The Little-Known Way Food Can Cause Malignancy

Analysis by Dra. Donna Raditic

Story at-a-glance -

  • CANWI is a nonprofit organization I co-founded with Dr. Karen Becker; our mission is to conduct independent, unbiased pet food research and share our findings with every interested pet parent, veterinary school, and pet food company
  • Today’s guest is Dr. David Turner, President & Co-Founder, Anti-A.G.E. Foundation, and we’ll be discussing advanced glycation end products (AGEs) in processed food and the resulting health damage
  • Pets fed ultraprocessed diets are ingesting tremendous amounts of AGEs each day
  • One of Dr. Turner’s goals in collaboration with CANWI is to build and publish a pet food AGEs database

Welcome to day 2 of the 2021 Companion Animal Nutrition and Wellness Institute (CANWI) awareness week, during which we’ll be focusing on commercial pet food.

Today I’m interviewing a very special guest and friend, Dr. David P. Turner, Associate Professor, Medical University of South Carolina, President & Co-Founder, Anti-A.G.E. Foundation. David is a major researcher at his university, and we share a common interest in dietary advanced glycation end products (AGEs).

Below are some of the highlights of our discussion, which you can view in its entirety in the video above, or by reviewing the downloadable transcript linked above.

AGEs Explained

David and his team in South Carolina have been studying AGEs very deeply for quite some time, and recently they’ve published some very exciting information on the role of AGEs in cancer. I recently watched David’s Tedx Talk on this topic and asked him to explain what AGEs are and why we should be concerned about them.

“I love an opportunity to educate everybody about what AGEs are,” Dr. Turner says, “I realize it's a terrible name, only a scientist could give it the name advanced glycation end products. So that's why I gave it the name AGEs for short, just an acronym obviously.

But basically, these AGEs as we call them, they are what we call reactive metabolites, which are chemicals in the body produced during everyday processes. When we break down the sugar that we require for energy for the body to work, the process leads to the formation of advanced glycation end products or AGEs.

Put in the simplest form, when a sugar comes along and bumps into a protein, it forms an advanced glycation end product that floats around in the body. This is important because AGEs can bind to your tissues, your organs, the cells in your body, the DNA in your body, damage them and prevent them from working properly.

This process has been associated, in humans at least, with most chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer's and cancer.”

AGEs Causes Inflammation and Inflammation Causes Disease

I asked David how he and his team became interested in this area of research, with a focus on AGEs. He explained that about 12 years ago, he met someone at South Carolina State University who was the first person to measure levels of an AGE product called carboxymethyl-lysine in the body. Dr. Turner had never heard of advanced glycation end products, and when he learned what they were, he thought to himself, “Why haven’t I heard of these?”

“They seemed as though they could cause some serious damage to the body,” he explains. “I’m a cancer biologist by trade and within the cancer field, I’d never heard of them. They’d never been mentioned.

So, I went back to the literature, and out of 50 to 100,000 cancer papers published each year, I found two that mentioned AGEs. I started to research the subject and discovered that when AGE products are consumed, they can enhance inflammation and tumor growth. The inflammation the body produces in response to AGEs is associated with pain and most chronic diseases.”

Dr. Turner explains that nutrition guidelines never mention AGEs at all, however, the so-called Western diet of highly processed foods is full of them.

“What we haven't mentioned is that AGEs taste fantastic,” he says. “The food manufacturing companies actually put them directly into the processed foods to make them taste better. As an example, 3 ounces of chicken has around 800 AGE units.

If you fry those 3 ounces, the AGE units jump to 8,000. Research suggests we should be ingesting around 15,000 to 20,000 AGE units a day. If just 3 ounces of fried chicken has 8,000, it’s easy to see that we’re consuming too many AGEs.”

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Most Pets Today Are Ingesting Enormous Amounts of AGEs

We’re very excited at CANWI about a paper we’ll be publishing in which we measured AGEs in four differently processed dog foods. We fed the four diets to healthy dogs and measured the levels in their blood and urine. I asked Dr. Turner if he believes AGEs in pet foods could play a role in the health of dogs and cats.

