The role that sugar may play in increasing cancer risk

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Recent times have seen breast cancer making its way up the political agenda, and awareness of this condition and the coffers of breast cancer charities have been augmented through fund-raising activities such as sponsored moonlit walks and the sale of pink ribbons and wristbands. On a recent trip to the United States I discovered that the confectioner Mars is now producing special edition packs of pink M and Ms for sale, a proportion of the profits from which are to be donated to a leading breast cancer foundation. On the surface, this looks like a sweet enough way to raise money for an important and deserving medical cause.

The selling of chocolate to help fund efforts to combat breast cancer reminded me, however, of recent research linking the eating of sweet foods with this very disease. This research, published in the Annals of Oncology, involved assessing the diets of more than 5000 women for their intake of sweet foods such as biscuits, cakes, sugar and chocolate. This study found that compared to women with relatively low levels of consumption of sweet foods, those with the highest intake had a 19 per cent increased risk of breast cancer. The authors of this study concluded that they had found a direct association between breast cancer risk and the consumption of sweet fare.

Some scientists believe that the link between sugary foods and increased cancer risk has something to do with the rapid speed with which such foods tend to release their sugar into the bloodstream. The consumption of such foods, termed ‘high glycaemic index’ (GI) foods, generally stimulates the secretion of substantial quantities of the chief blood-sugar lowering hormone insulin. The consumption of high GI foods also seems to affect the activity of a related compound known as insulin-like growth factor (IGF), which is believed to have cancer-promoting properties.

The activity of IGF is to some degree modulated by other related substances known as ‘IGF binding proteins’ (IGFBPs). In a study published earlier this year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the consumption of a high GI meal, compared to slower sugar-releasing food, was found to lead to changes in the levels of two types of IGFBP. It has been suggested that such changes promote the activity of IGF, and in so doing raise cancer risk. Interestingly, the consumption of high GI foods has previously been linked with an enhanced risk of not just breast cancer, but other cancers too including those of the ovary, pancreas and colon. Bearing this in mind, I wonder whether the selling of confectionery to raise money for the combating of cancer is such a good idea after all.

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