Everything you eat is associated with cancer, but don't worry about it

Image: Shutterstock. Fried chicken gave the model in this stock photo cancer of the double chin.

Sarah Kliff at the Washington Post digs into new research out today from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. She writes about correlation and causality, and how to read statistics more intelligently.


“I was constantly amazed at how often claims about associations of specific foods with cancer were made, so I wanted to examine systematically the phenomenon,” e-mails study author John Ioannidis ”I suspected that much of this literature must be wrong. What we see is that almost everything is claimed to be associated with cancer, and a large portion of these claims seem to be wrong indeed.”

Among the ingredients in question for their purported relation to cancer risk: veal, salt, pepper spice, flour, egg, bread, pork, butter, tomato, lemon, duck, onion, celery, carrot, parsley, mace, sherry, olive, mushroom, tripe, milk, cheese, coffee, bacon, sugar, lobster, potato, beef, lamb, mustard, nuts, wine, peas, corn, cinnamon, cayenne, orange, tea, rum, and raisin.

Now: combine all of them into one recipe and do the study again, I say.


      1. The way I heard it, ascribed to Martin Marty:

        Life is a sexually transmitted disease with a terminal prognosis.

  1. Reminds me of a witticism from long ago: “Research has shown that research causes cancer in rats”

  2. Don’t forget how it’s cooked as well. High temperatures, low temperatures, grilled, baked, too long, too little, etc. are also included in a lot of research.

    1. I came to share that awesome song! I wish youtube had a better performance.

      Also, mace?  How could mace cause cancer?  I don’t know anybody who’s ever even tasted it – I barely even know what it is.

      1.  Most hotdog recipes contain mace. If you taste mace then you’ll recognise the hint of it from hotdogs.

          1. One of my kids’ teachers asked her about the frosting on her birthday cupcakes.  She was amazed at “how good” it was.

            The teacher had never eaten real buttercream frosting before.

        1. Is that the same Mace that my mother had, in the lazy susan cupboard since 1958, that she used for that one recipe she used to make (but hadn’t since say, 1963) ? If so, we need to talk…

          1. That photo is apparently 1977 mace, but we would have had the 1957 mace in our cupboard. My mother made spice cake, so the mace was used. Possibly also in the annual plum pudding.

          2. My mother had the lazy susan full of spices from before when I was born that were very washed out looking, with only the palest hints of flavor. Like cayenne with all the power of paprika.

          3. I think that everyone got spices when they were married, but in most of the US, they only ever used the dessert ones.

            Mmmmm, parsley flakes.

  3. I can’t remember the exact year, but some time in the late 1980’s, right before Thanksgiving, I recall my father talking about research that had determined cranberries could cause cancer. I think I even recollect seeing headlines that said “Hold the cranberry sauce!”, or words to that effect.

    It wasn’t long after that a clarification was released that to be at any risk a person would have to eat a ridiculous amount of cranberries daily for a long period of time.

    I forget whether the clarification came before or after the holiday, but, regardless, I had cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving. I think it was the beginning of my belief that there’s no point in living longer if we have to give up the things that make living enjoyable. 

  4. Scientist caution that breathing might kill you. Eating and drinking is also counter indicated. It would be most safe to stay unborn to avoid possible hazard.

    1. I second the unborn option, as a excellent cancer avoidance option. The second that ovum is fertilized, cell division and/or mutation begins, which may lead to cancer. Living is the greatest risk for cancer development.

  5. George Carlin once said that scientists have discovered that saliva causes cancer, but don’t worry, only when swallowed in small amounts over a long period of time.

    I miss George.

  6. A pity that lettuce isn’t on the list.  For decades, every time Time or Newsweek or the like has whipped up a new carcinogen scare, I’ve said “Just wait, one day they’ll discover that lettuce causes cancer”.  Would have been nice to smoke a cigar in front of a vegetarian eating lettuce and say with authority “You know, that stuff’s gonna kill ya”.
    Well, like they said about the Brooklyn Dodgers, wait ’till next year.

  7. This being a Xeni thread, file this one under Preempting Caturday.

    A couple of years ago, the celebrated Mexican intellectual Carlos Monsivais passed away of pulmonary fibrosis, at the age of 72.
    Mr Monsivais had 13 cats, and was frequently interviewed with one on his lap, sometimes another would climb to his shoulders and neck in mid-interview.
    Even though pulmonary fibrosis seems to have many different agents that trigger and/or complicate the condition, needless to say the cats were the immediate scapegoat, and remain so to this day in the minds of many people who should know better.
    Here’s some food for thought:  The air quality of Mexico City (altitude + pollution) can profoundly complicate any respiratory condition.

    I guess my point is that I’m amazed at how little we know, and how reactionary public perceptions still are, about biochemistry.  Supposedly responsible journals should be aware of this and not throw more gasoline into the fire.

    Now for the Caturday part, the names of a few of Mr Monsivais’ cats:
    Miau Tse Tung, Catastrophe, Catzinger, Miss Anthropy, Militant Anxiety, and of course, the ever popular Dangerous To Mexico.

  8. I would like to see MSG studied more. I’ve heard a metric buttload of anecdotal whining about the “side effects” it causes, but when these same people are given it without their knowledge, they are symptom-free. 

    Is it cancerous? Are the reactions to it hypochondria? Double-blind study please. 

  9. It is true that you should not change your dietary habits based on every cancer study that comes out, but Kliff’s Wonkblog post — and to some extent the authors of the underlying article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition — go too far and overstate their case.  Though you wouldn’t know it from the Wonkblog headline (or the BB post), the actual study reflected favorably on the meta-analyses that are the basis for mainstream advice about eating healthfully to reduce risk of cancer (more).

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