Plants grown in controlled environments can give newly diagnosed cancer patients more locally available fresh options

Plants grown in controlled environments can give newly diagnosed cancer patients more locally available fresh options

Plants grown in controlled environments can give newly diagnosed cancer patients more locally available fresh options 150 150 Stein

Plants grown in controlled environments can give newly diagnosed cancer patients more locally available fresh options

Editor’s Note:  Urban Ag News fully understands that many of these crops are not currently grown in greenhouses, hoop houses, high tunnels or vertical farms.  But, that is not as important as the fact that they could be if the consumer and the farmer found equal value in exploring local production.

Cancer touches us all. 

One in two people are expected to have some form of the disease in their lifetime. Despite these statistics it is not inevitable nor the curse it was and many more survive than not thanks to advances in chemotherapy, targeted radiotherapy and most recently immunotherapies like CAR T cell therapy.

We are all individuals so no diagnosis is likely to be exactly the same. Instead we rely on statistics that tell us the likelihood of occurrence or reoccurrence. Thankfully the pathways are being elucidated and for the most part overwhelming evidence suggests the way for us to gain personal control and break the cycle is to follow a plant based diet.

What is Cancer?

Cancer is not a new disease. Around 400 BC Hippocrates used the termscarcinos’ and ‘carcinoma’ to describe non-ulcer forming and ulcer-forming tumours. A century or so later another Roman physician, Galen used the term oncos (Greek for swelling) to describe tumours, that led to the study of cancer, which today we refer to as oncology.

Cancer forms when cells in the body grow out of control because the genetic code is broken. The switch (gene) is disrupted in many different ways and cells then become tricky for the body to manage, avoiding a natural programmed cell death. The variations and stages can be vast which is why we still have very limited individual pharmaceutical treatments tailored to our needs. 

But one thing we do know for sure is that most lifestyle cancers are the result of chronic inflammation which helps establish precancerous cells in the body that enables them to build blood vessel networks (angiogenesis) to supply their own energy allowing them to grow and invade vital organs. 

Is cancer getting more prevalent?

Are we really getting more cancer than previous generations or is it that we can detect more with tests and scans? 

Researchers believe that about two-thirds of the increase is due to us living longer and yes we are able to pick up signs earlier. The rest, they think, is due to changes in cancer rates across different age groups linked to higher risks when people are overweight. Specifically our culture of sunbathing increases the rates of melanoma skin cancer and more generally increased alcohol consumption contributes to higher cancer rates. I will not go into the environmental nor the genetic factors but these also play a small role in increased incidence. 

Is there something we as CEA farmers can do differently from field farmers? 

In my early career I was a cancer researcher, studying pharmacological progression of GI related disease. The last thing on my mind 30 years ago was how what we ate could prevent and in some cases even reverse some of these dangerous cellular changes. Now I think it is a failure in the evolution of medicine to not fully engage in food nutrition before a disease becomes so advanced that no intervention, either pharmaceutical or nutraceutical ceases its progression. 

Discussing cancer still scares people (even me). It’s something that happens to other people until one day it happens to you or your nearest and dearest. Then inevitably you want to understand the processes to prevent this disease taking over. The problem is complex and that’s a fact. I’m not going into detail of the pathways in this article, they are super complicated. But I will describe the plants that have the best antioxidant and anti-inflammatory mechanisms to help repair DNA damage and give you the best chance of boosting the immune system to fight lifestyle preventable cancers.

Can eating healthy foods from plants grown in CEA help prevent cancer? 

Given that more than 60% of our anticancer drugs are derived from plant material it makes sense to look at a plant based diet to help us. Growing these plants for their nutraceutical value in CEA is really important as we can eliminate pesticide residue which contributes to inflammation. 

AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION IS WORTH A POUND OF CURE.

Ben Franklin, 1736

Prevention is better than cure so start on a healthy regimen now and you may never be faced with the ‘Big C’. Our previous blogs this year on diabetes and mental health should help your direction when faced with precursor diseases. 

But if you are already on the unfortunate journey then teas and juices can be the easiest way to consume antioxidants if you are on the go and between cancer treatments. If chosen correctly these can create an environment to boost beneficial microflora in the gut, important for dampening inflammation. 

