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Meat and Milk Linked to Colon Cancer, Study Confirms

Meat and Milk Linked to Colon Cancer, Study Confirms

Bovine meat and milk factors (BMMFs)—DNA molecules that are found in beef and cow’s milk—have been linked to the development of colorectal cancer, according to new research published in the scientific journal Molecular Oncology. The new research builds on a 2014 study that identified BMMFs as representing a class of infectious agents in beef and cow’s milk.

Colorectal cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program (SEER). An estimated 153,020 people will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2023, according to the American Cancer Society. The earlier colorectal cancer is found, the better the chances of survival. 

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If colorectal cancer is detected before it’s spread to other parts of the body, the five-year survival rate increases to 90 percent. The new research suggests that monitoring the presence and rate of expression of a BMMF-encoded replication protein in inflammatory sites of tissues may help identify individuals at risk for developing colorectal cancer.

The study compared the presence of the BMMF-encoded protein and specific immune cells in tissues from people with and without colorectal cancer. In addition to observing differences in the protein expression between these groups, the investigators identified the protein in immune cells involved in inflammation in precancerous stages, supporting an early contribution of BMMF to colorectal cancer by inflammation-driven indirect carcinogenesis found in previous studies.   

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“With further studies, we aim to address whether the identification of BMMF-positive inflamed tissue can be used as an early risk marker for colorectal cancer,” corresponding author Timo Bund, PhD, of the German Cancer Research Centre, said in a statement. “Therefore, first monitoring of [BMMF-encoded replication protein] expression and inflammation in biopsies is important to better understand BMMF-specific induction of cancer and prognosis.”

“The early identification of BMMF might offer new options for preventive and therapeutical intervention,” Bund said. 

Is red meat linked to cancer?

The study supports previous research that identified the link between meat and milk and colorectal cancer. The American Institute for Cancer Research says there’s “strong evidence” that eating a lot of red meat may increase the risk of colorectal cancer and may also be linked to prostate cancer and pancreatic cancer. 

The World Health Organization also says red meat is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

A study published earlier last year in the medical journal The BMJ found that a high consumption of ultra-processed foods comes with a 29 percent increased risk of colorectal cancer in men. 

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The research from Tufts University and Harvard University noted the strongest association between colorectal cancer and ultra-processed foods came from meat, poultry, and fish products.

“We started out thinking that colorectal cancer could be the cancer most impacted by diet compared to other cancer types,” Lu Wang, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral fellow at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts, said in a statement. 

“Processed meats, most of which fall into the category of ultra-processed foods, are a strong risk factor for colorectal cancer,” Wang said. “Ultra-processed foods are also high in added sugars and low in fiber, which contribute to weight gain and obesity, and obesity is an established risk factor for colorectal cancer.”

Plant-based diet and cancer

Conversely, previous research suggests that a plant-based diet can reduce the risk of colorectal and other forms of cancer. A study published in BMC Medicine found that eating a plant-based diet could lower the risk of colorectal cancer in men by 22 percent.

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“Although previous research has suggested that plant-based diets may play a role in preventing colorectal cancer, the impact of plant foods’ nutritional quality on this association has been unclear,” Jihye Kim, one of the study’s authors, said in a statement. 

“Our findings suggest that eating a healthy plant-based diet is associated with a reduced risk of colorectal cancer.”

Researchers from Kyung Hee University in South Korea found that, among a population of 79,952 American men, those who ate the highest average daily amounts of healthy plant-based foods had a 22 percent lower risk of colorectal cancer, compared to those who ate the lowest amounts of healthy plant foods. 

“We speculate that the antioxidants found in foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains could contribute to lowering colorectal cancer risk by suppressing chronic inflammation, which can lead to cancer,” Kim said.

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