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Separating myth from reality: Does everything give you cancer?

17 September, 2018
Family shopping cancer smart

It sometimes feels like we can’t go a week without turning on the television or opening a newspaper to find some new report claiming a study has linked a food, drink, or product to cancer. Now, as the popular saying goes, “everything gives you cancer.”

Although this saying is over-generalised and often isn’t true, it’s important that you don’t then ignore the studies and scientific proof that is being performed which can help to distinguish what does and doesn’t cause health issues. For example, there are certain foods and chemicals that certainly have been proven to have links to cancer. Those items that have an abundance of evidence proving they are harmful to humans are the products you should be avoiding, as opposed to those which have only had a small and not very credible study published. 

It’s also important to remember that just because an item has a link with cancer, doesn’t necessarily mean you will get cancer. For example, even women with the genetic mutation BRCA1 or BRCA2 have a 50% chance of getting breast cancer, which is a 50% chance that they won’t get it. 

In moderation some of these items are unlikely to be life-threatening to consume. It’s also important to understand where these studies are coming from, and recognise that some of these things can even act to block cancers. 

Acrylamide

Potato chips, baked potatoes, toasted bread, biscuits, and coffee can all be sources of acrylamide, which is simply the browning of fried or baked starchy foods. The cancer-causing effect of consuming acrylamide has been observed on other animals, but has not been verified to negatively affect humans as yet. 

Sugar

This is a popular one to highlight as a cancer-causing villain. And there is evidence to support it – excess insulin that occurs when there is too much glucose in the bloodstream can indeed drive the growth of a cancer cell. Sugar can also lead to obesity and Type-2 diabetes, which have both been linked to cancer. 

However, starving yourself of sugar can lead the body to start breaking down protein and fat, which is in itself a health risk. The best solution is to stick to low GI foods wherever possible to slow the release of sugar into the bloodstream. 

Red or processed meats

Beef, pork, lamb, goat and other meats that have been smoked, salted, or preserved chemically (such as hot dogs, ham, bacon and salami) have been shown to increase the risk of colorectal cancer. 

It is recommended that to be on the safe side, consumption of these foods should be limited to less than 500 grams per week and more lean meat-choices are used in dishes, such as chicken. 

Alcohol

All alcohol can increase the risk of cancer in the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, breast, colon, and liver. Most people don’t realise that the potential for mouth cancer is increased when mouthwash that contains alcohol is consistently used.

However, at the same time there are studies proving the cardiovascular benefits of consuming alcohol, so one drink per day for women and two for men should be the right balance to strike. 

Smoking

Smoking causes all kinds of cancer. The ads you see on TV are not lying about that, and so we recommend that anyone who is interested in quitting smoking should speak to a professional or support group for help. 

Coffee

Every so often a study or media outlet will mention that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has listed coffee as a carcinogen for the bladder. However, in practice there is only a weak link between the two, and there is increasing evidence that coffee’s antioxidants protect the body against colorectal and skin cancers. 

Soy

Soy’s phytoestrogens have a weak hormonal effect on the body, and some studies have suggested that soy increases the chances of cancers that are related to hormones, such as breast cancer and prostate cancer. However, there are other studies that suggest that soy actually prevents prostate cancer, and so it’s best at this time to wait for more definitive proof of cancer-causing properties before eliminating soy from your diet. 

Chilli 

Chilli’s high level of capsaicin actively works to prevent tumours, but studies have linked an increased rate of stomach cancers with populations that consume large quantities of chili. There is, however, no proven link between the two, and further research will need to be performed before making an informed conclusion. 

Sun

Many people today in Australia are aware of the ‘Slip, Slop, Slap’ campaign launched a couple of decades ago by the Cancer Council Australia in a bid to reduce the amount of skin melanomas diagnosed each year. 

However, while it is widely acknowledged that the UV rays from the sun can cause damaging and potentially fatal skin cancers, a little bit of sunshine is necessary for Vitamin D absorption. We recommend that if you do go out in the sunshine you wear sunscreen and have a hat to protect your head, but that you still allow your skin to be exposed to the sunshine for a minimum of 10 minutes every third day.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the things that are rumoured to cause cancer in humans, but they are some of the most common. It’s also worth checking out our recent article on Food Additives: Harmful or Harmless? to find out more about which food additives you should be avoiding, and which are considered safe in moderation.

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