Beta-carotene and lung cancer: a case study.

Albanes D Am J Clin Nutr, 1999; 69:6, 1345S-1350S



The conflicting evidence of the relation between beta-carotene and lung cancer in humans serves as a poignant case study with respect to what types of evidence are sufficient to support or change a nutrition recommendation. This article is a review of the available evidence of the relation between beta-carotene and lung cancer, including data regarding beta-carotene intake (from diet and supplements), beta-carotene biochemical status, and vegetable and fruit consumption, and a discussion of the role of this evidence in making nutrition recommendations. More than 30 case-control and cohort studies were conducted over many years in various populations and indicated that people who eat more vegetables and fruit, foods rich in carotenoids, and carotenoids (beta-carotene in particular), as well as those with higher blood beta-carotene concentrations, have a lower risk of lung cancer than those who eat fewer such foods or have lower beta-carotene concentrations. In contrast, the intervention results from large, controlled trials of beta-carotene supplementation do not support the observed beneficial associations or a role for supplemental beta-carotene in lung cancer prevention; instead, they provide striking evidence for adverse effects (ie, excess lung cancer incidence and overall mortality) in smokers. The findings require that caution be exercised in recommending supplemental beta-carotene, particularly for smokers, and argue against changing the vegetable-fruit recommendations in the direction of greater nutrient specificity. This case study of beta-carotene and lung cancer stresses the importance of having results from at least one, and preferably more, large, randomized intervention trial before public health recommendations concerning micronutrient supplementation are considered.