Cancer in the food aisle

When I first visited Dubai in 2005 I went to a supermarket one afternoon with some friends to buy some meat for a barbeque. We bought our beef burgers and some steaks and then proceeded to a section of the supermarket which is segregated from the rest and houses only pork products. For obvious reasons pork products are not widely available in many Middle Eastern countries and where they are available they are often segregated from other products. The concept of segregating products in a supermarket was alien to me at the time but with cancer rates soaring in Ireland I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t time for us to do the same, segregating organic from non-organic food and segregating foods that contain natural ingredients from those which do not.

One in two of us are now expected to be diagnosed with some form of cancer in our lifetime and while there are a wide range of reasons for that, one of the key reasons is diet. A recent study conducted by the Institut National de la Sante et de la Recherche Medicale in France found that those who frequently eat organic foods lowered their overall risk of developing cancer by 25%. Specifically, those who primarily eat organic foods were 73% less likely to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma and 21% less likely to develop postmenopausal breast cancer. The authors of the study suggest that a possible explanation for the increased risk of cancer in those who eat non-organic food is the level of contamination that occurs in foods which have been grown using pesticides.

Another contributing factor in cancer rates appears to be the explosion of ultra-processed foods in our diets. Ultra-processed foods are defined as foods where complex processing has taken place using chemicals almost never found in kitchens, as opposed to more straightforward processing techniques like salting meat or putting vegetables or fruit into cans. A study of 19 European countries published in the journal Public Health Nutrition in February 2018 showed that 45.9% of the Irish diet was made up of ultra-processed food, third only to Germany (46.2%) and the UK (50.7%).

The researchers looked at the medical records and eating habits of nearly 105,000 adults and registered their usual intake of 3,300 different food items. They found that a 10% increase in the amount of ultra-processed foods in the diet was linked to a 12% increase in cancers of some kind, and specifically, a rise of 11% in breast cancer.

Ultra-processed foods contain an astonishingly complex list of ingredients. Cooked ham for example often contains triphosphates (E451), sodium nitrite (linked to colon cancer), and sodium ascorbate (E301). Other ingredients, such as BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) (often found in bread, crisps, chewing gum and polyethylene food wrappers) are considered as possibly carcinogenic by the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Unfortunately it doesn’t stop with food. Everyday products such as toothpaste contain ingredients like sodium lauryl sulfate (originally used to clean floors, now used to make toothpaste foam, sodium lauryl sulfate is a detergent known to cause microscopic tears in the mouth which can lead to canker sores), propylene glycol (this is the main active ingredient in antifreeze and has been linked to liver and heart damage), and saccharin (an artificial sweetener linked to bladder cancer, brain tumours and lymphoma in rodents). Aluminium-based antiperspirants (which make up around 90% of the antiperspirants on the market) have been linked to breast cancer and Alzheimer’s, and a number of leading shaving creams contain diethanolamine and triethanolamine (these chemicals are also found in children’s bubble baths and have been linked to liver and kidney cancer).

Consumers shouldn’t need a degree in chemistry simply to pop down to the supermarket and fill up the trolley. By separating organic from non-organic food and separating foods that contain natural ingredients from those which do not, one on the left hand side of the store and the other on the right hand side, we would quickly see which products people want and which they do not.

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