13 Foods & Drinks That Increase Your Cancer Risk

This post may contain affiliate links. Read our Affiliate Disclosure here.

13 Foods & Drinks That Increase Your Cancer Risk

Recently we published an article revealing fifteen everyday things that could be increasing your cancer risk. Despite the morbid subject, it proved to be incredibly popular and so we have decided to follow up with an article revealing some of the most harmful foods and drinks.

The role of diet in increasing the risk of developing cancer is unmistakable. One third of all cancers have a dietary basis, and most of them can be avoided if we remove certain foods from our diet. Here are some of the foods and drinks which have been identified as making you more prone to developing different types of cancer.  

Processed meat

Processed meat undergoes one or more of processes such as smoking, curing, salting or the addition of chemical preservatives. Man might have always processed excess meat from a good kill for future use during lean times. The earliest form of food preservation may have been drying strips of meat in the sun or over open fire. Addition of salt would have come later.

In contrast, the sophisticated meat processing methods of today is based on a wide variety of chemicals that enhance the texture and taste of the product. Processed meat in the form of bacon, ham, salami and sausages has become the norm today rather than remaining lean time foods. 

This heavy dependence on processed meat is responsible for a large number of cancers because of the carcinogens added and formed during meat processing. Even simple preservatives like common salt are implicated in cancers of the stomach and colon.

Red meat

Even unprocessed red meat such as beef, pork, veal and lamb may increase your risk of developing cancers of the esophagus, pancreas, lungs, endometrium and prostate.

Since red meat is a good source of iron, zinc, and many essential vitamins, including vitamin B12, its complete elimination may lead to nutritional deficiencies. Hence it is recommended to limit the intake of red meat to 3 to 4 times a week and exercise portion control.

Deep-fried food

Deep frying typically uses very high temperatures to cook the food. This brings about several chemical changes in the food, one of the most dangerous among them being the formation of acrylamide. This substance is a known neurotoxin and carcinogen. It is formed when starchy foods like potatoes are cooked in oil heated to a high temperature.   

Almost all commercial fried foods use hydrogenated vegetable oils to increase the keeping quality of the products. These artificially made semisolid fats themselves may increase risk of cancer.

Homemade fried foods are not any healthier. Using oils that have low smoking point and reusing the oil for several batches of frying can result in in the formation of carcinogens. Even baking at high temperature is not recommended.

Steaming, boiling, stir-frying, and shallow frying at lower temperatures with a stable oil such as coconut oil is a much safer method of cooking. If at all starchy foods are fried, aim for a light golden color, but not for excessive browning and crisping which increases the acrylamide content in the food.    

Charred food

The smoky flavor of charred food is appealing to many. Grilled vegetables and meat and slightly burnt toast are typical examples. But high intake of charred food may be responsible for many cancers of the digestive tract. The process of burning plant and animal tissues leads to the formation of toxic substances that may turn out to be carcinogenic if ingested or inhaled.

Grilled meat and fish are the worst because the amino acids in these animal proteins change into many carcinogenic compounds called heterocyclic amines. The smoke produced when the dripping gets burnt on the hot grill and charcoal contain as many carcinogens as tobacco smoke, if not more. It makes a coating over the grilled food, adding these chemicals to our diet. They can cause DNA damage in the cells lining the gastrointestinal tract, and trigger cancers of the esophagus, stomach and colon.

High-fat dairy products

Dairy products are good sources of proteins, vitamins and minerals, but dairy fat is high in estrogen, a hormone that accelerates the growth of certain types of cancers. In a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, women who had multiple servings of high-fat dairy products daily had higher incidence of cancer as well as 50% more mortality from the disease.

Studies have shown lower incidence of breast cancer in communities that had very low dairy intake. Doctors are known to advise people undergoing treatment for breast cancer and prostate cancer to go off dairy products.

Skim milk and low-fat dairy options may not significantly increase your cancer risk since fat soluble hormones are implicated in these cancers. A few studies in the United States have even shown that moderate dairy intake has a protective effect against colorectal and bladder cancers. However, it might be best to limit dairy intake to a single serving a day if you don’t want to go completely dairy-free.

Refined sugar

High sugar consumption is linked to several types of cancers because it causes generalized inflammation, which in turn triggers tumorigenesis in various tissues. Sugar also aids the growth and proliferation of cancer cells which require a steady energy supply to multiply at a fast pace.

Sugar may be promoting cancer growth in several other ways. It overrides body’s natural mechanism of self-destruction (apoptosis) of abnormal cells. Sugar encourages the cell cycle progression of abnormal cells and promotes angiogenesis, or the formation of new blood vessels to provide food supply to the rapidly dividing tumor cells.

When simple sugars are rapidly absorbed into the blood, it results in blood sugar spikes, which in turn causes insulin to be released. High levels of circulating insulin accelerate the growth of breast cancer cells because these cells have insulin receptors similar to the ones normal breast cells have. When insulin gets attached to these receptors, the cells are stimulated to divide faster, increasing the size and spread of the tumors.

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a typical example of highly refined simple sugars. This common food additive is known to promote tumor growth in the pancreas. Contamination with mercury during the manufacturing process adds to its cancer-causing power because mercury readily binds with the anti-cancer mineral selenium, taking it out of service.

Recommended Reading: How To Quit Sugar: 10 Secrets From A Former Sugar Addict

Soft drinks

The high sugar content in sodas is a definite risk factor for cancer, but a few other commonly used additives also may be carcinogenic, and may add to the risk. One of them is 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI). This substance is added to beverages and other processed foods to enhance color, but it is a potential carcinogen. What is worrisome is that most people with the soda habit regularly drink 5-6 cans a day, and the carcinogen can get accumulated in the body.  

