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Scientific basis of biomarkers and benefits of functional foods for reduction of disease risk: cancer

One of the most promising areas for the development of functional foods lies in modification of the activity of the gastrointestinal tract by use of probiotics, prebiotics and synbiotics. While a myriad of healthful effects have been attributed to the probiotic lactic acid bacteria, perhaps the most controversial remains that of anticancer activity. However, it must be emphasised that, to date, there is no direct experimental evidence for cancer suppression in man as a result of consumption of lactic cultures in fermented or unfermented dairy products, although there is a wealth of indirect evidence, based largely on laboratory studies. Presently, there are a large number of biomarkers available for assessing colon cancer risk in dietary intervention studies, which are validated to varying degrees.

These include colonic mucosal markers, faecal water markers and immunological markers. Overwhelming evidence from epidemiological, in vivo, in vitro and clinical trial data indicates that a plant-based diet can reduce the risk of chronic disease, particularly cancer. It is now clear that there are components in a plant-based diet other than traditional nutrients that can reduce cancer risk. More than a dozen classes of these biologically active plant chemicals, now known as ‘phytochemicals’, have been identified. Although the vast number of naturally occurring health-enhancing substances appear to be of plant origin, there are a number of physiologically active components in animal products (such as the probiotics referred to above) that deserve attention for their potential role in cancer prevention.