Science Questions

Can Superfoods Help Prevent Cancer?

Wed, 30th Oct 2013

Listen Now    Download as mp3 from the show Cutting Edge in Cancer


Kalind and Kate asked:

Are there certain foods that can help prevent us from catching, or even cure, cancer?


Hannah -   So, we often hear headlines that foods like red wine and veggie curry might decrease your likelihood of cancer.  Dr. Emma Smith at Cancer Research UK has this to say...

Emma -   We hear an awful lot in the newspapers and on TV about these so-called superfoods or groups of food that allegedly kill cancer.  In fact, there's just isnít any solid evidence for this at all from clinical trials.  There isnít any single food, or type of food, that will protect you from cancer ultimately.  These stories normally come from research carried out in the lab where chemicals purified from food or perhaps just known to be found in certain foods, like broccoli or cabbage, are shown to kill cancer cells when the chemical is put on the cancer cells grown in a dish in the laboratory.

Hannah -   Okay, but surely, this lab data somehow translates to how my body reacts to particular foods.

Emma -   Now, the problem is, we donít necessary get those chemicals in that form from food or perhaps we donít get the chemicals in the kind of doses that they're adding to the cancer cells.  When you look at the evidence from clinical trials, there's just not been any proof that these foods help protect anybody from cancer.

Hannah -   And what about red wine?  I'm sure I've heard that that's a good cancer beater or is that just me being a positive glass half full kind of girl?

Emma -   Well, red wine is an interesting one and we are actually running clinical trials in Leicester looking at Ė itís the chemical in red wine called resveratrol and there's also, perhaps you've heard about curcumin and turmeric which is the colouring they put in curry.  Now, there is some evidence that those chemicals could protect us from cancer.  So, weíre running a clinical trial to look at whether this is the case or not.  But itís important that weíre actually studying the chemicals in a purified form in controlled doses.  We are not getting people to drink red wine and eat curry.  In fact, the evidence is, that the alcohol in red wine far, far outweighs any benefit you would possibly ever get from resveratrol.  So, we definitely are not cordoning red wine to protect you against cancer.

Hannah -   And a paper published earlier this year in the International Journal of Cancer used clever chemical analysis.  And it turns out that 111 glasses of red wine need to be consumed each day in order to get the correct dose of cancer beating chemicals to balance out the carcinogenic ethanol, which is a bit excessive an intake, even for me.  So, is there anything that somebody with cancer can do whilst undergoing treatment?  Can they help by changing their diet?

Emma -   First of all, if you're undergoing treatment, treatment is quite challenging for the body.  So, itís important that you actually make sure the calorie intake is high enough so you can cope with the treatment.  If you are considering any major changes in your diet, whether itís to lose a bit of weight or just eat healthier, it really is important that you consult your doctor first before making any major changes.

Hannah -   Thanks to all those listeners including Calind and Kate who got in touch with the question and also to Dr. Emma Smith. 


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