NATURALLY DANGEROUS: Surprising Facts About Food, Health, and the Environment.
By James P. Collman, Professor of Chemistry, Stanford University
Chapter 1. Chemicals Lurking in Your Grocery
© James P. Collman, 2003. All rights reserved
A recent statistical study of over 5,400 adults clearly shows that many overweight people are “metabolically healthy”. These people have healthy levels of good cholesterol, blood pressure, blood glucose and other risk factors related to heart disease. Half of the overweight people had favorable risk factors and 25% of slim people had unfavorable risk factors. Further studies showed that being fit is a much better indicator of good health and long life. Remember the body mass index, B.M.I., which measures height relative to height. Normal B.M.I ranges from 18.5 to 25 and over 25 is considered to be overweight, whereas 30 is considered obese. Many people with B.M.I values over 25 are quite fit as determined by their performance on a treadmill. Modest performance on a treadmill (8 minutes for men and 5.5 minutes for women) is the strongest predictor of mortality risk. Slim unfit people often have unfavorable risk factors and are more likely to die. In fact, death rates among adults with a B.M.I of 25 to 30 were found to be slightly lower than “normal weight” adults. Even when these studies were adjusted for age, smoking and heart problems, fitness, not weight was found to be the most important predictor of mortality risk. (New York Times, August 19, 2008, page D5)
It has long been known that moderate drinkers have less severe heart attacks than teetotalers, but the basis for this has not been understood. Now a newly developed chemical dubbed “Alda-1” has been shown to have promise in reducing the damage done by heart attacks and by some other diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. In animal studies the enzyme known as ALDH2 was shown to reduce damage done by reactive oxygen compounds called free radicals. Readers of Naturally Dangerous may recognize this enzyme as alcohol dehydrogenase-2, the second enzyme that detoxifies ethyl alcohol by converting the toxic intermediate, acetaldehyde into innocuous acetic acid (better known a vinegar). The indirect mechanism by which Alda-1 may protect us is to activate ALDH2, which then protects us from free radical damage during heart attacks. The majority of research on ALDH-2 has been done in Japan and China, because about 40% of Asians are genetically deficient in that enzyme. Recall that many Asians flush after consuming alcoholic beverages; that is because a buildup of the toxic acetaldehyde produces a flushing action. These individuals cannot metabolize acetaldehyde. A long, expensive series of trials will be required before Alda-1 ever is found in the clinic; it is likely that a more potent version would be found and developed. Typically a 10 year period and many hundred million $ separates the discovery of an active chemical until its release by the FDA as a drug to be taken by prescription. (Washington Post, September 11, 2008, Ed Edelson)
People are advised to eat fatty fish such as salmon or albacore tuna in order to obtain omega-3 fatty acids. These "essential" fats (we can't make them in our bodies) lower triglyceride levels, reduce the risk of heat attack, and possibly decrease inflammation. In order to get the suggested 4 to 6 g of omega-3s, a person would have to eat two servings of these wild fatty fish each week (farm raised fish lack these fatty acids). Salmon and tuna are becoming scarce and expensive, so the public has turned to fish-oil nutritional supplements to obtain enough omega-3 fatty acids. At the present time canned salmon and tuna are from wild fish, but that may not continue. In the future it should be possible to obtain your omega-3 fatty acids from consuming genetically engineered vegetable oils - unless you are European and don't eat "Frankenfoods".
Wild fatty fish don't make these omega-3 fatty acids themselves but acquire these from consuming algae, which do make such fatty acids. Industrial scientists have begun to transplant into plants the genes algae use to produce omega-3 fatty acids.
Let's take a moment to define these omega-3 fatty acids. These are a class of polyunsaturated fats, having one carbon-carbon double bond located at the third carbon from the "methyl group" at the end of the acid chain. The most common example in your diet is called ALA, which contains 18 carbon atoms and has three carbon-carbon "cis" double bonds. Note that isomers of such double bonds can be "trans" and such unnatural "trans fats" are unhealthy and are being banned in foods throughout the U.S. Ordinary plant oils such as canola, soybean, and flaxseed contain substantial amounts of ALA. Our bodies are able to transform ALA into limited amounts of the longer chain fatty acids that are required for good health. The important essential longer chain fatty acids are: EPA (20 carbons and five double bonds) and DHA (22 carbons and six double bonds). Most of the health benefits appear to come from DHA. Both of these longer fatty acids are only found naturally in wild fatty fish and the algae they consume.
Researchers at Dow Chemical have inserted the algae genes that make DHA into canola seeds. The resulting, genetically engineered canola plants produce canola oil that is enriched with DHA. But there are problems. DHA has an odor and the double bonds react with oxygen in the air, degrading this oil. To prevent this decomposition, the altered canola oil must be kept away from heat, air, and sunlight. Another company that has been involved in genetic engineering of plants, Monsanto, has introduced genes to make soybeans that are enriched in yet another unsaturated fatty acid, SDA, which has a good taste and is more stable than DHA. Humans can convert SDA into EPA and DHA. Monsanto plans to add SDA enriched soybean oil into salad dressings and other foods. Another company, Martek Biosciences is isolating DHA from algae and using a dry powder containing DHA as a food additive. Martek is growing the algae in vats similar to those used to brew beer. So in the near future, consumers can avoid eating fatty fish, which are expensive and may contain mercury, but getting their essential fatty acids from genetically engineered fats and food additives. But the Europeans must continue to eat fish. (Chemistry and Engineering News, August 11, 2008, page 39)
Another thing to keep in mind about the need for omega-3s, that the ratio between omega-3 and omega-6 (another essential fatty acid having the first double bond on carbon 6) should be fairly low (between 1 and 4 omega-3 for each omega-6). But this ratio is much higher in the typical American diet so that we probably need even more omega-3s in order to compete with excess omega-6.
In the U.S. and most of the industrialized world, no one eats insects, but in at least 113 countries people eat and relish bugs. This practice is not likely to catch on in Europe and the U.S., except for the sea-going equivalent of insects, "arthropods" such as crab, lobster, and shrimp, which are delicacies.
In the tropics and subtropics certain insects such as termites or grubs are preferred to birds. In Mexico over 1,700 insect species are eaten. Favorite examples are grasshoppers, maguey worms, and larvae of a giant butterfly. In Africa mopane worms are considered a delicacy. Sales of these dried worms in South Africa are over 1,600 tons a year.
Studies have shown that insects can be nutritious. For example, crickets are rich in iron, zinc, and calcium. On a weight basis crickets or grasshoppers are more nutritious than equal amounts of beef or pork. The lipids found in bugs tend to be the healthy unsaturated fats. Insects contain high concentrations of essential amino acids - the ones we need but can't manufacture in our bodies. For example, lysine and tryptophan, essential amino acids that are deficient in the diets of many developing countries, are found in high concentrations in insects. Since many people in the third world are vegetarians, eating insects helps them obtain essential components within the proteins found in dietary insects. Recall that meat contains all the essential nutrients. Moreover, clean living insects consume normally inedible plants such as cacti, bamboo, mesquite and scrub brush.
