Are Lectins in Food Good or Bad for You?

Might lectins help explain why those who eat more beans and whole grains have less cancer?

Lectins are to blame for the great “white kidney bean incident” of 2006 in Japan. One Saturday evening, a TV program introduced a new method to lose weight. The method was simple: toast some dry, raw, white kidney beans in a frying pan for three minutes, grind the beans into a powder, and then dust it onto rice. Within days, a thousand people fell ill, some with such severe diarrhea and vomiting they ended up in the hospital. Why? Lectin poisoning. Three minutes of dry heat is not enough to destroy the toxic lectins in kidney beans. If you don’t presoak them, you need to boil large kidney beans for a full hour to completely destroy all the lectins, though if you first soak them overnight 98 percent of the lectins are gone after boiling for just 15 minutes and all are gone by half an hour, as you can see at 0:44 in my video Are Lectins in Food Good or Bad for You?. And, indeed, when researchers tested the white beans, they found that toasting them for three minutes didn’t do a thing. It’s no wonder people got sick. But, 95 percent of the lectins were inactivated after boiling them for three minutes and completely inactivated after ten minutes of boiling. Evidently, “‘Do not eat raw beans’ is a traditional admonition in Japan to prevent intestinal problems”—and now we know why.

While canning may completely eliminate lectins from most canned beans, some residual lectin activity may remain in canned kidney beans, though apparently not enough to result in toxicity. And, ironically, “How doses of lectins may be beneficial by stimulating gut function, limiting tumor growth, and ameliorating obesity.” What? I thought lectins were toxic.

For as long as people have speculated dietary lectins are harmful, others have conjectured that they may be protective. “If this theory is correct, appropriate lectins by mouth should be of use in the prophylaxis [prevention] (and possibly treatment) of colon cancer.” Or, of course, we could just eat our beans.

Interest in the purported antitumor effect of plant lectins started with the discovery in 1963 that lectins could distinguish between cancer cells and normal cells. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital found a substance in wheat germ—the lectin in whole wheat—that appeared to be “tumor cell specific,” clumping together the tumor cells, while the normal cells were left almost completely alone. In fact, it is so specific that you can take a stool sample from someone and, based on lectin binding to the colon lining cells that get sloughed off into the feces, effectively predict the presence of polyps and cancers.

Subsequently, it was discovered that lectins couldn’t only distinguish between the two types of cells, but also extinguish the cancer cells, while largely leaving the normal cells alone. For example, that same white kidney bean lectin, as you can see at 2:53 in my video, was found to almost completely suppress the growth of human head and neck cancer cells, liver cancer cells, breast cancer cells, and cervical cancer cells (at least most of the way), within about three days—but that was in a petri dish. Those petri dish studies are largely the basis of the evidence for the antitumor activity of plant lectins. How do we even know dietary lectins are absorbed into our body?

Colorectal cancer is one thing. The fact that lectins can kill off colon cancer cells in a petri dish may be applicable, since lectins we eat may come in direct contact with cancerous or precancerous cells in our colon, “providing a mechanism” by which bean consumption may help in “the prevention and treatment of colorectal cancer.” Even more exciting is the potential for effectively rehabilitating cancer cells. The “loss of differentiation and invasion are the histological hallmarks of malignant cells,” meaning that when a normal cell transforms into a cancer cell, it tends to lose its specialized function. Breast cancer cells become less breast-like, and colon cancer cells become less colon-like. What these researchers showed—for the first time—is that the lectin in fava beans could take colon cancer cells and turn them back into looking more like normal cells. As you can see at 4:13 in my video, before exposure to the fava bean lectins, the cancer cells were growing in amorphous clumps. But, after exposure to the fava bean lectins for two weeks, those same cancer cells started to go back to growing glandular structures like normal colon issue. Therefore, dietary lectins or putting them in a pill “may slow the progression of colon cancer,” potentially helping to explain why dietary consumption of beans, split peas, chickpeas, and lentils appears to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer based on 14 studies involving nearly two million participants. Okay, but what about cancers outside of the digestive tract?

