City of Hope and Superfoods

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. 

Pomegranate, the Superfood

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.

 

Grapes, a Superfood

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 on Simply Recipes

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.

 

Thyme, the Superfood

Thyme

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.

 

Cinnamon, a Superfood

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.

 

Blueberries, a Superfood

Blueberries

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:

City of Hope summary of superfoods research

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

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28 Comments

  1. Carrie @ Carrie on Vegan

    It was an honor to attend this event and I really enjoyed meeting you, Elise. I love this review of superfoods and all of the amazing research you included. Hope to see you again soon! :)

    • Elise

      I so enjoyed meeting you too Carrie! And I agree completely. It was an honor to be part of this trip.

  2. Mallory @ Because I Like Chocolate

    I find this absolutely fascinating. What a classic case of “you are what you eat”. It surprises me that white button mushrooms are showing such properties, rather than another wild variety. I guess it’s because when you hear of “white” foods you typically think less nutritional value.

    • Elise

      Hi Mallory, if you look at the study you’ll find that the white button mushrooms beat out all the other mushrooms in its ability to inhibit aromatase. Surprising to me too!

  3. Christine's Recipes

    Chinese have a long history of using food remedies to prevent and cure some long-term diseases. I’m really excited about recent studies of superfoods with promising results in helping us enjoy a healthy life in a less expensive way. This post is a must to keep and reminds me of including these superfoods in our family’s daily diet. Thanks, Elise.

  4. Jacqueline church

    Glad to see this Elise. In Chinese, traditional medicine we do not see a bright line separating “food” from “medicine”. In fact, one often sees exactly the same times in e herbalist’s as in the grocery shops. You may even get advised to eat more or less of some foods based on your health. I recently read about goji berries in two western medical studies trying to test the ancient Chinese wisdom. Both found goji to be more effective at stemming macular degeneration than western meds. Big fan of integrative medicine and eating for wellness!

  5. Jeanette

    Elise, what a special trip to be a part of. I have been cooking for friends with cancer for ten years, so visiting City of Hope was a dream come true. I was so impressed by the work City of Hope is doing towards finding Superfoods that can help fight cancer. I hope is that one day, food will replace chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and that cancer will be eradicated. It was great seeing you!

  6. Yen yen

    Research ‘Chaga’ and ‘ autumn Olive’ free for the taking in our nature no need to purchase at a store… Much better of all super foods listed and the government cant control it !!

  7. TracyS

    Very interesting article! Thank you!

  8. Pat Machin

    That’s a great article and useful. I will be sharing it. Anything we can do to prevent or treat this disease is so worthwhile.

  9. Leah

    What fascinating research! The hormone inhibitors could be useful for lots of problems aside from cancer as well. Thanks for sharing what you learned with all of us!

  10. Sandy S

    Thanks so much for all this wonderful information Elise! I will be buying /adding at least 1-2 button mushrooms whenever I use any other type of mushroom from now on. What’s not to love about being asked to use more cinnamon, blueberries and thyme!?!
    I can understand why pharmaceutical companies want to ignore low cost/free sources of healing, but I do not understand why news groups, insurance companies and hospitals are not banging their drums for more research and use of such sources! It seems a no brainer that it could lower costs, as well as improve health. Thanks again for what you have done to get the word out!

  11. Janet Wilson

    I would like to add that these findings do not mean that eating these foods will make happen in your body what has (possibly) happened in the lab. There is very little evidence anywhere that any diet offers anti cancer protection. I wish there was one! The flip side here too is that if we all believe what you eat makes a big difference, those with cancer are left to beat themselves up wondering what they did wrong. And, apart from some known risk increasers like smoking, there is actually very little they “did wrong”. Read “The Cancer Chronicles” for a more clear-eyed look at what we can and cannot aspire to do. Hope is a wonderful thing, but false hope is not.

    • Sandy S

      Though one cannot help but marvel at the many improvements modern medicine now provides, it seems to me that the US is a rather young group of people when it comes to understanding our bodies and minds. To deny the centuries of experience and research of other cultures is to be blind to possibilities within reach. This is to say nothing of the effects of a positive or negative attitude. It may not be everything to have hope, but then again, it may be something! When it comes to overcoming difficult times, one’s mindset matters. In somewhat the same way, Broccoli, blueberries and many other foods may not be cures in and of themselves, but they may be a step in that direction.

      • Janet W.

        The operative word in your reply was “maybe”. As I said, hope is a good thing, but false hope can mask a fear of death and hardship that must be faced to truly live one’s own journey. Eating healthy foods and taking good care of yourself are both important elements of a good life. But we have so very little evidence that diet has a meaningful impact on cancer rates. That is a surprising fact, and we need to look at it more carefully to see what we can and cannot aspire to.

        • Sandy S

          I find your comments worth rereading. They remind me of how different our experience and perceptions of the world can be. Take care on your journey Janet.

  12. CKF

    Hi Elise. Thanks as always for your great recipes and info. I was just wondering, did the researchers say that the foods had to be eaten in their raw form? Would cooked button mushrooms, blueberries or thyme still impart benefits? Thanks!