Insects are also fast breeding and can be farmed. For example in Thailand families raise crickets for food. These can also be "cash crops". Insects can be farmed throughout the year, but in Nature they can be seasonal.
Want to try eating some insects? Go to the restaurant in the Audubon Nature Institute's Insectarium, which opens July 13 in New Orleans. Chocolate covered bugs, cookies with toasted crickets, or red beans and "yikes" (poached wax worms) are recommended, but not by your author. (Science News, June 7, 2008, page 16)
Raw milk, that is un-pasteurized, un-homogenized milk, is a little recognized “organic food”, which is illegal in several states. The FDA banned interstate sales of unpasteurized milk 20 years ago. Within 26 states the sale of raw milk for human consumption is legal, with some restrictions, but the sale of raw milk is illegal in 15 other states. Although rich in calories and saturated fats, raw milk is praised for its flavor and some claim it is more nutritious than pasteurized milk. The distrust in “industrialized” foods and the concept that traditional foods are “natural” and therefore safer are concepts behind the growing raw milk sales. The FDA ban on interstate sales of raw milk can be traced to earlier times. In 1938 milk was found to be the source of 25 percent of all food and water-related illnesses. After nearly universal pasteurization of milk, the number of milk related illnesses fell to 1 percent by 1993. Pausterization – heating and quickly cooling milk kills pathogens such as E. coli, salmonella, and listeria, but this process also destroys the beneficial bacteria found in raw milk. There seems to be no solid scientific evidence that raw milk is more beneficial than pasteurized milk. Moreover, raw milk contains very little vitamin D, which is added to most pasteurized milk. Of course in California raw milk is legal and widely available. It is unclear whether this has caused disease. In other states, such as Virginia, where raw milk cannot be sold, individuals have bought shares in cows to obtain their milk. This practice is not classified as a sale and so skirts the legal restrictions on raw milk. (New York Times, August 8, 2007)
A 16 year-old study of nearly 16,000 men between the ages of40 and 75 has shown that hypertensive men (those with high blood pressure) can drink in moderation without fear of an increased rate of heart attacks. In fact those who have one or two drinks a day have a lower risk of heart attacks, but there is no improvement in the number of strokes or dying from other causes. The “control group” consisted of men who do not drink. The reasoning behind these welcome results is that moderate amounts of alcohol may thin the blood and raise the levels of the good cholesterol, HDL. Hypertensive men who drank more did not show an improvement, and excessive drinking might be dangerous for them because larger amounts of alcohol are known to increase blood pressure. What about women? Unfortunately they were not studied, but their tolerance for alcohol is known to be lower than men and there is a risk of breast cancer for women drinking more than a small amount of alcohol. (HealthDay news, January 2, 2007 )
Many people, especially some children and at least one former president abhor broccoli. Other people tolerate this vegetable and eat it because it is thought to be good for you. A few individuals are said to actually like the stuff. Now it has been found that there are genetic differences between those who find broccoli bitter and those who can tolerate it. Bitter tastes such as those found in some green vegetables are detected by receptor proteins; recall that all proteins are encoded by genes. These particular genes are known as TAS2R; humans possess 200 such taste related genes, each of which are sensitive to different groups of chemicals such as those that are found on green vegetables. A chemical called phenylthiocarbamide, PTC, is found in broccoli and it is this substance that elicits the taste. Cruciferous vegetables, such as watercress, and turnips have similar thiourea-containing carbohydrate compounds. A group of volunteers were assembled and questioned about their taste for or dislike of broccoli and related vegetables. Those individuals who had two copies of the protein that binds strongly to PTC thought broccoli and its relatives to be bitter. These people had inherited one copy of this gene from each of their parents. Another group of people inherited one gene whose protein bound PTC less strongly, and those individuals could tolerate broccoli, but they didn’t particularly like it (your author is probably in that subset). The third group inherited two copies of the gene that produce a protein that binds only weakly to PTC and they found broccoli and its relatives quite palatable. These tests correlate even better with turnips. Now that we understand the genetic basis of these different tastes, it is further interesting to note that PTC and related thiourea-containing chemicals inhibit the function of the thyroid gland by suppressing the uptake of iodide, which is essential in production of a hormone, thyroxine,that is produced by the thyroid. This fact demonstrates that broccoli and related vegetables are not as good for you as you have been told. There is a balance in life, remember the term homeostasis (see page 48 in Naturally Dangerous).
On page 27 in Naturally Dangerous some spices are proposed to contain natural antibiotics. A recent report confirms that there is a natural chemical in salsa that offers protection against Salmonella, the common foodborne pathogen that causes nausea, diarrhea, and sometimes death to those who eat contaminated food in counties such as Mexico , but Mexicans seem immune to this pathogen. A compound, dodecenal, found in cilantro leaves was found to be twice as potent as gentamicin, an antibiotic that is commonly used to treat such foodborne ailments. This finding offers an explanation for Mexican's resistance to contaminated foods. Someday this natural antibiotic may be sold as a general disinfectant or food additive, but that would require years of testing and a lot of money. In the meantime, enjoy your cilantro-laced salsa. (Science News, June 19, 2004 , Vol. 165, page 397)
Good news about coffee attracts a lot of attention because so many people drink coffee. Now we learn from a large statistical study of 125,000 patients from Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program in Oakland California over twenty years that coffee protects alcohol drinkers against cirrhosis of the liver. This is unexpected good news for those who imbibe. In the U.S. more than 5 million people have cirrhosis, usually from heavy consumption of alcohol. This study found that with each cup a coffee consumed each day, the risk of cirrhosis dropped about 22%. With more coffee consumption this risk continues to fall to the point that those drinking four cups a day were only 20% as likely to get cirrhosis than those who do not drink alcohol. Nevertheless, the best way to avoid cirrhosis of the liver is not to drink alcohol, but if you do imbibe, drinking coffee with help protect you. The origin of this protection is not understood, but the statistics appear to be convincing. (Science News, June 24, 2006 , Vol. 169,page 397)
A study of 125,000 members of a health-care plan over a 14-year period provided good news for coffee drinkers, who abused alcohol. Compared with those who did not drink coffee, coffee drinkers were less likely to develop the type of liver cirrhosis caused by alcohol abuse. The more coffee the better! One cup a day reduced cirrhosis by 30 per cent; two cups reduced the risk by 40 per cent, and those who drink four or more cups of coffee a day reduced their risk by 80 per cent. It is not clear what in the coffee protects the liver. Is it caffeine? No one knows.
