By Benjamin V. Treadwell, Ph.D.
Have you heard about Neu5Gc? Here’s what you need to know about this sugar molecule to better understand how it affects your health.
In this article:
- What’s at Steak: Red Meat Can Increase the Risk of Cancer
- Not-So-Sweet Molecules
- Exception and Explanation
- Immune System Malfunction: Inflammation May Lead to Diseases
- Eat No Evil: Consume Moderate Amounts of Red Meat and Milk
- How to Cut Down on Red Meat Successfully
Understanding the Sugar Molecule Neu5Gc
Parents often complain that the food their children eat does not “stick with them.” That might seem like an advantage if they were aware of what you’re about to read.
Recent research shows specific constituents of certain foods go beyond sticking to us. These substances are more like intruders, uninvited guests that can wreak havoc on our bodies instead of nourishing them.
What’s at Steak: Red Meat Can Increase the Risk of Cancer
This new experimental evidence demonstrates, perhaps for the first time, how and why certain foods can promote cancer growth. Red meat is one of those foods.
Numerous epidemiological studies support the findings. Populations who commonly consume significant amounts of meat, especially red, have reported a higher incidence of certain cancers, compared to populations whose diet is predominantly fish, vegetables, fruit, and legumes. But what, exactly, is the connection between red meat and cancer?
For some time, scientists studying cancerous tissues have observed that cells of malignant growths contain abnormal sugar and sugar-like molecules, which extrude on the cell’s surface. One of these, a sialic acid sugar called Neu5Gc, is normally present in most mammals but lacking in humans, due to the absence of a gene necessary for its synthesis.
In spite of the human inability to make the sialic acid sugar, Neu5Gc, its presence has been reported in human tumors, including colon carcinomas, retinoblastomas, breast cancers, and melanomas. So, the team of investigators, who undertook the recent research, asked: where does the Neu5Gc originate?
Their study suggests the probable source of the Neu5Gc is diet, more specifically foods containing high levels of this sialic acid sugar concentration, among them red meat and milk products. Both of these foods also have a significant association with cancer risk.
Exception and Explanation
If diet is the key, why do some red-meat/milk-product consumers seem to be disease-free? Blood analyses detected antibodies to the sialic acid sugar, indicating its presence.
The key determinant seemed to be the absence of precancerous cells.
This observation led to further in vitro cancer cell study. Although the researchers didn’t conclusively demonstrate that Neu5Gc causes cancer, they do present strong evidence that Neu5Gc stimulates pre-existing cancerous growth through the following processes:
Neu5Gc on the cell’s surface is recognized as a foreign substance. (Remember, humans don’t produce it.)
In response, the immune system is mildly activated in an attempt to destroy it. As with many immune reactions, there is associated inflammation.
Certain growth factors are secreted by the invading inflammatory cells.
One of these, vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), initiates the growth of new blood vessels, which function as conduits, bringing more nutrition to the cells in the area, both malignant and normal. In other words, the foreign Neu5Gc sugar, adhering to the exterior of the tumor cell, indirectly feeds the cancer.
Immune System Malfunction: Inflammation May Lead to Diseases
Our immune system is supposed to protect us from disease, including Neu5Gc cancer. Human tissues, organs, proteins, and mammalian cells make up the immune system, protecting the body from harmful microorganisms.
The immune system works this way: When foreign substances invade the body and the immune system detects them, various types of cells respond and trigger B lymphocytes to release specialized proteins that bind these foreign substances.
B Lymphocytes Definition: Also known as B cells, B lymphocytes are white blood cells of the lymphocyte subtype. They secrete antibodies in the immune system’s humoral immunity component.
These specialized proteins stay there to protect the body in case the same types of invaders come back. For example, if you had chickenpox, in most cases, you won’t get sick from it again because you already developed protection from it.
But, it seems to be most effective when it defends with rapid and overwhelming force.
On the other hand, an immune response resulting in chronic, low-grade inflammation has long been associated with many diseases (diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, etc.), most prominently cancer.
It appears, from the study summarized here and others, that mild or chronic inflammation is just what the malignant cell requires to grow. This hypothesis is also upheld by studies showing decreased cancer risk in people who take non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin and COX-2 inhibitors.
Experiments with mice, exhibiting tumors bearing the Neu5Gc sugar, corroborated the effectiveness of anti-inflammatory drugs. Tumor growth increased after the mice samples were injected with the antibody to Neu5Gc.
But, if the animals were treated with an anti-inflammatory agent and then injected with the antibody, the stimulatory effect was largely eliminated.
This brings us to the question of the relationship between Neu5Gc, its antibody, and cancer. Our cousins, the chimpanzees, may actually hold another clue.
Unlike humans, chimps can synthesize this sialic acid sugar. Since it is not foreign to their immune systems, antibodies aren’t produced.
Interestingly, this animal rarely develops the types of cancers associated with Neu5Gc-bearing tumors.
Eat No Evil: Consume Moderate Amounts of Red Meat and Milk
Although the research results described here are impressive, they are not conclusive. Still, humans may benefit from mimicking the chimps’ condition.
The less Neu5Gc we ingest, the fewer antibodies and related chronic low-grade inflammation will be produced.
