Watercress latest super food to fight cancer

By Celia Hall, Medical Editor
Last Updated: 2:04am GMT 16/02/2007

Watercress was declared the latest super food yesterday for being packed with a higher than usual amount of nutrients found in vegetables.

Research has shown that eating a packet of raw watercress a day, or a bowl full, for eight weeks increased the ability of cells to resist damage to their DNA, helping to protect against the cell changes that lead to cancer.

The study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition this month also found that in smokers the protective effect of watercress was slightly increased.
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To qualify as a super food, under standards set by the British Nutrition Foundation, watercress had to be shown to be rich in antioxidants, nutrients and plant chemicals. Its claimed benefits had to be backed by scientific evidence.

Prof Ian Rowland, the professor of human nutrition at Reading University and formerly of the University of Ulster, who led the study said: "Our findings are highly significant. Population studies have show links between higher intake of cruciferous [cabbage family] vegetables, such as watercress and a reduced risk of cancers.

"What makes this study unique is it involves people eating watercress to see what impact that might have on biomarkers of cancer risk, such as DNA damage."

The study of 60 adults who ate watercress daily for two months with a "normal diet" found a reduction of 23 per cent in the damage to their white blood cells compared with eating the same diet without watercress.

There was also a reduction of 10 per cent in triglycerides [blood fats] and an increase of 100 per cent in lutein and of 33 per cent in beta-carotene. Lutein and beta-carotene are both carotenoids and powerful antioxidants that mop up free radicals which damage cells.

"Blood cell DNA damage is an indicator of the whole body cancer risk," said Prof Rowland. "The results support the theory that consumption of watercress is linked to an overall reduced risk of cancer."

The study was funded by the Watercress Alliance made up of watercress producers, Vitacress Salads, Alresford Salads and the Watercress Company.

Dr Steve Rothwell, speaking for the alliance, said the study was the first to suggest a direct link between watercress and susceptibility to cancer.

Karol Sikora, professor of Cancer Medicine, Imperial College, London and medical director of Cancer Partners UK, was not convinced. He said the claims were "grossly overstated".

"There's nothing magic there, he said. "We know that fruits and vegetables all do affect DNA damage hence the five-a-day strategy to prevent cancer.

"There is absolutely nothing special about watercress."

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