A recent article published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute reported that consumption of vegetables in the allium family may reduce the risk of developing prostate cancer.

The prostate is a male sex gland that is located between the bladder and the rectum. Prostate cancer occurs commonly in older men and is the second leading cause of cancer death in men in the United States. Prostate cancer is typically a disease of aging. It may persist undetected for many years without causing symptoms. Because prostate cancer develops over such a long period of time, any area that holds promise for prevention must be explored. It is currently believed that environmental factors may play a bigger role than genetic factors in the development of prostate cancer. Diet is one type of environmental factor that can be modified in hope of reducing the risk of developing prostate cancer.

Consumption of garlic, onions, scallions, leeks, and chives (allium vegetables) has been inconsistently reported to protect against stomach and colorectal cancers. The supposed protective effect may be related to organosulfur compounds, which inhibit the start and growth of cancers of the stomach, esophagus, colon, breast and lung in experimental animals. Organosulfur compounds are substances that contain organic sulfur. While scientists do not understand exactly how they work, laboratory research suggests that they may modulate the activity of several enzymes that activate or detoxify cancer-causing agents and/or trigger programmed cell death (apoptosis) in cancer cells. Allium vegetables and organosulfur compounds are thus possible cancer-preventive agents.

Chinese researchers investigated the link between allium vegetables and incidence of localized prostate cancer by performing a population-based study involving 238 men with prostate cancer and 471 cancer-free men. All patients completed a questionnaire regarding their intake of 122 different foods. The authors evaluated the association of intake of allium vegetables, including garlic, scallions, onions, chives and leeks, and the risk of prostate cancer. The population was divided into three groups: those with a low, intermediate and high intake of allium vegetables. The highest intake group consumed more than 10 grams of allium vegetables per day, roughly equal to 2 cloves of garlic.

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Researchers found that men with the highest of three intake categories of total allium vegetables had a 50% reduction in the risk of localized prostate cancer. There was also a 50% reduction with high garlic or scallion intake, the two allium vegetables that appeared to have the strongest preventive effects. These benefits were more significant in men with localized, rather than advanced prostate cancer and were independent of body size, intake of other foods and total calorie intake.

This study supports the concept that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is healthy and may be associated with a lower risk of cancer. Although additional research is needed to confirm these findings, these results suggest that the allium group of vegetables has some cancer preventative properties and it may be worthwhile to increase their intake.

Reference: Hsing A, Chokkalingam AP, Gao Y-T, et al. Allium vegetables and risk of prostate cancer: a population-based study.

Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 2002;94:1648-1651.

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