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Many of the cancers common in the Western world, including colon, prostate and breast cancers, are thought to relate to dietary habits. Of the known risk factors, many will act through increasing the probability of mutation. Recognised dietary mutagens include cooked meat compounds, N-nitroso compounds and fungal toxins, while high meat and saturated fat consumption, increasing rates of obesity, and regular consumption of alcohol and tobacco are all dietary trends that could indirectly enhance the probability of mutation. However, there are significant difficulties in implementing and sustaining major dietary changes necessary to reduce the population's intake of dietary mutagens. Dietary antimutagens may provide a means of slowing progression toward cancer, and be more acceptable to the population. Consideration of genetic mechanisms in cancer development suggest several distinct targets for intervention. Strategies that reduce mutagen uptake may be the most simple intervention, and the one least likely to result in undesirable side effects. Certain (but not all) types of dietary fibres appear to reduce mutation through this mechanism, as may certain probiotics and large planar molecules such as chlorophyllin. Antioxidants have been suggested to scavenge free radicals, and prevent their interactions with cellular DNA. Small molecule dietary antioxidants include ascorbic acid, Vitamin E, glutathione, various polyphenols and carotenoids. We found a statistically significant relationship between colon cancer incidence and soil selenium status across different regions of New Zealand. Additionally, a study of middle-aged men suggested that blood selenium levels lower than 100 ng/ml were inadequate for repair or surveillance of oxidative (and other) DNA damage. We suggest that selenium will be an important antimutagen, at least in New Zealand, possibly through antioxidant effects associated with selenium's role in enzymes associated with endogenous repair of DNA damage. Modulation of xenobiotic metabolizing enzymes is well recognised as cancer-protective, and is a property of various flavonoids and a number of sulfur-containing compounds. Many fruits and vegetables contain compounds that will protect against mutation and cancer by several mechanisms. For example, kiwifruit has antioxidant effects and may also affect DNA repair enzymes. Dietary folate may be a key factor in maintenance of methylation status, while enhanced overall levels of vitamins and minerals may retard the development of genomic instability. The combination of each of these factors could provide a sustainable intervention that might usefully delay the development of cancer in New Zealand and other populations. Although there are a range of potentially antimutagenic fruits, vegetables and cereals available to these populations, current intake is generally below the level necessary to protect from dietary or endogenous mutagens. Dietary supplementation may provide an alternative approach.

Original publication




Journal article



Publication Date





147 - 159


Adolescent, Adult, Aged, Animals, Antimutagenic Agents, Antioxidants, Diet, Dietary Fiber, Female, Food Analysis, Humans, Male, Neoplasms, New Zealand, Selenium