Can sambar actually save you from colon cancer? What doctors say

A recent Instagram post by an Indian-origin gastroentologist on sambar preventing colon cancer has gained a lot of traction.

ByChetana Belagere

Published Feb 15, 2023 | 12:00 PM Updated Feb 15, 2023 | 1:43 PM

Sambar is a lentil-based dish, cooked with pigeon pea, tamarind, spices and an assortment of vegetables. (Creative Commons)

Dr Palaniappan Manickam, MD, MPH, Internal Medicine, Gastroenterology, and epidemiologist in the US — popular on Instagram as Dr Pal — recently put out an interesting post on “sambar” and its supposed role in preventing colon cancer.

As you may expect, this brought immense cheer to a majority of sambar-loving Indians!

Here’s what the doc said

Dr Pal, in his Instagram Reel, speaks about a study conducted in India that found that consumption of sambar could prevent the development of dimethylhydrazine-induced colon cancer.

He captioned the video, like this: Our favorite sambar, which is a tasty staple food hailing from the rich heritage of South India, is now claimed to prevent a type of colon cancer. A study has found that consumption of sambar can prevent the development of dimethylhydrazine (DMH)-induced colon cancer.”

So, which study says this?

The doctor quoted a preclinical study by Indian researchers published in ResearchGate and PubMed, where researchers Vutturu Ganga Prasad, Neetinkumar Reddy, Albi Francis, Pawan G Nayak, Anoop Kishore, Krishnadas Nandakumar, Mallikarjuna C Rao, and Rekha Shenoy from Manipal University used two groups of mice.

The study, when South First checked, found that the researchers had created three groups — normal control, DMH control, and sambar.

Here, the researchers investigated the effects of sambar as a preventive measure for the 1,2-DMH-induced carcinogen that often leads to colon cancer, in these two groups of mice.

While one group was given only water, the other group was given sambar. “Only the sambar group showed a significant reduction in the colonic nitrite when compared to the DMH control group,” the study noted.

Happy Indians!

While the sambar post gained a lot of traction on this doctor’s Instagram page, many Indians, especially South Indians, seemed absolutely delighted.

One follower, Dheepthi Soundararajan, said, “We South Indians have sambar morning afternoon night — 352 days a year! Except for Sundays for biryani and we have all the spices there as well.”

Meanwhile, another person said, “Just now made sambar sadam with lots of vegetables! Saravana told me you will be posting about sambar today.”

Another said, “Sambhar is one of the healthiest, tastiest, and most nutritious dishes which can be eaten both with rice and chapati.”

Not everyone agrees

Renowned gastroenterologist Dr Rajeev Jayadevan from Kerala, however, rubbishes the claim and calls this “absolutely baseless”.

Colorectal cancer presentation (Wikimedia Commons)

Colorectal cancer presentation (Wikimedia Commons)

He told South First that this is a “darling story” of those who like hoaxes. “It basically is from a single lab study where they fed the rats DMH and looked at the microscopic structure of the gut lining. These mice did not get cancer.”

“The study found that there were abnormal cellular abnormalities that are linked to cancer, which is not really cancer. The researchers in that study found that the counts of cellular abnormalities were slightly higher in the mice which were not fed sambar,” he explained.

There are some factors that need to be considered too. For instance, we don’t know the history of the mice, the genetic structure of mice, and so on, he added. However, we must know that it is not the fault of the study, but the way it is interpreted.

Dr Ramesh Makam, Senior Consultant Gastroenetrology in Bengaluru, was also not exactly enthused by the claim.

“We can’t say that only ‘sambar’ can prevent anyone from colon cancer. Of course, having a high-fiber diet can definitely prevent it,” he told South First.

“Sambar has high-fibre vegetables and that may help prevent constipation, which is one of the main reasons that cause colon cancers. But I wouldn’t go top the extent of saying having sambar alone can prevent cancer.”

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Meanwhile, explaining what colon cancer is and the risks of it, Dr Jayadevan said, “Colorectal cancer could be inherited or spontaneous. There may be environment factors too. While some of them can be known, there could be unknown factors too.”

“Amongst lifestyle factors, alcohol use, inadequate fibre in the diet, lack of exercise, increase of red meat, and consumption of saturated fat and processed meat can lead to this cancer.”