Sugar Molecule in Red Meat Linked to Increased Cancer Risk, Study Finds

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Sugar Molecule in Red Meat Linked to Increased Cancer Risk, Study Finds

Considering giving Meatless Mondays a try? Now may be a really good time to drop your red meat consumption. New research out of the University of California may have identified a component in red meat linked to an increased risk of developing cancer.

Red meat consumption in the U.S. and other developed countries has been steadily increasing in the last century, right alongside the increase in rates of various types of cancer. There are a number of factors that contribute to ones cancer risk, including genetics, but diet and environment are becoming increasingly more notable risk factors, as the new study indicates.

There have been numerous studies in recent years implicating red meat as carcinogenic and generally bad for our health, and this new research, published in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first to point directly toward a specific culprit in the meat: a sugar molecule found in large quantities in beef, lamb and pork products.

The sugar molecule in red meat, known as Neu5Gc, was found to increase the cancer risk in test mice five-fold. The research team fed the mice diets high in Neu5Gc for a 12-week period. The mice who received the sugar molecule were most prone to develop tumors in the liver. When biopsied, the tumors contained notable levels of Neu5Gc. The researchers noted that while the mice were more prone to cancer of the liver, humans who eat a lot of red meat are more likely to develop colon cancer.

Neu5Gc has been found in high levels in cancerous human tissue, Discover Magazine reports, and when red meat samples were tested alongside other foods including fruits and vegetables, the red meats contained the highest levels of Neu5Gc. Fruits and vegetables didn’t contain any traces of the sugar molecule and fish and poultry products contained significantly lower levels than the red meat.

“Researchers suspected that the immune system could be to blame, launching antibodies against the sugar whenever humans ate it,” reports Discover. “That could cause chronic inflammation, a known contributor to cancer.”

"This is the first time we have directly shown that mimicking the exact situation in humans increases spontaneous cancers in mice,” Dr. Ajit Varki, Professor of Medicine and Cellular and Molecular Medicine at the University of California told the Telegraph.

"The final proof in humans will be much harder to come by," Varki said. "This work may also help explain potential connections of red meat consumption to other diseases exacerbated by chronic inflammation, such as atherosclerosis and type 2 diabetes."

The Telegraph says that experts recommend eating "no more than 2.5oz (70g) a day, the equivalent of three slices of ham, one lamb chop or two slices of roast beef a day."

Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

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