Most if not all these plants can be successfully grown in a controlled environment which can provide locally available fresh options that might not be found at a nearby grocery store.

New root growth formed in one week of aeroponics of a dwarf Pomegranate variety. 

Pomegranate is native to the Middle East, and men from these countries have half the chance of developing prostate cancer than those in the west. In fact, recent studies have shown combined extracts of pomegranate, turmeric, green tea and broccoli significantly reduces prostate specific antigen (a marker for cancer) levels down to almost normal in patients with prostate cancer.

Peaches and nectarines (a smooth peach missing the gene for fuzzy skin) are high in chlorogenic acids. A symbol of long life and immortality, they come from the botanical Rosaceae family and are high in hydroxycinnamic acid (also a bioactive compound in Wasabi leaf stem) with the potential to reduce the incidence of lung, breast, head and neck cancers. Eating peaches has been found to reduce prevalence of metastatic (when it spreads from primary sites) cancer. A study at Texas A&M University demonstrated chlorogenic acid and neochlorogenic acid from peaches  aggressively killed breast cancer cells while leaving normal cells unharmed. 

Cranberry is a natural bog plant and will do well in adapted hydroponic systems. A close relative of Vaccinium  blueberries they produce large berries which we best associate with a turkey Christmas dinner and popular in the US for thanksgiving courtesy of the pilgrim fathers in Massachusetts. Self fertile and low growing, the variety below is Pilgrim. We previously described the anticancer properties of cranberries, strawberries and blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, the latter all regularly grown in CEA. Rich in quercetin, Cranberries have been shown to inhibit lymphoma and breast cancer cells. Cranberry derived constituents may be particularly efficacious inhibitors targeting oral premalignancy. 

Celery is the new super detox food in juicing circles. Celery contains luteolin and apigenin, both  of which reduce inflammation. The authors of an article published in 2009 suggested that luteolin, a blood brain permeable flavonoid may help prevent the spread of cancer cells by making them more susceptible to attack by chemotherapy. 

Celery is a cool season vegetable and ideal for hydroponics as it consists of 95% water and can grow up to 25% faster in CEA. Plus if you wrap the roots up for sales and they don’t sell you can pop them back into NFT later and keep growing. 

Green tea made from the unfermented leaves of the plant Camellia sinensis has immune boosting capabilities. The substance in green tea that researchers think is most helpful is the catechin epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) which boosts the immune system to help fight cancer. In combination with turmeric, EGCG causes significant cancer cell death in a synergistic way. This combination also increases the effectiveness of radiotherapy. 

New Jersey tea (early stage multiplication in tissue culture above) made from Ceanothus Americanus has some interesting effects similar to green tea. If it is good enough to attract Hummingbirds, it must be special! Lymph nodes store infection killing white blood cells and direct them to where they are required when the body detects an abnormality. If the lymphatic system is slow or inflamed as it is when under a cancer attack then these white blood cells can’t do their job correctly. Ceanothus Americanus, also known as red root, stimulates the lymphatic system, supporting detoxification of the spleen and liver during chemotherapy.  

Redcurrants (main image) are a very good source of resveratrol which has been shown to increase the cytotoxic effects of radiation treatment and the chemotherapy drugs Adriamycin and Taxol used for breast cancer. Resveratrol can inhibit aromatase (the synthesis of estrogen from androgens within the body) important in reducing the growth of estrogen positive breast cancers.

Black Goji berries multiplying in tissue culture. Researchers showed active compounds in both black and red goji berries are highly effective in killing breast cancer cells. These berries also have high levels of zeaxanthin which is thought to help stem cell organ regeneration.

Soya bean plantlets initiated in hydroponics before field transfer.

Hormone dependent breast and prostate cancers are highly prevalent in the west but very uncommon in Asian countries. It is thought the cumulative effect of a life long diet of phytoestrogens is the key difference. Fresh soya beans (Edamame) contain active polyphenol isoflavones (soy sauce does not count as the isoflavones are broken down during fermentation). These include the phytoestrogen genistein, structurally very similar to oestrogen that has been shown to have cancer blocking effects. These effects are not just limited to breast cancers but will also block androgen related prostate cancer changes.

