Everything Doesn’t Cause Cancer

Amid all the near-weekly reports of our favourite foods being proved as carcinogenic, Michael O’Sullivan asks how legitimate these claims really are

Cancer is a word that strikes fear into the heart of many.  Even though survival rates are at an all time high, we still don’t have a foolproof cure for the disease and will go to great lengths to avoid getting it. Enter the anti-cancer health foods.

First example: The tomato. Tomatoes get their red colour from a chemical called lycopene, a chemical that has been shown to help prevent cancer developing. Tomatoes must, therefore, be good to eat should you be at risk of contracting cancer. One problem, the amount of lycopene in a single tomato is relatively low. If we were to take concentrated tomato products like ketchup or tomato paste however, the lycopene content increases dramatically. Therefore; eating ketchup prevents cancer.

Then we have red meat, which is often linked with cancer. Before you spit your bacon double cheeseburger out in disgust, let us point out that red meat has benefits too. It is a fantastic source of iron, which we need lest our blood turn blue and we die from oxygen deprivation. Yet we still have studies that tout the dangers associated with red meat and its apparent link to cancer. The obvious conclusion then, is to eat steak with ketchup. Then you won’t get cancer, right?

Every week, we are presented with more and more studies telling us that almost every item of food we consume is either cancer-causing, or cancer-preventing. While these studies may have found trends that link these foods to cancer, how can it be that almost every food we eat has been linked to cancer in some way shape or form? Not only that, but our environment is apparently almost even worse for giving people cancer. Airborne heavy metals, mobile phone radiation, the foam in couch cushions, rug fibres, deodorants and various shampoos have all been reported to be carcinogenic.

Were we to take every study we read verbatim, we would have to enclose ourselves in a bubble and refuse all forms of outside contact, and let’s not forget; the materials the bubble is made from should be heavily studied for their carcinogenic properties. The proliferation of these alarmist studies is a symptom of our health conscious society and shock-media tactics. Scientists themselves have noticed this and are starting to turn a critical eye onto themselves.

“Researchers often test many different foods at once in their studies and then choose which findings to highlight after the fact, which exaggerates the significance of their findings,” said Doctor Jonathan D. Schoenfeld, of the Harvard School of Public Health.

It would appear that scientists have been reporting results that are barely statistically significant as hard boiled fact. So that egg you’re eating right now has definitely been linked to cancer, just in a percentage of cases so low, it’s completely insignificant. This practice is now so widespread, it borders on farcical.

Randomly selecting 50 ingredients from “The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book,” Schoenfeld and colleague Dr. John Ioannidis of Stanford scoured scientific literature for articles evaluating the cancer risk of everything from mustard to orange juice.

They found that other researchers had published papers touting either cancer risk or prevention benefits for 40 of these randomly selected ingredients (bay leaves and thyme have, as of yet, evaded scrutiny). But when Schoenfeld and Ioannidis looked more carefully, many of the studies “spuriously highlight results that barely achieve statistical significance.”

That’s a huge number of foodstuffs that have been linked to cancer, and there are people who, unfortunately, will believe every one of the studies they read about to be solid, life-changing fact and will go to great lengths to avoid these apparent carcinogenic foods, leaving themselves with nothing but minor salads for their diet.

Why is it that scientists are so eager to report minor statistics as major results? Are they banding together in a global conspiracy sponsored by a giant food conglomerate to force you into only eating leaves and berries? Well, probably not. The far more likely answer is that scientists need funding for their research. No funding, no research, no work. In order to ensure that they receive more funding and stay in a job, it would appear scientists have been selectively reporting their results to ensure they secure money to continue their work. Can we blame them?

To a certain extent, no. The nature of scientific research is that it requires money, and money is hard enough to come by without having to convince a funding approval board that your work is more significant and more deserving of money than the project that gives monkeys telepathy; but the practice of misrepresenting results has become so widespread that it’s beginning to affect the everyday lives of ordinary, less informed people who are terrified of contracting life changing illnesses.

So what do we take from this sea of tweaks and twiddles? Cancer itself is caused when cells in your body fail to replicate properly and build up into a solid mass. While it’s true that this process can be brought on by environmental and dietary factors, the fact remains that the main causes of cancer are bad luck and genetic predisposition.

In other words, nothing we know of can completely prevent cancer, but we do know that taking simple steps like not smoking, binge drinking or frying yourself under the heat of the sun can help increase your chances of avoiding the disease.

In summary; everything in moderation. By avoiding swathes of foodstuffs you are probably doing your body more harm than good. Don’t believe everything you read, just try and keep yourself relatively healthy. What will come, will come, and eating only green beans and tomatoes isn’t going to prevent it.