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The truth behind the ‘foods that cause cancer’ headlines

Find out the foods proven to increase your cancer risk. And the truth about those said to prevent cancer

The truth behind the ‘foods that cause cancer’ headlines

The number of stories in the media about foods and drinks that cause or cure cancer is overwhelming. It’s hard to know what to believe, especially as sometimes they can be contradictory. We’ve delved deep into the science behind the stories to find the facts.

Processed meats

Some foods such as processed meats (such as bacon, ham and salami) are proven to increase your risk of cancer, especially bowel and stomach cancers. They do this because nitrates and nitrites, which are added during processing have been shown to be carcinogenic. The World Health Organisation says that just 50g of processed meat a day (around 2 rashers of bacon) increase your risk of bowel cancer by 18%.


Others foods such as sugar are not proven to increase your risk of cancer despite numerous scare stories that it does. Although there is no direct link between sugar and an increased risk of cancer, consuming lots of foods and drinks high in sugar can lead to weight gain and being overweight does increase your risk of cancer – this is called an indirect link.


While pesticides, artificial sweeteners and food additives have also been reported to increase your risk of cancer, the science doesn’t yet back this up. Pesticides, artificial sweeteners and food additives are tested for safety before they can be used on or in our food and drink. In the EU this is done by the European Food Safety Authority which assesses all the available evidence before it is permitted for use.¬†For those exposed to higher level of pesticides through their jobs, such as farm and industry works, their risk of cancer is ‘probably’ increased. That’s according to the International Agency for Research into Cancer.

In addition to processed meats, other proven risk factors for cancer include smoking, being overweight, being inactive, poor diet and drinking alcohol. Smoking and alcohol are both class 1 carcinogens. This means that the evidence that they are proven risk factors for cancer is strong, but it doesn’t mean they are equally harmful. Smoking is a risk factor for at least 15 types of cancer and is the cause for around 15% of cancers in the UK. Alcohol is the cause of around 3% of cancer cases.

Watch our video to find out which other cancer myths are busted.

Foods that prevent cancer

On the flip-side, other foods such as so-called superfoods, turmeric and green tea have been hailed as being able to cure cancer. Unfortunately the evidence doesn’t back up these claims either.

Superfoods such as blueberries, pomegranates, and oily fish, are healthy additions to your diet however a single food can not reduce your risk of cancer.

Supplements containing high levels of vitamins, minerals or antioxidants are often promoted as helping to reduce cancer risk; however there’s no reliable evidence that supports this.

To reduce your risk of cancer you’re better off eating lots of different fruits and vegetables, increasing your fibre intake, staying a healthy weight and not smoking.


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