NYMC Faculty Publications

Food-Borne Chemical Carcinogens and the Evidence for Human Cancer Risk

Author Type(s)


Journal Title


Document Type


Publication Date



Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology


Commonly consumed foods and beverages can contain chemicals with reported carcinogenic activity in rodent models. Moreover, exposures to some of these substances have been associated with increased cancer risks in humans. Food-borne carcinogens span a range of chemical classes and can arise from natural or anthropogenic sources, as well as form endogenously. Important considerations include the mechanism(s) of action (MoA), their relevance to human biology, and the level of exposure in diet. The MoAs of carcinogens have been classified as either DNA-reactive (genotoxic), involving covalent reaction with nuclear DNA, or epigenetic, involving molecular and cellular effects other than DNA reactivity. Carcinogens are generally present in food at low levels, resulting in low daily intakes, although there are some exceptions. Carcinogens of the DNA-reactive type produce effects at lower dosages than epigenetic carcinogens. Several food-related DNA-reactive carcinogens, including aflatoxins, aristolochic acid, benzene, benzo[a]pyrene and ethylene oxide, are recognized by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as causes of human cancer. Of the epigenetic type, the only carcinogen considered to be associated with increased cancer in humans, although not from low-level food exposure, is dioxin (TCDD). Thus, DNA-reactive carcinogens in food represent a much greater risk than epigenetic carcinogens.