Cancer Causing Foods


“Li ma joqtolx isemmen!” a popular Maltese dictum! It couldn’t be more wrong!

It would be right to fear the unknown when food additives, contaminants and unfamiliar ingredients in our food are indeed taking their toll on our health. The statement “everything causes cancer” has become a popular hyperbole, that some people use to excuse their own dietary and lifestyle failures, particularly as they pertain to cancer risk. But the truth of the matter is that many common food items have been scientifically shown to increase cancer risk. Another common misconception is that if food smells good and looks nice – eat it, well some food additives do just that, whet our appetite by creating gorgeous looking, fabulously smelling food. With regards to food additive safety most of the evaluations date back to the 80’s and 90’s, some even to the 70’s. Therefore they are being re-evaluated by European Food Safety Agency (EFSA). The re-evaluation will be completed by 2020. The Commission may propose a revision of the current conditions of use of the additives and if needed remove an additive from the list.

The limits allowed for additives are set to be about 100 times less than the smallest amount that might cause health concerns, based on studies done in lab animals. However it does not consider daily low level prolonged exposure to multiple agents. We are taking a cocktail of food additives every day making this one of the numerous factors of such a complex illness which is cancer. Many factors such as smoking and physical activity, are risk factors you can drastically influence, food intake is also important. The following are some of the most common cancer causing foods that we regularly consume.

Canned foods

Currently tin cans are lined with a plastic lining Bisphenol-A (BPA). This material is also used in the manufacture of tableware (plates and mugs), microwave ovenware, cookware and reservoirs for water dispensers. Research has shown that BPA can seep into food or beverages from containers that are made with BPA.1 The reported levels of BPA in human fluids are higher than the BPA concentrations reported appear to be within an order of magnitude of the levels needed to induce effects in animal models2.

BPA is an endocrine disruptor. The endocrine system consists of hormone-producing glands that regulate and control our bodies in various ways such as metabolism, reproduction and even mood. The endocrine system is particularly sensitive in groups like infants, children and unborn babies.

BPA mimics oestrogen binding to the same receptors throughout the human body as natural female hormones. Tests have shown that the chemical can promote human breast cancer cell growth as well as decrease sperm count in rats, among other effects. Exposure to BPA is a concern because of possible health effects of BPA on the brain, behaviour and prostate gland of foetuses, infants and children.

Manufacturers for baby feeding products, toys and pacifiers have moved away from BPA because children have a decreased ability to clear BPA from their systems. Many BPA free food containers and baby products are now available. Instead of cans and plastic bottles good old glass containers are better.

Processed meats

Most processed meat products, including lunch meats, bacon, sausage, and hot dogs, contain chemical preservatives that make them appear fresh and appealing, but that can also cause cancer. Both sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate have been linked to significantly increasing the risk of colon and other forms of cancer, so be sure to choose only uncured meat products made without nitrates.

Char grilled meats

The way you cook your meat may actually make a big difference in the cancer risk it poses to you, with well-done and char-grilled meats among the worst offenders. Many studies have shown a correlation between eating well-done meat cooked at high temperatures and an increased risk of cancer.

For instance, when amino acids and creatine (a chemical found in muscle meats, including beef, pork, chicken and fish) interact with high cooking temperatures, heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are formed. At least 17 different HCAs have been identified that may increase cancer risk, 8 including colon cancer, stomach cancer and others 3,4. A separate study also found a link between charred meat and pancreatic cancer, with those eating the most very well done meat at a 70 percent increased risk compared to those who ate the least.5

Hydrogenated oils

Hydrogenated oils are commonly used to preserve processed oil products and keep them shelf-stable and contain trans fatty acids. Hydrogenated oils and trans fatty acids are known to increase levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL, “bad” cholesterol and lower levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) particles, which scour blood vessels for bad cholesterol and truck it to the liver for disposal. They also promote inflammation, an over activity of the immune system that has been implicated in heart disease, stroke and diabetes. In addition, hydrogenated oils alter the structure and flexibility of cell membranes throughout the body, which can lead to cancer.6

There is no scientific consensus that consumption of trans fatty acids significantly increases cancer risks. Conflicting studies indicate both an increased and decreased risk of prostate and colon cancer. However, a number of studies including the results from the French part of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition suggest that an increased intake of trans fatty acids may raise the risk of breast cancer by 75%.7

Food sources include: Margarine, baked goods like doughnuts, Danish pastry, cookies, deep-fried foods, Imitation cheese (primarily vegetable oils processed into cheese, for example analogue pizza cheese used in frozen pizzas sandwich toast processed cheese).

