For as long as I can remember, people have told me, “Don’t eat that. It causes cancer!” regarding various foods such as burnt toast. At the time, I didn’t understand the reasonings behind such suggestions regarding carcinogenic foods. To be deemed carcinogenic, these foods are linked to increased risks of cancer development. 

However, since attending Berkeley, I have taken quite a few classes in Toxicology and Food Science. From these classes, I have studied why certain foods put those who consume them at a higher risk of cancer.

While I am in no way claiming to be a licensed nutritionalist, the following is what I have learned about five common foods and their carcinogenic properties.  

Artificial Sweeteners: Aspartame 

Tiffany Chu

In the modern craze to find zero-calorie alternatives to sugar, many different artificial sweeteners have entered the market, such as sucralose (the primary ingredient in Splenda) and saccharin (the primary ingredient in Sweet’N Low). While certain sweeteners are linked to increased cancer risk, the dangers of aspartame are particularly concerning since this sweetener is used in everyday products like Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi.

Aspartame consumption is inherently toxic for those suffering from phenylketonuria, as consumption paired with the condition can lead to brain damage. Even for consumers that do not have phenylketonuria, 40% of the aspartame metabolizes into aspartic acid, which hyperstimulates neurons at high concentrations. Additionally, 10% of aspartame gets metabolized into methanol, which the body quickly uses to produce the carcinogens formaldehyde and formic acid.  

Grilled Meats 

Food, bbq, bayreuth and germany | HD photo by Markus Spiske (@markusspiske) on Unsplash

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Another common carcinogen is grilled or barbecued meats. As fat drips down into the flame during the grilling process, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are formed and will rise up to coat the meat. Additionally, the high cooking temperature alone results in the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs). 

These PAHs and HCAs are both carcinogenic since they cause DNA mutations, especially if frequently consumed. To reduce the risk of developing cancer, the American Institute for Cancer Research recommends marinating meats before grilling in order to decrease the number of HCAs, pre-cooking larger pieces using alternative methods such as the microwave in order to reduce grilling time, and using meat that contains minimal fat. 


Cigarettes | HD photo by Robert Ruggiero (@robert2301) on Unsplash

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While the tobacco found in cigarettes does not get ingested into the body via the digestive track like food, chewing tobacco does. Regardless of absorption mode, tobacco and its primary component, nicotine, are quite damaging to the body.

Not only is tobacco addictive because it stimulates the brain similar to cocaine and heroin, but it is also an initiator and promoter of cancer. This is because the components in tobacco cause and propagate DNA mutations which can ultimately lead to cancer, especially lung cancer for heavy smokers. 


Glass, alcohol, beer and beer glass | HD photo by Helena Lopes (@wildlittlethingsphoto) on Unsplash

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Ethanol is the primary component in many alcohols such as beer, wine, and spirits. In the body, ethanol metabolizes into acetaldehyde which can damage DNA and proteins. The DNA damage leads to mutations and altered proteins being formed. Like with the other carcinogens, the accumulation of such DNA mutations eventually leads to cancer. 

Another effect of acetaldehyde buildup is irritation like that felt during headaches and nausea during hangovers. This buildup is also responsible for what is known as “Asian glow.” 

#SpoonTip: Do not have alcohol and then take acetaminophen—the primary ingredient in Tylenol—since metabolites of the reaction can cause liver damage, making you more susceptible to liver cancer. 

Hot Dogs

BBQ | HD photo by Bruno Kelzer (@bruno_kelzer) on Unsplash

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Last and definitely not least, an American favorite: hot dogs. While the meat itself does not cause cancer, the added nitrate preservative is a precursor for a carcinogen. These nitrates are added to processed meats, including ham, in order to prevent bacterial contamination and give them a signature pink color.

In the body, nitrates are converted into nitrosamines through metabolic processes. These nitrosamines bind to DNA and cause mutations. As more mutations accumulate, the risk of cancer increases as a gene responsible for vital processes could get mutated

I am in no way suggesting to scratch these items from your diet entirely. Rather, it would be beneficial to cut back especially if you are over-indulging. With each month being a different cancer's awareness month, wouldn't it be best to be proactive by taking steps to prevent yourself from developing cancer in the first place? 

#SpoonTip: Give yourself a cheat day now and then to enjoy favorites such as lamb burgers or hot dogs in moderation as a means to limit consumption of these products, therefore decreasing the risk of developing cancer. 

The popular phrases “you are what you eat” and “your body is a temple” most certainly apply to these five carcinogenic foods. By being mindful of what you eat, you will be able to live a longer, healthier life.