I’ve mentioned carcinogens in many of my articles, but it’s more of a passing comment and time has never been spent talking about what they are or why they’re dangerous. Yes, they sound scary. Yes, they are compounds that are linked to the occurrence of certain cancers. On top of that, there are food based carcinogens that come in many forms such as in tobacco, environmental pollution, and formaldehyde (oftentimes used in cosmetic products and other toiletries). Plus, carcinogens can also be found in various food-based products such as processed meats, alcohol, and even some crisped or browned vegetables.
Since it’s super important to avoid carcinogenic compounds whenever possible, let’s go ahead and dive in and learn all we can about these cancer-causing agents!
All About Carcinogens and the Cancer Connection
In technical terms, a “carcinogen is any substance, radionuclide, or radiation that promotes carcinogenesis, the formation of cancer.” Basically, the term carcinogen is applied to any substance that has been linked to the formation of cancer. While the exact mechanism isn’t yet defined, it has been determined that carcinogens have the “ability to damage the genome” as well as disrupt “cellular metabolic processes” both of which have been found to lead to the development of cancer.
While this description is somewhat vague to those of us who don’t have access to a microscope or laboratory, understanding the scientific components of carcinogens is a great first place to begin the journey to avoiding these compounds throughout your life.
For instance, one fact about carcinogens that is not well-known is that these compounds come not only from synthetic chemicals but are also “equally likely to arise in both natural and synthetic substances” and they “are not necessarily immediately toxic … [and therefore] … their effect can be insidious.”
This “insidiousness” has been connected to the increased risk and development of cancer.
What is Cancer?
In the most basic of terms, cancer refers to “any disease in which normal cells are damaged” causing a change in the natural process of the cell. Specifically, these cancerous cells “do not undergo programmed cell death as fast as they divide via mitosis.”
How do carcinogens come in to play with these damaged cells?
It’s been found via research that “carcinogens may increase the risk of cancer by altering cellular metabolism or damaging DNA directly in cells, which interferes with biological processes, and induces the uncontrolled, malignant division, ultimately leading to the formation of tumors.” Basically, carcinogens causes specifc DNA damage that leads to the “uncontrolled” and dangerous division that creates growths, making it impossible for cells to prevent themselves from “becoming a cancer cell.”
Looking to try and avoid as many carcinogenic compounds as possible?
This is both a super easy and super difficult task.
First off, there are a host of carcinogenic compounds that are almost impossible to avoid due to our society and environment.
For instance, there are “several radioactive substances [that] are considered carcinogens” — which are specifically “attributed to radiation — such as “gamma rays and alpha particles.” Unfortunately, x-rays are an important part of modern medicinal practices from pregnancy ultrasounds to dental x-rays to medical x-rays. These types of x-rays expose you to safe levels of radiation, plus the medical professional in charge will usually provide a radiation jacket — that super heavy apron-like blanket that is draped over your body wherever the x-ray is not being taken. There are also other “non-radioactive carcinogens [that] are inhaled” and these include well-known cancer-causing agents such as asbestos, tobacco smoke, and certain dioxins — compounds that are “highly toxic environmental persistent organic pollutants (POPs)” which are “mostly by-products of various industrial processes.”
While you may be able to choose not to smoke, you can’t avoid inhaling second and third-hand smoke while walking down the street. While you can inspect your house for asbestos, you may not be aware of asbestos in your workplace or favorite restaurant or grocery store. While it’s possible to avoid unnecessary x-rays, it’s truly difficult to go throughout life without ever receiving x-rays.
On top of that, simply drinking water and breathing the air may lead to the consumption of carcinogenic compounds — yes, our water and our air carry these compounds.
With that said, even though it’s difficult to avoid these societal and environmental carcinogens, there is one aspect of your life that you can have complete control over and that’s the food you decide to consume.
Common Food-Based Carcinogens
Unfortunately, carcinogens are not only part of our environment, but also part of our diets. With that said, if you know how to avoid food-based carcinogens, then you can devise a diet that wholly excludes these dangerous compounds. While the list is fairly long for every single food-based carcinogen, there are a few very common products that many of us consume on a regular basis that have carcinogens.
What are these carcinogenic-compounds I speak of?
The list includes processed meats, — including “any meat that has been preserved by curing, salting or smoking, or by adding chemical preservatives” — alcoholic beverages, salted fish (generally Chinese style preparation), red meat, — this includes “beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse and goat” — and certain hot beverages (generally above 65°C).
Carcinogen-Free Cancer-Fighting Cruciferous Vegetables
When it comes to seeking out foods that will help counteract the effects and fight off carcinogens — especially the unavoidable environmental kind — look no further than cruciferous vegetables!
Cruciferous vegetables include a wide variety of foods that are part of the Brassica plant family including leafy greens — such as arugula, collard greens, and kale — along with robust, hardy veggies — such as Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and rutabaga — and, of course, the naturally spicy cruciferous varieties — such as horseradish, wasabi, and radishes. Cruciferous vegetables are known to have powerful cancer-fighting properties such as “several carotenoids (beta-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin); vitamins C, E, and K; folate; and minerals,” as well as fiber. Yet, the most powerful cancer-fighting property is a substance called glucosinolates, “which are sulfur-containing chemicals.”
What’s the best way to receive potent glucosinolate? By chewing!
Per an article by One Green Planet entitled Glucosinolate: The Compound in Cruciferous Veggies That Fights Cancer!:
“Glucosinolates are actually inactive until they experience tissue disruption which initiates hydrolysis — a process in which ‘enzymes enhance molecular bonds with the addition of elements of water.’ This process of hydrolysis unlocks ‘varying biological activities’ and produce specific end products that are ‘the basis of the sensory characteristics typical of brassicas’ — such as a bitter taste and pungent aroma — as well as their nutritional and health benefits.”
Get your fill of cruciferous veggies on a daily basis by integrating some of these super creative and delicious recipes: Roasted Buffalo Cauliflower Bites, Spicy Collards and White Beans, Bok Choy Soup, Macrobiotic Miso Bowl, or this Kale Quinoa and Raddish Salad.
We also highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!
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