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food supply—or generated during the processes of growing, harvesting, storage, and preparation—is enormous, probably exceeding one million different chemicals. Actions of these chemicals in the complex mixture of our diet may be additive, synergistic, or inhibitory to one another. The observed level of a specific naturally occurring chemical in a food may vary greatly, because, in addition to actual variability, which often is great, such levels can be determined by analysis of the intact plant, analysis of the processed food as consumed, or determined as the form absorbed, distributed, and metabolized in the body for presentation at a target molecule. Further, the concentrations of such chemicals in plant and animal tissues used for food are highly variable, depending on the specific variety of the crop studied, the season of year tested, the geographic location and conditions of growth, the type of harvesting and storage used, etc. Intestinal microflora should also be recognized as important contributors to the availability of chemicals that might be carcinogens.
This report provides a perspective on the importance of chemicals in the diet, in terms of the magnitude of potential cancer risk from naturally occurring chemicals compared with that from synthetic chemical constituents. Also addressed are the protective effects of some chemicals (anticarcinogens) in the diet, which may reduce the risk associated with exposure to cancer-producing agents.
Several broad perspectives emerged from the committee's deliberations. First, the committee concluded that based upon existing exposure data, the great majority of individual naturally occurring and synthetic chemicals in the diet appears to be present at levels below which any significant adverse biologic effect is likely, and so low that they are unlikely to pose an appreciable cancer risk.