If you haven’t googled asparagine yet, you better jump on the fear bandwagon before it’s too late: People believe asparagus gives you cancer.
The link is obvious, isn’t it? Asparagine and asparagus — the words share the same beginning! Thus, cancer.
Asparagine (C4H8N2O3) is a nonessential amino acid in the human body and one of the 20 most common and naturally occuring amino acids on Earth. In 1806, it was the first amino acid ever isolated — from asparagus juice, of course, given the name. After eating asparagus, some people notice a unique smell in their urine resulting from a metabolic breakdown of asparagine.
The good news is asparagus won’t give you cancer, only make your pee smell weird. The public’s linking of asparagine with asparagus isn’t far fetched, but jumping to conclusions as a result of a name association shouldn’t have happened — except it did — and respected media outlets didn’t help the situation. They fanned the flames. Here’s what happened and why the pot of scientific spoof soup can stop boiling already:
The Media Misread the Abstract
Everyone, from The Guardian to the Evening Standard, misread the abstract of the research paper and seemed to allude that avoiding asparagus and other foods altogether stops breast cancer in its tracks. A portion of the abstract addresses the strong correlation of asparagine synthetase expression in a primary tumor with matastatic relapse later on. The abridged version follows with:
“Limiting asparagine by knockdown of asparagine synthetase, treatment with L-asparaginase or dietary asparagine restriction reduces metastasis without affecting growth of the primary tumor, whereas increased dietary asparagine or enforced asparagine synthetase expression promotes metastatic progression.”
A major concern with this sweeping misinterpretation, to use kindness, is that now people may unnecessarily avoid healthy foods like asparagus, eggs, dairy, fish, potatoes, seeds and nuts, which provide a wide variety of nutrition necessary for the human body, as asparagine is highly unavoidable with most diets, including restricted ones. There’s always dirt to eat — it’s vegan and gluten-free.
The abstract itself shares that the enzyme asparagine synthetase determines whether the tumor of a cancer patient spreads to other areas of the body. Fortunately, scientists were quick to correct the media.
Dr. Alex Berezow, a senior fellow of biomedical science at the American Council on Science and Health, explained that this enzyme helps make asparagine, and the human body also makes other amino acids to create proteins similarly. If this particular enzyme gets ridiculously active, breast cancer has better opportunities to spread per the mouse model presented in the study. Opportunity does not equate to certainty. You won’t get cancer eating asparagus.
So, the scientists of the study switched off the gene that encoded the enzyme by running interference with RNA and basically fed the mice asparaginase, an enzyme, to destroy asparagine — or gave them a low-asparagine diet. In each case, chances of breast cancer spreading lowered. Promising, right?
Completely Avoiding Asparagine Is Not Realistic
One in eight women will get breast cancer, and the occurrence is 100 times less frequent in men. Managing controllable risk factors help patients avoid breast cancer, such as eating a balanced diet of healthy foods, of which many contain asparagine. Completely avoiding asparagine isn’t realistic — it’s found in dairy, eggs, poultry, beef, seafood, potatoes, legumes, nuts, seeds, soy and whole grains. Patients cannot control their DNA or what their body naturally produces.
Low-asparagine foods typically include most vegetables and fruits. Unless you plan to juice long-term on a daily basis, completely avoiding asparagine and eating a low-asparagine diet for years isn’t a realistic approach.
The lead authors of this study indicate that diet may influence the disease’s course, which should have been the approach of media outlets. Most diets incorporate high-asparagine foods, including those of meat-eaters and vegetarians. In the short term, extreme diets and fasting have been used by researchers and medical professionals to affect the course of diseases or prepare a patient for surgery and quick recovery.
It may be reasonable that a shorter-term diet produces a significant effect. Perhaps targeting asparagine at the blood level is a better approach. More research is needed.
Media Outlets Broke an Intrinsic Trust With the Public
Many media outlets took the unfortunate course of assuming the avoidance of asparagine altogether was best, including many healthy foods that actually promote the reduction of risk factors for multiple types of cancer, including breast cancer. Since the human body makes asparagine, it can never be completely avoided, and it is a vital component of bodily processes.
The media has a responsibility to present information in an unbiased way with solid research and facts backed by scientific authority. The misinterpretation of vital research and placement of clickbait headlines by supposedly reputable news sources are unfair to readers, especially in an age of fake news. So, your pee may smell funny, but asparagus itself won’t give you cancer.