Over the last decade much attention has been given to the idea that some foods, aptly labeled “superfoods”, are especially good for us, whether it be because they are rich in nutrients or antioxidants, or because the have properties that actively help us prevent or fight disease.
I and several other bloggers recently had the privilege of meeting with doctors and scientists at City of Hope and the Beckman Research Institute in Duarte, California, to learn about the scientific research they are doing on the anti-cancer properties of various foods. Although much of their work is still in early stages, the work is so promising, I thought I would share some of what I learned with you.
City of Hope
City of Hope was founded in 1913 as a free sanatorium for patients with tuberculosis. In the 1940s it transformed into a hospital and research institute, and in the 1950s, shifted its focus from TB to cancer and diabetes. It is now one of the leading cancer treatment centers in the U.S, and its Beckman Research Institute, a leading not-for-profit cancer research center.
I’ve always appreciated simple food remedies, like unsweetened cranberries for UTIs and ginger root for nausea, and wondered why more medical research wasn’t directed towards food. The short answer to why not is that the pharmaceutical companies that fund most of the medical research in this country must make a profit, and profit comes from medications they can patent. There’s simply not enough profitable patents to be made from widely available, relatively inexpensive foodstuffs for pharmaceutical companies to investigate them for medical use.
Organizations like City of Hope can do this kind of research, looking into low-cost, accessible medical treatments, because they are a private, not-for-profit research center, and aren’t required to develop patents or derive profits from their research.
A Focus on Food
Drugs are a powerful weapon against cancer, but they kill healthy cells as well as cancer cells, and have all sorts of undesirable side effects. Food-based extracts may also fight or help prevent cancer, without the dangerous side effects of drug therapies. Treatments derived from food may help make drug therapies more effective, if used alongside them. City of Hope has been studying various foods for their anti-cancer properties. Here’s a summary of a few I found most interesting. Links to some of the published research papers are provided at the end of this article.
White Button Mushrooms and Pomegranates
Most breast cancer tumors are dependent on estrogen to grow, so most drugs for treating breast cancer, or preventing it in high risk patients, either suppress estrogen’s growth effect on cancerous tumors (like the drug tamoxifen), or decrease the production of estrogen in the body by inhibiting aromatase, an enzyme needed for the creation of estrogen. City of Hope researches have found that compounds in mushrooms, in particular white button mushrooms, inhibit the estrogen-creating aromatase enzyme, which can lead to tumor growth. They have also found that pomegranates have several aromatase-blocking compounds.
Breast cancer cells can create their own estrogen, so the anti-aromatase activity of mushrooms and pomegranates may serve as a breast cancer preventative, especially in post-menopausal women. Pomegranates and mushrooms may also slow the growth of prostate cancer cells.
The best medications are those that stimulate our own bodies to heal. In our bodies there is a protein, called IRF-1, that enhances our immune response against cancer and causes cancer cells to self-destruct. City of Hope researchers have discovered that “baicalein”, a flavanoid present in huang-qin, a Chinese herbal root used in cancer treatment in Asia, helps activate this cancer fighting protein. Baicalein is also found in thyme, our everyday, ordinary culinary herb.
Grapeseed Extract and Cinnamon
One way to fight cancerous tumors is to choke off the supply of blood that feeds them. City of Hope researchers have found that both grapeseed and cinnamon have compounds that block new blood vessel growth in tumors. Extracts of both grapeseeds and cinnamon interfere with the protein called VEGF, or vascular endothelial growth factor, that promotes tumor blood vessel growth.
Of all the research being conducted at City of Hope on superfoods, the research on blueberries is most exciting to me. Researchers have found that blueberries pack a powerful punch against cancer in lab rats. Not only do compounds in blueberries decrease the size of tumors, they decrease metastasis and induce cell death in triple negative breast cancer cells, one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer and most resistant to treatment. The amount fed to lab rats that demonstrated these dramatic results would be the equivalent of about 2 cups of fresh blueberries a day in humans. Studies are now being carried out to assess the power of blueberries to prevent and treat breast cancer in women.
Conclusive? No. Promising? Yes.
What can we take away from this research on superfoods? There is not yet conclusive evidence that eating any of these foods will prevent us from getting cancer or help treat it, the operative word being “conclusive”. But the studies look promising. It’s certainly not going to hurt us to include more blueberries, mushrooms, pomegranates, grapes, cinnamon, and other superfoods in our diet, and it could very well help us over the long term in preventing cancer and other diseases.
Links and Recipes:
Who Funds Biomedical Research? – results of a JAMA study
Can superfoods really fight cancer? – Jaden Hair of Steamy Kitchen’s post about our trip to City of Hope and a call for ideas of how we can help raise money to fund this type of research
Cancer-fighting recipe: Roasted Mushrooms and Thyme – Jeanette of Jeanette’s Healthy Living blog, and her post of our trip to City of Hope, with a recipe that combines two of these powerful superfoods
Roasted Mushroom Pepper Tacos – Cheryl Lee of Black Girl Chef’s Whites makes tacos with superfood mushrooms, and shares the story of her mom’s struggle with lung cancer
Autumn Superfood Stew – a gorgeous stew from cancer survivor Carrie Forrest of Carrie on Vegan
Superfood Salad – from Catherine McCord of Weelicious, with more tips from the team of cancer doctors at City of Hope of how we can stay healthy and prevent disease
Published Studies on Superfoods:
White Button Mushroom Phytochemicals Inhibit Aromatase Activity and Breast Cancer Cell Proliferation – The Journal of Nutrition, December 1, 2001
Whole Blueberry Powder Modulates the Growth and Metastasis of MDA-MB-231 Triple Negative Breast Tumors in Nude Mice – The Journal of Nutrition, August 31, 2011
Novel angigenesis inhibitory activity in cinnamon extract blocks VEGFR2 kinase and downstream signaling – Carcinogenesis Journal, November 18, 2009
Grape seed extract inhibits VEGF expression via reducing HIF-1a protein expression – Carcinogenesis Journal, December 29, 2008
Pomegranate Ellagitannin-derived compounds exhibit antiproliferative and antiaromatase activity in breast cancer cells in vitro – journal article in Cancer Prevention Research