How Popeye’s favorite spinach works to cut colon cancer risk

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Spinach protects from meat carcinogens by regulating microRNAs

Researchers have been unraveling how epigenetic changes in the way genes express themselves leads to cancer in humans. Scientists at Oregon State University have traced the action of known cancer causing chemicals that come from cooking meat and how it affects cancer stem cells. They’ve also discovered that eating spinach could protect from colon cancer by protecting DNA that when altered, leads to cancerous cell growth.


Spinach reverses some of the damaging effects of cancer agent in meat

Investigators for the study found carcinogens in meat that come from cooking at high heat affect microRNAs through a complex cascade of events.

Mansi Parasramka, a postdoctoral scholar with OSU’s Linus Pauling Institute explains that though microRNAs are small, they ‘do very big things in cells.” The study showed microRNAs affect cancer stem cell markers that can lead to colon cancer.


Epigenetic changes in microRNAs are one of the ways cancer develops. It happens when cells become mutated from outside influences such as diet, infection and toxins in the environment that lead to epigenetic DNA changes. Until recently, researchers thought the formation of microRNAs was ‘junk DNA’. Now they understand that RNAs dictate how DNA is expressed or silenced.

The good news is “Unlike mutations which are permanent genetic changes in DNA, the good news about epigenetics and microRNA alterations is that we may be able to restore normal cell function, via diet and healthy life style choices, or even drug treatments”, explains Professor Rod Dashwood in a media release.

There are a lot of other good reasons to eat spinach besides lower colon cancer risk. The green leafy vegetable is packed with vitamins and antioxidants that could naturally help prevent other types of cancer of the gastrointestinal tract. You’ll want to eat your spinach fresh or frozen instead of out of a can, unlike Popeye. The new study shows eating your spinach can thwart colon cancer because it stops cancer causing chemicals in meat from mutating DNA.

Parasramka, M. A., Dashwood, W. M., Wang, R., Abdelli, A., Bailey, G. S., Williams, D. E., Ho, E. and Dashwood, R. H. (2012), MicroRNA profiling of carcinogen-induced rat colon tumors and the influence of dietary spinach. Mol. Nutr. Food Res..
doi: 10.1002/mnfr.201200117

Updated 4/28/2015