Cancer Inhibitors in Food

Do you think cancer as a mighty sword that can reach down and hurt any and all of us? At any time?

If you do, then you should think again. Exciting new research shows that nature gives us weapons that can fight back. And these weapons are not in exotic places. They are in common foods.

The substances I am talking about are not considered nutrients, because their absence does not cause a deficiency disease. These substances are little-known food elements. Only a handful of research scientists are familiar with them.

Scientists call them inhibitors. In laboratory animals, these substances show an impressive ability to inhibit the cancer process.

How Cancer Inhibitors Work

A cancer agent, such as one found in cigarette smoke, might cause cancer in half of the animals that are exposed to it. But when an inhibitor is given along with the cancer-causing chemical, fewer animals will develop cancer. The inhibitor prevents the cancer-causing chemical from doing its damage.

Exactly how inhibitors work is not known. But the best theory right now has to do with an enzyme system in the body’s cells. It is called the mixed function oxidase system. Scientists believe that this enzyme system may actually have the power to strip dangerous chemicals of their harmful effects.

Cancer scientists have been curious about inhibitors for a very good reason. Human studies do support the notion that certain foods help to block the cancer process. Several studies have found that people who often eat foods thought to contain inhibitors have less chance of getting cancer.

The Organs That Benefit

For the most part, inhibitors are linked to protection against cancer of the digestive organs. Research ties these inhibitors most strongly to reduced rates of stomach and colon cancer.

Cancer inhibitors may help to explain why many people who are exposed to cancer agents never develop cancer. Think about it. Everyone has been exposed to cancer agents. They are in the air. Or in the water we drink. Or in the work place. And sometimes in our food.

Why, then, does cancer strike one in four – not four in four?

A good intake of cancer inhibitors may be part of the answer.

The Recommendation and How to Meet It

The Committee on Diet, Nutrition, and Cancer took a close look at research on cancer inhibitors. The committee made one recommendation after looking at these important findings.

The recommendation advises us to emphasize foods belonging to the cabbage family of vegetables. There is good evidence that these foods contain cancer inhibitors other than vitamins A and C.

The most common foods of the cabbage family are broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and of course, cabbage. Research has linked these four vegetables to reduced risk of both stomach and colon cancer. A few studies also link these foods to lower risk of rectal cancer.

There are other foods in this family of vegetables. But it is not possible to say whether these other foods are also linked to lower risk of these cancers. It is reasonable to believe that these other foods are more likely than not to contain the same cancer-blocking substances. But only further research will give a firm answer.

The following chart lists all the foods belonging to this family.

The Whole Cabbage Family

Broccoli Collards Mustard
Brussels sprouts Horseradish Radish
Cabbage Kale Rutabaga
Cauliflower Kohlrabi Turnip
Chinese cabbage Kraut Watercress

A Family of Many Names

Scientists have some strange jargon for the foods of the cabbage family. The most technical name for this group of foods is the Brassica family. They also refer to these foods as “cruciferous” vegetables.

The inhibitors found in broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and cabbage have been named indoles. Research on indoles is so recent that tables listing the indoles content of foods are nowhere to be found. So it is not possible to rank foods by their indole level. Also it is not known whether cooking and storage influence the indoles in these foods.

The best advice is to select the foods of this family that you like best and eat them often – perhaps once or twice a week. Remember that many of these foods offer other bonuses: vitamin A or C, a low fat and sodium count, and a modest amount of dietary fiber.

( next story: the Part II )