Nicknamed as the ‘big C’, cancer is one of the leading causes of death in the world, accounting for nearly 16 thousand deaths in Malaysia as of 2018. Fortunately, about half of the most commonly diagnosed cancers have a ten-year survival rate thanks to the advancement of technologies in detection and treatments. Despite that, cancer continues to instil fear in the lives of many who spread false news about the condition and what increases your risk. A recent controversy surrounding what foods containing cancer-causing substances made headlines in our local papers.
Scientific research observed that certain environmental substances, including food and the like, contain carcinogenic properties that are cancerous. In other words, these substances can result in cancer when exposed to or consumed. But what is carcinogen in the first place? Let’s take a closer look.
The four groups of carcinogens
A carcinogen is a substance or product that can lead to cancer. This substance can be found in everyday environmental factors that we are exposed to regularly like food, gases and even UV rays. However, direct contact with carcinogens does not guarantee cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) determines the level of exposure and what it means to us by classifying these agents into four groups of carcinogenicity:
- Group 1: “Carcinogenic to humans”
- Group 2A: “Probably carcinogenic to humans”
- Group 2B: “Possibly carcinogenic to humans”
- Group 3: “Unclassifiable as to carcinogenicity in humans”
- Group 4: “Probably not carcinogenic to humans”
10 Cancer-Causing Substances That We Consume
It is worth noting the types of food sources known to contain or produce carcinogens and being mindful of what we put into our bodies. Below are 10 cancer-causing substances we consume that can influence our risk:
1. Processed meat
Processed meat is meat that has been modified through different types of processes to enhance its flavour or improve preservation. These are stuff we like to put into kids’ meals like sausages, nuggets, spam (luncheon meat) and ham.
Classified as Group 1 or “carcinogenic to humans”, there is strong evidence that they cause colorectal cancer. Other research found links for stomach cancer as well but the information remains inconclusive. Experts recommend replacing these with fresh, unprocessed meat in your diet.
2. Red meat
Red meat is the meat of “gamey” mammals such as beef, mutton, lamb, pork and venison. We incorporate them in our main meals because they are a great source of protein, vitamins and minerals. Who could say no to a delicious bowl of beef rendang?
However, red meat has been classified as Group 2A carcinogen, which makes it “probably carcinogenic to humans”. Thus, eating excessive amounts of red meat may increase your risk of bowel (colorectal) cancer. Evidence also found links to pancreatic and prostate cancer. Experts recommend eating no more than 65 to 100 grams of cooked red meat per week.
3. Salted fish (ikan masin)
Salted fish or ikan masin is fish cured with salt — an ingredient more popularly found in South-East Asian and Chinese diets. Specifically, the Cantonese-style salted fish is made using a traditional preservation method called fermentation, which means it is eaten in a decomposed state containing carcinogenic by-products.
Salted fish is categorised under Group 1 carcinogen and this makes it unsafe to eat. As a general rule, experts maintain that it is best not to eat any foods preserved by salting due to their high sodium content, which brings us to the next point.
4. Fermented or pickled foods
Fermenting and pickling are two common ways to naturally preserve food like vegetables and fruits. They’re popular in many different cultures because you can do it at home with ingredients that are already in your pantry. Like salted fish, the foods are allowed to decompose in a container filled with a concentrated salt solution before consumption.
Limited evidence suggests that preserved vegetables can increase the risk of nasopharyngeal (head and neck) cancer. The World Health Organization recommends limiting your sodium consumption to less than 2 grams per day.
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5. Overcooked or burnt food
The common cooking methods include burning, charring, smoking and roasting at high temperatures to achieve golden brown crispy goodness. Barbecued meat, coffee and roti bakar are examples of burnt food. Burnt food itself does not cause cancer, but they contain a chemical called acrylamide that is naturally produced in the process of cooking or preparing.
Some research suggests that foods high in acrylamide are associated with an increased risk of cancer. Our Malaysian Food Safety and Quality Division (BKKM) suggests that there is a low health risk for foods with low levels of acrylamide. Nevertheless, it’s probably best not to overcook your food too often.
