Study Reveals the Anti-Cancer Properties of Spices

Spices and herbs

Scientists in Malaysia have shown that common cooking spices may hold the key to protecting cells and helping to prevent the spread of cancer.

Many culinary spices are rich sources of antioxidants, which can help defend against cellular damage caused by reactive oxygen species (ROS, also known as free radicals). Their antioxidant benefits are due to the presence of a variety of phenols and flavonoids.

The human body has many systems in place to deal with free radicals; however it has also been shown that a diet rich in antioxidant food products can enhance this innate protection.

Plant derived antioxidant compounds like curcumin, resveratrol and flavonoids have demonstrated therapeutic potential, including anti-inflammatory, cell-protective and DNA protective properties.

In a recent laboratory study published in the journal Food Chemistry scientists investigated the effect of spices on DNA damage, which can be a trigger for cancer, as well as on cancer cell migration.

The researchers purchased 9 different spices at a local market. These were:

  • Cumin (Cuminum cyminum)
  • Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
  • Star anise (Illicium verum)
  • Pepper (Piper nigrum)
  • Long pepper (Piper longum)
  • Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
  • Clove (Eugenia carophyllata)
  • Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum)
  • Caraway (Carum carvi)

The spices were then prepared and analysed for their total phenolic content. All the spices showed high phenolic content, particularly, long pepper, pepper, clove and ginger.

Mouse cells and human breast cancer cells were used to study the effects of the spices. The cells were either untreated or pre-treated with different concentrations of spice extracts and then exposed to hydrogen peroxide (to induce DNA damage) and nicotine (to trigger cancer cell migration).

Ginger protects DNA

The researchers first looked at DNA damage.

At low concentrations (5ug/ml, or 5 parts per million), long pepper, caraway, clove, cardamom and ginger showed significant DNA protecting activity (8–47%) whereas the other spices like star anise, fennel and cumin showed significant DNA protecting activity only at higher concentrations (25 and 50ug/ml, or 25 and 50 parts per million).

Caraway, cardamom and ginger showed DNA protecting activity in all the concentrations tested whereas no significant activity was observed in cells treated with pepper. Among the spices used in this study, ginger showed the maximum antioxidant activity at increasing concentrations protecting against 68% of DNA damage at a concentration of 50ug/mg).

Pepper inhibits metastasis

They then turned their attention to cancer cell migration, or metastasis.

Most of the deaths from cancer are caused by cancer cell metastasis – when cancer spreads from one place to another.

The results of the cell migration analysis showed that all the spice extracts inhibited cancer cell migration; and that this effect was stronger when cells were exposed to higher concentrations of the spice extract.

Except for clove and cumin, all the spices used in this study exhibited a significant inhibition of migration. At all concentrations, pepper, long pepper and ginger showed the highest inhibition of cancer cell migration. Of these pepper was the most powerful, inhibiting 90% of cell migration at high concentrations.

A wide range of other benefits

Spices are commonly used to enrich flavour and aroma in cooking as well as to preserve food. The spices in this study are widely used in Asia and the Middle East, not only in cooking, but also as components of a healthy diet. Their use is increasing in non-Asian countries as well.

Many culinary spices like these are also widely used in traditional medicine. Scientific studies have revealed a wide range of biological activities, including, anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumour, immunomodulatory and anti-free radical activities.

In their conclusion the researcher rite: “From the results of this study, we conclude that appropriate addition of particular spices in the diet may inhibit the early stages of carcinogenesis.”

They add that “spices can be considered as promising anti-carcinogenic agents that may prevent diseases induced by free radicals and nicotine. The inclusion of appropriate spices in the diet might be beneficial to the general populace, especially, smokers and those exposed to second-hand smoke.”