Can food additives cause cancer?

04 November 2012

Question

I can’t help but wonder if cancers start and spread because our food is so complicated. Take a bottle of vegetable oil, it says on the bottle 100% vegetable oil. But if you look at the label on the back, there's anti-foaming agent and then about 4 other ingredients. Or a vegetable stock cube, which sounds quite innocent, but then when you read the ingredients, there's about 40 ingredients in it!

Answer

Chris - That's a very good question and first of all, let's consider the question of what chemicals are in things because chemicals are in everything and it's worth bearing in mind that oxygen, a gas that we rely on to keep us alive actually also gives us cancer because when you breathe in oxygen, it can turn into a reactive form of oxygen in the body and that reactive form of oxygen can damage your DNA, and that in turn can lead to changes that make cells grow the way they shouldn't, and so, they can potentially become cancerous.

Everything that we actually depend on for our life is a chemical and lots of the things that we eat are complex chemicals mixed together. So just because there are lots of things in things doesn't necessarily mean that they're bad.

But your point is well-made in the sense that we have to be very sure about what we're eating and it is possible that many of the trappings of modern life, convenient foods, and also a poor choice of diet could definitely affect our health. I think probably the best thing to bear in mind is, what do the epidemiological studies - in other words, the studies of lots of members of the population who are eating a lot of different things - what do they show? And one very big study which is being done in our region by a group called EPIC who were looking at the east of England and they're asking, "What age do people get diseases at and die at, and what risk factors have they got?"

They found that if people didn't smoke, that they drank only in moderation, they took a bit of exercise, and this is the critical thing - they ate their 5-a-day fruit and vegetables, they could add up to 14 years onto the lifespan of the average individual. So in other words, what you put into your mouth does make a terribly big difference to your health outcome and fresh fruit and vegetables, not putting deleterious things like cigarettes in your mouth, and also, eating a healthy diet overall, and not too much alcohol (so don't make life boring, but don't go over the top), that's probably the best way and the best secret to have a healthy life.

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