Title: Beer and breast cancer

Key words: pesticides, soft drinks, weak beer, insulin, complex carbohydrates, obesity, breast cancer, testicular cancer, prostate cancer, vitamin B, antioxidants

Date: April 2001

Category: Specific conditions

Type: Article


Beer and Breast Cancer

If teenagers went back to beer would they cut their cancer risk?

The steep rise in breast cancer over the past fifty years has been blamed on a variety of causes-from late childbearing to pesticides. Now Belgian scientists have evidence that it may be caused by teenagers drinking fizzy soft drinks instead of weak beer.

At a meeting in Brussels last week, Jaak Janssens of the Limburg University Centre in Diepenbeek described experiments in which teenagers fasted for 12 hours then drank a 330-millilitre bottle of a popular fizzy drink - he won't divulge the brand - or a bottle of "table beer", a drink containing 1.1 per cent alcohol that was popular in Belgium before soft drinks came on the market. The beer is still served in Belgian hospitals, especially to new mothers.

The focus of the study was insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. As expected, insulin levels shot up after teenagers drank the sugar-laden soft drinks, but not after the beer, which although it contains complex carbohydrates has few simple sugars.

"What was really a new observation," says Janssens, "was that the fatter the teenager was, the more the insulin went up." The insulin levels did not depend on the level of blood sugar or the total weight of an individual, just obesity.

Janssens thinks insulin is a key factor in the development of the human breast, because it influences levels of several other hormones, including growth factor, sex steroids and their inhibitory binding proteins. Inappropriate secretion of insulin at a critical phase of development, he says, "might induce lesions in the breast cells leading to breast cancer later in life".

He believes his research suggests a vicious circle in which "soft drinks and high caloric foods in pubertal children brings accumulation of body fat and in turn increases the response of insulin". This could lead to loss of sensitivity to insulin, which may have a continuing effect on breast cells. "A history of weight gain in early adult life is associated with an increased breast cancer risk in Western women," says Janssens. Insulin may be the link. In males, a similar effect may lead to testicular or prostate cancer.

As for the beer, Janssens couldn't detect any alcohol in the teenagers' blood, which shows that they metabolise it efficiently, he says. While insulin may play a role in cancer, he says more epidemiological research is required before blaming soft drinks.

Denise Baxter of Brewing Research International in Nutfield, Surrey, also told the meeting that as well as vitamin B, beer contains other anti-cancer nutrients, including antioxidants. The meeting was organised by the Confederation of European Brewers.

From New Scientist magazine, vol 164 issue 2215, 04/12/1999, page 16

© New Scientist 2000