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Regularly Salting Your Food Could Increase Your Risk of Stomach Cancer

A person sprinkling salt.
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People who regularly salt their food may be at a higher risk of developing stomach cancer, according to a new study.

After analyzing the health data of 471,144 UK adults, researchers from the Medical University of Vienna found that those who said they regularly salted their food were 41% more likely to develop stomach cancer than those who left their saltshakers untouched.

The findings were published in Gastric Cancer.

(Maybe don’t) take it with a pinch of salt

Gastric cancer (stomach cancer) accounts for about 2% of all new cancer cases in Western countries like the UK and the US. Older age, being male and regularly smoking and drinking are risk factors, as well as a previous infection of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori.

In Asia – where the disease is more prevalent than it is in the West – several studies have also evidenced a link between a diet of salty foods (such as salted fish and pickled vegetables) and a higher risk of developing the cancer.

To see if a similar correlation could be observed in Western populations, the researchers looked at data from 471,144 participants within the UK Biobank. During an average follow-up period of 10.9 years between data entries, 640 gastric cancer cases were recorded among the group.

As part of a dietary questionnaire, all participants had responded to the question “Do you add salt to your food? (Do not include salt used in cooking)”. After adjusting the data to account for other dietary factors, the researchers found that the participants who answered “always” to the question were 41% more likely to go on to develop gastric cancer than those who answered “never/rarely”.

The research team says this finding shows that salt’s link with gastric cancer, seen in Asian populations, can also be found in Western countries.

“Our research shows the connection between the frequency of added salt and stomach cancer in Western countries too,” said Selma Kronsteiner-Gicevic, a postdoctoral fellow at the Medical University of Vienna and first author of the paper.

“Our results also stood up to the consideration of demographic, socioeconomic and lifestyle factors and were just as valid for prevailing comorbidities,” she added.

Kronsteiner-Gicevic and her colleagues acknowledge, however, that the link between added salt and gastric cancer was only observed in their data and not biochemically proven.

And, while the body mass indexes (BMIs) of the participants were taken into account, the researchers admit that the case numbers in the study “were not sufficient to evaluate the influence of potential modifiers such as sex, age, ethnicity, H. pylori infection or smoking status.”

Nonetheless, the team says their findings raise the alarm on the salt–gastric cancer risk. More studies on Western populations, they say, especially studies based on repeated 24-hour urinary sodium measurements, will be needed to further detail this concerning association.

“With our study, we want to raise awareness of the negative effects of extremely high salt consumption and provide a basis for measures to prevent stomach cancer,” Tilman Kühn, a professor of public health nutrition and study leader of the paper, summarized.

Reference: Kronsteiner-Gicevic S, Thompson AS, Gaggl M, et al. Adding salt to food at table as an indicator of gastric cancer risk among adults: a prospective study. Gastr. Canc. 2024. doi: 10.1007/s10120-024-01502-9

This article is a rework of a press release issued by the Medical University of Vienna. Material has been edited for length and content.