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Food consumption has been implicated as a risk factor in leukemia. The risk of developing leukemia due to intake or consumption of processed, cured or smoked meat is a controversial issue, but it is better for children to abstain from these products.

Food consumption has been implicated as a risk factor in many cancers, including colorectal, prostate, lung, breast and pediatric leukemia [1]. Pediatric Leukemia is the leading cause of cancer-related death for children under the age of 15. Due to the severity of the disease, it is important to recognize signs of leukemia in children. Despite the high incidence of pediatric leukemia, only a handful of studies has been published exploring the relationship between childhood nutrition and occurrence of leukemia. Furthermore, physicians place little importance on the type of diet a child should lead in order to avoid the risk of leukemia [2].

N-nitroso

Cured and processed meats have been indicated as potentially carcinogenic due to the presence of a substance called N-nitroso, which is present in these foods.

N-nitroso forms within the body when food that contains high levels of nitrite and nitrates are ingested. In particular, nitrites are found in processed foods, as it plays a role in the preservation of meat [3]. Therefore, processed meat is the major dietary source for the delivery of nitrite and nitrates into the human body, leading to the formation of N-nitroso. The effects N-nitroso are counteracted by compounds found in fruits and vegetables while promoted by compounds in red meat. N-nitroso has been linked to multiple cancers [4].

Cured meats in maternal diet during pregnancy or the child’s diet in early life have been shown to increase the formation of N-nitroso compounds in the stomach of the child. These compounds can then go to the brain and they form pediatric brain tumors. Pre-clinical studies have also shown that N-nitroso compounds directly lead to the formation of childhood brain tumors [5].

Therefore, while the relationship between childhood brain tumors and cured meats is well-established, its relationship to leukemia has not been explored as much. However, this relationship has been extrapolated to leukemia and lymphoma. There are only a few major studies published in the last decade and they have studied this association with contradicting results. These results are described below [6].

Hot Dogs and Leukemia

One of the more recent articles published on this issue was from 2004, where researchers analyzed what kind of a diet in early childhood can cause the development of leukemia in a population of children from California. They looked at a wide range of foods and discovered that eating vegetables was associated with a significantly lower risk of developing childhood leukemia.

However, upon analyzing their data on the consumption of hot dogs and other processed meat, they found that there was no significant association between eating processed meat and developing leukemia [7].

On the contrary, other researchers have found a link between the two. Researchers investigated the link between certain foods and the incidence of leukemia in children between birth to 10 years of age in California. The main foods that these researchers investigated were breakfast meats, which included bacon, sausage, and ham, luncheon meats such as salami, pastrami, lunch meat, corned beef and bologna, hot dogs, fruit and fruit juice.

The only significant association this study found was between the child’s intake of hot dogs (12 or more hot dogs per month). This study found no association between increased fruit intake and decreased incidence of leukemia.

Therefore, this was one of the bigger studies which demonstrated a leukemia risk due to eating hot dogs for children [8].

Cured Meat and Leukemia

The researchers also investigated whether maternal diet prior and during pregnancy could influence a child's risk of childhood leukemia.

In 1994, researchers looked at the relationship between cured and broiled meat and the incidence of childhood cancer, including 56 cases of Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL).

This study found that maternal hot dog intake during pregnancy was associated with the childhood brain tumors. Furthermore, this study found that children eating hamburgers once or more times a week was also associated with a significant risk of ALL while eating hot dogs was associated with brain tumors. Particularly, children that didn’t eat any vitamin-filled foods, such as fruits, and ate a lot of cured and broiled meat had the highest risk of both ALL and brain tumors [9].

Then, in 1999 a group of researchers analyzed all the published studies that analyzed the relationship between all childhood cancers and the intake of cured meat. Among the 14 published studies that they analyzed, they discovered that most studies did not show a significant association between cured meat in diet and childhood cancer.

A few studies showed that there was a significant relationship between cured meat intake and pediatric brain tumors, but none that showed a relationship between blood cancers (such as leukemia) and cured meat [10].

Finally, in 2009, the researchers in China looked at the intake of cured and smoked meats and determine whether their consumption leads to higher incidence of pediatric leukemia due to the formation of N-nitroso compound in the children’s bodies.

They discovered that cured and smoked meat in diet more than once a week was correlated with a statistically significant higher risk of developing leukemia. On the other hand, a high consumption of vegetables and bean curds was associated with a lower risk [11]. 

Conclusion

While the risk of developing leukemia due to intake or consumption of processed, cured or smoked meat may be a controversial issue, it is better to abstain from these products as they have been shown to cause not just other cancers but other diseases as well. 

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