In a laboratory study pairing food chemistry and cancer biology, scientists at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center tested the potentially harmful effect of foods and flavorings on the DNA of cells.
They found that liquid smoke flavoring, black and green teas and coffee activated the highest levels of a well-known, cancer-linked gene called p53.
The p53 gene becomes activated when DNA is damaged. Its gene product makes repair proteins that mend DNA. The higher the level of DNA damage, the more p53 becomes activated.
"We don't know much about the foods we eat and how they affect cells in our bodies," Scott Kern, M.D., the Kovler Professor of Oncology and Pathology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said.
"But it's clear that plants contain many compounds that are meant to deter humans and animals from eating them, like cellulose in stems and bitter-tasting tannins in leaves and beans we use to make teas and coffees, and their impact needs to be assessed," he said.
Using Kern's test for p53 activity, which makes a fluorescent compound that "glows" when p53 is activated, they mixed dilutions of the food products and flavourings with human cells and grew them in laboratory dishes for 18 hours.
Measuring and comparing p53 activity with baseline levels, the scientists found that liquid smoke flavouring, black and green teas and coffee showed nearly 30-fold increases in p53 activity, which was on par with their tests of p53 activity caused by a chemotherapy drug called etoposide.
Kern's team analyzed p53 activity triggered by the chemicals found in liquid smoke. Postdoctoral fellow Zulfiquer Hossain tracked down the chemicals responsible for the p53 activity. The strongest p53 activity was found in two chemicals: pyrogallol and gallic acid. Pyrogallol, commonly found in smoked foods, is also found in cigarette smoke, hair dye, tea, coffee, bread crust, roasted malt and cocoa powder, according to Kern. Gallic acid, a variant of pyrogallol, is found in teas and coffees.
The study has been published in Food and Chemical Toxicology.