Tapping an Ancient Wisdom

Food scientist explores the whole-food model for cancer prevention.

For generations, Jairam Vanamala's family was active in helping residents of the community maintain good health through diet, exercise, and lifestyle modifications that are integral aspects of Ayurvedic medicine, the traditional Hindu system of health care that stretches back thousands of years. His childhood experience helping his mother tend gardens and grow medicinal herbs influenced Vanamala, now an associate professor of food science at Penn State, and his philosophy about the connection between health and diet -- and continues to shape his journey as a researcher today.

"It is something that has been passed down from generation to generation," says Vanamala, who is also a faculty member at the Penn State Cancer Institute. "Helping people become strong and robust and maintain a healthy lifestyle through diet are some of the best strategies for preventing disease."

left: purple potatoes on a desk. right: Dr Jairam Vanamala looking through a microscope in a lab.

Left: Compounds found in purple potatoes may help kill colon cancer stem cells and limit the spread of the cancer, according to a team of researchers. Right: Jairam K.P. Vanamala studies compounds in foods that could be linked to cancer prevention. Image: Patrick Mansell

The high tech facilities where Vanamala probes the links between food and health are a long way from the rural village in southern India where he grew up, but to him the two are closely connected.

Vanamala got his first training in the lush fruit and vegetable fields that surrounded his hometown. There, "eating healthy" was more than a catchy slogan for the villagers; with the nearest health facility almost 40 miles away, it could mean the difference between life and death.

Vanamala now combines modern analytical technologies with his early lessons on the importance of food and food production. He hopes the results will someday help people choose better foods, or find ways to make foods healthier.

"Helping people become strong and robust and maintain a healthy lifestyle through diet are some of the best strategies for preventing disease."

Cancer is the primary target of his investigation. Over the past few decades, researchers have uncovered evidence linking some foods typical of the Western diet with chronic inflammatory diseases such as cancer and type 2 diabetes, and suggesting that other diets, particularly those composed mainly of fresh fruits and vegetables, ease inflammation and lower the risk of suffering these diseases.

Colon cancer, for example, has been linked to a Western-style diet high in saturated fat and refined sugars and low in vitamins and minerals. According to Vanamala, colon cancer is expected to cause almost 50,000 deaths in the U.S. this year alone. Not only do Western nations have higher rates of colon cancer, but people from countries with mainly plant-based diets who emigrate to Western countries tend to increase their risk of the disease -- and the change can occur within a single generation.

Vanamala's group is examining how compounds in food -- both beneficial and harmful ones – interact with mammalian physiology to prevent or cause cancer. In a recent study, he and a team of researchers showed that a diet that includes plenty of colorful vegetables and fruits may contain compounds that can stop colon cancer and inflammatory bowel diseases in pigs.

"Instead of promoting a pill, we can promote fruits and vegetables that are very rich in anti-inflammatory compounds to counter the growing problem of chronic disease."

In the study, pigs served a high calorie diet supplemented with purple-fleshed potatoes had less colonic mucosal interleukin-6 — IL-6 —than a control group. IL-6 is a protein that is important in inflammation, and elevated IL-6 levels are correlated with proteins that are linked to the spread and growth of cancer cells.

According to Vanamala, eating whole foods that contain macronutrients — substances that humans need in large amounts, such as proteins — as well as micro- and phytonutrients, such as vitamins, carotenoids and flavonoids, may be effective in altering the IL-6 pathway. 

While the researchers used purple potatoes in this study, other colorful fruits and vegetables could prompt similar effects. Colorful plants, including the purple potato, contain bioactive compounds, such as anthocyanins and phenolic acids, that have been linked to cancer prevention.

"If this model works, we can see what works in other countries," Vanamala said. "Instead of promoting a pill, we can promote fruits and vegetables that are very rich in anti-inflammatory compounds to counter the growing problem of chronic disease."