The best evidence connecting eating patterns or diets with health outcomes derives from statistical studies, but these are difficult to perform on a large number of human subjects over a long period of time. Controlled studies of human diets are probably unethical and are otherwise difficult to manage. Retrospective analysis is the best method, provided that one can get reliable evidence. It is equally difficult to study Alzheimer’s disease, because a definitive diagnosis can only be done by autopsy, and it takes years for this dementia to evolve. In spite of these problems, Dr. Nikolaos Scarmeas, a physician of Greek origin working at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City , has published a convincing epidemiological study relating the prospect of developing Alzheimer’s disease with dietary habits. This study began in 1992 by enrolling 2,226 people over 65, who showed no signs of dementia and following them for up to 14 years. These individuals filled out questionnaires about their health and eating habits. Eventually 262 developed diagnostic symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease: their memories declined, their attention spans narrowed, and their ability to express themselves deteriorated. Comparison of those who were apparently coming down with Alzheimer’s disease with others who have not developed dementia showed that diet is a major factor determining the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Those who scored highest on a Mediterranean diet score showed the lowest risk for Alzheimer’s, a reduction of 40 percent. Those having an intermediate Mediterranean diet score showed a 20 percent benefit. The predictive power of a patient’s diet outweighed other known risk factors such as smoking, body mass index, age, and certain risk genes. But this study failed to show that a single food type was involved; it was the combination of foods in the diet that mattered. (Jamie Talan, Newsday, April 19, 2006 )
An urban myth is the claim that you should avoid eating oysters and other
shellfish because they contain too much cholesterol. That claim was based on
old analyses, which lumped “sterols” with cholesterol, which is a “steroid”.
The two are quite different and physicians have been warning against consuming
large quantities of cholesterol itself. Even that concern should be treated
with caution; as mentioned in Naturally Dangerous, our bodies make cholesterol
when it is needed (from acetic acid in vinegar) and combust cholesterol like
other natural fats during metabolism. On average about 15 percent of the
cholesterol in our tissues come from cholesterol we eat. The remainder is from
cholesterol that our body manufactures. Some people make too much cholesterol
or burn too little; their cholesterol levels can be increased by eating foods
containing cholesterol. Some other foodstuffs can raise the amount of
cholesterol in our body: saturated fats and the unnatural trans fats found in
many food products are the principal culprits. Now recognizing that shellfish
have relatively low cholesterol levels, there is other good news for those who
enjoy shellfish. Most shellfish contain healthy amounts of a widely recognized
“good fat”, omega-3 fatty acids, more than the amount of cholesterol. These
quantities vary, but all shellfish seem to be healthful from this point of
view. Check out some of my favorite shellfish in terms of the milligrams of
omega-3s versus cholesterol in a 3-ounce portion: Clams (329 vs. 57), Lobster
(73 vs. 61), Mussels (702 vs. 48), Pacific Oysters (1204 vs. 85), Scallops (336
vs. 45), and Shrimp (284 vs. 166). Further good news is that oysters have an
abundance of zinc, which you will find in Naturally Dangerous may explain
Casanova’s love of that food in his exhaustive romantic quests. But you will
also discover in Naturally Dangerous that all shellfish contain arsenic, but in
a form that does not threaten your health.
If you are really concerned about taking in too much fat with your shellfish avoid the use of butter or mayonnaise and broil, grill, or steam your shellfish rather than frying it. (Mayo Clinic Health Letter, April 7, 2006, page 7)
There have been several studies that suggest eating fatty fish will improve health by reducing cardiovascular events and other diseases. Now a recent statistical study published in the British Medical Journal, May 24, 2006 does not find evidence of a clear benefit of omega-3 fats on health. Long chain omega-3 fatty acids are found in oily fish such as salmon and tuna and in fish oil supplements. Physicians often recommend that patients eat more oily fish after they have had a heart attack. Bio-statisticians analyzed 89 studies (48 randomized, controlled trials and 41 cohort studies) to determine the possible health effects of both long-chain and short-chain omega-3 fats on mortality, cardiovascular events, cancer, and strokes. Pooling these results provided no strong evidence for an improvement of any of these conditions over a period of at least six months. These results create a paradox, in view of earlier studies indicating healthful effects upon consuming fatty fish, which contain these essential omega-3 fats. Clearly more studies are required. Prudent individuals should continue to consume fatty fish as no negative health outcomes were observed – save the possible consumption of small quantities of toxic fat-soluble mercury compounds that are found in many fish.
New analysis of older statistical studies throws doubt on the widely-accepted claim that moderate drinking improves health and mortality. Sociologist Kaye Middleton Fillmore, emeritus professor at the University of California, San Francisco School of Nursing claims that older studies included as abstainers people who had stopped drinking because of ill health and these biased the results because these abstainers were naturally in poorer health. Reanalysis of these older studies by including only long-term nondrinkers in the abstainer category failed to show any benefit from moderate drinking!! Surely this new analysis will get broad scrutiny. Watch the news. (FOXNEWS.com, March 30, 2006, Daniel J. DeNoon)
By reviewing 35 studies that have been carried out between 1983 and 2002, Tulane university biostatisticians have concluded that light-to-moderate alcohol consumption reduces the incidence of ischemic strokes by about 28 percent compared with abstainers. Stroke is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. and is the leading cause of long-term disability. About 600,000 Americans have a stroke each year, and 160,000 eventually die as a result. Recall that ischmeic strokes, which account for 80 percent of all strokes, are the result of a blood clot in the brain. Hemorrhagic strokes, which result from a blood vessel bursting in the brain, account for the remainder. What is meant by light to moderate drinking? The definition is one to two drinks a day. A drink is commonly defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80 proof distilled spirits (whiskey, gin, or vodka). Does this mean that everyone should drink to reduce their chance of having a stroke? Not at all! For one thing, heavy drinkers (more than five drinks a day) were found to have a much greater risk of ischemic stroke compared with non-drinkers. Physicians are loath to recommend that non-drinkers begin to drink. Some might become alcoholics.
If this report is true, what is a plausible explanation behind these findings? Alcohol is known to thin the blood and increase the amount of “good” cholesterol (HDL). (February 5, 2004, CNN.com, Health)
Cancers are known to be inhibited by an enzyme, topoisomerase II. A commercial anticancer agent is an inhibitor of this enzyme, which is known to break double-stranded DNA and to be involved in several cancers and leukemia. Chemists in Bordeaux recently found a new class of natural compounds in oak-aged wine that are very potent inhibitors of topoisomerase II. Wine drinkers rejoice, many wines are aged in oak: for example, 50-80 percent of American wineries age their wine in oak barrels. Earlier other biologically active compound were found in wines; resveratrol, which appears to extend the life of fruit flies and mice, and presumable humans, was found in red wines such as Pinot Noir. But don’t jump to conclusions and claim that drinking wine will protect drinkers against cancer. This is plausible, but far from proven. (Chem. & Eng. News, October 31, 2005, page 36)
Perhaps you have heard of endorphins, small peptides (protein segments) that are naturally produced in the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus. Endorphins bind to and activate opioid receptors in the nervous system and trigger psychological behaviors such as such as analgesia (pain relief) as well as sedation, euphoria, and also physiological effects such as decreased respiration and reduced blood pressure. These opioid receptors were so named because they respond to sedative narcotics such as those derived from opium. Particular endorphins activate only certain opioid receptors. It is interesting that endorphins are generated as a result of a variety of stimuli, such as laughing, meditating, doing strenuous exercise, being exposed to ultraviolet light or even by eating chili peppers!
