An NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center
By Dory Benford | February 1, 2018
Maintaining a healthy diet can be challenging when so many popular foods and beverages are believed to contain ingredients, additives and chemicals that can heighten cancer risk. But how much of that supposed risk is real?
To separate fact from fiction, we asked Beatriz Campos, M.P.H., R.D., C.D.E., clinical dietitian at City of Hope, to weigh in on five food related cancer urban legends.

1. Can barbequing increase cancer risk?

“When you cook at high heat for things like grilling, it produces charred meats, and different chemicals in charred meats have been found to increase your risk of cancer,” said Campos.

“But the risk is so small that it’s not worth changing your life over. If you’re grilling and you’re doing it at a low heat so you’re not getting any charred meat, and it’s helping you to eat healthy protein instead of fried chicken, then that’s definitely better.”

2. Can using nonstick pans increase cancer risk?

Perfluorooctanoic acid is chemical used to make Teflon, and it has been shown to increase the risk of some cancers. That said, Teflon itself has not been linked to greater cancer risk.

“You don’t really get any of that chemical in your food when you use a Teflon coated pan. I think the one thing I might say is that maybe once the Teflon becomes damaged, you may want to get a new pan,” Campos said.

“But Teflon coated pans are another great tool that allows you to use a lot less fat when you’re cooking. The extra fat and the obesity that it can lead to is really what we should be focusing on more than cooking tools.”

3. Can consuming nitrates lead to greater cancer risk?

Nitrates are food preservatives added to cured and processed meats like bacon and deli meat. In addition to making it possible for processed meats to remain edible longer, they also give cured meats their distinct red color.

“There have been studies that show that processed meats, they believe because of the nitrates, can increase your risk for cancer. It’s not a direct correlation, like if you eat bacon you’re going to get cancer, but there is an increase of risk,” Campos explained.

“I tell people to try and avoid nitrates. We talk about what are some other quick, healthy proteins that you could substitute them for, so having egg salad, tuna, getting a rotisserie chicken and getting meat off of that, those are going to be much fresher choices that don’t have nitrates.”

4. Can drinking soda increase cancer risk?

Both diet and regular soda have come under fire for their potential links to increased cancer risk, but the issue with these beverages has more to do with obesity and less to do with how the drinks are sweetened.

“The relationship between sugar and cancer is really related to the obesity issue, so if you are somebody that really likes your sweetened beverages, I would much rather you be doing a diet drink versus a regular sugar sweetened beverage. But I wouldn’t call a diet drink a healthy choice. It’s just the lesser of two evils,” said Campos.

“I think that water, unsweetened iced tea and fruit infused waters are definitely the best choice. But cancer risk is more related to weight. It has nothing to do with artificial sweeteners causing cancer or sugar causing cancer.”

5. Can eating organic foods decrease cancer risk?

“There is no evidence to say that you have to go organic to reduce your risk of cancer. We just want people to eat fruits and vegetables, period. Whether they’re organic or not,” said Campos.

While it’s good practice to be mindful of your food choices and how you cook them, but the best way to reduce your cancer risk is to stay at a healthy weight. So go ahead and continue grilling your lean proteins safely and using nonstick cookware to cut back on the amount of butter and oil used during meal preparation. In the end, your overall health is worth the risk.


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