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Dietary Epigenetics, Chemoprevention, and Green Tea Cupcakes

1EpiBeat is excited to have Nikki write this guest post for us!  Nikki started her blog Scientifically Delicious about a year ago to write about the intersection between two of her passions: science and cooking.  She uses her background in biology to explain recent news and findings about food and specific ingredients in a fun and easy format.  She then develops and shares healthy recipes that are designed to be both tasty and to improve the body and mind. Enjoy! 

Mounting evidence suggests that certain foods, such as green tea, contain bioactive molecules which can exert chemopreventive activity (meaning that they can prevent cancer) by regulating the epigenome. In this guest blog post, I will explain a bit about what epigenetics is, its role in cancer, and how our diet influences gene function and helps prevent diseases. Since we always try to be “Scientifically Delicious”, this post will also include a recipe for Green Tea Cupcakes, a sweet way to get an extra dose of green tea into your diet.


This figure shows how our DNA is packaged to fit inside our cells. The double helix of DNA is wound tightly around proteins called histones, which help to organize the DNA into structures called chromosomes that reside in the nucleus of the cell.

At the root of all cancers lie mistakes or changes made in our genetic code. Alterations in our DNA pattern, either caused by environmental exposure, diet, age, etc., can lead to changes in how our genes function. Nucleotide alterations, ranging from mutations (change in base pair), to deletions (removal of gene) or amplifications (increase in gene level), can promote uncontrolled growth when they occur in genes that regulate cell division, much like cutting the brake lines on your car.

Importantly, gene function can also be altered by processes that do not involve a change to the DNA sequence. One example of this is through epigenetics, the process by which chemical reactions affect how genes are regulated. If we think of a gene as being turned on or off like a light bulb, epigenetics can be compared to a dimmer switch. By shifting the switch, you can control how much light is produced in a room, or in a cell’s case, how high or low the gene is expressed. Epigenetics are heritable changes, meaning that we are born with a certain pattern of epigenetic marks, which help to control many aspects of our cell’s behavior. These include, but are not limited to, how a cell evolves, as well as its growth and death. These marks are dynamic and will continue to change as we grow and in response to our environment and diet. Furthermore, these changes can be passed along to our children and our children’s children…something to think carefully about as we learn more about the connection between diet and the epigenome.

Some examples of epigenetic marks are DNA methylation and histone acetylation. Chemical modifications made to our nucleotides can influence how accessible the DNA is to the cell’s machinery that drives expression. DNA methylation, which is the process of adding a methyl group to the C and A nucleotides, can cause DNA to condense, thereby leading to less expression of that specific gene. In cancer cells, it has been shown that many genes which are required to halt cell growth are often silenced via increased methylation.


Our DNA is wrapped around histones (blue spheres) and organized into structures called nucleosomes. Chemically-added tags such as methylation (red circles) can affect how open the DNA is to the cell’s machinery and consequently, how high or low a gene is expressed.

More recently, it’s become apparent that many dietary agents contain bioactive ingredients, which can regulate the epigenetic machinery. For example, turmeric, soybeans, green tea, grapes, and cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli and cabbage, have all been shown to possess compounds called polyphenols, which can affect the level of DNA methylation in cells.

In an article published in Cancer Research, several scientists tested whether a polyphenol found in green tea called (-)-Epigallocatechin-3-Gallate (or EGCG for short) could inhibit DNA methylation at specific cancer-related genes in human cancer cells. They went on to show that at increasing doses, EGCG can inhibit the activity of an enzyme called DNMT1, which is responsible for adding methyl groups to DNA nucleotides. Furthermore, the authors show that treatment of several cancer cell lines with EGCG restored the expression of various genes that play a role in pumping the cell division cycle’s breaks, including p16, RARb and MLH1. Moreover, cancer cells treated with EGCG over the course of a week showed signs of slowed cell division – a sign that the cancer was being stopped.  While these results are very interesting, more research is needed to further characterize the anti-cancer properties of EGCG.


So, should we start guzzling green tea morning, noon, and night? One issue to think about is how much EGCG is needed for its anti-cancer affects and whether this level be reached by drinking green tea alone. The research shows that inhibition of DNMT1 occurs in cells that are treated with a dose of at least 20 mM EGCG. The scientists comment that while this concentration is present in a cup of green tea, it’s hard to determine whether this level can be reached at cancer sites within our bodies. It’s also important to point out that extreme inhibition of DNMT1 may also cause global decreased gene expression, which could potentially produce unwanted side effects.