“Although lectin containing foods,” like beans and whole grains, “are frequently consumed cooked or otherwise processed, these treatments may not always inactivate the lectins…For example, lectins have been detected in roasted peanuts….” Peanuts are legumes, and we don’t tend to eat them boiled but just roasted or even raw. Are we able to absorb the lectins into our system? Yes. As you can see at 5:12 in my video, within an hour of consumption of raw or roasted peanuts, you can detect the peanut lectin in the bloodstream of most people. Same with tomatoes. Some of the non-toxic lectin in tomatoes also makes it down into our gut and into our blood. Wheat germ agglutinin, the wheat lectin known as WGA, doesn’t seem to make it into our bloodstream, though, even after apparently eating the equivalent amount of wheat germ in more than 80 slices of bread. And, if you ate something like pasta, the boiling in the cooking process might wipe out the lectin in the first place anyway.

In terms of phytochemicals in the fight against cancer, lectins are able to “resist digestion resulting in high bioavailability,” potentially allowing “the cellular mechanisms of the host to utilize the full potential of the…dramatic anti-cancer benefits” lectins have to offer. But, these dramatic benefits have yet to be demonstrated in people. We do know, however, that population studies show “that the consumption of a plant-based diet is strongly associated with a reduced risk of developing certain types of cancer.” People eating a plant-based diet could just be eating fewer carcinogens, but plants do have all those active components that do seem to protect against the “initiation, promotion, or progression” of cancer. So, maybe lectins are one of those protective compounds. We know people who eat more beans and whole grains tend to get less cancer overall, but we’re just not sure exactly why. Now, you could say, “Who cares why?” Well, Big Pharma cares. You can’t make as much money on healthy foods as you can on “lectin based drugs.”

Interested in learning more about lectins? Check out my videos Dr. Gundry’s The Plant Paradox Is Wrong and How to Avoid Lectin Poisoning.


Lectins remind me of the story about phytates. Other components of beans and whole grains, phytates were thought at first to be harmful, but, more recently, evidence is coming to light that suggests the opposite may be true. Check out Phytates for Rehabilitating Cancer Cells and Phytates for the Prevention of Osteoporosis.

What else may explain the protective effect of beans? See, for example, Gut Dysbiosis: Starving Our Microbial Self. Soybeans may be particularly protective against certain cancers, as you can see in BRCA Breast Cancer Genes and Soy.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

What About the Trans Fat in Animal Fat?

The years of healthy life lost due to our consumption of trans fats are comparable to the impact of conditions like meningitis, cervical cancer, and multiple sclerosis. But, if “food zealots” get their wish in banning added trans fats, what’s next? I explore this in my video Banning Trans Fat in Processed Foods but Not Animal Fat.

Vested corporate interests rally around these kinds of slippery slope arguments to distract from the fact that people are dying. New York Mayor Bloomberg was decried as a “meddling nanny” for his trans fat ban and attempt to cap soft drink sizes. How dare he try to manipulate consumer choice! But isn’t that what the food industry has done? “Soft drink portion sizes have grown dramatically, along with Americans’ waistlines.” In 1950, a 12-ounce soda was the king-sized option. Now, it’s the kiddie size. Similarly, with trans fats, it was the industry that limited our choice by putting trans fats into everything without even telling us. Who’s the nanny now?

New York City finally won its trans fat fight, preserving its status as a public health leader. “For example, it took decades to achieve a national prohibition of lead paint, despite unequivocal evidence of harm,” but New York City’s Board of Health led the way, banning it “18 years before federal action.”

There’s irony in the slippery slope argument: First, they’ll come for your fries; next, they’ll come for your burger. After the trans fat oil ban, one of the only remaining sources of trans fat is in the meat itself. “Trans fats naturally exist in small amounts in the fat in meat and milk,” as I’ve discussed before in my video Trans Fat in Meat and Dairy. Before the trans fat ban, animal products only provided about one fifth of America’s trans fat intake, but since the U.S. trans fat ban exempts animal products, they will soon take over as the leading source. As you can see at 2:09 in Banning Trans Fat in Processed Foods but Not Animal Fat, now that added trans fats are banned in Denmark, for example, the only real trans fat exposure left is from animal products found in the U.S. dairy, beef, chicken fat, turkey meat, lunch meat, and hot dogs, with trace amounts in vegetable oils due to the refining process.