Recent controversy over soya consumption has been inconclusive. Concerns arose over the estrogen activity of isoflavones after animal studies showed an increase in breast cancer. Although one clinical study did show cancer promoting genes could be switched on after eating soya it is thought the protective effect of long term moderate consumption outweighs any increased cancer risk. But if you are unsure, speak to your doctor about adding phytoestrogens to your diet pre and post menopause. The American Cancer Society recommends natural soya foods as safe and healthy but they suggest you avoid soy supplements as they contain much higher isoflavone concentrations. 

Good Sugar Versus Bad Sugar, is it true?

We think of sugar as the food stuff that elevates blood glucose leading to diabetes and contributing to obesity as well as blocking our arteries causing plaques and coronary heart disease. REMEMBER ALL CELLS NEED GLUCOSE TO FUNCTION. The idea that sugar could directly fuel the growth of cancer cells can lead some people to avoid all carbohydrates. But it is counter-productive for anyone struggling to maintain their weight while dealing with the side effects of cancer treatment and can actually create more stress trying to avoid sugar altogether. Stress caused by worrying about eating the wrong foods will turn on the fight or flight mechanism, increasing the production of hormones that can raise blood sugar levels and suppress immune function, in turn reducing any possible benefit of eliminating sugar in the first place. 

But sugars are not equal and reducing highly processed sugars (sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, or other sweeteners that increase glycemic index) and eating good sugars from whole plant foods helps stabilise blood glucose levels. 

‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’ is a true proverb. 

Young apple trees efficiently grown under LED lights in a controlled environment means the plants can be accelerated to the field faster than traditional methods. Cornell researchers have identified a dozen triterpenoids in apple peel that either inhibit or kill cancer cells in laboratory cultures. They found several of these compounds have potent anti-proliferative activities against human liver, colon and breast cancer cells.

The superfood turmeric was hailed as a cancer busting superfood in the last decade. Turmeric is a mainstay of Ayurvedic medicine and it is the active compound curcumin which makes up 5% of the dry root weight. Curcumin blocks the growth of a large number of tumours including colon, breast and ovarian cancers as well as leukaemia. It also prevents the formation of new blood vessels by angiogenesis. Further trials are underway to test effectiveness in pancreatic cancer and melanoma, both on the rise in western societies. A combination of curcumin with quercetin (found in many citrus fruits) can decrease precancerous polyps of the colon by 60%. Turmeric is well adapted to hot climates and does grow particularly well in flood and drain hydroponics. 

The use of cannabinoids is still somewhat complicated as the pathways are highly complex and physiological actions of so many terpene derivatives need further scientific review. However cannabinoids are a very useful line of defence in pain management during cancer treatment. I urge caution that self medication can lead to downregulation of receptors that are essential for other important physiological processes. So if your oncologist recommends CBD it should be highly controlled.

Lycopene is a cancer-fighting food associated with protection against certain cancers such as prostate, kidney, breast and lung cancer. Lycopene is much higher in the wild original species lycopersicon pimpinellifolium, native to Ecuador and Peru. This species is highly salt and stress tolerant. Breeding of new characteristics has the potential to increase palatable flavours with species crosses that display additional environmental and medicinal benefits.

Lycopene accumulates in our skin to protect against melanoma. It’s important to cook tomatoes with olive oil, as this will release even more lycopene and increase bioavailability. This is why the Mediterranean diet is so revered. Two Passata based meals a week can lower the risk of prostate cancer by a third.

Resveratrol is produced by black grapes as a defence mechanism against environmental stress, insect and fungal attack. Like black and red currants, resveratrol is found in the skin and seeds of red grape varieties which is why some have suggested that moderate consumption of red wine is good for you. But it’s a complex paradoxical picture. Although some studies in animals suggested red wine (due to the resveratrol content) could potentially reduce the incidence of lung and colon cancer, others say red wine (due to the alcohol content) can actually increase cancer risks. 

