Background: Nutritional epidemiology is a highly prolific field. Debates on associations of nutrients with disease risk are common in the literature and attract attention in public media.
Objective: We aimed to examine the conclusions, statistical significance, and reproducibility in the literature on associations between specific foods and cancer risk.
Design: We selected 50 common ingredients from random recipes in a cookbook. PubMed queries identified recent studies that evaluated the relation of each ingredient to cancer risk. Information regarding author conclusions and relevant effect estimates were extracted. When >10 articles were found, we focused on the 10 most recent articles.
Results: Forty ingredients (80%) had articles reporting on their cancer risk. Of 264 single-study assessments, 191 (72%) concluded that the tested food was associated with an increased (n = 103) or a decreased (n = 88) risk; 75% of the risk estimates had weak (0.05 > P ≥ 0.001) or no statistical (P > 0.05) significance. Statistically significant results were more likely than nonsignificant findings to be published in the study abstract than in only the full text (P < 0.0001). Meta-analyses (n = 36) presented more conservative results; only 13 (26%) reported an increased (n = 4) or a decreased (n = 9) risk (6 had more than weak statistical support). The median RRs (IQRs) for studies that concluded an increased or a decreased risk were 2.20 (1.60, 3.44) and 0.52 (0.39, 0.66), respectively. The RRs from the meta-analyses were on average null (median: 0.96; IQR: 0.85, 1.10).
Conclusions: Associations with cancer risk or benefits have been claimed for most food ingredients. Many single studies highlight implausibly large effects, even though evidence is weak. Effect sizes shrink in meta-analyses.