On page 22 in Naturally Dangerous you will find brief mention of “exorphins”, which like endorphins are also small peptides that bind to and activate the same opioid centers and elicit psychological and physiological actions similar to those effected by the endorphins. Exorphins are derived from particular proteins in foods. Enzymes in the body chop up these proteins and release the small exorphin peptides. Several individual exorphins have been isolated from enzymatic digestion of foods such as gluten, a protein in wheat, spinach rubisco, and casein, a protein found in cow’s milk. These isolated exorphins were shown to elicit particular psychological effects in mice and rats. From these tests it was concluded that exorphins bind to opioid receptors in the same way that endorphins and opiates do. For example exorphins derived from gluten show analgesic, anxiety-suppressing, and memory-enhancing effects. One can speculate that exorphins from foods could play a role in maintaining mental health and regulating cognition in humans. In 2002 K. L. Reichelt published a paper hypothesizing that autism in children may be somehow related to the increased levels of exorphins in their urine. Recall that autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by social indifference, repetitive behavior, some analgesia, sleeping problems, and language deficiencies. Autism is known to have a genetic component, but the cause of autism is uncertain and controversial. Some aspects of autistic behavior might be explained by the action of high levels of exorphins. Different levels of the body’s enzymes that hydrolyze proteins could be related to a genetic control of exorphin levels. A preliminary, but very suggestive study on the effects of giving autistic children a diet that is free of gluten and casein is consistent with a possible role of exorphins in autism. Children on this diet showed statistically significant improvements in their emotional relationships as well as communicative and cognitive skills. In families with an autistic child it would be very difficult to control that child’s diet without requiring that all family members eat the same foods. The possible connection between food-derived exorphins and autism should be considered highly speculative, but it is clear that our mental behavior could be affected by the food we eat and differences in the way individuals metabolize proteins. (Knivsberg, A. M., et. al. Nutritional Neuroschience, 5(4), 251, (2002).
Many people know that cats don’t like sugar. The reason is that felines lack the taste receptor for sweet stimuli; thus they can’t taste sweet carbohydrates or artificial sweeteners. The wild domestic cousins of domestic cats, tigers and cheetahs have the same genetic defect. As dog lovers know, dogs do not have this problem and they often love sweet things. (New York Times, July 26, 2005, page D5)
A natural chemical found in “extra-virgin” olive oil has been found to have anti-inflammatory effects similar to the over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, ibuprofen. This compound, which naturally occurs in olive oil, is called oleocanthal. It was shown to inhibit both of the inflammation inducing enzymes, COX-1 and COX-2. This finding provides a partial explanation for the health benefits associated with the Mediterranean diet, which features ample olive oil. (Science News, September 3, 2005, vol. 168, page 147)
A statistical study of nearly 25,000 women in Shanghai showed that those who ate the most soy had only half the risk of bone fractures. The effect of soy food consumption was greater among women in the early years of menopause. Compounds in soy, such as isoflavones, and phytoestrogens are structurally similar to mammalian estrogen and are proposed to help prevent bone resorption and to stimulate bone growth. The authors of this study found that as dietary soy consumption went up, fracture risk went down (MedPage Today, September 13, 2005). These results contrast to other studies reported in this web-site that have indicated other health risks in consuming large amounts of soy foods.
Isotopes, so-called atomic siblings, have many applications. By analyzing the ratio of carbon-13 and carbon-12 in cow hair, Chemists can identify a cow’s feed. Isotopes differ by having different numbers of neutrons in their nucleus, but these nuclear cousins exhibit very similar chemistries. Carbon-13 has an additional neutron in its nucleus, 7 compared to 6 in the more common carbon-12 isotope. These two carbon isotopes have different weights, which can be precisely measured with a mass spectrometer. Because of differences in photosynthesis, the ratio of carbon-13 to carbon-12 is higher in corn than in grass. This signature shows up in cow’s hair and this isotopic ratio should also be present in milk or meat. Some customers now prefer the leaner, “greener” grass fed beef. In earlier times customers preferred prime, fatty corn-fed beef. Someday this method may be used to document the feed that cow was eating before it became a steak on your plate. (Science, Vol. 309, July 8, 2005, page 242)
A special type of fat, oxidized phospholipids, which are associated with the “bad cholesterol”, LDL has now been linked to a three-fold increased risk of heart attacks in patients under 60 years old. This association is independent of cholesterol levels, but individuals having high cholesterol and oxidized phospholipids have an even greater risk of a heart attack. This new fat must be measured in a blood test separate from that measuring HDL and LDL. The new study of 504 people was carried out at the University of California, San Diego. These people were mostly white so that additional a wider population should be studied. Expect further news and a shorter name for “oxidized phospholipids”. Some physicians called for reduced consumption of fat, but a correlation between dietary fat consumption and this dangerous type has not been reported.
Over the past 20 years, tumeric, a spice found in curry has been studied as an agent to prevent cancer. There is some statistical evidence that diets rich in curcumin (an ingredient in tumeric) are correlated with reduced rates of colon cancer. Recent experiments of melanoma cell lines showed that the yellow pigment, curcumin blocked the growth of these cancer cells, and stimulated their death. Tumeric was found to inhibit a factor called NF-kappa B, which is known to be very active in several types of tumors. These tests must be extended to animals and then to people before any conclusions can be drawn about a therapeutic effect of curry spice. This concept is related to legends concerning health benefits of spices discussed in Chapter 1. (Bharat B. Aggarwal, University of Texas Cancer Center in Houston to be reported in the August 15 issue of Cancer)
Genetically modified foods are opposed by most environmental groups. In Europe such substances are widely referred to as “Franken Foods”. A recent study of two varieties of genetically modified (GM) rice have been studied in eight Chinese villages in 2002 and 2003. Both varieties contain genes that make toxins that control insects such as the rice-stem borer. These GM rice seeds were planted along side traditional rice. The amount of pesticides used in the GM fields were compared with traditional rice paddies, and the health of the farmers planting and harvesting both GM and traditional rice crops were compared. Pesticide poisoning is known to be a serious problem in China. The use of GM seeds resulted in about an 80 percent drop in pesticide use, and the GM fields produced at least 6 percent higher yield per acre. None of the families growing GM rice reported illnesses associated with pesticide spraying, but the traditional rice farmers did report such illness. A Greenpeace advisor was critical of this study and still opposes growing GM crops. (Science News, April 30, 2005, Vol. 167, page 276)
Senomyx, a small San Diego based biotech company is using the human genome to copy receptors in the mouth that are responsible for taste. There are hundreds of such flavor receptors. Senomyx is using this information to develop proprietary (secret, undisclosed) molecules that can activate or block these taste receptors. These substances can enhance or reproduce the taste of sugar, salt, and MSG (mono-sodium-glutamate) in foods. Since these substances are used in such tiny quantities, they can be listed on food labels simply as “artificial flavor enhancers”; moreover, these chemicals. The first such product will be used as a replacement for MSG, an ancient flavor enhancer discussed on page 28 of Naturally Dangerous. Some people believe they are allergic to MSG and it has developed a negative perception by many people. In 1970 MSG was removed from baby foods after some evidence of nervous system disorders were reported in laboratory animals, but it is still on the market and is used in some Chinese Restaurants. Senomyx’s substitute for MSG was declared safe, and was labeled GRAS (generally recognized as safe) in less than 18 months, which included a 3 month safety study in rats. Artificial sweeteners such as sucralose required 11 years to be cleared by the FDA. A major difference is that Senomyx’s product is effective at very low levels, allowing these products to escape FDA evaluation. The first foods containing Senomyx’s MSG replacement are expected to appear in the first half of 2006. Kraft Foods, Nestle, Coca-Cola, and Campbell Soup have collectively paid Senomyx for rights to market its products with royalties of 1 to 4 percent of a product’s sales. It is anticipated that the sodium content of a can of Campbell’s soup will be reduced from 2,300 to 1,500 milligrams upon adding the Senomyx additive. A similar reduction in sugar in soft drinks is expected, although these products still have some time to clear environmental barriers and to prove taste effective. Investors beware; Senomyx is several years away from turning a profit, but the potential is there. (New York Times, April 6, 2005 , Melanie Warner)
Margarine is said to have been manufactured to fatten turkeys, but some of them died and this practice was abandoned. After adding yellow dye and an artificial flavoring agent, margarine was sold to people as a substitute for butter, especially during the Second World War when butter was not available to the public. As mentioned in Naturally Dangerous (Chapter 1), margarine is made by partially hydrogenating unsaturated fats, but in this process, some of the natural cis-carbon-carbon bonds are rearranged to a trans (z-shaped) unnatural form. This process produces trans-fats, which are said by Harvard researchers to increase the risk of coronary heart disease by a factor of three and to increase the risk of cancers by up to five-fold. The quality of breast milk is said to be lowered, when a nursing mother eats margarine. The immune response and insulin response are said to b e decreased by eating margarine and other sources of trans-fats. Try the following experiment: pace an open tub of margarine in a dark area open to flies. The flies will not touch or eat the margarine; to them it is like plastic: not a natural food. Are you still eating margarine? I have rid my house of this stuff; we now make pie dough from duck fat or lard; both are natural, but more significantly, both contain cis-fats, not trans-fats.
