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Woman standing at the deli counter. An illustrated sandwich with cold cuts is in the bottom right corner, representing one of many foods linked to cancer.

May 23, 2023 • read

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How do harmful food ingredients affect your health?

Regular exposure to certain food additives, contaminants, carcinogens, and mutagens in your diet adds up over time, which can increase your risk of developing cancer. Thankfully, there are things you can do to help counteract this. While no single food or diet can guarantee good health, making healthier dietary choices may reduce your cancer risk.

If you’re curious about the connections between food and cancer, here are some tips on improving your nutrition that can potentially reduce your cancer risk and support your health if you’re undergoing cancer treatment.

This includes avoiding carcinogenic, or cancer-causing foods. Below are some of the ones you’re most likely to encounter.

Red meat

Red meat is one of the most notable foods linked to cancer. This is partially due to a naturally occurring chemical in red meat called haem. It damages cells and causes gut bacteria to release toxins that can damage the colon, thereby increasing your risk for cancer.

Furthermore, cooking your meat also releases chemicals, increasing its carcinogenic potential. Exposing all muscle meats (beef, pork, fish, or poultry) and fats to high temperatures results in the formation of natural chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

And PAHs aren’t the only carcinogenic by-products produced by cooking meat. High-heat cooking methods, like grilling or barbecuing, also cause the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which are additional cancer-causing food compounds.

HCAs form when amino acids, sugars, and creatine in the muscle react under high temperatures. And the longer the meat is cooked at high heat, the greater the HCA concentration. As you consume these chemicals, they’re activated by specific enzymes, enabling them to damage your DNA.

Despite this, you don’t have to completely avoid beef, lamb, pork, venison, and goat; the Canadian Cancer Society recommends limiting your consumption to three 85g servings weekly.

Processed meat

They may be fan favourites, but processed meats contain added chemical compounds called nitrates, which shouldn’t have a regular place in your diet.

When you eat processed meats, the bacteria in your mouth help to convert these nitrates into nitrite. This one-letter change comes with significant ramifications. As they react with your stomach acid, ingested nitrites form nitrosamines, carcinogenic agents that contribute to various forms of cancer, including brain, lung, liver, esophagus, kidney, bowel, and stomach cancer.

Subsequently, any meat that’s preserved through smoking, curing, salting, or adding preservatives is considered carcinogenic. While this includes deli meats, it also includes sausages, bacon, corned beef, canned meat, and liver patés. However, the worst offenders are hotdogs, which clock in at 9mg of nitrates per 100g (bacon, in contrast, contains 5.5mg of nitrates per 100g).

As a result, the Canadian Cancer Society recommends avoiding processed meat or limiting consumption to special occasions.

Which food ingredients are linked to cancer?

Deli meats and red meat are easy to spot, but cancer-causing ingredients in food aren’t always as simple to find. The next time you’re in the grocery aisles, take a second to read the labels on your purchases. Over a lifetime, regularly absorbing small amounts of harmful, carcinogenic food ingredients may translate into an increased risk for cancer. You may consider returning anything with the following ingredients to the shelf.

Aspartame

Used as a sweetener in products as varied as baked goods, sugar-free gum, and diet sodas, aspartame has been shown to cause cancer in rodents. And, while it’s still widely available, researchers found that those who consumed an average of 47.42mg of aspartame a day had a slightly higher cancer risk than those with an average consumption of 3.24mg/day. For reference, there’s approximately 200mg of aspartame in one 12oz can of diet soda alone.

Food dyes

While their carcinogenic potential in humans isn’t fully understood, food dyes are a concerning ingredient. Red dye 3 is known to cause cancer in animals. Meanwhile, research indicates that other dyes, such as Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, may be contaminated with known carcinogenic agents such as benzidine.

Sugar

Sugar, or glucose, comes from all carbohydrates. Since every one of your cells relies on sugar for energy, it’s a necessary food. But consuming too much sugar, especially added sugars, can both increase your chances of becoming obese (and all the risks that accompany it), as well as your risk of developing cancer. And, if you already have the disease, a high-sugar diet may stimulate its progression.

In light of this, the Canadian Cancer Society recommends that no more than 10% of your calories come from sugar. That means an average 2,000-calorie diet should include less than 48 grams of sugar daily, which is comparable to 12 sugar cubes.

Does processed food cause cancer?

You already know that eating ultra-processed foods (UPFs) like microwaveable dinners, soft drinks, packaged snacks, and breakfast cereals isn’t good for your blood sugar or heart health. But a recent study also shows that a high UPF diet increases your overall risk of developing cancer, especially brain and ovarian cancer. Given that, it’s best to avoid overly-processed foods as much as possible.

How to reduce your risk of carcinogens

Carcinogens aren’t limited to your diet. They can also occur naturally or artificially in the environment. For example, sunlight is a carcinogen — even one blistering sunburn in your youth doubles your melanoma risk later in life. To help protect yourself from environmental carcinogens, wear broad-spectrum sunscreen with a minimum of 30 SPF.

Cigarette smoke is another source of carcinogens. Each cigarette contains thousands of chemicals — at least 69 of which cause cancer. And, while more research is needed when it comes to vaping and cancer, studies have shown that some e-cigarettes and liquid nicotine cartridges can contain carcinogens such as formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, and acetone. As a result, it’s recommended that you avoid vaping, smoking, and inhaling second-hand smoke.

In addition, making the following changes can help you avoid dietary carcinogens.

