CTRC Researchers Looking Into Spicy Foods For Cancer Prevention

Jul 16, 2014

Chef Iverson Brownell prepares foods for the cooking class using spices that researchers believe may reduce the risk of recurrence of breast cancer.
Credit Eileen Pace / TPR News

Scientists are testing the theory that controlling inflammation with foods can change the chances of a recurrence of breast cancer.

Chef Iverson Brownell is surrounded by bowls with pre-measured bits of herbs and spices, ready to add them to the recipes he will teach to the ladies in his cooking class.

"Today we're doing an oatmeal cookie with a little bit of rosemary in it," Brownell said. "You can only taste it a little bit, but you still get the benefits from it. For the other workshop later today, we're doing some candied nuts with some curry on it."

Brownell started doing the classes in June at the test kitchen at Cancer Therapy and Research Center as part of the research on cancer and spicy foods. Dr. Michael Wargovich and Dr. Amelie Ramirez are co-investigators in the Rx for Better Health study.

"What's been discovered is that the herbs and especially the spices part of the cuisine of other cultures, especially in the developing countries, have harbored anti-inflammatory compounds," Wargovich said.

He said research in the last few years has found that chronic inflammation at the cellular level is thought to be central to the future risk for cancer.

But Ramirez said there have been very few human studies with foods, and especially with spices.

"So in this particular study we are looking at the combination of things that the literature says reduce inflammation in our bodies," Ramirez said. "That if we combine these foods with traditional foods that are more kind of a Mediterranean diet, where you use more olive oil and more fish but add more herbs and spices, we want to see if it's really going to impact in humans the reduction of inflammation that might be a precursor." 

Sarah Pascual was just declared cancer-free in May.

Fresh ginger is one of many spices scientists are studying in women to see if they contain properties that will reduce the risk of a recurrence of breast cancer. Also shown are candied nuts with curry.
Credit Eileen Pace / TPR News

"I use a lot of ginger, the black pepper, paprika, the cardemon, just different things," Pascual said. "Just different things. I'm trying to venture out into different spices. 

She said her family has been open to trying to new spices. She thinks it will be easy to make it part of her lifestyle. 

"It's not something that is limited to just a few people. This is something that everybody can do. We're always in the kitchen, we're always cooking. Everybody has to eat. Changing it up isn't too hard or adding something in like ginger, garlic, black pepper. It's not something hard to add in," Pascual said. 

Wargovich, who travels abroad to study food in other cultures, said he’s seen the results of healthy diets in these countries. He’s talking about a return to ancient wisdom.

"And I talk about reversing the dietary clock - going back to the way we used to eat maybe 50, 60, 70, or 80 years ago," Wargovich said. "Research has now confirmed that most of the anti-inflammatory foods out there are the ones that are just laden with colorful and tasty and wonderful-smelling spices."

Doctors are looking for 150 breast cancer survivors to join the study about spices and diet at the Cancer Therapy and Research Center. 

To join the study, breast cancer survivors must be ages 18-75 and meet additional criteria. Gift cards will be given to participants who complete the study’s three assessments — including surveys, blood work, and other measurements — at the Cancer Therapy and Research Center.

Participants can call 210-562-6579 to see if they qualify.