The question is: Are animal trans fats as bad as processed food trans fats? As you can see at 2:38 in my video, a compilation of randomized interventional trials found that they both make bad cholesterol go up and they both make good cholesterol go down. So, both animal trans fats and processed food trans fats make the ratio of bad to good cholesterol go up—which is bad. Therefore, all trans fats cause negative effects “irrespective of their origin.” The researchers suspect that also removing natural trans fats from the diet could prevent tens of thousands of heart attacks, but unlike processed foods, you can’t remove trans fats from milk and meat because trans fats are there naturally.

The livestock industry suggests that a little bit of their trans fats might not be too bad, but you saw the same everything-in-moderation argument coming from the Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils after industrial trans fats were first exposed as a threat. The bottom line is “that intake of all sources of trans fat should be minimized.” The trans fat in processed foods can be banned, and just adhering to the current dietary guidelines to restrict saturated fat intake, which is primarily found in meat and dairy, would automatically cut trans fat intake from animal fats.

The reason no progress may have been made on animal trans fat reduction in Denmark is because The Danish Nutrition Council that pushed for the trans fat ban was a joint initiative of The Danish Medical Association and The Danish Dairy Board. They recognized that “the economic support from The Danish Dairy Council could be perceived as problematic” from a scientific integrity point of view, but, not to worry—“The Danish Medical Association expanded the Executive Board and the funding members to also include the Danish pork industry, the Danish meat industry, The Poultry and Egg Council and The Danish Margarine Industry Association.”

If people want to eat trans fat, isn’t that their right? Yes, but only if they’re informed about the risks—yet The Food Industry Wants the Public Confused About Nutrition.

For more on the industry pushback, see my video Controversy Over the Trans Fat Ban.

There does not appear to be a safe level of exposure to trans fat—or to saturated fat or dietary cholesterol, for that matter. See Trans Fat, Saturated Fat, and Cholesterol: Tolerable Upper Intake of Zero.


If you find these videos about industry influence on public policy compelling, check out my many others, including:

Note that the concept of raising or lowering HDL (the so-called good cholesterol) playing a causal role in heart disease has come into question. See Coconut Oil and the Boost in HDL “Good” Cholesterol.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

How to Treat Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) with Diet

Given the role that oxidant free radicals are thought to play in aging and disease, one reason fruits and vegetables may be so good for us is that they contain antioxidant compounds. As you can see at 0:20 in my video Benefits of Marjoram for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), different vegetables and herbs have different antioxidant content. When making a salad, for example, spinach, arugula, or red leaf lettuce may provide twice the antioxidants as butterhead lettuce, and choosing purple cabbage over green, or red onions over white can also boost the salad’s antioxidant power.

Fresh herbs are so powerful that even a small amount may double or even quadruple the antioxidant power of the entire meal. For instance, as you can see at 0:50 in my video, the total antioxidants in a simple salad of lettuce and tomato jump up by adding just a tablespoon of lemon balm leaves or half a tablespoon of oregano or mint. Adding marjoram, thyme, or sage not only adds great flavor to the salad, but effectively quadruples the antioxidant content at the same time, and adding a little fresh garlic or ginger to the dressing ups the antioxidant power even more.

Herbs are so antioxidant-rich that researchers decided to see if they might be able to reduce the DNA-damaging effects of radiation. Radioactive iodine is sometimes given to people with overactive thyroid glands or thyroid cancer to destroy part of the gland or take care of any remaining tumor cells after surgery. For days after the isotope injection, patients become so radioactive they are advised not to kiss or sleep close to anyone, including their pets, and if they breathe on a phone, they’re advised to wipe it “carefully” or cover it “with an easily removed plastic bag.” Other recommendations include “avoid[ing] splatter of radioactive urine,” not going near your kids, and basically just staying away from others as much as possible.