According to the food and Drug Administration, (FDA), sprouts from mung, alfalfa, clover, broccoli, and radish seedlings have caused 40% of all food-borne illnesses associated with produce since 1996. The number of cases has dropped since 1999, but the FDA still proposes that sprouts are a serious health problem. These foods are a favorite among health-food enthusiasts, because they high in fiber and contain antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin A, and calcium in radish sprouts, Broccoli sprouts contain cancer-fighting substances. Compared with other possibly contaminated foods such as eggs, chickens, and beef, sprouts pose a special problem because there is no reliable method to decontaminate them. Other produce can be washed and refrigerated, but bacteria can grow inside a sprout and they can’t be washed off. The contamination is in their seeds; irradiation, ultrasound (to shake out bacteria), and chlorination are not reliable. Only tests to detect bacteria, as is currently done by the national food chain, Whole Foods Market, Inc, and International Specialty Supply in Cookeville Tenn, a seed-supply company, can keep contaminated sprouts from the food supply. As of June 14, 2005, the FDA had still not decided whether regulations should be applied to these raw health foods. (Wall Street Journal, June 14, 2005, page B2)
Emerging basic research (on mice) demonstrates that including enough fat in your diet may be good for your health. This study is based on the idea that there are two kinds of fat: either the fat that you consume or that your body produces, called new fat, or fat that your body has stored in adipose (fatty) tissue waiting to be used, called old fat. According to these new mouse studies, the liver distinguishes between these two kinds of fat as the liver correlates nutrients (new fat) and energy production. This coordination is an example of the concept of biological balance referred to as homeostasis discussed on page 48 in Naturally Dangerous. These studies indicate that new fat is required to activate a receptor, PPAR alpha, which regulates genes that are involved in metabolism of glucose, fatty acids (from old fat), and cholesterol. Paradoxically, when mice do not get fat in their diets and when they cannot make fat in their body, they develop low blood sugar (become hypoglycemic) and their livers became loaded with fat. These mice were not only fed a low-fat diet, but their enzyme that manufactures body fat from carbohydrates was inactivated so they had no sources of new fat. Even saturated fatty acids were found to be involved in stimulating metabolism of carbohydrates, fats, and cholesterol. (M. V. Chakravarthy et al., Cell Metabolism, May 2005, Vol. 1, page 309)
What are the implications of these genetic studies? It is probable that humans need a certain amount of fat in their diets to maintain a balance in the metabolism of basic foods. Nutritionists are in denial when they say that fat is always bad for you.
Two recent studies suggest that drinking alcohol of any sort – red or white wine, beer, and even hard liquor protects older women against mental decline. One study followed alcohol consumption of more than 11,000 Harvard University nurses; another followed 4,461 women by Wake Forrest University Baptist Medical Center. Women in the Harvard study who were over 70 and consumed one drink a day had improved mental performance compared with a similar non-drinkers or those who drank twice as much each day. The Wake Forrest study reached a similar conclusion. These results may be related to earlier findings that moderate alcohol consumption raises levels of H.D.L., the “good cholesterol” and lowers levels of blood clotting agents like fibrinogen. These factors may prevent subclinical strokes, which lead to mental deterioration. Physicians are reluctant to suggest non-drinkers drink, but these results may cause them to revisit this issue. (New York Times, February 1, 2005, page D7)
There are many studies that demonstrate eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is healthful, lowering stroke risk, possibly reducing prostate cancer, and osteoporosis in men, and enhancing mortality in both men and women. But a large study of over 300,000 women in eight countries indicates that women who eat fruits and vegetables have the same risk of experiencing breast cancer as those who’s diets are comprised of very few of such foods that are said to enhance health. Some nutritionists cling to the hope that these statistical studies don’t tell the entire story and that if young girls eat diets rich in fruits and vegetables, they may stave off breast cancer. (Tara Parker-Pope, The Wall Street Journal, 1/18/05, page D1)
Finally the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will require that food products must be labeled to disclose the amounts of trans-fats that are present, but this directive will not take effect until January 2006. This requirement will create immense problems because these unnatural trans-fat shave become important constituents in many foods and the quantities that must be replaced are so large that it will be nearly impossible to produce enough substitutes. Moreover, the resulting foods may have a different texture and inferior taste. Recall that at the present time trans-fats can be identified by the term “partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil”, but the general public is largely unaware of this problem. The chemical process that creates trans-fats involves the addition of hydrogen atoms to natural oily fats thus converting them into soft solids that are more stable towards spoiling in the air and when used in frying. The resulting unnatural fats have a different molecular shape that interferes with normal metabolism. Eating trans-fats leads to several well-documented health risks. The level of good cholesterol (HDL) falls and the bad cholesterol (LDL) rises. It has been estimated that each year between 30,000 and 100,000 deaths from cardiac disease could be prevented if trans-fats were removed from the American diet. One study in Germany suggests trans-fats are associated with an increase in breast cancer. The FDA has declared that there is no safe level of trans-fat in the diet. So lets get rid of these dangerous, unnatural foods! But there are serious problems. Nearly all breakfast foods, cookies, crackers, and most other baked goods in the supermarket contain trans-fats. These substances are also in many frozen foods. About 40% of all food found in U.S. grocery stores contains trans fats. Another major food type prepared with trans-fats is “fast food” such as McDonald and Burger King French fries and Dunkin Doughnuts’ glazed doughnuts. The huge quantities of food that are prepared from partially hydrogenated soybean oil and contain trans-fats are exemplified by frozen fried potatoes (French fries). One factory, Simplot, prepares 720,000 pounds of frozen fries and ships them to restaurants like McDonalds every day. Sunflower oil might be a substitute for hydrogenated soybean oil at an increased cost, but only 2 million acres a year are planted in the U.S. compared with 75 million acres of soybeans. Various combinations, for example palm fruit oil (made op of a saturated fat) and canola oil (an unsaturated fat) are being tried as replacements for the trans-fats now being used in the fillings of Oreo cookies, but the texture and color is different and trans-fat free Oreos may not appeal to many consumers who have liked the old version. Companies are scrambling to find substitutes that have taste appeal and are available in sufficient quantities. By the way, restaurants will not be required to list the trans-fats in their menus, but fast food chains such as McDonalds, Burger King, and the like will undoubtedly release this information. Beyond all these difficult issues there is another potential problem that has not been discussed. Repeated boiling of natural unsaturated fats in fast food restaurants may also result in the formation of trans-fats when foods containing proteins are present in this hot oil. Natural cis-fats could rearrange into the offensive trans form in the presence of sulfur and nitrogen groups in meat, fish and other foods. (Kim Severson and Melanie Warner, New York Times, February 13, 2005, page 1)
