Pizza Prevents Cancer?
All Foods In Mediterranean Diet Likely Offer Best Protection
July 21, 2003 -- Put the pizzeria on speed dial, but forget the
Meat-Lover's Special. A simple thin-crust pizza -- olive oil, tomato sauce, a
bit of mozzarella -- could help protect you against cancer.
A new study provides another "vote"
for the Mediterranean diet -- which emphasizes having olive oil with most meals
as well as abundant vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and cereals; some fish;
a bit of wine every day; and less meat and dairy than the typical American
But behold, the pizza has not been given its due. "Pizza is
one of the best-known Italian foods, but there is limited information on the
potential influence of pizza and cancer risk," says Silvano Gallus, PhD, an
epidemiologist at the Instituto di Ricerche Farmacologiche "Mario
Negri," in Milan, Italy. He is the lead researcher of the study, which is
published in the International Journal of Cancer.
Forget pasta, forget antipasto, forget
fabulous breads. Pizza showed the most cancer-prevention promise, he says. But
don't call Dominos just yet, he cautions: "Italian pizza is very different
from other kinds of pizza. In Italy, we eat pizza from the pizzeria, where it
is the main dish. It is very different from fast-food pizza."
In their study, Gallus and colleagues sifted through diet
surveys completed by 5,500 Italians -- 598 cancer patients and 4,999 people
Among the 78-item checklist, three questions referred
specifically to pizza -- had they eaten less than one slice a month (considered
non-eaters), one to three slices a month (occasional eaters), or a slice or
more a week (regular eaters).
"We found that regular pizza eaters had 34% less risk of
oral cavity and pharyngeal cancer, 59% less risk of esophageal cancer, and 25%
less risk of colon cancer," says Gallus. In this group of patients, pizza
also reduced risk of rectal cancer and laryngeal cancer, although not
Refined carbohydrates such as bread and pasta have been
directly associated with cancer of the upper digestive tract and colorectal
cancer, he says.
Italian pizza is less than 50% crust, 20% tomato sauce, 20%
mozzarella cheese, and 4% olive oil, says Gallus. There's less refined
carbohydrates, plus cooked tomatoes, which are a rich source of lycopene, a
natural chemical that has been shown in numerous studies to protect against
"We think that there's a specific compound in cooked
tomatoes that is protective," he tells WebMD. However, "tomato
micronutrients remain difficult to identify."
Also important: Italian pizza contains olive oil in the dough
and on the pizza. The monounsaturated fats in olive oil are also considered
protective against cancer.
With a Grain of Salt
Pizza protective against cancer? "Take it with a grain of
salt," says Maria Yaramus, PharmD, clinical coordinator of integrative
medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. "There are so
many styles of pizza, so many ways of making pizza, that I think it's a bit
presumptive to say it prevents cancer."
But yes, Gallus' study is indeed more evidence that a
Mediterranean diet is a good idea. Lycopene in cooked tomatoes, tomato sauce,
tomato paste, and tomato juice has been shown to slow the growth of breast,
lung, and endometrial tumors and to reduce prostate, stomach, and pancreatic
Olive oil -- rich in antioxidants and natural chemicals called
lignans -- has been linked with lower rates of cancer of the large bowel,
breast, endometrium, and prostate, says Yaramus.
In fact, a "slew of research," due to be published
soon, shows the beneficial effects of fatty acids in preventing cancer and in
slowing tumor growth -- at least in animals, Yaramus says. She advises against
substituting fish oil supplements for whole foods, such as salmon and other
To be true to the Mediterranean diet, she emphasizes eating
whole "real" foods.