    • Elise

      Great question. It’s important to note that the research results presented here are only from experiments in the lab, not yet on humans. When I asked about dried thyme versus fresh or cooked, they said there was no difference in the benefit. I think the mushroom studies used an extract that was heat extracted, and I’ve seen research that shows that there are toxins in raw mushrooms so it’s best to eat mushrooms that are cooked. As for blueberries, I don’t know. They used powdered blueberries in their experiments.

  13. Steve-Anna

    What a wonderful post, and a wonderful experience to go and speak with the researchers at City of Hope! Thank you for sharing what you learned.

    It’s such a relief to discover the healing properties of button mushrooms – I was embarrassed before to admit how much l love them!

    Now, if only we can get some more people focused on studying the placebo effect: http://harvardmagazine.com/2013/01/the-placebo-phenomenon

    My favorite finding, …”even patients who knew they were taking placebos described real improvement, reporting twice as much symptom relief as the no-treatment group.”

  14. latenac

    I am a great believer in a healthy, varied diet for general health. However, I would be careful with anyone who promotes a single food as a cure for something or even a small group of foods. We are far more complicated creatures. Other “superfoods” such as antioxidants have been proven to actually cause some of the issues they were supposed to prevent when taken in large quantities. Cinnamon was supposed to help with diabetes but can end up damaging the liver when taken in great quantities –
    http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/cinnamon-for-diabetes-the-consequences-of-natural-alternatives/

    Be careful you’re not promoting naturalistic fallacies. I’ve seen too often on the internet that somehow your disease is your fault and if you only ate the right foods or eliminated plastic from your house or ate vegan or paleolithic or whatever you wouldn’t have your disease. I’ve also seen people die from beliefs that Western medicine is evil but somehow blueberries or something else should have cured their cancer. Please be careful how you report on this sort of thing.

    I’m frankly a little leery of program that is supposed to be science based that touts “Superfoods” and invites food bloggers instead of science bloggers to talk about their research results.

  15. Dee Desarmeaux

    Thank you for being honest with people about the value of eating healthy foods!

  16. Katie H.

    Hi Elise,
    I’m so glad you had an opportunity to have these conversations about the power of food and am so glad you shared them here with us. Thank you.

    Katie

  17. Lisa

    What an interesting and timely article! Thank you.

  18. Brona

    This is great news – all I need to do is eat more pomegranates to have a well-rounded super-food diet :-)

  19. Donna Modzelewski

    A good friend of ours worked for the Maine Wild Blueberries commission and when we visited him in Maine we attended a conference they held in his area. At that time, wild blueberries had been discovered to be one of the top superfoods available. Also, for a number of years, we worked for the Maine wild blueberries at a large fair in western Mass. One of the things we learned was that the wild blueberries do not lose any of their antioxident properties when they are frozen. Good to know since they are readily available in markets all over. Blueberry muffins, pancakes, and cobblers even off season. Yumm.

  20. Martha

    Thank you, Elise, for an informative, well-balanced, and thoughtful article. I am liking the comments, too.

  21. Jody

    LOVED this article. Does this info not reflect the old saying, You are what you eat? I love everyone of these foods and am glad to know how very healthful they are. I’m glad you brought this organization to our attention.

  22. Heather

    First, I’d like to point out that even if you’re supplementing with diet, you should not stop taking the medications your doctor prescribes without discussing it with your doctor. This disclaimer should have been included in the article.

    Second, scientifically, these studies aren’t very useful. I don’t actually see anywhere in the articles where they compare the action of plant-derived compounds with the action of conventional treatments. This is very important in assessing how effective the compounds actually are. This is a major point in the cranberry study you linked to: cranberries might help, but they’re less effective than antibiotics. I know when I get UTIs, cranberry juice is a crutch I use til I can get to the doctor and get antibiotics.

    Another point: “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.”

    Completely untrue. Pharmaceutical companies have and do purify, patent, and package ‘natural’ compounds all the time, if they’re found to be effective. For example, aspirin, morphine and penicillin, and all related drugs, are derived from willow, poppy, and penicillium molds, respectively.

    And while you could technically still use these treatments in their native forms, you’d have to consume a lot of, say, poppy or penicillium to get the effects. It’s the same with the food derived compounds on this list. I guess two cups of blueberries doesn’t seem like a lot, but here a pint is about $4 unless they’re very, very in season, not to mention the havoc that two cups of berries a day would wreak on most people’s bowel movements.

    Lastly, as someone with a chronic illness, the combined ‘if you had eaten better you wouldn’t have gotten sick’ and ‘pharma is evil and the drugs you are taking are poison’ attitudes that are so prevalent are very frustrating and hurtful. First off, most sick people did nothing to cause their illness, and being told that they did is very harmful and insulting. And while pharmaceutical companies aren’t altruistic benefactors by any stretch, the products they make allow a lot of people, including myself, to find relief from their illnesses and have a somewhat normal life. It’s frustrating to be judged negatively for taking them.

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