Anthropologists have applied our present-day understanding of human physiology to estimate the dietary requirements of Neanderthals, who had large bodies and survived by hunting in harsh glacial climates for nearly 600,000 years. From measuring chemical isotopes derived from their bones it is known that Neanderthals subsisted almost entirely on a meat diet – presumably eating large Arctic animals such as caribou. Judging from their body size and their skin area one can calculate that even a sedentary Neanderthal would need to consume 25% more calories than an average adult American male. But when one considers that these ancient people must have been very active because they had to hunt near an ice front, they must have burned calories more like the Inuits (Eskimos) modern native arctic people having a smaller stature. Taking all these factors into account, the Neanderthals are estimated to have required 4500 – 5040 calories each day, which means that a group of ten would have consumed two caribou each week. Both the modern Eskimos and the ancient Neanderthals would have to consume mostly protein and fat during the long winters and would have access to little fruit or vegetables so both peoples must exist by eating a true Atkin’s diet. These authors of this article did not comment on this interesting point. (Science, 11 February, 05, page 840).
For over a decade the media has been touting the “health benefits” of soy food products such as tofu, soy protein powders, and infant formulas. This information is promoted by the powerful, profitable U.S. soy industry. Many vegetarians rely on soy foods to obtain proteins in their diets. The truth is that there are many health risks associated with soy foods, which contain several dangerous, toxic natural substances!! Moreover, the pediatric and medical community and the FDA need to get on top of this story. It is disturbing that the USDA has launched a website that is promoting the “health benefits” of soy and soy foods. When writing Naturally Dangerous, your author did not come across statistical reports concerning toxic substances in soy products; to make up for this omission, a summary of dangers inherent in soy foods is presented in this web site, and this topic would be featured in any future addition.
Soybeans and soy products contain natural chemicals called isoflavones, which can disrupt the thyroid system. These chemicals act as artificial hormones; some inhibit a thyroid enzyme called TPO, thus disturbing proper thyroid function and in certain instances causing goiters in otherwise healthy children and adults. The enzyme deactivation is more serious when the subjects have only a marginal quantity of iodine in their diets. The ingestion of soy products has been linked to malnutrition, cognitive decline, reproductive disorders, heart disease, and cancer, depending on the type of soy product, how much is consumed for how long a period, the amount of iodine in the diet and who is eating soy based foods. Problems from consuming soy foods, which have been more widely recognized in other Western countries, are particularly dangerous for infants. Soy formula, which is contained in about 25 per cent of infant formulas in the U.S. has been called “one of the worst foods that you could feed your child” by Dr. Mercola, a controversial MD, who comments on many foods in his website. But numerous epidemiological studies from institutions throughout the World seem to support Mercola’s position on soy formulas designed for infants. This warning about eating soy products should be extended to pregnant women, because the fetus is especially susceptible to these toxic substances. It is estimated that an infant exclusively fed soy formula is receiving the equivalent of five birth control pills per day if their body weight is taken into account. Because of the way that soy formulas are prepared in aluminum vats, the aluminum content of soy formulas can also be dangerously high.
There are other hazardous natural chemicals in soy products including phytic acid or phytates, which can block the body’s uptake of essential minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron, and especially zinc. Soybeans also contain powerful inhibitors of trypsin and other enzymes that are required for digestion. A clot-promoting substance, hem agglutinin, which causes red blood cells to clump together is also present in soybeans. Some of these potentially dangerous substances are degraded by fermentation of soybeans, which is carried out in the preparation of foods such as soy sauce or miso. One the other hand, cooking does not deactivate these potentially toxic chemicals, so that foods such as tofu are seemingly more hazardous.
When I first learned about these claims, the first question I asked was: why don’t Asians have a health problem from consuming soy products? There are two partial answers. Soy has never been a staple food in Asia; larger quantities of soy foods were eaten by the poor only in times of food shortages. Moreover, Asians do have high rates of thyroid cancer, which is possibly linked to consumption of soy foods. A 1991 Japanese study showed that consuming 2tablespoons of soybeans per day for one month resulted in a significant reduction of a thyroid-stimulating hormone. This lowered hormone production was found not to be related to an inadequate intake of iodine, an element which is also required to make thyroid hormones. These subjects experienced several adverse side effects such as fatigue and some showed evidence of goiter problems. A different study of 3734 elderly Japanese-American men showed that those who consumed the most tofu had a 2.4 fold increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
How much soy is safe? For pregnant women and infants, any soy food should be avoided. Adults are advised to consume less than 30 mg of soy isoflavones per day, which is about the amount contained in 5-7 ounces of soy milk or 1.5ounces of miso. A USDA website lists the quantities of isoflavones found in a large number of soy foods such as “garden burgers”, vegetarian hot dogs, and tofu, as well as other foods such as chickpeas.
What about animals who consume soybean products? Do they experience any related health problems? Here is a possible example. Cheetahs in American Zoos fed a diet comprised of horsemeat and soy protein were less fertile and suffered poor health compared wild cheetahs. When four cheetahs in the Cincinnati Zoo were switched to food without soy, their health improved. That small sample proves nothing, but feeding soy products to one’s house cat should be treated with caution. Over 50% of dry pet foods have soy as the major protein source. (National Center for Toxicological Research, Jefferson, AR, 72079, UDA, Biochem. Pharmacol., 1997, Nov. 54:10, 1087-96)
Americans are drinking huge amounts of bottled water: $7.7 billion in 2002.A curious article by Andrea Petersen in the Wall Street Journal reports that most bottled water is stamped with an expiration date, but does water decompose? If the water is sealed in stable bottles it shouldn’t change or become contaminated. Nevertheless many organizations, such as the Office of Homeland Security, the State of New Jersey, and the American Red Cross require that water bottles be marked with expiration dates – usually two years. Is there a scientific basis behind this strange practice? Probably not. The best rational is that the flavor might change from leaching something from the plastic bottle. I am skeptical about this practice, but the scientifically ignorant public falls in line. This practice is costly, but water is not a cost-sensitive product. I found it amusing that even dogs are provided with bottled water; some of their options make sense: chicken and beef flavored water.
