Can asparagus be a treatment for cancer?

What makes people believe the unbelievable? Sometimes it’s desperation. Sometimes it’s wishful thinking about simple answers for complex problems. Sometimes it is blind trust in the untrustworthy. But most often it is a lack of sufficient scientific background needed to evaluate an idea or a claim. Let’s look at a specific example. For years a claim that asparagus can cure cancer has been making the rounds. Sounds so simple and seductive. All you need to do is puree cooked asparagus in a blender and give the patient four tablespoons twice daily. Patients, it is claimed, show some improvement on two to four weeks and many are cured. We are urged to pass the information to as many people as possible so that they can avail themselves of this wondrous remedy, just like the man who cured himself of Hodgkin’s disease. Or the ones whose bladder cancer disappeared. Or the man whose inoperable lung cancer was miraculously cured. Or the lady whose advanced skin cancer just vanished. These stunning results attained with asparagus therapy are reported by some unnamed biochemist who learned of the discovery from an article in a journal that cannot be found written by Richard Vensal, a dentist who cannot be found. OK, first things first. If there were such an astonishing breakthrough in cancer therapy, it would be reported in the pages of the New England Journal of Medicine or other such prestigious publication, from where all the reputable news media would pick it up and trumpet it with exuberant headlines. The information would not come through the backdoor on the Internet. Next, cancer is not one disease, but many. Hodgkin’s disease is not treated the same way as skin cancer or as lung cancer. So the chance that one single treatment, be it a pharmaceutical product, or asparagus, would be effective against such a diversity of cancers is essentially zero.

Besides testimonials from people who cannot be tracked down and likely do not even exist, there is another ingredient needed to sell such unsubstantiated claptrap to the gullible. A dose of persuasive, legitimate sounding science! If it has a smidgen of truth, so much the better. And the purveyor of the silly asparagus myth found it in a substance that actually is present in asparagus, namely glutathione. And what a tangled web those who practice to deceive can weave! Here is how they spin it. The U.S. National Cancer Institute reports, they say, that glutathione is considered one of the body’s most potent anticarcinogens and antioxidants. This is actually true. Then they go on to claim that asparagus is the highest tested food containing glutathione. And off people go dancing down the garden path. But what the asparagus cure promoters don’t mention, either because it doesn’t fit the argument, or more likely out of sheer ignorance, is that glutathione is ineffective when taken orally. The molecule is made up of three amino acids joined together, called a tripeptide, and is readily broken down during digestion. It never gets into the bloodstream and consequently can never get to the cells where it is needed. The human body synthesizes the glutathione within cells as it is needed. You cannot boost levels by eating glutathione. Cures of cancer with asparagus have never been documented, there are no studies in the literature to support this possibility and it is scientifically implausible. There is nothing wrong with eating asparagus, it is a nutrient rich vegetable. It will not cure cancer. But it may make the next urinary trip to the bathroom more memorable.

Joe Schwarcz

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