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Carcinogens: What Are They and How Do They Affect Our Health?

Updated: Sep 29, 2022

By: Camryn Murray, Winthrop University Nutrition Student

September is a month of awareness- childhood cancer, thyroid cancer, gynecological cancer, and blood cancer awareness months are all observed in September, making it the perfect time to talk about carcinogens.

What is a carcinogen?

A carcinogen is anything capable of causing cancer. Cancer is a disease where cells in the body grow abnormally and cause tumors, masses of cells, that can spread through the whole body. A substance is determined to be a carcinogen after extensive research, and they are grouped based on the amount of evidence that there is to call it a carcinogen. The United States Protection Agency designates Group A as “human carcinogens,” Group B as “probable human carcinogens,” Group C as “possible human carcinogens,” Group D as “not classifiable to human carcinogenicity,” and Group E as “evidence of non-carcinogenicity for humans.”

A carcinogen is typically linked with a specific type of cancer. For instance, asbestos is most commonly associated with a cancer called mesothelioma. It is also important to note that even a Group A carcinogen is not guaranteed to cause cancer and that exposure to that substance may or may not cause cancer depending on their genetics, how they are exposed to it (i.e. breathing it in versus touching it), and the amount of exposure (how much of the substance, how often, for how long). Lastly, it may be comforting to know that the things listed as Group A carcinogens are not all equally as dangerous. We know that smoking tobacco is much more likely to cause cancer than consuming processed meat, even though they are in the same group of carcinogens.

So, do you need to avoid carcinogens at all costs?

The word “carcinogen” can be scary, especially with the stigma that surrounds cancer. The truth is that we cannot avoid all carcinogens. Overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun are known to cause skin cancer, but UV rays are also necessary for making vitamin D3.

What are some known carcinogens?

Here is a non-comprehensive list of foods and drinks that are considered to be Group A carcinogens:

  • Alcoholic beverages are linked to 7 different types of cancer due to the ethanol and acetaldehyde in them

  • Processed meat has possible links to stomach and bowel cancer because the meat can generate harmful chemicals during processing or heating; they may also contain nitrates and nitrites that are converted to N-nitroso compounds after being eaten

  • Chinese-style salted fish is potentially linked to nasopharyngeal cancer when consumed during adolescence

How can you reduce the risk of developing cancer?

There are so many ways to take control of your health and do your part in preventing cancer.

  • Eat a balanced diet! There are no foods that individually cause or prevent cancer, but there are several habits that can reduce your risk. Whole grains and high-fiber foods have been shown to lower the risk of digestive cancers like colon cancer.

  • Consume fruits and vegetables! Many plants are protective since they contain antioxidants such as vitamins C and E.

  • Be active and stay healthy! Too much additional weight is linked to several types of cancer, so one of the best things that you can do is maintain a healthy weight.

But… What about meat?

Meat is a great source of vital nutrients including protein, vitamin B12, iron, vitamin D3, thiamin, riboflavin, and many more. One way to reduce your risk with processed meat is to cook them low and slow to avoid burning and charring the meat. The term “processed” typically refers to curing, smoking, cooking, and excessive salt addition. Nitrate and nitrite are typically used in meat production because of their antioxidant and antimicrobial properties, but only about 5% of our exposure to nitrates and nitrites comes from processed meats (i.e. ham, bacon, beef, and sausage). It is important to note that nitrate and nitrites are also present in many plant-based foods.

The truth about cancer development is that it is complicated and scientists are not exactly sure how our environment and lifestyle affect the process, but we can attempt to take control by staying healthy and balanced.


Barrett, D., Ploner, A., Chang, E. T., Liu, Z., Zhang, C.-X., Liu, Q., Cai, Y., Zhang, Z., Chen, G., Huang, Q.-H., Xie, S.-H., Cao, S.-M., Shao, J.-Y., Jia, W.-H., Zheng, Y., Liao, J., Chen, Y., Lin, L., Ernberg, I., … Ye, W. (2019). Past and recent salted fish and preserved food intakes are weakly associated with nasopharyngeal carcinoma risk in adults in southern China. The Journal of Nutrition, 149(9), 1596–1605.

Oberleitner, M. G., & Brogan, R. F. (2020). Carcinogens. In J. L. Longe (Ed.), Gale encyclopedia of medicine (6th ed.). Gale. Credo Reference:

Seidenberg, A. B., Wiseman, K. P., Eck, R. H., Blake, K. D., Platter, H. N., & Klein, W. M. P. (2022). Awareness of alcohol as a carcinogen and support for alcohol control policies. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 62(2), 174–182. Pogorzelska-Nowicka, E., Kurek, M., Hanula, M., Wierzbicka, A., & Półtorak, A. (2022). Formation of carcinogens in processed meat and its measurement with the usage of artificial digestion—a review. Molecules, 27(14), 4665.

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