In other words, it may be prudent to consume modest amounts of Neu5Gc red meat and milk, favoring other protein sources (fish, poultry, and legumes) instead. On a daily basis, the recommended amount of red meat you should eat is as follows:
- Minute steak (80 g or 5 oz)
- A slice of ham (25 g)
- One lamb chop (70 g)
- A portion of Bolognese sauce (60 g)
- One pork sausage (50 g)
- Roast beef (two thin slices, 60 g)
If you think you’re consuming more than this, cutting back on red meat is not as hard as you think. You can make small swaps in your diet without the need to make radical changes right away.
How to Cut Down on Red Meat Successfully
If you are the type of person who loves eating meat, especially red meat, and want to cut down your consumption of it, there are certain ways you can do it:
- If you can’t give up meat in your breakfast, try one bacon rasher and a sausage instead of two each. You can substitute beans and another boiled egg to help you feel full.
- For sandwiches, you can swap processed meats, ham, or salami with mackerel, sardines, or canned tuna to get omega-3 fatty acids.
- Don’t forget about cheese! A roasted vegetable dish with some cheese on it can beef up your recipe.
- You can explore more about using cheese in your dishes.
- Opting for South-East Asian, Middle Eastern, or Indian vegetable dishes is a great option. Their cuisine is so full of healthy and flavorful herbs and spices you won’t notice most recipes do not have meat in them.
- Shop for meat less frequently, but get the best quality you can buy.
- Make a meal plan of how you can include red meat in your diet in less frequently. For example, you may limit eating red meat to weekends only and swap the rest of the week with haricot, baked, kidney, and butter beans, peas, and lentils. These are more affordable than red meat and contain high amounts of fiber and low levels of fat.
- You can soak mushrooms in hot water and use the liquid in your soups and stocks for a “meaty” flavor.
- Mushrooms provide a meaty quality in soups and stews.
- Create a meal plan with recipes calling for loads more vegetables, but with very little meat so you can make sure you’re reducing your meat consumption. For example, you can tweak the amount of meat in curries and stews and add more veggies instead.
- You may also start eating white fish, such as haddock, coley, and cod to substitute your protein needs.
With the scientific explanation about how red meat and Neu5Gc can significantly affect your health when consumed regularly in large amounts, you now know how to respond and act accordingly. By simply changing your food choices, you can reduce the incidence of certain cancers as well as other diseases associated with inflammation.
So, start modifying your diet now and aim for a better and healthier lifestyle!
How does the information about red meat and your health affect you and your diet? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
In a recent issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), four researchers from the University of California, San Diego, publish new “Evidence for a human-specific mechanism for diet and antibody-mediated inflammation in carcinoma progression.” The team discusses the groundbreaking results of their study on the potential role specific molecules may play in human cancer cell growth.
For the first time, these scientists show that a non-human molecule, contained in specific foods we eat, becomes attached to the surface of human cells. They also show that certain food types, already associated with increased cancer risk, contain the molecule in question, a sugar-containing sialic acid, Neu5Gc. In their research, this molecule is recognized by the human host’s immune system as a foreign substance, with subsequent antibody production to the molecule.
The investigators demonstrate that it is this immune reaction to the Neu5Gc that activates the growth of pre-existing cancer cells. Consistent with previous research, they note that mild inflammation associated with an immune reaction attracts specific inflammatory cells to the source of the immune response. The newly recruited cells, which are part of our immune defense, synthesize specific substances that stimulate the growth of blood vessels as well as other cell-growth promoting factors. The presence of new blood vessels supports not only normal cell, but also cancer cell growth, with more nutrients now being delivered to them.
The investigators cite additional work, including epidemiological studies, to support their hypothesis that certain foods – red meat and milk – that contain significant amounts of Neu5Gc are associated with a higher incidence of certain cancers. They also cite work demonstrating that cancer cells contain large amounts of sialic acid sugar residues on their membrane surface.
The group further speculates that some cancers may require a mild immune response, like the one associated with Neu5Gc on the cell surface, to convert a relatively latent cancer to an active, fast-growing pathology.
Read article abstract here.
This Research Update column highlights articles related to recent scientific inquiry into the process of human aging. It is not intended to promote any specific ingredient, regimen, or use and should not be construed as evidence of the safety, effectiveness, or intended uses of the Juvenon product. The Juvenon label should be consulted for intended uses and appropriate directions for use of the product.
Dr. Treadwell answers your questions about Juvenon™ Cellular Health Supplement
Question: As a 73-year-old, steady taker of two Juvenons daily for three years or so, I can generally only report positive results. So, is there any basis for the growing concern that my (of late) increasingly vivid, unpleasantly insistent and circular, often sleep-interrupting dreaming might originate from those same – perhaps by now jubilant – Juvenon-improved mitochondria? Can you shed any light on this dilemma, on the horns of which I sit pondering if reducing or eliminating Juvenon might help? – P
Answer: Many people have commented that Juvenon seems to affect the content of their dreams. In fact, there is some evidence that one of the components in Juvenon may increase the synthesis of a neurotransmitter, acetylcholine. High levels of this transmitter may improve memory retention during the day. Recent evidence, however, indicates elevated acetylcholine levels may also interfere with memory processing during sleep. As this neurotransmitter is short-lived, try taking your second Juvenon tablet at noon, or at least eight hours before bedtime. Please let me know if that helps resolve your dreaming “nightmare.”
Benjamin V. Treadwell, Ph.D., is a former Harvard Medical School associate professor.
Editor’s Note: This post has been updated for quality and relevancy.