Healthy Foods Worse Than Smoking

Grilled veggies, coffee, chips contain carcinogens

Woman eating vegetables

Woman eating vegetables

So you gave up smoking and eating healthy, hoping to trick cancer by cutting off carcinogens in tobacco. Or you never did smoke.

But what if every time you snacked on your favorite health foods, you were ingesting back into your system one of the most notorious cancerous chemicals found in tobacco smoke?

Acrylamide, a probable human carcinogen, was detected in various heat-treated carbohydrate-rich foods only in 2002. Roasted and fried potato products are one of the biggest offenders. But a number of foods thought of as healthy were also found to harbor high amounts.

Cancer in Foods

By 2007, acrylamide had been linked to women’s cancers. The Netherlands Cohort Study on diet and cancer published in Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention and relying on medical histories of 62,573 women, aged 55-69 years, was the first study to find a link.

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After 11.3 years of follow-up, compared with the lowest acrylamide intake (8.9 μg/day), the risk for endometrial, ovarian and breast cancer in the highest intake (40.2 μg/day) group increased by 29%. One serving of French fries might account for about a quarter of that daily intake.

Since smoking is considered a cause of uterine (endometrial) cancer, the researchers teased out smokers from the data to obtain a more refined effect.

It is difficult to show an effect among smokers since they inhale a massive amount of acrylamide from tobacco smoke already. The acrylamide-rich foods they eat are simply the cream at the top of acrylamide exposure. On the other hand, with women who've never smoked the effect of acrylamide-tainted foods is easier to discern. That is why the scientists “observed increased risks of postmenopausal endometrial and ovarian cancer with increasing dietary acrylamide intake, particularly among never-smokers.”

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By 2012, researchers established a link with some men’s cancers. After 16 years of follow up for the Dutch study, the results held for women and other slower forming cancers were discovered when men were included. Results reported in 2012 in PLoS One from the same study, and now including men, found increased risk for the women’s cancers again.

Risk for Non-Smoking Men

But, after 16.3 years of follow-up, cases of multiple myeloma and follicular lymphoma increased by 14% and 28%, respectively per 10 µg acrylamide/day increment among men. For never-smoking men, the risk for multiple myeloma increased by 98%. “We found indications that acrylamide may increase the risk of multiple myeloma and follicular lymphoma in men…and more research into these observed associations is warranted,” the report concluded.

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A third publication, a meta-analysis, found the risk was of “borderline significance” for kidney cancer (20% increase). Significantly, among never-smokers, borderline associations emerged once again for endometrial (23%) and ovarian (39%) cancers.

References Janneke G. Hogervorst, Leo J. Schouten, Erik J. Konings, R. Alexandra Goldbohm and Piet A. van den Brandt A Prospective Study of Dietary Acrylamide Intake and the Risk of Endometrial, Ovarian, and Breast Cancer Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention 2007;16(11):2304–13DOI: 10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-07-0581 Published November 2007
Mathilda L. Bongers, Janneke G. F. Hogervorst, Leo J. Schouten, R. Alexandra Goldbohm, Harry C. Schouten, and Piet A. van den Brandt Dietary Acrylamide Intake and the Risk of Lymphatic Malignancies: The Netherlands Cohort Study on Diet and Cancer PLoS One. 2012; 7(6): e38016. Published online 2012 Jun 18. doi: [10.1371/journal.pone.0038016] PMCID: PMC3377662 PMID: 22723843
Pelucchi C, Bosetti C, Galeone C, La Vecchia C. Dietary acrylamide and cancer risk: an updated meta-analysis. Int J Cancer. 2015 Jun 15;136(12):2912-22. doi: 10.1002/ijc.29339. Epub 2014 Nov 26.
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