No, Asparagus Isn't a Cancer-Spreading Supervillain

by Shannan Rouss ; Updated February 22, 2018

Here are just a few of the headlines that have fans of asparagus scratching their heads in confusion: “Acid in asparagus could cause the spread of cancer, study says.” And: “Could cutting asparagus stop the spread of breast cancer?” Also this: “Laying off asparagus may help beat cancer.” Isn't asparagus supposed to be healthy?

As it turns out, asparagus deserves an apology. The veggie came under attack after a 2018 study of mice and asparagine in the journal Nature found that cutting back on asparagine — an amino acid named after asparagus — slowed the spread of a particular form of breast cancer, while increasing the amount of asparagine sped up the progression of the disease.

That’s the first thing worth pointing out: This study was conducted on mice, not people. While animal studies are a necessary starting point for researchers, the results should be replicated in human studies before any actionable conclusions can be made.

What’s more, while asparagine may be named after asparagus, that’s only because chemists first isolated the amino acid from asparagus juice back in 1806. It’s not the only — nor even the highest — source of asparagine.

In fact, the amino acid (which our bodies can synthesize on their own) is also found in dairy, beef, poultry, eggs, seafood, potatoes, legumes, nuts, seeds, soy and whole grains, according to Cedars-Sinai, which participated in the research.

In the study, one group of mice were fed a low-asparagine diet, while another group was given the asparagine-blocking drug, L-asparaginase. (The drug has been used for years to treat patients with acute lymphocytic leukemia.) In both cases, the spread of cancer was reduced, but the drug was more effective.

That’s why Keqiang Ye, a cancer researcher at Emory University in Atlanta, told The Guardian that drug therapies held more promise for cancer patients than diet changes, adding that because asparagine is so prevalent in food, “diet restriction may not be the ideal approach.”

So before you go eliminating all asparagus, dairy, beef, seafood, potatoes and more from your diet (you’re not left with a lot), heed the words of lead study author Steven Hannon, director of the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, who told The Guardian, “Of course, until human studies are done, this isn’t a DIY method to prevent cancer.”

So relax and continue enjoying the many delicious and nutritious elements of asparagus. Your health will thank you.

Read more: The 18 Most Nutritious Vegetables

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What Do YOU Think?

Were you aware of this study? What was your takeaway from it? Do you think some of the headlines were misleading? Let us know in the comments below!

About the Author

Shannan Rouss is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. She has written for magazines including Self, Prevention, Glamour and Cosmopolitan, and her work has appeared online at MSN.com, mom.me and elsewhere.