French Fries and Potato Chips

Apart from containing hydrogenated fats from frying, potato chips and other snack chips and french fries may contain high levels of acrylamide (another carcinogenic substance found also in cigarettes) and free radicals. Acrylamide forms when starchy foods are heated at high temperatures, such as during baking or frying.

The U.S. National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer consider acrylamide to be a “probable human carcinogen”, based on animal studies. Therefore it is known that acrylamide is a carcinogen however, the evidence from human studies is still incomplete and we do not know what levels are safe in humans and the extent of damage it could do. Free radicals cause oxidative damage to the cells of the body.8

Microwave popcorn

They might be convenient, but those bags of microwave popcorn are lined with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). PFOA is also used to make Teflon and other stain-and stick-resistant materials including pizza boxes and is released as a gas when heated.9

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognises the PFOA in microwave popcorn bag linings as being “likely” carcinogenic. Similarly, the diacetyl chemical used in the popcorn flavouring itself is linked to causing both lung damage and cancer10. A study in the “Journal of Occupational Medicine” reports that factory workers exposed to the chemical had increased cancer mortality.

Even though no conclusions as to whether products made with it pose a cancer risk to humans animal studies have identified four types of tumours in rats and mice exposed to PFOA. Pop your own popcorn in a pot with olive oil. Be careful not to burn them by removing from the heat when they stop to pop!



‘First generation’ sweeteners such as saccharin, cyclamate and aspartame, as well as ‘new generation’ sweeteners such as acesulfame-K, sucralose, alitame and neotame are believed to cause cancer. However, according to the current literature, the possible risk of artificial sweeteners to induce cancer seems to be negligible. Epidemiological studies in humans did not find the bladder cancer-inducing effects of saccharin and cyclamate that had been reported from animal studies in rats11. A 2007 medical review on the subject concluded that “the weight of existing scientific evidence indicates that aspartame is safe at current levels of consumption as a “non-nutritive sweetener”. In its first full risk assessment of this sweetener, EFSA concludes that Aspartame and its breakdown products are safe for human consumption at current levels of exposure. To carry out its risk assessment, EFSA has undertaken a rigorous review of all available scientific research on aspartame and its breakdown products, including both animal and human studies. Further studies are needed for the newer generation sweeteners.

Refined flours and refined sugars

Refined flour is a common ingredient in processed foods, but its excess carbohydrate content is a serious cause for concern. The same goes for refined sugars, which tend to rapidly spike insulin levels.

Does sugar feed cancer cells? The short answer is no — with a big qualifying “but.” Glucose (sugar) is the primary fuel for most of the cells in the body, including the brain, muscles, and yes – even cancer cells. It’s the preferred fuel because it’s easily taken up by most cells throughout the body to use as an energy source. Therefore saying that sugar feeds cancer is a misstatement. Elevated levels of blood sugar stimulate the release of insulin from the pancreas. If insulin levels remain elevated for long periods of time, it will cause an increase in inflammation — basically, the body’s normal immune response is exaggerated followed by a complex and coordinated series of events that promote the multiplication of cancer cells. It’s the prolonged release of insulin in response to chronic elevations in blood sugar that’s the true problem12, 13.


Aflatoxins are toxins produced by a mould that grows in nuts, seeds, and legumes. Although aflatoxins are known to cause cancer in animals, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows their presence albeit at low levels in nuts, seeds, and legumes because they are considered “unavoidable contaminants.” The FDA believes that occasionally eating small amounts of aflatoxin poses little risk over a lifetime. It is not practical to attempt to remove aflatoxin from food products in order to make them safer. The mould that produces aflatoxin may be found in peanuts, peanut butter, tree nuts such as pecans, corn and wheat14.

