WHO study links trans fats from processed food to ovarian cancer risk

[Representational image] | Picture credit: Creative Commons

World Health Organisation (WHO) scientists have linked trans fats from processed food and deep-frying to higher ovarian cancer risk.

They published the study in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. Scientists of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), under the aegis of WHO, conducted the study.

Ovarian cancer accounted for 295,414 new cases and 184,799 deaths in 2018 worldwide. It is the eighth most common cancer type. It is also the eighth most common cause of cancer death in women, according to WHO.

Details about the study

“The researchers analysed data from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) cohort,” said an IARC statement.

“The EPIC study includes 521,330 participants recruited between 1992 and 2000 from 23 centres across 10 European countries,” it added. These included 1,486 incident cases of ovarian cancer.

IARC scientist Dr Inge Huybrechts was quoted by the statement as saying: “Previously, dietary intakes of industrial trans fatty acids have been associated with higher risk of breast cancer in the EPIC cohort.” Huybrechts is one of the authors of the study.

He added that previous studies have already shown positive associations between trans fat intake and prostate and colorectal cancer.

[Representational image] | Picture credit: Creative Commons

What are trans fats?

Trans fats, or trans fatty acids, are a type of unsaturated fat. The American Heart Association (AHA) has clear definitions on the topic. It classified trans fatty acids into two broad types: naturally-occurring and artificial trans fats.

The AHA explained: “Naturally-occurring trans fats are produced in the gut of some animals.” It added: “Foods made from these animals (eg, milk and meat products) may contain small quantities of these fats.”

It also said: “Artificial trans fats (or trans fatty acids) are created in an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid.”

So, do people or companies use them? “Trans fats are easy to use, inexpensive to produce and last a long time,” said AHA about processed food. “Trans fats give foods a desirable taste and texture,” it added.

It also said: “Many restaurants and fast-food outlets use trans fats to deep-fry foods.” This is apparently because they can use oils with trans fats many times in commercial fryers.

[Representational image] | Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons

What did the study find?

Meanwhile, IARC scientist Dr Véronique Chajès said industrial trans fatty acids already get the blame for obesity and inflammation. Interestingly, these conditions are known risk factors for ovarian cancer. Chajès, it may be noted, is another author of the aforementioned study.

He added that this could explain, at least in part, “the positive association between these fatty acids and ovarian cancer.”

These new findings obviously support WHO recommendation to reduce or remove industrial trans fatty acids from foods, said Dr Marc Gunter. He is head of the Section of Nutrition and Metabolism at IARC.

In conclusion, he said this study shows lower intake of industrially processed foods, including fast food, could help reduce the risk of ovarian cancer.

Interestingly, it lowering trans fat intake could also reduce risks of “many other chronic diseases, including other cancer types,” he said. However, this depends on whether they are related to higher consumption of industrial trans fatty acids.

[This article is the the fifth in the Chronicler Project, a solo venture by a journalist-turned-teacher to show journalism students how news articles can be written from primary sources and a little legwork, which includes simply calling people up or emailing them.]

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