“Oh, without a doubt,” he replies. “Through the work you've done and the work of some other investigators, mainly in Europe, it's estimated that our pet companions could be eating as much as a hundred times more AGEs than humans are. There's not that much research when it comes to animals and AGES.

But if you think about all the effects we're seeing in humans, and then realize we're feeding our dogs a hundred times more AGEs than we're feeding ourselves, it's a significant factor.

Being an animal lover, although my work is in human cancer, I've always wanted to look into this because it has some serious implications. We already know that a lot of older pets aren’t living as long as they used to, and I think AGEs is a contributing factor. I don't think it's the only one, by any means, but I think it is a contributor.

An example of the damage AGEs can do is wrinkles in the skin. When AGEs bind to collagen, the collagen dies out over time. And because of the AGEs, it can't be repaired properly. It's not the only factor, but when you imagine the same thing happening to every organ in your body, you can see how it drives the aging process.

You grow older quicker if you’re eating a lot of AGES because it functionally and structurally damages tissue function. And again, if our animals are eating a hundred times more than we are, that needs to be addressed.”

Dr. Turner goes on to say that the necessary research isn’t being done by veterinary colleges, so it will be up to individuals and organizations like ours to do the studies and publish the results so that people can made educated decisions about the best way to nourish their pets.

He makes the point that processed pet foods serve a purpose, but perhaps the way they’re processed could be changed to reduce AGEs. Current processes such as extrusion use high heat, which is how 3 ounces of chicken goes from 800 to 8,000 AGE products. Ultraprocessed pet food is exposed to high heat at least twice during manufacture, which amplifies the production of AGEs.

Future Goal: A Pet Food AGEs Database

I agree with Dr. Turner. Over 90% of dogs and cats eat exclusively dry and/or canned ultraprocessed diets. The convenience, shelf stability, and nutrient balances of most of these foods are positives, but I think a lot of veterinarians and other people think they’re the gold standard, and they’re not.

I think with our collaboration, my hope is that we can still have safe, shelf stable, nutritionally balanced commercial pet foods, but can we do it better. Toward that end, I asked Dr. Turner what goals he has for our collaboration.

“I should give a shout out to the Bobzilla nonprofit organization,” he replies. “This is a foundation that's just given me a substantial amount of money to start looking at AGEs in pet foods in more detail. In human research, a database exists that lists AGE levels for 500 different foods. It’s used in many human studies to look at the association between AGEs intake and different diseases such as cancer and diabetes.

One of the major goals of our collaboration is to figure out the best way to accurately measure AGEs in pet food and produce a similar database. We need to look at hundreds of differently processed pet foods, from raw to fresh to dehydrated to canned and kibble. We’ll publish the database so people can use it to make informed decisions.”

Dr. Turner also makes the point that due to the damage AGEs can cause, it might be a useful common marker for the overall nutritional value of foods. Another goal down the road might be to investigate whether, for example, AGEs is a factor in canine lymphoma, since it has been found to be a factor in human prostate and breast cancers.

Dr. Turner happens to have a new puppy in the family, so I asked him, with his knowledge of the effect of AGEs, if he’ll be doing things a little differently raising this pup.

“When we decided to get a puppy we said, ‘Well, what's a healthy diet for our new family member’?” he explains. “We really didn’t know. Even when we look at the research, it's very sort of hit and miss. We ultimately decided to feed Skylar, a Bernese Mountain Dog, the same healthy food we eat.

But figuring that out actually made me more determined to do the AGEs research on pet food. Because maybe we should also be feeding Skylar a couple handfuls of processed foods for nutrient fortification, but we just don't know. These are the types of issues we need to address.

If we can find the best diet to feed, we're going to have our animal companions around a lot longer. It took me two years to get over the loss of my last dog, before we got the new one. It's just not that easy. It's a big loss. So, anything we can do to extend the lifespan of our pets can only be good.”

Many thanks to Dr. David Turner for talking with me today, and for collaborating with us at CANWI toward our common goal of helping animal companions (and their humans) live long, healthy lives.