FoodThink Twice Before Eating: The Hidden Dangers in Our Daily Diet

Think Twice Before Eating: The Hidden Dangers in Our Daily Diet

Fast-foods can contribute to the development of cancer.
Fast-foods can contribute to the development of cancer.
Images source: © Adobe Stock | Joshua Resnick

6:58 PM EDT, April 26, 2024

We live in a world where food is plentiful, allowing us to pick from thousands of products. However, not all of them are beneficial to our health; in fact, some can pose serious risks. So, which items should we avoid?

While it's commonly believed that all foods can be enjoyed in moderation, certain ones are undeniably harmful. Some have been scientifically linked to an increased risk of cancer and are labelled as "carcinogenic." What exactly falls into this category?

Improper diet and cancer

Cancer development can be influenced by numerous factors, including genetics, smoking, alcohol consumption, exposure to certain chemicals, and, importantly, diet. Research has highlighted the danger of specific chemical compounds found in food, such as Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), known for their high carcinogenic potential. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) categorizes these substances to help identify their cancer risk as follows:

  • Group 1 – Carcinogenic to humans
  • Group 2A – Probably carcinogenic to humans
  • Group 2B – Possibly carcinogenic to humans
  • Group 3 – Not classifiable as carcinogenic to humans

What products can cause cancer?

Focusing on groups 1 and 2A, processed meat stands out as the only food classified as carcinogenic to humans. Studies have linked processed meat consumption to an increased risk of cancer.

Processed meats include products that are salted, cured, fermented, smoked, or otherwise altered to improve flavor or prolong preservation.

Examples include:

  • salami,
  • pâté,
  • deli meats,
  • frankfurters,
  • sausages,
  • dried meat,
  • smoked meat,
  • meat conserves.

Processed meats are considered carcinogenic due to the harmful substances formed during their processing. Notably, carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are produced during high-temperature cooking processes, and curing agents like nitrates and nitrites combine with meat's amines to form toxic nitrosamines.

Consuming as little as 1.8 ounces of processed meat daily can increase colorectal cancer risk by 18%.

Better not eat these products. You're only harming yourself

In group 2A, products like red meat are considered potentially carcinogenic, though further research is needed. This group includes:

  • lamb,
  • beef,
  • venison,
  • mutton,
  • pork.

Red meat is prized for its high-quality protein and minerals such as iron and zinc. However, frequent consumption has been linked to colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancers.

The harm from red meat primarily comes from the carcinogens released during thermal processing, though in smaller quantities than in processed meat.

Acrylamide induces cancer

Acrylamide is a chemical formed during the Maillard reaction, which occurs between sugars and amino acids at high temperatures, such as during baking, frying, or roasting. This reaction gives food its brown color.

The largest quantities of acrylamide can be found in:

  • french fries,
  • coffee,
  • chips,
  • crackers,
  • bread,
  • breakfast cereals.

Although proven carcinogenic in animals, acrylamide shows a potential risk for similar effects in humans, associating its consumption with various cancers.

Food and cancer – is there anything to be afraid of?

Highly processed foods have been flagged as increasing cancer risk. Many health professionals advise reducing or eliminating such products, especially processed meat. For other foods listed as probably carcinogenic, moderation is key due to insufficient data demanding their complete exclusion from diets.


  1. Farvis S. M., et al.: Consumption of red meat and processed meat and cancer incidence: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective studies, Eur J Epidemiol. 2021 Sep;36(9):937-951.
  3. Rifai R. et al.: A Review on Acrylamide in Food: Occurrence, Toxicity, and Mitigation Strategies, Int J Toxicol. 2020 Mar/Apr;39(2):93-102.
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