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Carcinogenic Putrescine

Biogenic amines such as spermine, cadaverine, and putrescine are chemical compounds of decay that may have adverse health effects. Which foods are most contaminated: beer, blue cheese, feta cheese, kimchi, miso, sardines, sauerkraut, sausage, soy sauce, tempeh, tuna, or wine?

January 5, 2012 |
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Supplementary Info

Sources Cited


Images thanks to istockphoto, Patty Knutson, Simon Allardice and Michiel1972, Hohum, JJ Harrison, Sujit kumar, Mariuszjbie at Wikimedia commons.


I’ve talked in the past about the biogenic amines like spermine and cadaverine that can be formed in decomposing tissues, but a new review on the human toxicological effects of these substances in our diet suggests that putrescine may have carcinogenic-cancer causing effects.

Putrescine is a chemical compound of decay that contributes to the smell of putrefying flesh and the… fishy odor of certain vaginal infections. But it’s found even in non-spoiled fish, meat, cheese, and fermented foods. You can’t stay away from it, though, unless you which foods have the most.

Here’s a dozen commonly eaten foods they tested: beer, blue cheese, feta cheese, canned tuna, sardines, sauerkraut, sausage, soy sauce, kimchi, miso,  tempe, and wine. Which do you think has the most? Sardines were the runner-up, but the highest levels are found in tuna.

To stay away from putrescine, we should stay away from canned fish.

There’s a recommendation that we should try to stick under 40 mg in a meal. So just a couple bites, a quarter of a serving of tuna and we’re over the limit, but it would take two servings of sausages or like 10 beers to approach the limit otherwise.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by MaryAnn Allison.

To help out on the site please email <a
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Dr. Michael Greger

Doctor's Note

Please feel free to post any ask-the-doctor type questions here in the comments section and I’d be happy to try to answer them. Check out the other videos which address carcinogens and putrescine. And there are 1,449 subjects covered in the rest of my videos–please feel free to explore them!

For more context, check out my associated blog posts: Mercury Testing Recommended Before Pregnancy, Harvard's Meat and Mortality StudiesDiet and Cellulite , and Tarragon Toxicity?

  • Michael Greger M.D.

    Please feel free to post any ask-the-doctor type questions here in the comments section and I’d be happy to try to answer them. Check out the other videos which address carcinogens and putrescine. And there are 1,449 subjects covered in the rest of my videos–please feel free to explore them!

  • Thea

    I like that this video has the “game show” format that other videos have had. This format is one my favorite kinds, because it gets my brain working and it is fun.

    The two biggies, were clearly the ones to talk about. What also interested me, though, was how some of the other foods played out. For example, there were two cheeses: feta and blue. One was twice the amount of the other. (But maybe at that level, neither is significant?)

    Also, there was two kinds of alchoholic drinks: beer and wine with what looks to me to be very different results.

    Another interesting thing to me about these results is the two pickled vegies (assuming I understand what they are): kimchi and sauerkraut. They are both under 40, but look to maybe be about 20? Hard to judge by the video. Assuming that these numbers are per-serving and in some cultures, one might have more than one serving a day of these foods or combine these foods with others such as say blue cheese, sausage or wine, perhaps one should be careful of these other foods too – not just the canned fish.

    I’m just having fun with the video and making some observations. Nothing to get worked up over. Thanks.

    • Michael Greger M.D.

      You make a good point Thea. In fact, maybe this helps explain the kimchi finding? Check our my video: Is Kimchi Good For You?

      • Thea

        Dr. Greger: Thanks for reminding me about the kimchi video. I forgot all about that.

        Wow. So interesting! One video may very well explain the other.


  • Meha

    Now with Brazilian Portuguese subtitles:

    • Michael Greger M.D.

      Thank you so much Meha!

  • Michael Greger M.D.
  • Michael Greger M.D.

    For some context, please check out my associated blog post Harvard’s Meat and Mortality Studies!

  • Neal

    Miso soup is made from a kind of infusion of Bonito (a kind of tuna I believe) that is dried, smoked and fermented. (It’s actually an infusion of both bonito and a kind of seaweed called kombu). It is soaked, like a tea, in hot water and then removed. The remaining infusion is called “dashi” and it is combined with miso and green onions and a variety of other ingredients to produce miso soup.

    Does anyone know or have a feeling for whether it is bad for you in some ways? Is simply infusing bonito into hot water toxic in some ways? Would anyone care to speculate if there is no direct evidence?

  • Ronald Chavin

    Tuna fish contains LESS putrescene than any other food. The fruits that Dr. Greger strongly recommends are higher in putrescene than any other food:

    The big picture is that people who eat lots of fish and seafood have LONGER life expectancies than vegans in most studies.

    Putrescene appears to be relatively harmless. Meanwhile, spermine and spermadine appears to be greatly beneficial:

    • nonyabizzz

      Until you define exactly what constitutes a vegan diet and the criteria used for “most studies”, your ‘big picture’ assertion is baseless.

    • barbarabrussels

      I wonder what Dr Greger makes of these studies, I’m don’t speak medspeak, but your finds seem relevant. The only thing is that fish nowadays contains so many toxins that perhaps Dr Greger’s suggestion for b12 and omega 3 algae-derived seems like a safer alternative. I would advise you to search this site for ‘fish’ and watch the relevant videos.

      • barbarabrussels

        Oops, sorry, I wasn’t too clear there, I meant B12 supplements and Omega-3 supplements, the latter derived from algae. This for those on a vegan diet.