6. Fast foods or fried foods
Fast food are pre-prepared foods like burgers and french fries, and fried foods are local favourites like cucur udang and murukku. They’re high in fat, starches or sugars that increase one’s calorie intake and result in weight gain. When taken regularly or in big portions, this may result in overweight and obesity problems.
Studies examine a significant link between body fatness and 13 types of cancers: breast cancer, liver cancer, and endometrial (womb) cancer, to name a few. So, be mindful before ordering a bucket of fried chicken.
7. Sugary foods and drinks
Similarly, a sweet diet can result in a not-so-sweet health risk. You’ll be surprised by how much sugar the average Malaysian adult consumes: 7 teaspoons or 75.5 grams of sugar per day, which is far more than the recommended 50 grams. This includes sweetened beverages, confectionaries and kuih-muih.
There is no direct link between sugar and cancer risk, but excess sugar intake contributes to excess calories. In turn, this results in being overweight or obese which is the single biggest preventable cause of cancer. Other chronic conditions related to high sugar intake is type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Consuming a glass of wine every once in a while benefits your body as wine is rich in antioxidants and helps regulate your heart and circulatory system. Experts recommend no more than seven drinks or less per week.
Besides alcoholism and heart diseases, strong evidence suggests that high consumption of alcohol increases cancer risk. Classified by IARC as a Group 1 carcinogen, alcohol causes several types of cancer such as mouth, pharynx and larynx cancers, stomach cancer, liver cancer and kidney cancer.
Tobacco is a plant species that contains nicotine that is not only harmful to the body but can lead to addiction. One of the most popular tobacco consumption are smoking cigars or cigarettes. Other tobacco products are chewed or sniffed.
Regardless of the type of consumption, tobacco is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen and contains 70 types of carcinogen chemicals, leading to lung cancer. Second-hand smokers are also affected, meaning those around you that breathe in that smoke like your spouse, children or passers-by.
10. High doses of beta-carotene supplements
Beta-carotene (β-carotene) is a compound in colourful fruits and vegetables, carrots, sweet potatoes and bell peppers for instance, that give them their vivid colour. There are multiple benefits to beta-carotene including slowing down cognitive decline and being a good source of vitamin A and antioxidants.
However, high beta carotene intake, normally due to supplements rather than natural foods, can worsen the risk of lung cancer in smokers compared to non-smokers.
Anti-Cancer Foods to Include in Your Diet
What can prevent or reverse the effects of cancer-causing substances? Here are some 10 superfoods that you can incorporate into your diet for a healthy, proactive lifestyle against this chronic condition:
- Citrus Fruits
- Whole grains
While there is no evidence that one single type of food can reduce the risk of cancer, maintaining a balanced diet helps you gain some control over your health and well being.
Other non-cancerous healthy substitutes
Perhaps you’re looking for other types of food to replace these cancer-causing foods. Fish and white meat are a healthier choice to a nutritious, well-balanced meal for kids and adults alike, for example, chicken, turkey and rabbit meat. Beans, peas, and lentils are also great substitutes for protein.
Think Healthy Before Moderation
Some things are meant to be taken in moderation, while others are taken at minimum levels. Besides having a nutrient-rich diet, aim to lead a healthy lifestyle with these great ways that can prevent or reverse the effects of cancer.
5 lifestyle tips to prevent cancer
- Stay physically active
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Limit alcohol, unhealthy foods and sugary drinks
- Meet nutritional needs through your diet instead of supplements
- Say ‘no’ to harmful products
It is important to note that not all exposure to carcinogens causes cancer. There are other factors to consider such as your genetics as well as the amount and duration of your carcinogenic exposure.
Last but not least, before sharing this information with your family and friends, consider if your message could inform rather than misinform, and show care rather than scare. Make sure to make your intentions clear that your aim is to promote a better society that understands cancer for what it is, and treat patients and survivors alike with dignity and respect.
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