5 Cancer-Causing Food Ingredients To Avoid

Alexis Bryan
Alexis Bryan12 Dec 2022

The number one way to reduce your risk of cancer through diet is to cut down on processed and red meat, as well as alcohol. Not only does processed and red meat contain cancer-causing ingredients, they are a large contributor to excess caloric intake resulting in obesity. Additionally, there are several food additives allowed in the U.S. (but prohibited in other countries) you should avoid to minimize your risk of cancer. 

Having a healthy and balanced diet can prevent cancer by helping you reach or maintain a healthy weight. If you are looking to meet with a primary care doctor to discuss your diet or other improvements to your health, but don’t yet have one, look no further! A membership with Mira includes $25 virtual care appointments to help you get your health on track.

Cancer-Causing Food Ingredients

Cancer-causing foods are labeled carcinogenic by several national and international agencies who research and review evidence on potentially carcinogenic substances. As part of the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)  identifies and groups carcinogenic agents based on their risk to humans, as shown in the table below. 

Classifications of Carcinogens by the IARC

GroupLevel of EvidenceFood Ingredients
Group 1Carcinogenic to humans
  • Processed meat including ham, bacon, and salami
  • Alcoholic beverages
Group 2AProbably carcinogenic to humans
  • Red meat
Group 2BProbably carcinogenic to humans
  • Potassium bromate found in baked goods
  • BHA
  • Lead
Group 3Not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans
  • Sulfur dioxide

Carcinogenic Food Ingredients To Avoid

Many risk factors of cancer, like genes and environmental exposures, are out of our control, but diet is one that is modifiable. By paying attention to what we put in our bodies, and avoiding the ingredients listed below, we can minimize our risk of cancer.


Haem is an ingredient found in red meat and processed red meat. Haem causes bacteria in the body to produce harmful chemicals and can damage cells, increasing the risk of cancer.

In 2019, an epidemiological study found a diet high in processed meat to be associated with a 20% higher risk of colorectal cancer (cancer of the colon or rectum). Processed meat has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes and is a group 1 carcinogen – we know it causes cancer. Examples include:

  • Hot dogs
  • Ham
  • Bacon
  • Salami
  • Sausages
  • Corned beef
  • Beef jerky
  • Canned meat

Nitrates and nitrites

Nitrates and nitrites are chemicals used to preserve processed meats. Similar to haem, nitrates and nitrites cause havoc in the body by forming cancer-causing chemicals, NOCs, when we eat them.

Processed meat is a group 1 carcinogen and red meat is a group 2A carcinogen. Red meats such as pork, beef, and lamb may cause cancer. With the growing evidence base of the detrimental effects of processed and red meat on our health, reducing consumption is an easy way to prevent excessive cancer risk.

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There is sufficient evidence alcohol is associated with cancer of the breast, colorectum, larynx, liver, esophagus, oral cavity, and pharynx. Alcoholic beverages and the ethanol found in alcohol are group 1 carcinogens, meaning they are known to cause cancer in humans.

Potassium bromate

Potassium bromate is a group 2B carcinogen (possible human carcinogen) found in baked goods. Since 1914, potassium bromate has been used as an additive to flour, despite its well known toxic and carcinogenic effect. It is illegal in China, the European Union, Canada, and Brazil, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration believes there to be negligible amounts in bread products.

When purchasing bread, buns, and flour, check the ingredients lists for "potassium bromate" and "bromated flour." In 1991, California passed a law requiring products with potassium bromate to display a warning label.

Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)

BHA is a preservative classified as a possible human carcinogen. There are strict restrictions on BHA in Europe, but no bans in the U.S. BHA has unknown effects in humans, therefore many people choose to avoid it.

The Food Additives Amendment of 1958 

In 1958, an amendment to the United States' Food, Drugs, and Cosmetic Act of 1938, known as the Delaney Clause, prohibited the use of food additives known to cause cancer. The amendment falls short of protecting the public because those that were in use before the regulations took effect are considered to have prior approval, and therefore stay on the market.

Cancer-Causing Food Ingredients Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

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Do artificial sweeteners cause cancer?

Artificial sweeteners are not known to cause cancer. Artificial sweeteners such as sucralose or aspartame can be found in lots of products like diet soda and chewing gum. 

Does eating fiber prevent cancer?

Yes, a diet high in fiber can reduce your risk of bowel cancer. Fiber helps keep your bowel movements regular, so harmful chemicals will spend less time in the large intestine. There are some simple everyday swaps to increase your fiber intake:

  • Switch everyday items such as bread, pasta or rice to their wholegrain or brown alternative
  • Have fruit and vegetables with every meal (they can be fresh, frozen or canned)
  • Use lentils or beans in the place of some or all the meat in your favorite dishes

What is the link between obesity and cancer?

Maintaining a healthy diet, free of known carcinogens, can help prevent cancer and can also reduce the risk of obesity. Obesity is a main risk factor of 13 types of cancer:

  • Adenocarcinoma of the esophagus
  • Breast (in women who have gone through menopause)
  • Colon and rectum
  • Uterus
  • Gallbladder
  • Upper stomach
  • Kidneys
  • Liver
  • Ovaries
  • Pancreas
  • Thyroid
  • Meningioma (a type of brain cancer)
  • Multiple myeloma

Bottom Line

As a general rule, a balanced, whole-food diet incorporating fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, and healthy sources of protein is a sure way to reduce the risk of cancer. Ultra-processed foods have lower nutritional value, potentially harmful additives, and are associated with an increased risk of cancer.

To make an appointment with a virtual primary care doctor to discuss your lifestyle habits, sign up for Mira today! Starting at an average of $25 per month you get access to unlimited $25 virtual care appointments, low-cost lab tests, and affordable urgent care visits, among other essential health discounts.

Alexis Bryan

Alexis Bryan MPH, is a recent graduate of Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. She is passionate about increasing access to care to improve health outcomes. Outside of work, she loves to travel, read, and pay too much attention to her plants.