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Red meat and vegetables. © Fotolia

Nutritional prevention a possible method to limit risk of cancers linked to iron in meat products

Recent data suggests that the consumption of nutritional iron could be linked to a high risk of breast cancer, and a diet rich in antioxidants appears to be effective at limiting this risk. Such are the findings of a study led by INRA and INSERM1 researchers, published in the journal Oncotarget. These new results confirm those found in animals AND findings on colon cancer. Antioxidants in our diet are seen as a possible preventative method of limiting the risk of cancers caused by iron found in red and processed meats.

Updated on 12/01/2016
Published on 11/17/2016

In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organization classified the consumption of processed meat products as carcinogenic to humans and the consumption of red meat as probably carcinogenic. Research carried out by INRA researchers at the Toxalim unit, also in 2015, revealed that heme iron in red meat is the primary factor in the promotion of colon cancer. This effect is explained by a reaction between heme iron and nutritional fats which leads to the formation of compounds that are detrimental to colonic epithelial cells2. Based on these findings, the INRA team explored ways in which nutrition can be used as a prevention method. They observed that in animals, the addition of calcium (which fixes heme iron) or antioxidants (such as vitamin E or polyphenols) limited, in vitro, the promotion effect of heme iron in beef and processed meats.

More recently, INRA scientists teamed up with epidemiologists at INSERM and the nutritional epidemiology research team1 which conducted the SU.VI.MAX (SUpplementation in VItamins and Anti-oXydant Minerals) study over an eight-year period with nearly 13,000 people.  SUVIMAX is an intervention study involving the use, in humans, of nutritionally-dosed antioxidants versus a placebo.  The study showed that ample consumption of nutritional iron is associated with a high risk of breast cancer in the placebo group (an increase of 67%). The connection between the consumption of nutritional iron and a risk of breast cancer disappeared in the group which took antioxidants at nutritional doses, i.e. levels found in a balanced diet rich in fruit and vegetables.

These results highlight a risk of breast cancer that could be controlled by antioxidants in our diet. They are consistent with experimental data obtained by the INRA team at the Toxalim unit in animal models and support the hypothesis that antioxidants in food could protect against this risk of promoting (breast and colon) cancer caused by iron in red and processed meats. Combining experimental and epidemiological research, this work received support from NACRe (National Alimentation Cancer Recherche), a multidisciplinary network which brings together public research in nutrition and cancer in France. In France, 25% of the population consumes high levels of heme iron (over 500g of red meat per week). This specific risk should be addressed by increasing antioxidant intake, particularly by eating fruits and vegetables.

Similar results for colon cancer

The E3N prospective cohort study included approximately 100,000 French women (volunteers), born between 1925 and 1950, who completed questionnaires about their diet from 1990 onwards. The INRA team at Toxalim worked with a team at the Centre de recherche en épidémiologie et santé des populations at the Institut Gustave Roussy (Inserm, Universités Paris sud and Versailles Saint-Quentin) to analyse the data gathered on this E3N cohort. Their research revealed that consuming high levels of heme iron is linked to an increased risk of colonic adenoma in the women in the study (a 36% increase compared to average consumption) and that high antioxidant intake protects against this confirmed link.

Reference: Heme iron intake, dietary antioxidant capacity, and risk of colorectal adenomas in a large cohort study of French women. Nadia Bastide, Sophie Morois, Claire Cadeau, Suvi Kangas, Mauro Serafini, Gaelle Gusto, Laure Dossus, Fabrice H. Pierre, Francoise Clavel-Chapelon, and Marie-Christine Boutron-Ruault. 28 January 2016, Cancer Epidemiology biomarkers & Prevention. DOI: 10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-15-0724.

1. This study involved researchers from the Toxalim unit (INRA, INP, Toulouse, Université Paul Sabatier) and the nutritional epidemiology research team (INSERM, INRA, Université Paris 13, CNAM).
2. A central role for heme iron in colon carcinogenesis associated with red meat intake. Bastide, Chenni, Audebert, Santarelli, Taché, Naud, Baradat, Jouanin, Surya, Hobbs, Kuhnle, Raymond-Letron, Gueraud, Corpet, Pierre. Cancer Research, March 2015. DOI: 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-14-2554.

Scientific contact(s):

  • Fabrice PIERRE (33 (0)5 82 06 63 70) Joint Research Unit for Food Toxicology (ToxAlim – INRA, INP Toulouse, Université Paul Sabatier)
  • Mathilde TOUVIER (33 (0)1 48 38 89 54) Research Centre in Epidemiology and Statistics Sorbonne Paris Cité (CRESS, Inserm, INRA, Cnam, Universités Paris 5, 7 and 13)
Press Relations:
INRA News Office (33 (0)1 42 75 91 86)
Associated Division(s):
Nutrition, Chemical Food Safety and Consumer Behaviour
Associated Centre(s):


Dietary iron intake and breast cancer risk: modulation by an antioxidant supplementation. Diallo*, Deschasaux*, Partula, Latino-Martel, Srour, Hercberg, Galan, Fassier, Guéraud, Pierre, Touvier. Oncotarget. 2016. doi: 10.18632/oncotarget.12592 (*Equal contribution)