The enduring falsehood about food and cancer

by Keith Nunes
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Keith Nunes

Type the words “food and cancer” into Google or another search engine and a user will be subjected to an onslaught of search results listing foods that purportedly prevent and others that allegedly cause cancer. While such results must, of course, be taken with more than a grain of salt (which some of the offending web sites cite as a suspected cause), they underscore the degree to which the recommendation that a healthy diet may reduce the risk of cancer too frequently degenerates into claims that the avoidance of individual foodstuffs help stave off onset of the disease.

Foods frequently cited as contributing to the development of cancer include those featuring genetically modified ingredients, microwave popcorn, canned goods featuring BPA as a lining, grilled red meat, refined sugar, and salted, pickled and smoked foods. Those cited as preventing cancer include organic foods, certain nuts, fresh fruits, non-starchy vegetables, meat and milk from grass-fed animals and olive oil or coconut oil.

Based on the above list and understanding the current state of the American diet, one would expect the incidence of cancer to rapidly be on the rise and deaths from cancer to be increasing as well. Yet the truth is far different.

Hamburger, donut, microwave popcorn
Foods cited as contributing to the development of cancer include microwave popcorn, grilled red meat and refined sugar.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association this past January shows that overall mortality from cancer has declined by about one fifth over the last quarter century. The researchers found that cancer mortality decreased by 20.1 per cent between 1980 and 2014, from 240 to 192 deaths per 100,000. A total of 19,511,910 cancer deaths were recorded in the United States during the period.

As for the incidence of cancer, it is declining as well. During the past 10 years the overall incidence of cancer has declined approximately 2 per cent per year in men and remained stable for women, according to the National Cancer Institute. The numbers simply do not support the alarmist messages of marketers trying to use fear to differentiate their products and production practices in the marketplace. The declines are due to a complicated mix of factors, most importantly a population becoming more educated about such preventive measures as the removal of pre-cancerous polyps in the colon, reduced testing for prostate cancer, not smoking, early diagnosis and vastly improved treatment options.

The purported relationship between food and cancer extends back decades. The advent of pesticides and their industrial use spawned frequent scare stories. Those old enough will remember celebrities in the 1970s advocating to consumers that they should wash fresh produce with soap and water to clean away pesticide residue. Such recommendations remain common. Today, the stories about the relationship between the use of pesticides and cancer continue along with newer claims about G.M.O.s and cancer.

A cottage industry in both food and supplements has emerged during the past few decades that use cancer as a marketing cudgel to convince consumers their products and methods are superior. Such proclamations are simply not true.

A healthy, well-balanced diet may lower the risk of such negative outcomes as a diagnosis of cancer, and an unhealthy diet may increase the risk. What does not increase or decrease the likelihood of cancer is the consumption in moderation of specific foodstuffs or the employment of certain production methods. Those in the food industry should steer clear from either side of this calumnious equation.

 

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