Fighting cancer with whole grain

Whole grain may be more important than both fruit and vegetables in the fight against cancer. This is the theory of researchers at a Nordic Centre of Excellence on food, nutrition and health.
 Fighting cancer with whole grain
Breast cancer and prostate cancer. These are two of the most common forms of cancer among women and men respectively in the Nordic region today.

A traditional Nordic diet of whole grains - primarily in the form of bread - may prove to be important in the prevention of both these and other forms of cancer. This is the belief of scientists at the research centre “Nordic Health - Whole Grain Food” (HELGA) in Copenhagen. Whole grain could be used in the treatment of both cancer, diabetes and heart disease, and therefore it is important to investigate this more.

Only in the Nordic countries
Eating whole grain is one of the most characteristic features of a traditional Nordic diet. With the exception of Poland whole grain is not a regular part of the diet of the rest of the world population.

Some of the world’s best records of cancer in the population are found in the Nordic countries. This facilitates cancer research greatly.

NordForsk allocates 30.5 million Norwegian kroner over five years to the research centre HELGA, one of three Nordic Centres of Excellence (NCoE) within food, nutrition and health.

Head of the centre is Anne Tjønneland, researcher at the Danish Cancer Society (Kræftens Bekæmpelse). Together with fellow researchers from a total of seven centers in the five Nordic countries, she will try to reveal the secrets of the whole grain.

- What makes our Nordic diet unique is partly the large intake of whole grain and partly the variation of types of whole grain we eat, says Tjønneland.

- An important part of our project focuses on rye, which has some special characteristics. Finnish studies show that insulin response is different for rye than for oat and wheat. In our own studies we have been able to demonstrate that rye has preventive effects on prostate cancer.

Long-term studies
The connection between whole grain and cancer prevention is still only a hypothesis. But HELGA is working on long-term studies. The researchers will follow a group of people over many years, what they eat, and look at cancer cases in the group.

The Nordic countries provide a unique opportunity to perform this study. - We have a large part of the population eating lots of whole grain, but there are also people here who eat very few whole grain products. This provides a good opportunity to study the effect of diet with and without whole grain.

Although media regularly claims that the relationship between food and cancer has been discovered, researchers are aware that more data is needed from different studies before anything can be known for sure.

Collecting evidence
- We need to collect evidence before we can create a report like the green one you see up there on my shelf, says Tjønneland pointing to the report from 2007 where the World Cancer Research Fund collected all the information about diet and cancer that was available at that time.

- The report says nothing about whole grain. That is because they didn’t have enough data. We want to contribute to the accumulation of such knowledge. At HELGA we create a joint Nordic data set with the different types of whole grain products that are consumed in the Nordic countries. Should we find interesting results in other European countries, we may include those as well.

Whole grain detected in the blood
Questionnaires are often a large part of this type of research. People are simply asked how much whole grain they eat. But scientists know that the answers they get may not be entirely correct.

However, researchers at the University of Uppsala participating in HELGA have now discovered an element in the blood that actually reveals how much whole grain a person has eaten. This may contribute to bringing the research several steps forward. This biomarker will now be tested in a large European project.

Large selection
The HELGA database holds information on the intake of whole grain of 150 000 Norwegians, Danes and Swedes. In addition, the research team has access to information on further 350,000 Europeans. This provides a solid starting point for research.

- The database holds a wide range of information with tremendous variations in food habits. It is one of the great advantages with a European data set. As opposed to data sets from the United States, for instance, the variations within Europe are huge.

So far the HELGA researchers have concentrated on whole grain. But the next step is to look at the entire traditional Nordic diet, including plenty of fruits, vegetables and fish, focusing on foods such as cabbage, rapeseed oil, and various root vegetables.

You can also read this article on (Norwegian version)

Text: Siw Ellen Jakobsen
Photo: Terje Heiestad
(English version edited by NordForsk)
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