects will investigate how a more varied diet can save the planet, as well as lower the risk of cancer, by placing less pressure on any one type of food or plant species. 

Dr Inge Huybrechts, the principal investigator of this study who works for the World Health Organization’s cancer agency, said: "Due to globalised and inefficient food and agriculture systems, our world is now facing a twin crisis – habitat destruction and several health emergencies and epidemics. This includes infections with new viruses, such as COVID-19, but potentially also non-communicable diseases like cancer. We are very grateful for WCRF’s support that will enable us to investigate how species diversity in diets is associated with cancer risk and mortality in European populations."

A third project, led by Dr Kim Smits of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, will investigate the cancerous effects of acrylamide in human kidney tissue. Much has been made of the link between burnt toast and cancer due to acrylamide4, but evidence has been inconsistent and never conclusive in humans. It is hoped this research could help put to bed the debate on whether burnt toast really does increase the risk of cancer.

Research has also previously shown that processed meat, like bacon, increases the risk of cancer, yet the exact reason why is unclear. Hypotheses suggest it is partly to do with the nitrate and nitrite substances used to preserve the meat. Yet these two chemicals are also found in many leafy, green vegetables which are known to decrease the risk of cancer. Prof Anne Tjønneland, of the Danish Cancer Society Research Centre, will use WCRF funding to find out why nitrate and nitrites in vegetables seem to be harmless compared to nitrates and nitrites in processed meats. 

She said: "We are delighted with this funding from WCRF, which enables us to investigate sources of nitrate and nitrite from both drinking water and food and link it to the risk of bowel, bladder and gastric cancer. This is an important research question, where more research is urgently needed to understand the association between nitrate consumption and cancer risk."

Ends

For more information and media enquiries contact Laura Burnell, Head of Content and Campaigns at WCRF, on 07879 483022 or l.burnell@wcrf.org / pr@wcrf.org

Notes to editors 

For embargoed information on all 13 grants: https://www.wcrf.org/int/latest/news-updates/cancer-research-not-lockdown

References

  1. https://www.icrpartnership.org/library/file/7904/ICRP_Covid-19_CancerFunders_ImpactSurvey_2020.pdf
  2. https://www.bbc.co.uk/food/articles/what_is_ultra-processed_food
  3. https://www.worldobesity.org/news/statement-coronavirus-covid-19-obesity
  4. https://www.nhs.uk/news/cancer/warning-over-burnt-toast-chemical-acrylamides-cancer-risk/

About World Cancer Research Fund International: World Cancer Research Fund International is a network of cancer charities with a global reach, dedicated to the prevention and survival of cancer through a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and being more physically active. By funding and supporting research, developing policy guidance and providing health information, we ensure that people can make informed lifestyle choices to reduce their risk of developing a preventable cancer.

Find out more: www.wcrf-uk.org
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