England once controlled India as its splendid treasure, but Indian curry has seemingly conquered the tastes of England. In 2001, the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, named chicken tikka massala as the national dish in a speech to the Social Market Foundation in London. Lacking copious amounts of red meat and bathed in a cornucopia of herbs and spices, the cuisine of India seems a world away from the seemingly bland, red meat-laden English dishes of bangers and mash, kidney pies and British Sunday roasts, but the adoption of Indian cuisine and its ubiquitous curry seasoning blends may benefit the growing epidemic of colorectal cancers.
Rates of colorectal cancer ranks as the fourth most common cancer in the United Kingdom and the second most common cancer in Europe overall, according to data compiled by Cancer Research United Kingdom. “Across the Pond” and closer to home, the United States’ Center for Disease Control and Prevention recorded 135,260 diagnoses and 51,783 deaths in 2011, the last year of reliable statistics for the disease, making it the second leading cause of cancer-related death and the third most common cancer. In India, rates of colorectal cancer are very low by comparison.
A 2011 Indian study in the Indian Journal of Gastroenterology examined incident rates for men and women per 100,000 people. The rates were 4.3 for males and 3.4 for females in contrast to the rates in the United Kingdom, which stood at 36.2 and 23.5 and in the United States at 34.1 and 25.0, respectively. Although genetic factors may be likely, diet seems to be an important aspect in the differences in incidence rates.
The British National Health Services reviewed the scientific literature and has concluded that diets high in red meat are likely to lead to an increase in colorectal cancers and makes recommendations to curb its consumption. Studies in the United States indicate that mice fed diets high in cooked meats were also prone to developing colorectal cancers. With diet being such an important factor, what makes the Indian diet conducive to its lower risks of colorectal cancers? The answer lies in the most important ingredient of curry, the ground powder of the turmeric root often compared in taste to saffron.
Turmeric is loaded with one of the most powerful anti-oxidants and a proven natural remedy for certain cancers known as curcumin. In an article in the Journal of American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists and countless other studies, researchers have demonstrated that curcumin is able to kill cancer cells through a variety of mechanisms. Unlike other cancer remedies, however, curcumin shows promise for its non-toxicity in high doses.
Given that the Indian diet is high in the use of turmeric, fiber and low in red meat seems likely as reasons for the very low rates of colorectal cancers. Lifestyle choices are also likely to contribute, since alcohol and nicotine consumption, much reduced in India, have also been linked to increased rates of colorectal cancers.
With more research revealing the powerful anti-cancer benefits of curcumin, chicken tikka massala may be the tastiest way for the British, and other fans of Indian cuisine, to reduce the risk of colorectal cancers.