The Link Between Gluten and Colorectal Cancer

Grantee: Caroline Um, PhD, MPH, RD 
Institution: 
American Cancer Society, Intramural Research Department
ACS Research Program: Postdoctoral Fellow, Behavioral and Epidemiology Research Group

The Challenge: There’s strong evidence that eating whole grains may lower the risk of colorectal cancer (CRC). However, it’s not clear how eating gluten, a protein found in some whole grains—wheat, barley, and rye—affects the risk of CRC. Rates of CRC are on the rise among young adults in the US, and the number of people on a gluten-free diet has also grown in the past decade. Because of these increases, it’s important to understand the relationship between CRC and gluten.

The Research: Caroline Um, PhD, MPH, RD, and her ACS colleagues examined how eating whole grains and gluten might affect the risk of CRC. Using the Cancer Prevention Study (CPS) - II Nutrition Cohort study, they looked at both gluten intake and whole grain intake in 50,118 men and 62,031 women. Here’s an overview of what they learned:

  • Eating more whole grains was associated with a decreased risk of CRC in men but not in women.
  • Eating more gluten may increase the risk of cancer in the first and middle areas of the colon (called proximal colon cancer) in both sexes.
  • Eating refined grains like white bread, pasta, and white rice did not increase the risk of any type of CRC.

Why It Matters? This is the first time that any research has linked gluten intake to a higher risk of proximal colon cancer. Um’s research also reinforces the evidence that whole grains probably protects against CRC, particularly for men. More studies need to be done to look more closely at these relationships.