Open Accessibility Menu

Myths - and Some Truths - About Foods that Cause Cancer

Myths - and Some Truths - About Foods that Cause Cancer

Every week there’s a new article explaining why your favorite foods may be bad for you. It can be tough to wade through the information overload on certain foods and their possible connection to cancer. Let’s start with the beloved hazelnut spread: Can Nutella cause cancer?


The ingredient catching flack in Nutella is palm oil, which is also used in chocolate, margarine and baked goods. Last year the European Food Safety Authority warned that the popular hazelnut spread’s key ingredient poses a cancer risk because it’s potentially carcinogenic when heated above a certain temperature.

Some science talk: Harmful substances called glycidyl fatty acid esters, or GEs, form during food processing when palm oil is heated above 392 degrees. The EFSA said high exposure to GEs is a “concern for all age groups.”

The maker of Nutella has said the company processes its palm oil below this temperature. And when you sift through the jargon, EFSA didn’t recommend consumers stop eating it, as there was further studying to be done to assess the risk.

But here’s some food for thought: potentially more concerning is the link between palm oil and heart health, as the oil is high in saturated fat. Though studies so far have been conflicting, palm oil may increase certain heart disease risk factors in some people, so it’s best to talk to your doctor about which oil is best for you.

Environmental groups have also expressed concerns about the demand for palm oil endangering rainforests and animals.


Another headline causing some heated discussions is about coffee and a potential link to cancer. Before its ultimate reversal this summer, a California judge caused an uproar when he ruled in favor of requiring cancer warnings on coffee due to the presence of the chemical acrylamide. The chemical has been linked to increased cancer risk when given to rodents in high concentrations.

The FDA disputed that such warnings would mislead consumers, and that acrylamide forms during the roasting of coffee beans. Further,the World Health Organization has found no conclusive evidence drinking coffee has a carcinogenic effect, and the consensus is that trace amounts of acrylamide in coffee are not harmful.


Now, while you can still enjoy that occasional Nutella snack and your morning cup of coffee, take note that there are some foods that have repeatedly shown in studies to increase the risk of cancer. Here are a couple of biggies:

Processed meat

Processed meat, which includes bacon, hot dogs, sausage and ham, can increase the risk of colorectal cancer, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO researchers found that eating a certain amount of processed meat every day -- the equivalent of about 4 strips of bacon or 1 hot dog -- increased the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.

This summer, the American Cancer Society lowered its colorectal cancer screening recommendation to age 45 due to new data that shows the rates of colorectal cancer are increasing in younger populations. Does the WHO’s conclusion explain the rise in colorectal cancer among younger adults? Though there has been no direct link yet, the American Cancer Society does encourage healthier eating and a more active lifestyle to “try to reverse this trend.”


It’s common knowledge that heavy drinking is not good for your health, but it may not be as widely known that alcohol use has been linked to multiple cancers, not just liver cancer. Across the board, the more alcohol a person drinks regularly over time, the higher the risk of cancer (the drink of choice has not shown to affect the risk, just the amount). Here’s a look at some of the other cancers linked to alcohol:

Cancer of the mouth, throat and esophagus

  • Drinking and smoking together raises the risk
  • Alcohol can allow the harmful chemicals in tobacco to get inside the cells in the mouth and esophagus and affect how these cells repair damage caused by those very chemicals

Breast cancer

  • Even a few drinks a week is linked with an increased risk
  • Alcohol can raise estrogen levels, which may explain some of the increased risk
  • The risk is higher in women who don’t get enough folate

Colon cancer

  • An increased risk is generally stronger in men, but studies have found the link in both men and women