The treatment can be very effective, but all that radiation exposure appears to increase the risk of developing new cancers later on. In order to prevent the DNA damage associated with this treatment, researchers tested the ability of oregano to protect chromosomes of human blood cells in vitro from exposure to radioactive iodine. As you can see at 2:25 in my video, at baseline, about 1 in 100 of our blood cells show evidence of chromosomal damage. If radioactive iodine is added, though, it’s more like 1 in 8. What happens if, in addition to the radiation, increasing amounts of oregano extract are added? Chromosome damage is reduced by as much 70 percent. Researchers concluded that oregano extract “significantly protects” against DNA damage induced by the radioactive iodine in white blood cells. This was all done outside the body, though, which the researchers justified by saying it wouldn’t be particularly ethical to irradiate people for experimental research. True, but millions of people have been irradiated for treatment, and researchers could have studied them or, at the very least, they could have just had people eat the oregano and then irradiate their blood in vitro to model the amount of oregano compounds that actually make it into the bloodstream.

Other in vitro studies on oregano are similarly unsatisfying. In a comparison of the effects of various spice extracts, including bay leaves, fennel, lavender, oregano, paprika, parsley, rosemary, and thyme, oregano beat out all but bay leaves in its ability to suppress cervical cancer cell growth in vitro while leaving normal cells alone. But people tend to use oregano orally—that is, they typically eat it—so the relevance of these results are not clear.

Similarly, marjoram, an herb closely related to oregano, can suppress the growth of individual breast cancer cells in a petri dish, as you can see at 3:53 in my video, and even effectively whole human breast tumors grown in chicken eggs, which is something I’ve never seen before. Are there any clinical trials on oregano-family herbs on actual people? The only such clinical, randomized, control study I could find was a study on how marjoram tea affects the hormonal profile of women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). The most common cause of female fertility problems, PCOS affects up to one in eight young women and is characterized by excessive male hormones, resulting in excess body or facial hair, menstrual irregularities, and cysts in one’s ovaries that show up on ultrasounds.

Evidently, traditional medicine practitioners reported marjoram tea was beneficial for PCOS, but it had never been put to the test…until now. Drinking two daily cups of marjoram tea versus a placebo tea for one month did seem to beneficially affect the subjects’ hormonal profiles, which seems to offer credence to the claims of the traditional medicine practitioners. However, the study didn’t last long enough to confirm that actual symptoms improved as well, which is really what we care about.

Is there anything that’s been shown to help? Well, reducing one’s intake of dietary glycotoxins may help prevent and treat the disease. Over the past 2 decades there has been increasing evidence supporting an important contribution from food-derived advanced glycation end products (AGEs)…[to] increased oxidative stress and inflammation, processes that play a major role in the causation of chronic diseases,” potentially including polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Women with PCOS tend to have nearly twice the circulating AGE levels in their bloodstream, as you can see at 0:33 in my video Best Foods for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). 

PCOS may be the most common hormonal abnormality among young women in the United States and is a common cause of infertility, menstrual dysfunction, and excess facial and body hair. The prevalence of obesity is also higher in women with PCOS. Since the highest AGE levels are found in broiled, grilled, fried, and roasted foods of “mostly animal origin,” is it possible that this causal chain starts with a bad diet? For instance, maybe eating lots of fried chicken leads to obesity, which in turn leads to PCOS. In that case, perhaps what we eat is only indirectly related to PCOS through weight gain. No, because the same link between high AGE levels and PCOS was found in lean women as well.

“As chronic inflammation and increased oxidative stress have been incriminated in the pathophysiology [or disease process] of PCOS, the role of AGEs as inflammatory and oxidant mediators, may be linked with the metabolic and reproductive abnormalities of the syndrome.” Further, the buildup of AGE inside polycystic ovaries themselves suggests a potential role of AGEs contributing to the actual disease process, beyond just some of its consequences.

RAGE is highly expressed in ovarian tissues. The receptor in the body for these advanced glycation end products, the “R” in RAGE, is concentrated in the ovaries, which may be particularly sensitive to its effect. So, AGEs might indeed be contributing to the cause of PCOS and infertility.

Does this mean we should just cut down on AGE-rich foods, such as meat, cheese, and eggs? Or hey, why not come up with drugs that block AGE absorption? We know AGEs have been implicated in the development of many chronic diseases. Specifically, food-derived AGEs play an important role because diet is a major source of these pro-inflammatory AGEs. Indeed, cutting down on these dietary glycotoxins reduces the inflammatory response, but the “argument is often made that stewed chicken would be less tasty than fried chicken…” Why not have your KFC and eat it, too? Just take an AGE-absorption blocking drug every time you eat it to reduce the absorption of the toxins. What’s more, it actually lowers AGE blood levels. This oral absorbent drug, AST-120, is just a preparation of activated charcoal, like what’s used for drug overdoses and when people are poisoned. I’m sure if you took some ipecac with your KFC, your levels would go down, too.