It is interesting to note that many sodas sold in California have lower levels of 4-MEI compared to the ones available elsewhere in the country. This is attributed to California’s Proposition 65 that aims to reduce carcinogens. Until there’s a consolidated effort to remove these unnecessary carcinogenic chemicals from soda, either through governmental control or voluntarily by the manufacturers, it is up to us to limit our exposure.

Diet soda

A combination of artificial sweeteners such as saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, and neotame is used in diet sodas to bring their taste at par with their sugary counterparts. While reducing the cancer risk from high-sugar drinks, these chemicals themselves may prove to be carcinogens. The government and the FDA that regulate food additives insist that none of the artificial sweeteners have been confirmed to be carcinogenic in humans. This is contrary to the evidence in animal studies.

Saccharin was delisted in 1981 owing to bladder cancer risk found in mice, but it was reinstated in 2000 citing lack of ‘consistent’ evidence of a similar outcome in people. Higher incidence of cancers of the brain and the central nervous in the 20 year-period following the introduction of aspartame originally put this chemical on dock, but it was cleared of all charges later, despite causing several types of leukemia and lymphomas in lab animals. Another artificial sweetener cyclamate, which was banned in 1969 for causing urinary bladder cancer in rats, is awaiting the approval of FDA.

When it comes to their carcinogenicity in humans, the logic of regulating bodies seems to be “innocent until proven guilty.” However, awareness about the cancer-causing potential of artificial sweeteners may help people avoid the risk.

Recommended Reading: 13 Scary Reasons You Should Stop Drinking Diet Soda Right Now

Salted food

It includes salted meat and vegetable products and sauces and pickles high in salt, not to mention salted fish which is high in nitrosamines. These carcinogenic compounds are formed when food is preserved with sodium nitrate or nitrite. In the case of bacon, frying results in the formation of large amounts of nitrosamines.

Foods high in salt may damage the stomach lining and trigger stomach cancer. In fact, salty food is thought to be the second biggest cause of stomach cancer, next only Helicobacter pylori infection.  

World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) recommends avoiding salted food and limiting daily intake of sodium salts to a teaspoon. Using vinegar instead of salt for food preservation may be a step in the right direction.


Alcohol in any amount is now considered a cancer risk, even red wine. People who frequently have alcoholic beverages are found to be at greater risk of developing esophageal cancer and colorectal cancer. The overproduction of stomach acids triggered by alcohol is thought to be the main reason behind it as it damages the lining of the digestive tract.

Although the cancer risk due to alcohol seems to be limited to the digestive tract in men, it is linked to higher incidence of breast cancer in women. So, apart from the physical damage caused to the gastrointestinal lining, there could be other pathways at work in promoting cancer growth. One could be the formation of acetaldehyde from the ethanol in the drink. Acetaldehyde is classified as a Group I carcinogen, and is known to cause DNA damage. It may be behind increased estrogen production that triggers breast cancer too.  

If alcohol intake cannot be completely avoided, men are advised to limit it to two drinks a day and women to just one because of the additional risk of breast cancer.

Popcorn made in microwavable bags

The waxy coating of the microwave popcorn bags may put you at risk of developing liver and prostate cancers. On heating the bag in the microwave, a carcinogenic chemical known as perfluorooctanoic acid is produced. The cancer-causing potential of this chemical has been known since 1993, but there has been no effort to remove it.

You can avoid the risk of cancer as well as the potentially negative health effects of using GMO soybean oil and GMO corn by buying corn kernels and air-popping them in coconut oil on the stove. 

Canned food

Pasteurization and vacuum packing of canned foods have reduced the dependence of chemical preservatives, but the packaging itself may cause cancer. The chemical Bisphenol A contained in the transparent plastic lining of the cans is the culprit here. This chemical is known to damage DNA and disrupt hormone production, and has been banned in many countries.

Altered hormone production could be the reason behind higher incidence of breast cancer in women exposed to this chemical. Lab tests have shown Bisphenol-A causing leukemia and testicular cancer in rats.

Hotdogs and other high-carb fast foods

Fast food can increase your cancer risk in many ways. To start with, the bread rolls are made with refined starch which is common culprit in many types of cancers.

Refined flour is very much like refined sugars in that it gets broken down into simple sugars and gets absorbed very quickly. This raises the blood sugar level, prompting the release of insulin. As we have seen before, high insulin levels increase the risk of hormone-dependent breast cancer.

Meat used often contains several chemical additives as taste enhancers and preservatives. It is often grilled and served with sauces and relishes that are high in sugars and salt.  

Other high-carb food items such as fried chicken and pizzas that are typically made of refined flour and use processed meat, cheese, and sauces as fillings also entail the same cancer risk.  

With all kinds of foods and drinks making the list, it may seem that it is nearly impossible to avoid cancer risk from diet. But, if you analyze the various risk factors, you can see that sticking to a wholesome diet consisting of natural foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables, grass-fed meat and gluten-free grains and avoiding processed foods can mitigate cancer risk.

About the Author

Susan is a Certified Health Coach, Master Gardener, and sustainability expert who has authored over twenty top-selling books on healthy living, clean eating, gardening, and natural wellness. She has taught thousands of people how to shop, cook, eat and live well.

Her personal commitment to wellness combined with a thorough knowledge of using food as medicine has fueled the sale of over 100,000 copies of her recipe and wellness books. As a sustainability expert, she has also written thousands of articles and books on homesteading, growing organic food and how to use herbs and essential oils for health.

Her passion for helping people doesn’t stop with sharing information, Susan is active in her community where she speaks often about health and wellness and has a thriving personal health coaching business where she is committed to providing the tools that people need to live a full and pain-free life.

When she is not helping others, Susan enjoys hiking, biking, kayaking, gardening, and photography.