Look for alternatives to cancer-causing food and food ingredients

When it comes to diet, there are a few major changes that are worth making. First and foremost, it’s best to reserve processed meats for special occasions like barbecues. And, if lunch meats are a dietary staple for you, try swapping them out for healthier protein sources like tuna, egg, or chicken.

Moreover, it’s worth looking at your red meat consumption. Try rotating in healthier, lean protein options like turkey, chicken, and fish to lower your overall intake. You may also want to consider a regular “meatless Monday” (or whatever other day of the week works for you).

Vegetarian alternatives are becoming increasingly popular as they’re a great way to incorporate healthy, fibre and protein-filled foods into your diet. Beet burgers, vegetarian chilli, and vegetarian burritos are just some of the incredible recipes out there, and the list is growing all the time.

As an added bonus, a plant-heavy diet can also help you to maintain healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels. This may also help keep your heart healthy by lowering your risk of cardiovascular disease.

Use healthier cooking methods

The reason that a poached chicken breast is good for you and a slice of deli-smoked turkey isn’t comes down to how they’re prepared. Instead of broiling or smoking your meat, which increases its concentration of carcinogenic compounds, try an alternate preparation method like poaching, stewing, boiling, or steaming.

Use non-toxic food storage containers

When it comes to storing those leftovers, the containers you use matter too. Many plastic containers contain bisphenol A (BPA), an endocrine-disrupting chemical shown to play a role in prostate, ovarian, and breast cancer. Avoid exposing yourself to this by storing your leftovers in glass containers or wrapping them in tinfoil. Beeswax wraps and lidded glass or ceramic casserole dishes are also great alternatives.

Choose plant-based foods more often

The occasional fruit or vegetable can’t prevent cancer, but eating a lot of certain cancer-fighting foods can help lower your risk.

You’re best off choosing foods high in certain minerals, vitamins, and phytonutrients with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anticarcinogenic effects. Some foods that can lower your risk of cancer include:

  • Berries, especially blueberries, cranberries, raspberries, and strawberries
  • Broccoli
  • Brussel sprouts
  • Carrots
  • Cauliflower
  • Kale
  • Oranges
  • Spinach
  • Walnuts

Avoid foods with artificial colours and flavours

While diet soda may seem like an obvious source of aspartame, other products can contain surprising amounts. For example, a single piece of sugar-free gum may contain up to 19mg of aspartame. Since routinely eating foods containing carcinogens contributes to a higher risk of developing cancer, regular consumption isn’t recommended.

The same goes for artificial dyes. These can be found in a number of products, from ice cream to breakfast cereals to those gummy vitamins your children love. Finding a dye-free alternative is worth it, given their potential for harm and how little their colouring adds to your food.

Choose whole foods over processed ones

Grabbing a box or package of something when you’re on the go is the convenient option. However, over time, this can contribute to an unhealthy diet and increase your risk of cancer — not to mention obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Instead, try to eat whole, unprocessed foods whenever possible. Since hunger can force bad decisions, plan ahead with meal prepping, keep cut-up veggies in the fridge, and stock your bag or desk with raw nuts.

Limit your sugar intake

Every cell in your body uses glucose as energy. In other words, it’s impossible to eliminate sugar from your diet entirely. As much as possible, however, sugars should come from whole foods. Think fruit and dairy products with no sugar added, like yogurt instead of breakfast cereal, candy, or iced coffee drinks. Not only can this lower your cancer risk, but it’ll also help you maintain a healthy weight and foster good gut health.

How Maple can help with a cancer diagnosis and preventative care

Nutrition is an important component of staying healthy, so it’s no surprise that eating well helps to minimize your risk of developing chronic disease. But, like most things cancer-related, sticking to a healthy diet doesn’t guarantee you’ll avoid a cancer diagnosis.

Cancer is a collection of diseases with many causes, and you can spend your life eating almost perfectly and still develop it. While lifestyle and dietary adjustments are a great place to start, many need considerably more support. We can help. Maple is a virtual care platform that seamlessly connects you with Canadian-licensed doctors online in minutes and specialists within hours at a time that works for you.

If you or a loved one has received a cancer diagnosis, seeing a licensed physician and oncology navigator can help assure you that you’re exhausting all your options. And, since we know that cancer treatment can be both time-consuming and draining, we make getting an oncology second opinion easy. With Maple, you can see your oncology navigator virtually from your phone, tablet, or computer, where and when it’s most convenient.

This allows you to get dedicated support as your oncology navigator takes a deep dive into your case, ensuring you fully understand your diagnosis and treatment options. Furthermore, they may be able to recommend additional personalized treatment options such as genetic sequencing or clinical trials.

If you want to increase your chances of staying healthy overall, it doesn’t hurt to eat better. But, while sticking to a healthy diet may sound easy, it can be hard to put into practice. An online dietitian can tailor healthy eating guidelines to your lifestyle, helping you take advantage of this health benefit as much as possible.

Preventative care isn’t limited to diet. If you’re looking to understand any unique risk factors you may have, booking a general health assessment can give you a comprehensive, 360° view of your health. This allows you to understand the changes that may be most beneficial for reducing your risk of cancer, so you can focus on maintaining your health and wellbeing.

Most cancers seem to be caused by a variety of factors. While some are beyond your control, removing harmful food ingredients may help to reduce your overall risk. If you’re worried that your past diet may not have been the healthiest, know that good health is a lifelong process. Each day brings new opportunities to make healthy choices that may lower your risk of developing the disease.

This blog was developed by our team and reviewed by a medical professional.

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