There’s another way to reduce absorption of AGEs, and that’s by reducing your intake in the first place. It’s simple, safe, and feasible. The first step is to stop smoking. The glycotoxins in cigarette smoke may contribute to increased heart disease and cancer in smokers. Then, decrease your intake of high-AGE foods, increase your intake of foods that may help pull AGEs out of your system, like mushrooms, and eat foods high in antioxidants, like berries, herbs, and spices. “Dietary AGE intake can be easily decreased by simply changing the method of cooking from a high dry heat application to a low heat and high humidity…” In other words, move away from broiling, searing, and frying to more stewing, steaming, and boiling.

What we eat, however, may be more important than how we cook it. At 4:00 in my video, I include a table showing the amounts of AGEs in various foods. For instance, boiled chicken contains less than half the glycotoxins of roasted chicken, but even deep-fried potatoes have less than boiled meat. We can also eat foods raw, which doesn’t work as well as for blood pudding, but raw nuts and nut butters may contain about 30 times less glycotoxins than roasted, and we can avoid high-AGE processed foods, like puffed, shredded, and flaked breakfast cereals.

Why does it matter? Because study after study has shown that switching to a low-AGE diet can lower the inflammation within our bodies. Even just a single meal high in AGEs can profoundly impair our arterial function within just two hours of consumption. At 4:54 in my video, you can see the difference between a meal of fried or broiled chicken breast and veggies compared with steamed or boiled chicken breast and veggies. Same ingredients, just different cooking methods. Even a steamed or boiled chicken meal can still impair arterial function, but significantly less than fried or broiled.

“Interestingly, the amount of AGEs administered [to subjects] during the HAGE [high-AGE] intervention was similar to the average estimated daily intake by the general population,” who typically follow the standard American diet. This is why we can decrease inflammation in people by putting them on a low-AGE diet, yet an increase in inflammation is less apparent when subjects switch from their regular diet to one high in AGEs. Indeed, they were already eating a high-AGE diet with so many of these glycotoxins.

Do we have evidence that reducing AGE intake actually helps with PCOS? Yes. Within just two months, researchers found differences from subjects’ baseline diets switched to a high-AGE diet and then to a low-AGE diet, with parallel changes in insulin sensitivity, oxidative stress, and hormonal status, as seen at 5:54 in my video. The take-home learning? Those with PCOS may want to try a low-AGE diet, which, in the study, meant restricting meat to once a week and eating it only boiled, poached, stewed, or steamed, as well as cutting out fast-food-type fare and soda.

What if instead of eating steamed chicken, we ate no meat at all? Rather than measuring blood levels, which vary with each meal, we can measure the level of glycotoxins stuck in our body tissues over time with a high-tech device that measures the amount of light our skin gives off because AGEs are fluorescent. And, not surprisingly, this turns out to be a strong predictor of overall mortality. So, the lower our levels, the better. The “one factor that was consistently associated with reduced [skin fluorescence]: a vegetarian diet.” This “suggests that a vegetarian diet may reduce exposure to preformed dietary AGE…potentially reduc[ing] tissue AGE,” as well as chronic disease risk


What’s so great about antioxidants? See my videos:

Just how many antioxidants do we need? Check out:

For a few simple tips on how to quickly boost the antioxidant content of your food with herbs and spices, see my video Antioxidants in a Pinch.

I touched on the benefits of spearmint tea for PCOS in Enhancing Athletic Performance with Peppermint. Another sorely under-recognized gynecological issue is endometriosis, which I discuss in How to Treat Endometriosis with Seaweed.

Because of AGEs, I no longer toast nuts or buy roasted nut butters, which is disappointing because I really enjoy those flavors so much more than untoasted and unroasted nuts. But, as Dr. McDougall likes to say, nothing tastes as good as healthy feels. For more on why it’s important to minimize our exposure to these toxic compounds, see:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations: