‘beeting’ cancer one cupcake at a time: goodbye red dye No. 40{31}

Here’s a post that will double for my Cancer Biology class blog and for my personal blog. How’s that for efficient?

Teaching cancer biology is a love/hate situation for me. Love the students. Hate cancer. Love the cells, the molecules, the signaling pathways, the microscopy. Hate cancer. Love how engaged my students are becoming with the material and how hard they are working. Hate, hate, hate cancer!

One of the first pieces of information that I share with my students is the lifetime probability of getting cancer. In the US, it’s 1 in 3 for women and 1 in 2 for men. Those are staggering, haunting statistics. When I taught graduate cancer biology almost a decade ago, the focus of discussion was treatment, and while that is still a significant part of the current course, science, society and my students have noticeable shifted attention to the topic of prevention.

Given today’s lifestyles, it might be more efficient to talk about what doesn’t cause cancer. Avoiding carcinogens seems almost impossible. This morning while I was fighting obesity, which shows a strong correlation with cancer, by running hill repeats my neighbor was warming up his car for 30 minutes in his driveway located at the top of the hill!!! I might as well have rewarded myself with a Marlboro after every lap.

Sometimes it’s hard to sort out the facts from the urban legends with respect to carcinogens. I often rely as much on my ‘mom intuition’ as much I do on my PhD in cell, molecular and developmental biology. And I think most moms would agree that anything that does this to your kid’s tongue – and face – and hands….

…just can’t be good for you.

Artificial food colorings make me nervous in general, but I am particularly frightened of reds. In 1976, red dye No. 2 was banned by the FDA because of studies showing that high doses could cause cancer in rats. Goodbye red M&Ms. And hello to a longstanding war between moms and artificial dyes. I’d consumed a good eight years worth of red dye No. 2 so my mom was able to blame it on pretty much everything that was wrong with me. In recent years, red dyes have been correlated with everything from ADHD to depression to potentially, cancer.

Apparently, this red-o-phobia never quite made it to the Southeastern US. When I first moved to Virginia, I was introduced to that southern delicacy known as red velvet cake.

mmm, red velvet cake

Ooh, that was good stuff. Being a pretty serious baker myself, it wasn’t long before I attempted my first red velvet cake and was horrified when I read the ingredients list. Two tablespoons of red food coloring. TABLESPOONS! That had to be a typo, right? Maybe two drops or teaspoons at worst. I found another recipe. FOUR TABLESPOONS! That seemed like enough red dye to kill off a whole colony of rats. I double-checked the food coloring box to make sure red dye No. 2 wasn’t still marketed down South.

Phew. This was red dye No. 40. Forty!!! What happened to red dyes No. 3 – 39? How many poor rats would have to keel over before people realized that cakes were not meant to be red?

Which brings us to Valentine’s Day and a mother’s dilemma. Cool moms make cupcakes. Really cool moms make chocolate cupcakes with pink frosting. I want to be a really cool mom. But I also don’t want to be feeding my kids carcinogens, real or imagined.

Thank goodness for for Joy the Baker! This lady is a baker, and a blogger, after my own heart. Kroger, the local grocery store, is featuring her recipes, which is how I discovered her defense against artificial red dyes: chocolate beet cake with beet cream cheese frosting. I know what you are thinking:  “EEEEWWW!” That was my first reaction too. I’m not a beet fan, but I was desperate enough to try anything to substitute for red dye No. 40. My daughter Chloe and I used the recipe to make cupcakes, and I must say they were delicious – rich, moist, very pink, and not beety at all.

a baker’s dozen. For me, that’s 12 minus the one I ate.

Not only do beets not cause cancer, but they might actually guard against cancer, colon cancer in particular. So the next time you are in the mood for something sweet and red, consider trying Joy’s recipe at the link above. It can’t be beet (sorry, I couldn’t help myself).