Since the Food and Drug Administration last week banned Red Dye No. 4, a carcinogenic food dye, so you might expect Harvard medical experts to gag uncontrollably at the thought of eating maraschino cherries in their Manhattans.
But you'd be wrong. "I like two maraschino cherries in my drinks," says Robert B. McGandy '51, associate professor of Environmental Medicine. "It's all a matter of risks, and the things you're willing to cut out, and you just can't cut out everything."
Cutting out all suspected carcinogens from one's diet would mean eliminating many everyday foods. Studies have linked caffeine from coffee and tea, fats from beef, nitrates from bacon and lettuce, and even the fluoride in our drinking water to increases in cancer incidence.
Many doctors feel that the press has blown the cancer warnings out of proportion. "Most of the cancer scares are just that--scares," says George R. Kerr, associate professor of Nutrition. "They're just minor issues compared to the real hazards, like smoking."
Studies indicate that tobacco smoking is responsible for 85 per cent of lung cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that 84,000 Americans will die from lung cancer this year.
"In a lab that studies lung cancer, there's pressure not to smoke," says Jerry R. Williams, assistant professor of Radiology. "My impression is that physicians smoke much more than cancer researchers, because they're under more direct pressure."
Arnold W. Malcolm, a physician with a Harvard radiation therapy team that treats cancer patients, gradually gave up smoking cigarettes for a pipe. "I stopped because of the loss of money, time, and then, of course, my lungs," he says.
But Malcolm confesses that finances played a greater role in the decision than worry about his lungs, despite the effects of dealing with dying patients.
"I see patients dying of lung cancer, on their death beds, and what do they ask for?" Malcolm says. "They ask for a cigarette."
Working with Malcolm are five non-smokers and four smokers, including two who burn over two packs per day.
In addition to puffing on a pipe, Malcolm indulges in hazardous foods like beef, which has been linked to both colon cancer and heart disease.
"Look, I know it's bad for you," he explains. "But when I eat something I don't think about whether it's carcinogenic or not, I think about how it tastes."
Maraschino cherries? "I like to suck on them to get all the flavor out," Malcolm replies.
There are, however, medical experts like Ann R. Kennedy, research fellow in Radiobiology, who "avoids carcinogens like the plague." Kennedy has shunned artificially dyed foods for years, so the new FDA bannings didn't surprise her.
"I'm more careful than most people," she says. As a result of her studies in radiology, Kennedy has given up her college pastime of sunbathing for fear of skin cancer. Now, she even wears a hat while playing tennis.
Like McGandy, Kennedy forms her eating habits on the basis of risks. She has all but eliminated cholesterol, the precursor of heart disease, from her diet.
"A funny thing about heart specialists," says McGandy, a cardiology specialist himself. "They go to these heart association meetings, where the menus are covered with all of the obscene fried foods full of saturated fats and cholesterol. They sit and eat and talk about heart disease."
It's difficult to say how many Americans threw out their bottles of cherries last week. Those who didn't probably share the opinion of David M. Hegsted, professor of Nutrition, who says, "Being alive is a hazard, and we all have to go sometime.