Why a cancer warning should accompany some foods

The World Cancer Research Fund has compiled convincing evidence that shows regular consumption of certain foods and beverages increases cancer risk.

Front-of-pack labels are a great way to alert consumers about the cancer risks associated with certain foods and beverages.

Cancer in Australia: A snapshot

The absolute risk of getting cancer is very low. In Australia, around 120,00 new cancer cases were detected in the past year. This is a population of close to 23,000,000.

In other words, the lifetime risk for a male is 1 in 3, and for a female, it is 1 in 4. In Australia, cancer is the most common cause of injury and disease, resulting in the loss of more than 550,000 years due to illness, disability, or premature death.

Last year, the most common cancers diagnosed were lung cancer (11280 cases), melanoma (12,510 cases), bowel cancer (15,840), prostate cancer (18,560), and melanoma. Many of these cancers have excellent treatment outcomes, but 117 people die each day from cancer.

Good news: between 1982 and 2010, relative five-year survival rates after a cancer diagnosis increased in three of the most common cancers. These were prostate cancer (58%), bowel cancer (48%), and breast cancer (72%).

There is more that can be done to either prevent cancer from developing in the first instance or reduce the chances of it returning.

What foods and beverages increase cancer risk?

There is compelling evidence to suggest that alcohol can increase the risk of breast cancer in pre- and after-menopause, as well as cancers of the mouth, throat, and bowel (in men). Recommends that men limit their alcohol intake to two drinks per day and women to one, but there is no safe amount of alcohol for breast cancer.

Consuming more than 500 grams of cooked meat per week can be harmful. Every 100-gram increase of red meat per day increases the risk of bowel cancer by 17%.

A meta-analysis of thirteen studies found that every 50 grams of processed meat consumed daily increased the risk of bowel cancer by 18%.

Alcohol, salt, and processed meat increase the risk for some cancers. Image from shutterstock.com

Evidence suggests that eating salty or salt-preserved food is a probable cause of stomach cancer. The World Cancer Research Fund advises avoiding these foods and not using salt in preserving food, limiting consumption of processed food with added salt, and aiming for a low sodium intake (less than six grams or 2.4g per day).

There is evidence to suggest that eating foods rich in dietary fiber, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes, can help reduce the risk of developing bowel cancer. For every 10 grams of fiber you consume daily, your risk drops by 10%.

Foods rich in folate, such as legumes, seeds, and citrus fruits, along with fortified cereals and breads, have been linked to a lower risk of pancreatic and bowel cancers.

How does a labeling system work?

Food Standards Australia and New Zealand could manage the food labeling process in the same manner as it does currently with health claims. These are voluntary statements that food companies make to refer to a link between food and health.

FSANZ launched a new standard in January to regulate the health claims that are made on food labels and in advertising. There are two types of health claims: general and high-level claims.

Health claims at the general level refer to “something in” food and its impact on a particular health function. For example, “calcium is good bones.” A high-level claim is a reference to “something in” the food and its relation to a serious condition or intermediate factor or risk indicator for that condition. As an example:

Your bowel cancer risk drops by 10% for every 10 grams of fiber you consume each day. Chiot’s run

A diet high in both fruits and vegetables can reduce the risk of coronary artery disease.

The FSANZ Code contains 13 high-level health claims and 200 general health claims related to food, health conditions, and their effects on health. These statements do not raise alarms about consumption patterns that are associated with an increased risk of disease.

We need a list of similar statements to alert the consumer to possible adverse risks from consumption. Public health authorities could make these claims relating food consumption to cancer risk.

The National Health and Medical Research Council, which produces Australia’s official dietary recommendations, could oversee this process. The NHMRC can use the data from the World Cancer Research Fund in areas where it is clear that certain foods or drinks increase the risk of cancer.

The government health department and non-government organizations such as cancer councils may also be allowed to make high-level claims about the health of foods and drinks when there is a strong indication that consumption increases the risk.

It is time to educate consumers about the foods they can eat or drink safely, as well as which ones to avoid. This will help them reduce their cancer risk. FSANZ’s high-level claims about health on food labels may be a good signpost.

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