What we do know for sure is that resveratrol is well absorbed in the body and offers some exciting anticancer properties. Probably best to consume through black grape juice if you are concerned about the alcohol content in wine. Growing grapes in a controlled environment can help boost field yields and breeding can increase resistance to fungal diseases like mildew and botrytis when exposed to the elements like above in California.

Sulforaphane containing vegetables have huge potential to improve human health and prevent cancer 

Cruciferous vegetables contain a special phytonutrient called sulforaphane shown to have wide ranging anti-cancer activity acting as very potent antioxidants which essentially induce tumour arrest and cell death. Promising in vitro cancer studies of sulforaphane and other long chain isothiocyanates are known to have significant chemoprotective effects on prostate, breast, colorectal, lung, bladder, glioblastoma and  blood cancers. 

The cruciferous family includes cauliflower, kale, cabbage, pak choi, broccoli, brussel sprouts, watercress, mustard, horseradish and wasabi. 

The cruciferae are amongst the easiest to grow vegetables in CEA with the most accessible health promoting phytonutrients observed in any plant which make them an attractive proposition for farmers. 

We are slightly biased but wasabi  is in a league of its own as a superpower in terms of anti-cancer properties, sparking interest with hundreds of peer reviewed scientific studies over the last two decades. It has been shown to kill cancer cells of any cancer tested. Check out our exclusive article on Wasabi for all the links

Myrosinase, the essential enzyme required to form these bioactives compounds, can be inactivated by heat, so steaming may retain phytonutrients for longer. If you can eat these vegetables raw or in a smoothie, you will gain all the nutritional benefits. But remember the bioactives in wasabi are only available for 10-15 mins after grinding so it must be eaten fresh.

Only three or four servings of brassicas weekly can reduce the chances of developing cancer. Broccoli contains one of the highest sources of glucosinolate so it is no surprise that broccoli metabolites have been commercialised as health food supplements to support GI health. Interestingly, three day old sprouts of some cruciferous vegetables contain 10-100 times higher concentrations of glucoraphanin. So microgreens popular in many vertical farms are perfect for boosting your immune system against all kinds of precancerous and cancer cell formation.

Watercress grown in gel. A new study has reported that long chain isothiocyanates (PEITC) in watercress inhibit growth and progression of HER2+ breast cancer by targeting breast cancer stem cells. 

Moringa is the Superfood cousin of Cruciferae

Moringa Oleifera, known as the horseradish tree in Africa is a relative of cruciferae and is a fast growing tree that reaches full maturity in less than a year. Moringa is one of the most nutrient dense plants on earth and owing to an extra rhamnose sugar moiety it retains very high levels of a stable and unique ITC shown to significantly reduce inflammation with significant anticancer activity. Other health benefits include significant Vitamin A levels boosting iron metabolism to combat fatigue. It does have a bitter spicy taste like many of the crucifers but is easily mixed with more powerful flavours to mask the taste.

Growing these plants in CEA

We already described CEA growing methods for berries, greens, tomatoes, wasabi, turmeric and many more in our previous EAT THIS series of articles. Start with kale and pak choi varieties which are commonly grown in hydroponic systems and can be an entry point for new growers as they are very easy to grow. 


Pak Choi in hydroponics, Lufa farms 

They adapt well to both deep water culture and NFT allowing production in 6 weeks that can be cut several times promoting multiple harvests. Kale tends to have a wide pH range 6-7.5 and EC 1.8-3.0. These crops are a great choice, being compatible with herbs and greens and are cold hardy to 45-85°F which can extend the growing season. In fact, cooling kale to 40°F can also enhance the flavour. Pak choi requires a tighter pH range  5.5-6.5 and absorbs nutrients between EC 1.5-2.5. These plants don’t specifically require supplemental lighting but it may benefit quicker production extending through the winter shoulder months, critical for farm profits. 

Although some consider wasabi the ‘hardest to grow’ vegetable in the world, we believe knowledge, experience and trials can lead to successful outcomes and large scale production in CEA. Reach out if you need our consultancy to get started. 

What makes CEA grown produce stand out from organic or field grown?

