Nourishing Our Bodies or Fueling Cancer? The Danger of Carcinogens in Food

by Gabrielle Himel on March 27, 2014

Throughout the United States, cancer is the second leading cause of death. Cancer is terrifying, both because it is so mystic, and also because it is so very real. Very few people have not been affected by cancer, whether directly, or through the illness of a family member, friend or colleague. While there are many things that affect cancer risk, ranging from environment to genetics and lifestyle, one of the biggest factors is carcinogen exposure. Carcinogens are defined as any substance that exacerbates or produces a cancer. While carcinogens are found in our environment in many sources, such as smog and chemical runoff, one of our main sources of carcinogen exposure is the food we consume. This is a particularly pressing issue as it affects people across the globe; after all, everyone eats. Aside from just the foods and chemicals we consume, the quantities of food, and our resulting body weights also have a large affect on our cancer risk.

Some of the most dangerous edible carcinogens come from grilled or smoked meats and fish. When the food is cooked, biomass such as wood and charcoal briquettes, or even propane, is burned and some of the smoke that is generated is absorbed into the food.  The characteristic char marks on meat are especially dangerous, as they are the accumulations of carcinogenic chemicals that develop from the chemical reaction of burning.   The high heat required for these methods of cooking also generates a reaction within the amino acids and proteins of the meat itself, creating compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCA). The presence of HCAs have been linked to higher instances of cancer. While there is still some level of risk involved, these foods can be made safer through alternative cooking methods that require less heat, such as poaching or steaming. Also, people can reduce their overall exposure by eating less meat and fish overall.

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Another food that is highly controversial in terms of its carcinogenic affects is sugar. While it is a common misconception that white sugar directly feeds cancerous tumors, there have been studies shown that diets high in added sugars are linked to higher instances of cancers. This same link is not seen in sugar that comes from dietary sources such as raw fruit and unsweetened dairy products. Therefore, the blanket term “sugar” could be improved by specifying “added sugars”. However, there are some confounding variables at work here, as diets high in added sugars also tend to be composed more heavily of processed foods. Consuming large quantities of processed food often implies consuming more trans fats, saturated fats, sodium and sugar than with other diets. This Westernized diet can also lead to higher levels of obesity, which raises the risk of some cancers including cancer of the pancreas, breast and colon. While these sweetened and processed foods are problematic for the host of chronic diseases that they cause individually, they also lower the body’s overall ability to fight disease, including various cancers.

While avoiding certain foods, such as highly processed meats, overcooked meats, excess sugar and processed foods can help reduce dietary carcinogens, it is important to remember that cancer is not controlled by any single factor. Genetics, age, lifestyle, location, diet and carcinogen exposure among many other things all contribute to our individual cancer risk. In an effort to lead healthy lives though, reducing consumption of these foods can improve our overall wellbeing, as well as possibly reduce our cancer risk.


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