Plant lectin impacts on cancer risks and treatments. A review through 2023.
Written by Keith Bishop, Clinical Nutritionist, B.Sc. Pharmacy, Author
Lectins are a type of protein found in many plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. According to a 2015 review out of China published in the Cell Proliferation, plant lectins can modify the expression of specific immune cells and alter signaling pathways to help kill off cancer cells and block tumor growth.[a]
Interestingly, some lectins are used to detect and diagnose cancer cells. Lectins manifest diverse activities, including inhibiting virus, and antitumor, antifungal, and anti-insect activities. Others are used for therapeutic purposes because of their anti-tumor activity and ability to trigger cancer cell death.[b]
Plant lectins attach to cancer cells and induce their cell death through autophagy (the body breaking down and consuming the cells) and/or apoptosis (normal cell death instead of prolonged growth). Most recently researchers are checking out the benefits of plant lectins to prevent and treat #oralcancer. [j]
However, it is important to note that not all lectins are beneficial. Some lectins can be harmful if consumed in large amounts or if they are not properly prepared. If you eat foods in the ways that they have historically been prepared and consumed, there is no evidence of lectins contributing to health problems.[c]
Some ways to reduce lectins in foods include soaking and sprouting legumes, cooking them thoroughly, and avoiding processed foods.
Lectins are found in many plant-based foods such as legumes (beans, lentils, peas, soybeans), nightshade vegetables (tomatoes and eggplant), dairy products (including milk), grains (such as barley, quinoa, and rice), and whole wheat.
Here is a list of some plant foods that are high in lectins:
- Chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans)
- Red, green, yellow and brown lentils
- Black-eyed and garden peas
- Kidney beans, runner beans, broad beans (fava beans), castor bean, butter beans (Lima beans), cannellini beans, haricots, pinto beans, flageolet beans, and borlotti beans.
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Cancer and Lectin References Include
[a] Jiang QL, Zhang S, Tian M, et al. Plant lectins, from ancient sugar-binding proteins to emerging anti-cancer drugs in apoptosis and autophagy. Cell Prolif. 2015;48(1):17-28. doi:10.1111/cpr.12155
[b] Bhutia SK, Panda PK, Sinha N, et al. Plant lectins in cancer therapeutics: Targeting apoptosis and autophagy-dependent cell death. Pharmacol Res. 2019;144:8-18. doi:10.1016/j.phrs.2019.04.001
[d] Gupta N, Gautam AK, Bhagyawant SS. Biochemical characterisation of lectin from wild chickpea (Cicer reticulatum L.) with potential inhibitory action against human cancer cells. J Food Biochem. 2019;43(2):e12712. doi:10.1111/jfbc.12712
Magee PJ, Owusu-Apenten R, McCann MJ, Gill CI, Rowland IR. Chickpea (Cicer arietinum) and other plant-derived protease inhibitor concentrates inhibit breast and prostate cancer cell proliferation in vitro. Nutr Cancer. 2012;64(5):741-748. doi:10.1080/01635581.2012.688914
[d] Rezvani V, Pourianfar HR, Mohammadnejad S, Madjid Ansari A, Farahmand L. Anticancer potentiality and mode of action of low-carbohydrate proteins and peptides from mushrooms. Appl Microbiol Biotechnol. 2020;104(16):6855-6871. doi:10.1007/s00253-020-10707-8
[e] Yin C, Wong JH, Ng TB. Isolation of a Hemagglutinin with Potent Antiproliferative Activity and a Large Antifungal Defensin from Phaseolus vulgaris cv. Hokkaido Large Pinto Beans. J Agric Food Chem. 2015;63(22):5439-5448. doi:10.1021/acs.jafc.5b00475
Hutchins AM, Winham DM, Thompson SV. Phaseolus beans: impact on glycaemic response and chronic disease risk in human subjects. Br J Nutr. 2012;108 Suppl 1:S52-S65. doi:10.1017/S0007114512000761
[f] Zaineddin AK, Buck K, Vrieling A, et al. The association between dietary lignans, phytoestrogen-rich foods, and fiber intake and postmenopausal breast cancer risk: a German case-control study. Nutr Cancer. 2012;64(5):652-665. doi:10.1080/01635581.2012.683227
Bosetti C, Negri E, Franceschi S, et al. Olive oil, seed oils and other added fats in relation to ovarian cancer (Italy). Cancer Causes Control. 2002;13(5):465-470. doi:10.1023/a:1015760004130
[g] Aune D, De Stefani E, Ronco A, et al. Legume intake and the risk of cancer: a multisite case-control study in Uruguay. Cancer Causes Control. 2009;20(9):1605-1615. doi:10.1007/s10552-009-9406-z
[i] Fan X, Guo H, Teng C, et al. Supplementation of quinoa peptides alleviates colorectal cancer and restores gut microbiota in AOM/DSS-treated mice. Food Chem. 2023;408:135196. doi:10.1016/j.foodchem.2022.135196
Zevallos VF, Herencia LI, Chang F, Donnelly S, Ellis HJ, Ciclitira PJ. Gastrointestinal effects of eating quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa Willd.) in celiac patients. Am J Gastroenterol. 2014;109(2):270-278. doi:10.1038/ajg.2013.431