Although there is no conclusive evidence that field crops sprayed with pesticides or GMO crops themselves lead to increased cancer rates, avoiding pesticides is a sensible precaution to retain healthy cells. Pesticides and fungicides are unrecognised by the body and can increase inflammation. Farmers use them to control weeds and diseases to maximise crop yields but in CEA their use is not essential. Beneficial insects are more likely to be employed to eliminate pests and environment control helps prevent moulds and fungal infections. 

Eating well during chemotherapy 

Personally, if I was worried about cancer, regardless of what area of the body and cancer type or stage I had concerns over, I would 100% increase my consumption of fresh fruits, berries and vegetables, in a raw juicing regimen with the best quality plants I could buy or grow in CEA. 

There are so many things that happen during chemotherapy that can take you by surprise. The first is appetite suppression. While undergoing treatment it may not be the best time to become crazy experimental (many people do) with foods that you are not used to in your diet. It can also be difficult to keep the calories up which is why oncologists will generally prescribe steroids as they increase appetite and reduce inflammation as well as making chemotherapy more effective. So making healthy balanced food choices and reducing stress will prepare your body in the best way to receive treatment for your cancer.

Chemotherapy will immunocompromise the body but it’s temporary so stick with it. 

We discussed in our last article how some of the most powerful and highly efficient chemotherapies are derived from plants. Essentially they are ‘industrial strength antibiotics’ that search out tumour cells and destroy them. So chemotherapy is not something to be feared. It should be used in tandem with a healthy diet. Antiemetics are usually prescribed alongside IV chemotherapy to prevent nausea. The last thing you want is for the chemo to be ejected and not have time to do its job. There is increasing evidence that drinking green teas can reduce cancer related nausea. 

Side effects during chemotherapy

Whilst we talk about the positive anti-inflammatory effects of these foods, during chemotherapy it is vital to be drinking a minimum of 2 pints of water a day to clear the drugs from the liver and prevent toxicity. Fatigue is a common side effect as red blood cell count is diminished so there is less oxygen transfer to the muscles which makes you tired. It’s important to maintain good electrolyte balance and eating the right foods will help. Keeping a daily chart can help you monitor any drops in appetite and will make it easy to see patterns. 

Mouth ulcers are an extremely common side effect during chemotherapy and this can prevent you eating well when you most need to. Toothpaste can be harsh with rubbing causing more inflammation and chlorhexidine on sponge sticks can stain your teeth. It might seem unnecessary but if your mouth is sore and you feel sick, eating well can become an issue.

Chewing fresh wasabi leaves will gently cleanse the mouth and kill any bacteria that causes dental caries. Yes there can be a little nip but it’s very light in the leaves and is reassuring as you know the chemical reaction to create bioactive isothiocyanates is working. Red Root may also  provide antibacterial effects to protect against gum bleeding following gingivitis. NJ tea tree bark and lavender can be useful as a skin wash for sores. 

Final word about stress and how this contributes to cancer 

The major cause of death from cancer is metastasis that is resistant to conventional therapy. We know that post pandemic there will be even more people diagnosed with cancer and at late stages where treatment becomes harder. We hope this blog helps you and your support network to find positive ways to help your body through the process. Keeping a positive outlook is important for your mental state, as chronic stress reduces killer T cells in the body that seek out and kill cancer cells. So keep stress at bay, listen to your doctors and try to remain in a good happy state. There is resounding evidence that those with good loving social networks have better long term outcomes. 

Disclaimer: We are not advocating this information in preference to medical advice, remember if you have serious illness and suspect symptoms of cancer are present please seek advice from your general practitioner. Our blogs are designed for people looking for advice on plants that have additional phytonutrients that can help repair and replenish your body and boost the immune system. We advise you to stay within peer reviewed research and CDC guidance. 

Unless otherwise stated all images are courtesy of The Functional Plant Company and property of Urban Ag News. 


Janet Colston PhD is pharmacologist with an interest in growing ‘functional’ foods that have additional phytonutrients and display medicinal qualities that are beneficial to human health. She grows these using a range of techniques including plant tissue micropropagation and controlled environmental agriculture to ensure the highest quality control.

You can follow The Functional Plant Company on Instagram


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