When you’re placing items in your cart at the grocery store or reading the menu at a restaurant, you’re probably not thinking about whether or not your choices are carcinogenic (unless you live in LA)—but maybe you should. Many of the foods you eat every day have been associated with an increased risk of cancer, a concern I first addressed here. Let’s take a closer look at the top five foods that have been shown to cause cancer even though most people think they’re safe.
Refined Pasta (when overeaten)
Pasta, bagels, and other “white” carbohydrates have a high glycemic index (GI), meaning they more rapidly elevate blood sugar levels. A recent study showed people whose diets had a high GI had a 49 percent greater risk of being diagnosed with lung cancer. Adding healthy fats (like olive oil) and protein to pasta helps lower the overall glycemic index of the meal it is a part of. Some pasta, like Barilla® ProteinPLUS®, has a lower glycemic index.
Food cans are typically lined with bisphenol-a (BPA), a chemical that has been linked to cancer and other serious health problems. Because they’re so acidic, tomatoes are more likely to leech dangerous levels of BPA from the can into the food. Some companies are starting to move away from using BPA to line their cans, and you can see how various tomato products rate in terms of safety by visiting the Environmental Working Group’s Food Scores database. When in doubt, you can always use fresh tomatoes to avoid worrying about contamination.
French Fries and Potato Chips
Acrylamide, a chemical used in certain industrial processes that’s also found in cigarette smoke, can form in starchy foods like potatoes when they’re cooked at high temperatures. While more research is needed, the American Cancer Society supports continued evaluation of acrylamide and its effects. Still want to enjoy a side of fries with your burger? This simple recipe adapted from Genius Kitchen relies on roasting rather than deep-frying.
- Oven French Fries
- 8 Yukon Gold potatoes
- 1-2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- Olive oil cooking spray
Preheat oven to 350. Wash potatoes and cut them into strips. Place strips in a bowl and cover with cold water. Rinse away some of the starch, then drain well and pat dry. Add olive oil and salt to bowl and mix well, evenly coating potatoes. Spray a baking sheet with cooking spray and spread potato strips out on it. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until fries achieve desired crunchiness.
Research conducted way back in 1931 found sugar provides fuel for tumors, allowing them to grow in size. In addition to wreaking havoc on your metabolism, processed sugars may be more readily accessible to cancer cells. Cancer Treatment Centers of America explores the effects of different types of sugar on the body here. Wondering how you can safely indulge your sweet tooth? Dr. Oz lists seven of his favorite sugar substitutes here. I like to use honey as a sweetener because it’s so nutritious–LIVESTRONG lists some of the benefits of raw local honey here.
A 2010 report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest called Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks concluded the nine FDA-approved artificial dyes approved in the United States may be carcinogenic, cause behavior problems, and/or are inadequately tested. Artificial colors are pretty common in most processed foods–another reason to avoid them. Instead, try to focus on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and “good” fats like those found in olive oil. Not only does it help you avoid carcinogenic additives, this kind of diet can also help keep your heart healthy. (See my list of top five foods for heart attack and stroke prevention here.)
Red Meat and Processed Meat
In 2015, an advisory committee made up of 22 scientists from 10 countries met at the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to “evaluate carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat.” According to a Q&A released after this meeting, red meat refers to muscle meat like beef, pork, lamb, and goat, while processed meats include hot dogs, ham, sausage, and jerky. The committee classified red meat as Group 2A, probably carcinogenic to humans, based on limited evidence from epidemiological studies showing positive associations between eating red meat and developing colorectal cancer. They also based this classification on strong mechanistic evidence. Processed meat was classified as Group 1, carcinogenic to humans, because sufficient evidence from epidemiological studies shows eating processed meat directly causes colorectal cancer.
While the popcorn itself is fine, a chemical sometimes used in the bag lining called PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) is associated with certain cancers. Classified by an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientific advisory panel as a “likely carcinogen” in 2005, PFOA has been linked to tumor development in animal studies. In humans, a 1993 study found workers at a factory that produced PFOA had an increased risk of developing—and dying from—prostate cancer. Don’t want to give up a favorite snack? It’s easy to make your own microwave popcorn using a brown paper bag and some coconut oil. Or you can do as Dr. Andrew Weil does and air-pop kernels, then flavor them with tamari, parmesan cheese, chili powder, or nutritional yeast.
You always run the risk of exposure to toxins when you eat salmon and other fatty fish, but those raised on farms are more likely to be contaminated by carcinogens. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), farmed salmon have an average of 16 times more polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) than wild salmon. Shown to cause cancer in animals and established as potentially carcinogenic for humans, these chemicals were banned in 1979. But the EPA says PCBs may still be present in materials produced before the ban and, since they don’t really break down, they can cycle between air, water, and soil in the environment for a long time. Independent laboratory tests commissioned by the EWG in 2003 found seven of ten farmed salmon purchased at grocery stores in San Francisco, Portland, and Washington, D.C. were contaminated with problematic PCB levels. The levels in six of the fish were so high the EPA wouldn’t consider them safe to eat more than once a month by their standards for wild-caught fish. Aside from choosing wild salmon, you can reduce your exposure to PCBs by using methods like grilling and baking to allow the excess fat that holds most of the PCBs to cook off.
While research – some of which I write about here – suggests moderate alcohol consumption may help prevent heart disease and other health problems, alcohol abuse is second only to tobacco use as a leading cause of cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, there is “strong scientific consensus” of an association between drinking and cancers of the liver, esophagus, head, neck, and more—they provide a number of links to scientific studies supporting this association as part of their Alcohol and Cancer Risk Fact Sheet. While the American Cancer Society says we don’t exactly understand how alcohol affects cancer risk, they list damage to body tissues, decreased nutrient absorption, and weight gain as contributing factors. They recommend men who drink alcohol limit their intake to no more than two drinks per day to mitigate this risk.
Mass-Produced Bread, Pizza Crust, and Crackers
A food additive called potassium bromate, used to make dough more elastic, has been identified as a possible carcinogen by many health organizations and is banned in the EU, UK, Canada, and Brazil. In a 2015 analysis, the EWG found potassium bromate listed as an ingredient in at least 86 baked goods and other supermarket products. As Nneka Leiba, EWG’s deputy director of research, told the Los Angeles Times, “In light of the evidence showing its potential harm to human health, it’s alarming that companies continue to use potassium bromate in their breads and other baked goods.” California has placed potassium bromate on its Proposition 65 list, meaning an item containing it must carry a cancer warning on its label.
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Myles Spar, MD, MPH is board certified in Internal Medicine and in Integrative Medicine. As a clinician, teacher and researcher on faculty of two major medical centers, he has led the charge for a more proactive, holistic and personalized approach to care that focuses on cutting edge technology and preventative care. Dr. Spar has been a consultant with the NBA, presented a TEDx Talk, appeared on national television, and been featured in publications such as the Men’s Journal and the Los Angeles Times. He was most recently National Medical Director and Chief Medical Officer of a national medical practice, but is available to consult with individual patients interested in a personalized approach to optimal performance and health.