Fewer than Half of Americans Know Alcohol, Processed Meats Affect Cancer Risk

More Americans attribute stress and other unproven factors leading to cancer than recognize that alcohol, processed meat and other lifestyle habits have clear links to cancer risk, according to a new survey from the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR).

The 2017 AICR Cancer Risk Awareness Survey marks the 8th investigation into what Americans believe causes cancer to develop. Released to coincide with Cancer Prevention Month, the survey offers important insights and trends into what beliefs shape Americans’ health habits. (See Additional Resources for link to full survey.)

Fewer than half of Americans recognize that alcohol, processed meat, high amounts of red meat, low amounts of fruits and vegetables and not enough physical activity all have clear links to cancer development. And only one in two Americans know that obesity is a cause of cancer.

“There is a clear crisis in cancer prevention awareness,” said Alice Bender, MS, RDN, AICR Head of Nutrition Programs. “It’s troubling that people don’t recognize alcohol and processed meats increase cancer risk. This suggests the established factors that do affect cancer risk are getting muddled with headlines where the research is unclear or inconclusive.”

Unproven concerns versus clear research
The new survey reveals that the majority of Americans believe that:
•    Stress, hormones in beef and genetically modified foods lead to cancer, all of which remain unproven.

•    More people now say diets high in fat play a role in cancer than physical activity, with awareness at 44 percent and 39 percent respectively.

Studies are inconclusive on high-fat diets’ link to cancer, whereas strong research shows exercise prevents several cancers.

AICR estimates that close to one of three common cancers in the US can be prevented through diet, weight management, and physical activity. That estimate grows to half when factors such as not smoking and avoiding sun damage are added.

Independent studies have shown that following AICR’s health recommendations for cancer prevention lowers risk of many cancers and provides other health benefits as well.

Alcohol and Bacon: Strong Evidence, Low Awareness
The survey found that:

•    Fewer than four in ten Americans now realize alcohol affects cancer risk, even as the evidence with alcohol as a cause of cancer has grown. The low awareness of the alcohol-cancer link is especially concerning given that it has dipped over the past 16 years, from 42 percent in 2001 to 39 percent today.

•    For processed (cured) meats, awareness of their link to cancer has increased only slightly over the 16 years, from 32 percent to 40 percent, as the research has grown stronger.

Research shows that alcohol is a carcinogen, a cause of at least six cancers, including colorectal, breast, liver and esophageal.

Hot dogs, bacon and other processed meats can cause colorectal and stomach cancers. 

Only Half of Americans Know Obesity Links to Cancer
Awareness that being overweight increases cancer risk has climbed slowly but steadily over the past 16 years, from 35 percent in 2001 to 50 percent. Yet that still leaves just one of two Americans realizing that obesity spurs cancer growth.

There is clear evidence that too much body fat increases the risk of 11 cancers, including post-menopausal breast, ovarian, colorectal and esophageal. Aside from not smoking, staying a healthy weight is the single most important step people can take to lower their cancer risk.

Other Key Survey Findings Include:
•    Coffee - Only 1 of 10 Americans know that coffee links to cancer risk. AICR research shows strong evidence that coffee lowers risk of endometrial and liver cancers.

•    Sugar – over a quarter of Americans (28 percent) believe sugar causes cancer to develop. Research shows that sugar is only indirectly linked to cancer, as too much can lead to excess body fat.

•    Approximately 4 of 10 Americans (45 percent) are aware that diets low in vegetables and fruit increase cancer risk.

•    Only about 1 in 3 Americans (35 percent) realize that diets high in red meat increase cancer risk. Awareness has hovered close to this over the past 16 years.

•    Almost all Americans (93 percent) know that tobacco use and excessive exposure to the sun (84 percent) increases cancer risk.

Steps to Reduce Cancer Risk
For simple strategies and steps to lower cancer risk, AICR CanPrevent campaign includes a free 30-day Can Prevent Checklist. Visit aicr.org/can-prevent for this and more information on the research.

“We know a lot of healthy people do get cancer and sometimes it’s easier to worry about genes or uncontrollable things rather than your everyday choices,” says Bender. “But the research says that being physically active, staying a healthy weight, and eating a plant-based diet has the potential to prevent hundreds of thousands of cancer cases each year. It’s a powerful message.”

Swap out chips for a crunchy salad and walk an extra 10 minutes today. You’ll feel better, lower your risk for other diseases and on top of that, boost your energy and fitness.”


  • Siegel, R. L., Miller, K. D. and Jemal, A. (2017), Cancer Statistics, 2017. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, 67: 7–30. doi:10.3322/caac.21387
  • AICR/WRCF Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective, the Policy Report (2009) and the ongoing Continuous Update Project Reports.
  • 2017 AICR Cancer Risk Awareness Survey
  • Awareness survey (infographic)

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    Published on February 8, 2017

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