Artificial sweeteners are discussed on page 15 in Naturally Dangerous. A new sweetener, Splenda was a minor product at the time the book was written and was omitted. Now Splenda, or sucralose, has become the leading no-calorie sweetener and its market share is growing so rapidly that the single manufacturer cannot keep up with demand so that shipments are being rationed and new products containing splenda are not being introduced. There are several important factors underlying the demand for splenda. The current craze for no-calorie sweeteners has grown along with the low carbohydrate Adkins and South Beach diets, as well as the desire of many Americans to cut their calorie intake, while satisfying their sweet tooth. Scientific ignorance coupled with a fear of “chemicals” is also involved. Splenda’s packages carry a slogan: “Made from sugar so it tastes like sugar”. Indeed Splenda is made from sucrose (table sugar), by stitching hydrocarbon units on all of the OH groups in this natural sugar. The resulting artificial molecule does taste sweet, but its sweetness is not related to the fact that it is made from sugar by a complex chemical process. The scientifically ignorant public and some health professionals have interpreted this false advertising to mean that sucralose is less of a chemical than the other artificial sweeteners, Sweet and Low (saccharin) and Equal(aspartame). This nonsense has been endorsed by Dr. Arthur Agatston, a cardiologist, who is the creator of the highly successful South Beach Diet. Agatston refers to Splenda as “natural”. But Splenda does have a real advantage over other artificial sweeteners such as Equal. Splenda is stable to the high temperatures used for baking and formulating yogurts and cereals. At this time about 1,330 products on the market contain Splenda, and when it will be more available, there will be many other products. New versions of no-calorie Pepsi and a sugar-free Coke will be introduced in the near future. Finally, one must ask “is sucralose safe”. Probably, although long-range studies of its safety have not been reported. At this time there is not evidence or scientific reason to question Splenda’s safety. (Melanie Warner, New York Times, December 22, 2004 , page C1)
For over a half-century there has been indirect evidence that something in the lifestyle in the cultures in Crete and Japan result in a longer life. When individuals from these countries move to a U.S. or other Western culture, they experience chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer at rates similar to everyone else in the Western culture. The latter evidence rules out genetic factors to explain the longer, healthier lives of people who have been living a Mediterranean lifestyle. What is going on in these traditional lifestyles (for example diet) that extends life and promotes better health? Now comes a large, careful statistical study, specifically of older European men and women, aged 70 through 90, who have adhered to a Mediterranean diet and lifestyle to determine. The aim of this study is to identify those factors that cut their mortality rate by one-third! A combination of factors such as: a diet featuring whole grains, vegetables, fruit, nuts, olive oil, and fat intake of less than 30%, moderate alcohol consumption, nonsmoking, and physical activity, when taken together are demonstrated to account for longer, healthier lives. For example, such Mediterranean lifestyles result in an average 83% reduction in coronary heart disease, and a 91% reduction in colon caner (in men). Such epidemiological studies are much more feasible to carry out and give more certain conclusions than short-term trials. Larger groups can be studied and amore precise assessment made of the specific causes of morbidity and mortality. The bottom line is that: it pays to eat a traditional Greek diet, to consume alcohol with moderation, to avoid smoking, and to be physically active. Consumption of trans-fats, carbohydrates with a high glycemic index (those that are rapidly broken down into simple sugars), and larger amounts of red meat do not lead to longer, healthier lives. Physical activity, in combination with other healthful factors is good, but these studies did not provide any clear evidence showing that mortality increases solely from exercise. (Journal of the American Medical Association, September 22/29, 2004, Vol. 292, No. 12, page1433)
High levels of the sugar, glucose, in the blood increases the risk of heart disease. This risk is independent of other risk factors such as high cholesterol, or high blood pressure. The average concentration of glucose in the blood over a period of two or three months is best determined in a simple blood test by measuring a substance known as glycosylated hemoglobin or hemoglobin A1c. Previously, A1c readings below 7 were considered normal. A1c values much above 7 are a sign of adult-onset diabetes, or diabetes type-2. These new statistical studies show that people may be at risk of heart disease with A1c readings as low as 5. It is now recommended that A1c tests should be routinely used to assess a patient’s risk of heart disease. (New York Times, September 9, 2004, page D5)
There have been many reports about the adverse health effects of coffee consumption, but often these small studies were revisited and subsequently discounted. Now comes a recent purported benefit from drinking coffee! A study of 125,000 people who regularly drink coffee found a reduced risk of developing type 2-diabetes. Men had to drink more than six cups a day to reduce their risk of becoming diabetic by half; women got only a thirty percent reduction drinking the same amount of coffee. Less than six cups a day still reduced the risk of developing type-2 diabetes, but to a lesser extent. Even decaffeinated coffee had a moderate positive effect. The explanation is unclear; it was speculated that minerals such as magnesium or antioxidants in the coffee were involved. Drinking too much coffee has its downsides by causing problems with your nervous, cardiovascular, and digestive systems as well as your bladder. Strike a balance, but enjoy your coffee. You can have six cups a day. (January 6, 2004, Annals of Internal Medicine, summarized in Mayo Clinic Health Letter, October 2004, page 4).