In conclusion, this work indicates that adding green tea to your daily diet may be beneficial. Green tea is also touted for its rich antioxidant power, suggesting that this herbal chemopreventive may work through multiple paths to help keep you healthy.

You may now be wondering about some creative ways to incorporate more green tea into your diet besides the usual steep. The cupcake recipe that follows was originally inspired by two great blogs: Paleo in PDX and Detoxinista and I’ve made some minor adjustments to help give your green tea intake a boost. If you haven’t worked with coconut flour before, this is a great low-carb and gluten-free substitute for regular baking flour. The use of honey in this recipe gives the cake a sublime sweetness that blends well with the green tea flavor (perhaps because these two also pair so well in a cup of tea?) and the matcha powder provides a subtle green tea flavor, which doesn’t overpower the coconut.


On its own, this cupcake is low-to-medium on the sweet scale and the coconut icing helps to brighten it a bit. In addition to being a treat for dessert, I think this cake would make a perfect breakfast, served alone or paired with a pot of freshly brewed tea. I served these cupcakes at a recent party and they were met with much success! The cake stayed very moist and the icing held up even after being stored in the refrigerator overnight. The top compliment I received was that these cupcakes tasted so good in a healthy way, with the green tea and coconut notes really shining through.

I hope you enjoy this recipe and please feel free to leave a comment to let me know what you think and how your cupcakes turned out!

Want to learn more about eating Scientifically Delicious for cancer prevention? Check out these other popular cancer-related posts on my blog:


Reagents for cake:

  • ¾ cup coconut flour
  • 2 tbsp green tea “matcha” powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 1 cup coconut oil
  • 1 cup honey
  • 10 eggs
  • 1 tbsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup shredded, unsweetened coconut

Reagents for frosting:

  • ¾ cup coconut oil, melted
  • ⅔ cup full-fat coconut milk
  • ¼ cup honey
  • 2 tsp pure almond extract
  • ¼ cup coconut flour

Notes about ingredients:

  • Coconut oil is solid at room temperature, so if you live on the east coast like me, you may need to melt the coconut oil (you can do this in microwave, water bath or stick it on top of heated stove for a couple minutes). However, if you live in Southern California, where there is endless summer, you may be ready to go right from the pantry.
  • Matcha powder can be purchased at many health food stores and online. I purchased mine from a great company called This family owned business has a great selection of nuts, flours, dried fruits, etc. and superior customer service – check them out!
  • I typically use raw, unpasteurized honey that has been harvested locally. You can find this at farmers’ markets or Whole Foods.
  • Eggs…I’ve talked somewhat at length on my blog about how all eggs are not the same! Since this recipe is rather egg-heavy, I highly recommend looking for eggs that are from cage-free chickens and say “omega-3-rich” on the packaging.
  • Full-fat coconut milk, if left in the fridge, will separate into a solid and liquid portion. I let my can chill for an hour or so and then used only the solid portion to make up my ⅔ cup.



For coconut icing (make this first as it requires some chill time)

  • Place all icing ingredients into a food processor or blender
  • Blend on high until everything is well combined – mixture will be thin
  • Stick in the fridge for 2-3 hours until set (see pic above)
  • Once firm, remove from fridge and let soften to room temp or warm gently in the microwave for 20-30 seconds
  • Using a hand blender, whip mixture until it becomes soft and fluffy (this will take 5-10 minutes)

For cake

  • Preheat oven to 325 F
  • Sift coconut flour, green tea, baking soda and salt into a small bowl, set aside
  • In a food processor or mixer, add the melted coconut oil, honey and vanilla, pulse to combine
  • Add the eggs one at a time (be sure that you have allowed the coconut oil to cool a bit in order to avoid scrambled eggs)
  • Pulse or mix until the liquid is well combined
  • Slowly add the dry mixture to the wet in small batches
  • After combined, stir in the shredded coconut
  • Pour into greased/lined cupcake tin


  • Bake for 25-30 minutes
  • Allow cupcakes to cool and then frost with icing (icing should be pretty spreadable, if not allow to sit at room temperature for a little longer)
  • Recipe will make ~1.5 dozen cupcakes


Helpful literature:

Primary source:

Fang MZ, Wang Y, Ai N, Hou Z, Sun Y, Lu H, Welsh W, & Yang CS (2003). Tea polyphenol (-)-epigallocatechin-3-gallate inhibits DNA methyltransferase and reactivates methylation-silenced genes in cancer cell lines. Cancer research, 63 (22), 7563-70 PMID: 14633667


100 fun facts about DNA:

PBS special on epigenetics, diet and cancer:


Image Credits:

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Nikki was born in Pittsburgh, PA and earned her Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh in 2009. She currently resides in Salem, MA and is a post-doc at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute where her project focuses on uncovering new cancer cell vulnerabilities and targeted therapies. When she's not knee deep in experiments or researching new blog topics, she enjoys running, hiking and spending time with family and friends.

  • Christine

    Great post Nikki! Those cupcakes look delicious! How does the amount of matcha powder per cupcake compare to how much you would use in a cup of tea? If absolutely necessary, I will consume multiple know…for health. And science.

    • Nikki

      Great question Christine!! The answer is a little tricky since the green tea found in tea bags is likely loose leaf versus the matcha (powdered green tea) used in this recipe, so the weights are likely to be a bit different. However, we can do a bit of math to speculate how these cupcakes compare, with respect to their EGCG levels, to a cup of tea. On average, a tea bag contains 2g of tea leaves. The 1/4 cup of matcha used in this recipe weighs ~40g (I weighed this out last night after reading your question to be sure!). If the recipe makes about 18 cupcakes, this brings us to about 2.2g of matcha/cupcake, so it’s likely that one cupcake is quite comparable (if not more!) to a cup of tea, although I don’t think anyone would stop you from indulging in two…for your health’s sake:). One more thing to consider is that a study done by the University of Colorado in 2003 showed that matcha contains 3X more EGCG than what is found in other commercially available dried green tea, ie we may be way underestimating the actual EGCG content per cupcake. I hope this answers your question and I invite other Epibeat readers to ask more questions about this post or about other posts on my site…I love talking about nutritional science! 🙂

      • Nikki

        Ha, and after re-reading this I just realized that I miscalculated how much matcha I used in the final recipe (2 tbsp). In my first attempt at making these cupcakes, I used 1/4 cup of matcha, and found that this was way too bitter and had to scratch that batch. In my second attempt, I reduced the matcha to 1/8 cup (2t bsp). So, rethinking our calculation this would mean about 1.1g of matcha per cupcake…perhaps less than a cup of tea (by weight) but with the other considerations I brought up, we are still likely to be well in the EGCG range described in the paper. Although, you are welcome in advance for the GREAT scientific reason to have seconds!!! 🙂 Sorry for any confusion.

  • Diana

    I love this post! It’s a brilliantly sweet way to incorporate desserts into science. I really want to make the Green Tea Cupcakes now and will probably have multiple, just like Christine… Because you know, health first.

    I hope Nikki can share more great recipes like this and I’m now going to stalk her blog to see what other scientifically delicious things are on there. 🙂

    • Nikki

      Hi Diana, Thanks for the comment and support! I am a recovering carb-aholic so (as you will see from my blog) I definitely have an emphasis on ways to make desserts and treats a little healthier, as well as incorporating veggies into the recipes. I am currently working on an avocado dark chocolate chunk brownie recipe that I will be sharing within the next few weeks…so stay tuned! Also, you can find me on facebook, I tend to post science articles and other fun nutrition-related stuff there more frequently. Have a great day. 🙂

  • Erica

    I love the way you are able to incorporate your love for science and food into your blog. As a fellow health nut and runner, I have now become an avid follower of yours! Keep posting yummy recipes… I look forward to trying them!

    • Nikki

      Hi Erica, Thank you for the kind comment! Have you checked out the running playlists on my blog? I have started uploading playlists made by myself and friends, which have upbeat tempos to pump up your daily runs. I will also be posting a recipe later this week for homemade LARA-like bars…so keep checking back! Also, feel free to contact me with other foods you are interested in learning more about/how to incorporate them into your diet OR if you have a playlist of your own to share! Have a great day.

  • Nikki

    Hey EpiBeat readers, here’s another reason to check out this recipe…

  • Julie Waterman

    wow, Nikki! This is so great. You should look up Dr. Alfredo Galvez; he has been studying epigenetics since 1996. You would like what he has to say, goes right along with your studies! (you can search him on facebook)

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