Drinking one sugar-sweetened drink a day increases liver cancer risk by as much as 78 percent, study finds

Soft drink with a straw in a pile of sugar cubes
More research is needed to confirm the link, but the new findings suggest that drinking one sugary beverage a day can increase your risk of liver cancer. Photo credit: Getty Images

Drinking just one sugar-sweetened drink such as tea or coffee each day is linked to an increased risk of liver cancer, new research has found.

For people with a sweet tooth, that risk could rise to as high as 78 percent, according to the new findings.

As part of the study, researchers from multiple institutions - including Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health - analysed data from 90,504 post-menopausal women, aged 50 to 79, over nearly 19 years. The women had participated in the Women's Health Initiative, a long-term investigation that was launched in the early 1990s. The participants were also asked to answer a series of questions regarding their diets. 

The team wanted to determine if there was a pattern between the consumption of sugary drinks, like soda and fruit juices, and a greater risk of developing liver cancer.  

Around 7 percent of the women reported consuming one or more 12-ounce servings (roughly 355 millilitres) of sugar-sweetened beverages per day. 

A total of 205 women developed liver cancer - and the women who drank one or more sugar-sweetened beverages daily were 78 percent more likely to fall ill with the disease. 

The women who were consuming at least one sweetened drink per day were 73 percent more likely to develop liver cancer than those who enjoyed three or less per month, the researchers found. 

"Our findings suggest sugar-sweetened beverage consumption is a potential modifiable risk factor for liver cancer," said University of South Carolina doctoral candidate and the study's lead author, Longgang Zhao.

"If our findings are confirmed, reducing sugar-sweetened beverage consumption might serve as a public health strategy to reduce liver cancer burden.

"Replacing sugar-sweetened beverages with water, and non-sugar-sweetened coffee or tea could significantly lower liver cancer risk."

The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition, NUTRITION 2022 LIVE ONLINE, which is being held virtually between Tuesday, June 14 and Thursday, June 16. 

However, the researchers noted that further studies are required to determine if, and why, sweetened beverages may contribute to liver cancer. 

The researchers said it may be due to sugar increasing the likelihood of becoming obese and developing type 2 diabetes, both of which are risk factors for the disease. Soft drinks and sweetened beverages can also contribute to insulin resistance and the build-up of fat in the liver, both of which play a role in the organ's health.

The primary limitation of the study is that it was observational, meaning the link cannot currently be considered certain. Other lifestyle factors may also play a role in a heightened risk for developing the disease, the researchers noted, such as alcohol consumption.

The findings suggest that cutting back on the intake of sugary drinks may help to reduce the risk of liver cancer, if the link is confirmed by further research, Zhao said. 

"Replacing sugar-sweetened beverages with water, and non-sugar-sweetened coffee or tea could significantly lower liver cancer risk."

A glass full of sugar cubes
New research suggests that consuming one or more sugary beverages each day could increase your risk of liver cancer by as much as 78 percent. Photo credit: Getty Images

In New Zealand, liver cancer disproportionately affects Māori. According to the Hepatitis Foundation of New Zealand, research indicates that Māori are among those at the highest risk for hepatitis B, a serious liver infection most commonly spread by exposure to infected bodily fluid. Liver cancer is a serious complication of chronic hepatitis B and about 5 to 10 percent of people with the virus may develop liver cancer if it is left untreated. According to the Ministry of Health, Māori have higher incidence and mortality rates than non-Māori, with more than 60 Māori diagnosed with liver cancer each year.

According to the Cancer Society, symptoms of liver cancer can include fatigue, pain the stomach and abdomen, a swollen tummy, pain in the right shoulder, vomiting and nausea, unexplained weight loss, yellowing of the skin and the whites of your eyes (jaundice), pale-coloured faeces and a fever. However, early-stage liver cancer often has no symptoms. 

Data published by the Ministry of Health in 2010 projected there would be "continuing increases in risk" for primary liver cancer in both men and women.

"Although relatively rare, primary liver cancer [has] been steadily increasing in both sexes for at least half a century… related mainly to persistent infection with hepatitis B virus."

Liver cancer is the sixth most commonly diagnosed form of cancer worldwide, according to the World Cancer Research Fund International, with cases of the disease and related deaths on the rise in the United States,  according to the American Cancer Society

Liver cancer is diagnosed around 2800 times per year in Australia, with around 2400 deaths recorded annually. In the United Kingdom, liver cancer is diagnosed around 6200 times per year, making it the 18th most common cancer. In the UK, only 13 percent of sufferers live for five or more years after their diagnosis.