Written by Sarah Kown
Reviewed for medical accuracy by Dr. Michael Guerrera
In a few articles, we talk about foods that can positively impact your health and fight cancer, but it seems like every day we’re learning of new potentially cancer-causing foods and additives that are lurking quietly in our everyday lives. In fact, you’re probably looking at all of the items in your fridge or pantry right about now wondering: which of these are not a carcinogen?
Carcinogens create adverse reactions in the body, which interfere with normal cellular processes, that can lead to the formation of cancerous cells.
Of course, a carcinogen doesn’t cause cancer in everyone and definitely not every time there is an exposure to a carcinogen. Most dietary carcinogens take years of consumption and underlying genetic factors to develop into cancer. Environmental factors can also contribute.
Regardless, there are certain foods and products that institutions like the World Health Organization and FDA classify as carcinogenic if consumed regularly. Sometimes, it’s not even the food itself but the way it’s prepared that synthesizes chemical carcinogens like acrylamide in foods that are otherwise healthy. Here are some of the most common carcinogens:
Fried potatoes of any variety: When potatoes are heated at high temperatures, they give off a chemical called acrylamide, which has been linked to cancer in rats. While we’re still learning about acrylamide in food and the linkage to cancer in humans, you can avoid this by cooking potatoes until tan instead of golden to darker brown colors.
Red Meat (processed and unprocessed): When red meats are broken down in the gut, N-nitroso compounds form and are known to damage the cells in your bowels, increasing your chances of developing colorectal cancers.
Processed Meat (ie., most deli meats - hot dogs, sausage, smoked ham, etc): The nitrate preservatives in these foods have similar consequences when broken down to red meat. That’s why eating these foods increase your chances of developing colon cancer.
Alcohol: When alcohol is broken down in the liver, it creates a chemical called acetaldehyde which can lead to irreversible DNA damage in cells. That’s why people who consume more than one serving of alcohol on a regular basis are at a higher risk of developing cancer.
Certain Food Dyes: Because many food dyes are sourced from coal tar and petroleum, they tend to be toxic to consumers although researchers are still investigating this and why.
Salted Fish: Fish preserved in salt enhance N-nitroso compound formation and thus increase the risk of developing cancer. High salted diets also increase the H. pylori count in the body which is linked to stomach cancer.
- Microwaved Popcorn: While popcorn in and of itself isn’t bad for you, there are chemical compounds in the bags that make this snack carcinogenic. Cooking popcorn on the stove could lower your risk of lung cancer associated with this favorite.
There are other common types of food that aren’t officially labeled as being carcinogenic (yet), but they do cause underlying health conditions such as diabetes, or obesity, which are directly linked to cancer.
~ Sugar and sugar derivatives
~ White flour
~ Trans fats (fats that tend to come in processed foods)
Simply being aware of your risk factors can optimize your chances of fighting cancer.
While it would be nearly impossible to avoid all carcinogens, it’s still good to be aware of the most common types of carcinogenic chemicals and foods so you can try to limit how much you’re consuming.
Aiming for the majority of your diet to consist of fresh fruits and veggies, lean organic protein, and unprocessed whole grains is the best way to minimize your risks of developing cancer from dietary carcinogens.
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Sarah Kown and Christine Squires created Own Your Cancer Coaching to help people throughout their cancer journey by providing them with the knowledge and tools they will need to optimize control of their health. Sarah, a Medical Physicist and Radiation Oncology Therapist, and Christine, a Behavioral Health Counselor, are working together to create guided course content that will help patients make transformative change in unique and practical ways.
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