Navigating the modern-day food system often seems overwhelming. Ingredients in ultra-processed foods are blamed for everything from cancer and diabetes to reduced kidney function and bone loss. And sometimes even the way we cook otherwise healthy foods puts them in the cancer-causing foods category.
Unfortunately, until food manufacturers are forced to clean up the ingredients used in their products, it’s up to us to avoid the worst ones. Here, I’m outlining the links between certain cooking techniques and ingredients and cancer risk. Some of these are long suspected as cancer-causing foods, while others are just emerging as possible cancer triggers. Certainly, more research is needed, but for now, here are the suspected cancer-causing foods and ingredients I aim to avoid in my own life. With so many suspect ingredients in our food system, I choose to practice the precautionary principle when it comes to these things.
Science Suggests These Are Cancer-Causing Foods
In early 2017, Britain’s Food Standards Agency launched a campaign to help people better understand acrylamide — and avoid it. Acrylamide is found in things like cigarette smoke; it’s also used in industrial processes like making dyes and plastics. But acrylamide is also a chemical that forms on certain foods, especially starchy foods like bread, crackers, cakes and potatoes, when cooked long and at high temperatures. (1)
The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies acrylamide as a “probable human carcinogen” based on data showing it can increase the risk of some types of cancer in lab animals. (2)
Safer Solution: I don’t eat much bread, but when I do eat an occasional sandwich or toast, I make sure it’s sprouted, like Ezekiel bread. And I definitely avoid over-toasting or burning the bread. The Food Standards Agency says as a general rule of thumb, aim for a golden yellow color or lighter when toasting, roasting, frying or baking.
Roasted & Fried Potatoes
The scientific consensus is that acrylamide has the potential to cause cancer in humans. Mainly found in plant foods, like potato and grain products (and to some extent coffee), foods like French fries and potato chips pose the greatest acrylamide risk. The chemical reaction occurs when certain starchy foods are cooked above about 250° F. This causes sugars and the amino acid asparagine in food to create acrylamide.
Frying, baking, broiling or roasting are more likely to create acrylamide. On the other hand, boiling and steaming appear less likely to do so. Longer cooking times and cooking at higher temperatures can increase the amount of acrylamide in foods further. (3)
Note: Acrylamide does not form (or forms at lower levels) in dairy, meat, and fish products.
- If you’re planning on cooking potatoes at higher temperatures, soak the cut-up spuds first. Soaking in water for 2 hours before high-temp cooking can reduce acrylamide levels by nearly 50 percent. Even a simple 30-second rinse can slash acrylamide levels by 20-plus percent. (4)
- Don’t store potatoes in the refrigerator. That can cause acrylamide levels to surge.
- Greatly reduce the amount of french fries, chips, cakes, cereals and crackers you eat.
- It’s virtually impossible to completely eliminate acrylamide. But eating a balanced diet mostly free of processed foods and avoiding a high-starch diet can greatly reduce acrylamide levels.
Drinking water contaminated with arsenic can increase a person’s risk of lung, skin and bladder cancers. That’s why there are clear limits set for the amount of arsenic allowed in water. But what about food? Turns out, more Americans get more arsenic from their food than water. (5) So is arsenic poisoning from rice something you need to consider?
While babies potentially face the highest risk, excess arsenic isn’t good for any of us. A 2012 Consumer Reports investigation found arsenic in every brand of infant rice cereals it tested – nearly ten times the legal limit for drinking water. Subsequent testing was even more dire: just one serving of infant rice cereal can put children over the weekly maximum advised by Consumer Reports. (6)
- Rinse your rice and cook it like pasta. According to a Cornell University researcher, rinsing brown rice until the water is clear (usually 5 to 6 washings), and then cooking in a ration of 1 cup of rice to 6 cups of water, can remove 40 to 55 percent of inorganic arsenic in rice. (7, 8)
- Try working alternative grains like quinoa into some meals.
- Consumer Reports testing found that basmati rice grown in California contained the lowest levels of arsenic; all types of rice, except sushi and quick-cooking rice, from Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas contained the highest levels of inorganic arsenic in Consumer Reports testing. (9)
- Researchers from the UK found that cooking rice in a coffee pot reduced arsenic by up to 85 percent. (10)
- Avoid certain sweeteners. Brown rice syrup found in some snack bars and non-dairy beverages may contain high arsenic levels.
- Be wary of dairy- & gluten-free foods. Beware of rice milk and gluten-free processed foods and sweeteners that use rice ingredients to replace wheat or dairy ingredients.
Ice Cream & Pickles
A 2016 study published in Cancer Research discovered a link between common food additives and colon cancer. Researchers at Georgia State University’s Institute for Biomedical Sciences found that mice that regularly ingested the dietary emulsifiers polysorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulose experienced exacerbated tumor development. (11)
These emulsifiers act like “detergent-like” ingredients in the gut, significantly changing the species composition of the gut microbiome.
Alterations in bacterial species resulted in bacteria expressing more flagellin and lipopolysaccharide, which activate pro-inflammatory gene expression by the immune system.