You can reduce aflatoxin intake by buying only trusted brands of nuts and nut butters and discarding any nuts that look mouldy, discolored or shrivelled.

What can WE do?

What is acceptable is for us to decide. We are the consumer and we drive the market, let us opt less for these foods! Choose foods that are close to their original forms found in nature (whole fruits instead of fruit juices, whole grains instead of white bread, etc.).

There are other simple things we can do to reduce the risk of cancer.

  • Eat unprocessed foods and base your diet largely on natural local fresh produce. If you like salami in your bread or bacon on your toast, use it occasionally and sparingly.

  • Consume foods that have omega-3 fats and other essential fatty acids. It is proven that dietary olive oil and omega 3 actually protect against the disease.

  • Eat lots of fruits and vegetables; many common ones are known to possess cancer-fighting properties.

  • Eat wholegrain foods – These foods will release carbohydrates more slowly.

  • Shop in small amounts and frequently so that you can avoid storing long life food with preservatives and ensure a constant fresh supply.

  • Get regular and vigorous exercise, since it has been shown to prevent cancer and keep you in good health.

  • Eat foods high in natural vitamin C and antioxidants to deter free radicals. Stay well hydrated to ensure that your body rids itself of toxins.

Last but not least don’t be afraid just be aware of what’s in your food!


  • 1 HH Le, EM Carlson, JP Chua, SM Belcher. Bisphenol A is released from polycarbonate drinking bottles and mimics the neurotoxic actions of estrogen in developing cerebellar neurons. Toxicology letters, 2008
  • 2 L. N. Vandenberga, et al. Human exposure to bisphenol A (BPA). Reproductive Toxicology. Volume 24, Issue 2, August–September 2007, Pages 139–177
  • 3 R Sinha, WH Chow, M Kulldorff, J Denobile, J Butler. Well-done, grilled red meat increases the risk of colorectal adenomas. Cancer Research, 1999
  • 4 D Tang, JJ Liu, A Rundle, C Neslund-Dudas. Grilled meat consumption and PhIP-DNA adducts in prostate carcinogenesis. Cancer Epidemiology 2007
  • 5 KE Anderson, R Sinha, M Kulldorff, M Gross. Meat intake and cooking techniques: associations with pancreatic cancerMutation Research 2002
  • 6 Helmut Bartsch et al. Dietary polyunsaturated fatty acids and cancers of the breast and colorectum: emerging evidence for their role as risk modifiers. Carcinogenesis Volume 20, Issue 12Pp. 2209-2218
  • 7 World Health Organization (Press release). 2008-04-11. ‘Breast cancer: a role for trans fatty acids?.’
  • 8 National Cancer Institute. Acrylamide in food and cancer risk. Available from: Updated: 07/29/2008. Cited: 9/07/2104
  • 9 E Sinclair, SK Kim, HB Akinleye, K Kannan. Quantitation of Gas-Phase Perfluoroalkyl Surfactants and Fluorotelomer Alcohols Released from Nonstick Cookware and Microwave Popcorn Bags Environ Sci Technol. 2007 Feb 15;41(4):1180-5.
  • 10 R Kanwal. Evaluation of Flavorings-Related Lung Disease Risk at Six Microwave Popcorn Plants. Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine: February 2006 – Vol.48 – Issue 2 – pp 149-157
  • 11 M. R. Weihrauch, V. Diehl. Annals of Oncology Volume 15, Issue 10 Pp. 1460-1465. Artificial sweeteners-do they bear a carcinogenic risk?
  • 12 S. Franceschi et al. Dietary glycemic load and colorectal cancer risk. Annals of Oncology Vol 12, Issue 2 Pp. 173-178.
  • 13 K. Rapp, et al. Fasting blood glucose and cancer risk in a cohort of more than 140,000 adults in Austria. Diabetologia May 2006, Vol 49, Issue 5, pp 945-952
  • 14 Medline Plus. Updated: 30/1/2013, Cited 8/7/2014
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