Can antioxidant superfoods actually make cancer worse?

Lia Grainger
Shine On
January 9, 2013

Today’s supermarket aisles are piled high with products touting their high antioxidant content, and it seems that everyday a nutritionist or health expert is touting the cancer-fighting qualities of antioxidant-rich so-called "superfoods" like acai berries and leafy greens.

But now, the Nobel laureate who discovered DNA has proclaimed that antioxidants do not prevent the disease, and in fact may hasten its spread.

In a paper published Tuesday in the journal Open Biology, 84-year-old James Watson, a pioneering cancer expert, presented a wide range of opinions about the current direction of cancer research, and lamented that in many ways, things appear to be headed in the wrong direction.

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Among many comments sure to stir the scientific pot was the assertion that antioxidants may be more harmful than helpful. The common thinking these days is that antioxidants counteract the power of reactive oxygen species (ROS), a particular grouping of molecules that, in healthy people, can contribute to cell destruction.

But Watson points out that the reality is more complicated once cancer enters the equation. Radiation and chemotherapy actually create ROS, and these destructive molecules prompt cancerous cells to commit cell suicide. In other words, ROS is needed to destroy the cancer.

Watson suggests that consuming large amounts of food and nutritional supplements rich in antioxidants could actually stop cancers from responding to treatment.

"Everyone thought antioxidants were great," writes Watson. "But I'm saying they can prevent us from killing cancer cells."

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Research into the role of antioxidants in cancer has yielded mixed results.

Of five major studies conducted in the 1990s, two demonstrated an increase in cancer rates in association with antioxidants, one demonstrated a decrease, and the other two found no significant effect, or are still underway. Three large scale studies are currently examining the role of vitamin E and other antioxidants in cancer development and prevention.

The public response to Watson’s paper has been mixed. One cancer researcher who asked not to be identified said to Reuters “There are a lot of interesting ideas in it, some of them sustainable by existing evidence, others that simply conflict with well-documented findings.”

However, as the Reuters story points out, there is a general consensus in the cancer research community that things are not progressing as quickly as many had hoped.

For Watson, the way forward is clear, “The time has come to seriously ask whether antioxidant use much more likely causes than prevents cancer."

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