The right diet contributes so much to overall health. Does that extend to preventing cancer? While there is no guarantee that avoiding cancer-causing foods will keep you free from the disease, it’s another risk factor to consider.

Can Food Cause Cancer?

While certain foods may increase the risk of cancer, it is uncertain whether they cause cancer per se. While it is probably all right to consume these foods on occasion, it isn’t a good idea to make them a regular part of your diet.

According to the National Cancer Institute, with few exceptions, “Studies of human populations have not yet shown definitively that any dietary component causes or protects against cancer.” Such studies may show that a dietary component is associated with a greater cancer risk but not that the component actually caused the cancer. Let’s look at some common foods that may have an impact on cancer formation.

Red Meat

Keep in mind that the risk of potentially cancer-causing foods depends on the amount eaten in the long-term. For instance, red meat — whether beef, pork, lamb or veal — is associated with a higher cancer risk. More than three servings weekly of red meat is considered a high intake. To protect themselves, red meat fans should limit their consumption to one meal weekly or less.

One reason red meat is listed among cancer-causing foods is because it is cooked at high temperatures or grilled. During high temperature cooking, amino acids in the meat form carcinogenic compounds when interacting with heat. These compounds, known as heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, can cause changes in DNA that may increase cancer risk.

Processed Meats

Processed meats are those that have been salted, smoked, canned or cured. They may prove tasty. (Bacon, anyone?) However, they contain nitrates and nitrites. These are preservatives linked to causing cancer.

Along with these preservatives, processed meats are cooked at high temperatures and have a high fat content — other factors associated with carcinogenic foods. Daily consumption of 50 grams of processed meats can raise the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. That’s the equivalent of a daily hot dog or four bacon strips.

Besides bacon, common processed meats include:

  • Beef jerky.
  • Corned beef.
  • Deli ham.
  • Deli turkey.
  • Hot dogs.


While sugar does not cause cancer, it can cause weight gain. Obesity is linked to various types of cancer. so keeping excess pounds off is critical.

Sugary foods to avoid include:

  • Sweetened cereals
  • Packaged baked goods
  • Sodas

Rather than sweeten items with refined sugars, look for natural sugars containing antioxidants that may help combat cancer cells. Such natural sugars include honey, agave and molasses.

Fast Food

With few exceptions, fast foods are highly processed foods. They contain high levels of salt, sugar and fat. Again, it is the link to weight gain that increases the cancer risk.

Fast foods to avoid include:

  • Buffalo wings
  • French fries
  • Fried chicken
  • Hamburgers
  • Hot dogs

Burned Foods

It’s unlikely that many people eat foods regularly that are burned on purpose. If your meal is occasionally burned but otherwise edible, it is unlikely to increase your cancer risk significantly.

However, don’t make a habit of eating “blackened” or charred foods from grilling or baking. Such foods contain acrylamide which is never found in raw or boiled foods. In foods, acrylamide is produced when vegetables containing asparagine, an amino acid, are cooked at high temperatures in conjunction with certain sugars. Acrylamide is also found in tobacco smoke.


Alcohol is known to increase the risk of cancer. That risk grows based on the amount that a person drinks over time. Approximately 3.5% of cancer deaths in the U.S. are alcohol-related.

Alcohol consumption is linked to the development of various cancers, including those of the:

  • Breast
  • Colon
  • Head and neck
  • Esophagus
  • Larynx
  • Liver
  • Oral cavity
  • Rectum
  • Throat

There is some evidence that alcohol is associated with an increased risk of pancreatic and prostate cancers, as well as melanoma. As with excess sugar consumption, too much alcohol can lead to obesity which is another cancer risk factor.

Contact Us

For 70 years, Yosemite Pathology and Precision Pathology has advanced anatomic pathology in the Western United States. Today, our practice encompasses more than 20 board-certified anatomic pathology specialists who focus on a broad range of cancers. For more information about our services, contact us today.

Jane Meggitt’s work has appeared in dozens of publications including USA Today, Zack’s, Financial Advisor,, The Houston Chronicle and The Nest. She is a graduate of New York University.


National Cancer Institute – Risk Factors: Diet

MD Anderson Cancer Center – 5 Food Groups to Avoid to Lower Your Cancer Risk

American Cancer Society – What’s Wrong with Hot Dogs, Hamburgers and Bacon?

National Cancer Institute – Acrylamide and Cancer Risk

National Cancer Institute – Alcohol and Cancer Risk Fact Sheet