The word “myth” has two meanings in the dictionary. The first meaning refers to a traditional story, often about the early history of a group of people or explaining something natural or social, usually involving supernatural events or beings. The second meaning is about a commonly held false belief or idea. In Sri Lanka, we are susceptible to both types of myths. We have believed in things like King Cobras with divine attributes emerging out of the Kellani river, women’s underwear being coated with infertility powder, and “වඳ කොත්තු” (“Infertility Kottu” – a popular street food that was believed to have been tampered with by adding pills that are said to result in infertility. Refer this article on NewsIn Asia to learn more.) As for food, spreading myths about a popular food or beverage might not be the best strategy for marketing, but in Sri Lanka, it often works. Today, I want to reveal the real facts about four food-related products that are commonly thought to cause cancer, but in reality, they don’t according to the experts. Let’s begin with Coke Zero.
Note: I am not a medical expert, and this article has not been subjected to scientific research or medical review.
Our first myth revolves around Coca-Cola Zero and its alleged connection to an increased cancer risk due to the presence of aspartame, the sugar substitute used in the drink. (Interestingly, the warning does not apply to sweeteners used in tea and coffee that contain the same ingredient.) Now YouTube has many videos claiming that Coke Zero can lead to cancer. It is why I turned to an authoritative source on the matter: the Cancer Research Center UK declares “There isn’t substantial evidence to support the idea that artificial sweeteners like aspartame cause cancer.” (Full declaration) While you might have encountered stories linking artificial sweeteners and cancer on social media or in the news, studies involving people have not demonstrated a connection between aspartame and cancer. Therefore, the notion that Coke Zero heightens the risk of cancer is nothing more than a myth.
MSG is an abbreviation for “Monosodium Glutamate” which is commonly recognized as Ajinomoto in many households. Monosodium Glutamate is a food flavor enhancer invented by a Japanese professor named Kikunae Ikeda. In Sri Lanka, there is a widespread belief that consuming MSG increases the risk of cancer among many other diseases. However, it makes me curious as to why there are no reports of Chinese and Japanese individuals, who have been consuming this flavor enhancer for generations, falling ill with cancer. While some people may experience allergic reactions to food containing MSG, medical experts, as stated in an article in the Healthline online magazine reviewed by Christina Chun, have not found any connection between MSG and cancer. Therefore it is safe to dismiss this notion also as nothing more than a myth.
Sri Lankans believe that instant noodles such as Maggi and Prima might lead to cancer due to two main reasons. Firstly, there’s a concern about the presence of MSG in the flavor enhancer. However, it’s important to note that scientific evidence has shown that MSG is not linked to causing cancer. Secondly, another reason for concern is the presumed presence of wax in instant noodles, which helps prevent them from sticking together while cooking. It’s important to mention that these claims are unfounded. While most instant noodles are low in calories, they also lack fiber and protein. They are widely known for their high levels of fat, carbohydrates, and sodium. While you can obtain certain micronutrients from instant noodles, they lack essential nutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin B12, and others. However, there is currently no conclusive link established by the medical and scientific community between instant noodles and cancer.
Many palm oil-based foods and products like cooking oil and Astra margarine have been questioned due to a belief that palm oil can cause cancer. For individuals with a moderate income like myself, Astra Margarine is often the only affordable choice as butter prices have surged. So, does palm oil truly raise the risk of cancer? According to this medically reviewed article in Healthline magazine, the answer is somewhat complex. While studies on animals have demonstrated that palm oil can have cancer-causing effects, there is limited research on its impact on humans. Experts recommend being attentive to food labels and using products containing palm oil with caution and moderation to potentially reduce any adverse effects. If you have worries about the products you’re consuming, it might be a good idea to consult your doctor to understand the risks associated with palm oil and how to minimize your exposure to these products.
While there isn’t definitive proof that these food items directly cause cancer or heighten cancer risk, overindulgence in them can contribute to other health issues like diabetes, cardiovascular problems, and kidney diseases. For instance, consuming Coke Zero isn’t linked to increased cancer or diabetes risk, but excessive consumption of regular Coca-Cola could potentially lead to diabetes. Likewise, consuming MSG or Ajinomoto in excess has been associated with kidney diseases and an abundance of margarine in the diet can contribute to heart-related problems. If you often use margarine, this article by Kalani Kumarasinghe in the Daily Mirror can provide valuable guidance on selecting a significantly healthier variety of margarine. By the way, keep in mind that engaging in regular exercise and avoiding smoking and alcohol can greatly decrease your chances of terminal illnesses and increase life expectancy.
Update: 11 AUG 2023
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), World Health Organization (WHO), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) have jointly released an assessment on the health effects of the artificial sweetener aspartame on 14th July 2023. (The declaration by Cancer Research UK was last reviewed on 13th July 2023) IARC declared there is some evidence that aspartame can cause cancer in humans but at present it is far from conclusive (Group B2) while JECFA, maintained the acceptable daily intake (ADI) of 40 mg/kg body weight, suggesting that current usage levels are generally safe. To exceed this limit, a 70kg adult would need to consume more than 7.5l of diet soft drinks daily. IARC and WHO pledged to continue monitoring and encouraged further independent research into the potential association between aspartame and consumer health effects. You can read the full assessment here on the WHO website.
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