Acetaldehyde as a common denominator and cumulative carcinogen in digestive tract cancers

Scand J Gastroenterol. 2009;44(8):912-25. doi: 10.1080/00365520902912563.


The key issue in cancer prevention is the identification of specific aetiologic factors. Acetaldehyde, the first metabolite of ethanol oxidation, is carcinogenic in animals. ADH and ALDH2 gene mutations provide an exceptional human model to estimate the long-term effects of acetaldehyde exposure in man. These models provide strong evidence for the local carcinogenic potential of acetaldehyde also in humans. Ethanol is metabolized to acetaldehyde by both mucosal and microbial enzymes. Many microbes produce acetaldehyde from ethanol, but their capacity to eliminate acetaldehyde is low, which leads to the accumulation of acetaldehyde in saliva during an alcohol challenge. Acetaldehyde is the most abundant carcinogen in tobacco smoke, and it readily dissolves into saliva during smoking. Fermented food and many alcoholic beverages can also contain significant amounts of acetaldehyde. Thus acetaldehyde, derived from mucosal or microbial oxidation of ethanol, tobacco smoke, and/or diet, appears to act as a cumulative carcinogen in the upper digestive tract of humans. The evidence strongly suggests the importance of world-wide screening of acetaldehyde and ethanol levels in many beverages and foodstuffs, as well as an urgent need for regulatory measures and consumer guidance. Screening of the risk groups with enhanced acetaldehyde exposure, e.g. people with ADH and ALDH2 gene polymorphisms and hypochlorhydric atrophic gastritis, should also be seriously considered. Most importantly, the GRAS (generally regarded as safe) status of acetaldehyde, which allows it to be used as a food additive, should be re-evaluated, and the classification of acetaldehyde as a carcinogen should be upgraded.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acetaldehyde / adverse effects*
  • Aldehyde Dehydrogenase / genetics
  • Aldehyde Dehydrogenase, Mitochondrial
  • Animals
  • Environmental Exposure*
  • Gastrointestinal Neoplasms / chemically induced*
  • Humans
  • Polymorphism, Genetic
  • Risk Factors
  • Smoking / adverse effects*


  • ALDH2 protein, human
  • Aldehyde Dehydrogenase
  • Aldehyde Dehydrogenase, Mitochondrial
  • Acetaldehyde