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Chemicals from hops studied for anti-cancer properties

Thursday, September 03, 1998

By Suzanne Martinson, Food Editor, Post-Gazette

The hop farmers of the Pacific Northwest would probably like to tell you that beer fights cancer.

Someday maybe they will.

Preliminary research at Oregon State University has found that some chemicals in hops, the flower cones that give beer its aroma and pleasant bitter taste, may have anti-cancer properties. The chemicals are called flavenoids, says Donald R. Buhler, a toxicologist at OSU's Agricultural Experiment Station.

"We have not studied the beneficial effects of drinking beer," Buhler says from Oregon in a telephone interview. "We are looking at some chemicals from hops. We have not studied hops directly, but these are the chemicals in hops, these same chemicals are in beer."

These pure chemicals are, he says, are "just showing that they have some promising activity against cancer."

Flavenoids are a specific type of antioxidant. Are these particular flavenoids found only in hops? "All plants have some flavenoids," he says. "There are several thousand, but the ones in hops are relatively unique."

He stops short of saying only beer drinkers will reap any benefits. "I'm not sure we'd even want to say it if it was true. It varies a lot according to the type of beer, how much hopping they do to the beer."

Six-packs a day wouldn't be prescribed, even if hops' cancer-fighting benefits prove to be true.

"Obviously, there is a downside to drinking beer," he says. "I would guess that if anything comes of this, that the drugs or chemicals would be made available in some sort of pill form."

Buhler, who worked with seven other researchers, treated human breast, colon and ovarian cells that were cancerous with concentrations of flavenoids and found some of the hops' flavenoids were toxic to cancer cells. Experiments with animals are planned. In another test, some of the flavenoids enhanced the impact of enzymes that can detoxify cancer-causing substances. In a third experiment, some flavenoids in hops helped inhibit an enzyme that can activate the cancer process.

Buhler warns that it's too early to jump to conclusions. And, although hop extracts can be purchased, "they're not regulated by the FDA. Because they're 'natural' products doesn't mean that they're safe. That's not true at all."

For example, he mentions aflotoxin, a fungus found on moldy corn. "That's 'natural,' but it's a carcinogen."

While Buhler focuses on his anti-cancer research, colleague Gail Nickerson, a hop chemist, tests for what makes beer bitter and for compounds that may add to the aroma of beer.

It's a task the U.S. Department of Agriculture initiated at OSU in 1930. The hop plant, which grows on trellises, is native to Europe, Asia and North America. The second Mayflower ship brought the first hop roots from England in 1622.

The first hop cultivation can be tracked to southern Europe, particularly Bohemia, Slovenia and Bavaria, in 736 A.D., and Nickerson says "the major brewers have this thing about German and Czech hops."

In America, hop production spread from New England to Virginia, concentrating in New York. As people moved west, so did the hops - from New York to Wisconsin and finally to California and Oregon around the late 1870s.

Nickerson wishes most brewers would look westward today. "There's so much tradition involved with brewing it's not even funny," says the chemist, who has worked in hops research since 1959. "We'd like to replace some of the imported hops."

The hop chemist herself prefers "hoppy" beer over what she calls "commercial beer," and she counts Black Butte Porter as among her favorites. That and Henry Weinhard's Ale, which has "less hops, but there's something I like. I think it's made with Oregon hops. I think they're using some of the new varieties."

Of the American crop, Oregon grows 20 percent, Washington raises 70 percent and remaining 10 percent come from Idaho. She says 50 percent of these hops are exported.

"We buy German and Czechoslovakian hops, and some of ours go to Germany," she says. Also to South America, Japan, South Africa, Canada and Mexico.

When it comes to agriculture, it's always something. Right now OSU is trying to develop varieties of hops that are resistant to a disease called powdery mildew, which didn't use to be found in the Northwest.

Nickerson says there are hundreds of varieties of hops. The USDA store of germ plasm has 600-plus kinds of hops.

However, when it comes to brewing beer, only half the hops do any work.

The females.

"The male hop looks completely different and is not useful for beer at all," she says. "The two sexes are different plants, with two different kinds of flowers."

The male hop's job is seeds for new crops.

"They're breeding stock, but not brewing stock."

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