The Spanish explorer, Ponce de Leon traveled to Florida in 1512 looking for a fountain of youth. Now many older, retired people live there and would also like to find this mythical fountain. Does it exist? Scientists are now learning some interesting things about aging and they have found ways to prolong to lives of yeast, fruit flies, and perhaps Zebra fish. What lessons can be applied to people? The simplest receipt for prolonging life is to reduce food intake. Calorie restriction does extend the lifespan in several species. This method is not likely to be popular with the current obese American population. Is there another magic elixir, which would extend life? Perhaps. Genetic studies with yeast indicate that longevity may be increased by activating an enzyme called Sir2. When this enzyme is overproduced, certain yeast cultures live longer. The same method works for a species of worm. The activity of the Sir2 enzyme has been associated with calorie restriction, suggesting a possible mechanism to extend lifespan. Knowing this trick, scientists have searched for a molecule, which would activate Sir2 and potentially extend life without starving the patient. This potential elixir of youth has been found in plant products called polyphenols; the most potent activator is a compound called resveratrol, which is found in red wines. The highest concentrations of resveratrol are found in grapes grown in cooler climates, such as pinot noir that are used to make Burgundy red wines. Previous studies have hinted that these polyphenols have potential health benefits and protect against heart attacks and cancer. However, it is uncertain whether consuming these substances would prolong human life, nor what concentrations would be required. Some evidence suggests that too much resveratrol shortens the life of a yeast. (Nature, 425, 132, September 11, 2003)
More than 90 percent of the Atlantic Salmon eaten in the U.S. is farmed, but farmed salmon has been found to contain more PCBs and other contaminants than wild salmon. The amounts are tiny: 36 parts per billion, which is 55times less than the minimum amount suggested by the Food and Drug Administration. Wild salmon were found to have only 5 parts per billion PCBs. PCBs are polychlorinated biphenyls, a group of synthetic chemicals that are listed as a “probable carcinogen”, but this has never been proven for humans. What is a customer to do – eat more expensive wild salmon (about three times the cost) or eat farmed salmon, which is more readily available? Life is full of choices; your author usually buys wild salmon when it is available, but will eat farmed salmon. (New York Times, January 9, 2004, page A10)
The yellow color in curry spice is called curcumin. Taking note of the fact that several countries, such as Shri Lanka, that have curry-rich cuisines, have lower cancer rates, cancer researchers examined this yellow pigment. These scientists found that curcumin kills cancer cells in cell cultures. They found that the multiplication of cancer cells is stopped and cell death (apoptosis) is turned off by curcumin. Readers may recall from Chapter 5 in Naturally Dangerous that one property of cancer is immortality; natural programmed cell death called apoptosis is arrested in cancer cells. Curcumin was found to suppress NF-kappa-B, a ubiquitous protein in cancer cells that is involved in inflammation and cell replication. Cells from human cancers from the head, neck, prostate, breast, and liver are killed by this yellow pigment in curry. This discovery adds credence to an idea, discussed on page 27, that some spices may have been adopted historically because they were discovered to have medicinal properties. (Science News, October 9, 2004, Vol. 166, page 238)
Do you know how to tell if a lobster is finished cooking? The secret is to detect when the initially greenish-black shell turns orange. This color change is the result of pigment molecules that are initially tied up in a protein becoming released upon cooking the protein. The unshackled pigment molecules appear orange. The reddish pigment, which is called astaxanthin, is a powerful antioxidant. This so-called carotenoid pigment is related to similar molecules in carrots, salmon, and autumn leaves that also have orange colors. It is difficult to take advantage of this antioxidant in lobster shells unless you eat a lobster bisk, a soup which is made from ground lobster shells. Even then, because this orange pigment is insoluble in water or in blood, it is doubtful that the antioxidant does you any good. However, lobster bisk is an excellent soup. (Physics Today, November 2002, page 22)
Several reports concerning the health risks of drinking coffee found none and one found a positive benefit. Now comes a statistical study from Finland indicating that heavy coffee consumption increases an individual’s risk of heart attacks and sudden death. About 2000 40 to 60 year old men were followed over 14 years. Those drinking about 3.5 cups of caffeinated coffee were 43 percent more likely to experience a heart attack compared with men, who drank up to 1.5 cups a day. Relax Starbucks, no women were included in this study. (Science News, October 2, 2004, Vol. 166, page 222)
Absinthe, the favorite drink of Toulouse-Lautrec, the diminutive French painter, is making a comeback in the region of Switzerland where this opaque, mind-bending drink was first commercially produced in 1797. Absinthe, is described on page 40 in Naturally Dangerous, where the science behind the hallucinations induced by this drink is explained. These seductive trances are caused by a natural chemical, an herb, thujone contained in the wormwood oil from which absinthe is distilled. Legally allowed forms of modern absinthe are usually restricted to much less thujone than the original formulation. This milder drug-like alcoholic drink is currently produced and sold legally in several countries: Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Austria, Japan, Sweden, Italy, and Britain, but not in the United States. The new Swiss Absinthe may be fortified with a mixture of other herbs; fennel, coriander, mint, and anise, but it will have 53 percent alcohol, making it 106 proof. If you want to see “tulips growing from the floor of a bar” as Oscar Wilde claimed to experience, try some, but your author does not recommend this herbal concoction. (New York Times, November 4, 2004, page A4)
Amino acids and proteins are discussed in Chapter 1, but an unusual, very important amino acid, taurine, is not mentioned. Taurine is different from other aminoacids in several ways, but it is very important to health. Recall that the 19 common amino acids are strung together like cars in a train to form proteins, which are important structural platforms of living systems and one of the three food types. In contrast, taurine exists as an individual molecule and is never found associated with a protein. Chemically, taurine is also distinct from other amino acids in that it is not handed or chiral (refer to page 8 in Naturally Dangerous for an explanation of handedness). Although it is essential for good health, taurine is not considered an essential amino acid, because taurine can be made in the body from a combination of two natural amino acids, cysteine and methionine in a process requiring vitamin C. However, many individuals, especially vegetarians and elders are deficient in taurine and these people are advised to take taurine supplements from 250 up to 2000 mg per day. Cats are usually taurine deficient; because of this taurine is added to cat food. Humans get taurine in their diets – from eggs, dairy products, fish and red meat, foods that some vegetarians eschew. My endocrinologist told me that the muscle in fish is rich in taurine and that is yet another reason to eat fish of any kind. Remember that it is usually better to obtain important nutrients from food rather that as supplements.
What does taurine do for you? Many things. As a powerful antioxidant, taurine is important to your eyes, where high amounts are found in healthy people. Some scientists believe that taurine protects the rod and cone cells in the retina against macular degeneration, which occurs commonly in diabetics and some seniors. On the basis of studies with animals, taurine is believed to help prevent heart failure by stimulating the contractile strength of heart muscle, lowering blood pressure, and preventing atherosclerosis (clogging of the arteries) in animals having elevated cholesterol levels. Glucose intolerance associated with type-2 diabetes and unhealthful sugar-rich modern diets is improved by taurine supplements – at least in animal studies. In human subjects taurine has been shown to reduce the risk of muscle damage from intense exercise and to improve athletic performance. Exercise is known to deplete the concentration of taurine in muscles. Taurine also maintains the stability of cell membranes and to be involved in the transport of calcium in and out of cells. (Smart Publications, 2000; email@example.com; this source includes 14 references, many to refereed journals)
As the country begins to prepare for FDA requirements that the trans fat content in foods be labeled (no latter than January 1, 2006 ), more information about this artificial food is being promulgated and more foods are being promoted as “trans fat free”. The following information was taken from the Harvard Women’s health Watch, Volume 11, Number 7, March 2004.
It is important to distinguish between the unnatural trans fat that is produced by hydrogenating vegetable oils and the small amounts of trans fat, vaccenic acid that naturally occur in meat and dairy products (see page 20 in Naturally Dangerous). The latter is not thought to be dangerous and may even be healthful. Unnatural trans fats found in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, increase the activity of an enzyme called CETP, which transfers cholesterol from HDL (the good form) to LDL (the bad form). Large statistical studies: 85,095 women correlated consumption of trans fat with a 50% greater risk of heart attacks. Another study by Dr. Walter Willett, a Harvard epidemiologist, linked the consumption of trans fat to an increased waist size in men, that is a known risk factor for heart disease. There is also some evidence that trans fat raises the risk of type 2 diabetes. Those who wish to avoid trans fat (there is no known safe level) should beware of labels saying: “cholesterol free”, and “cooked in vegetable oil”, because some such foods may have been fried in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. You might want to consult an FDA webpage: www.fda.gov/oc/initiatives/transfat.
Many foods contain carbohydrates and people trying the new low-carbohydrate diets, such as Atkins and South Beach, are inspired to learn what foods are rich in carbohydrates. But not all carbohydrates are alike. First of all, as discussed in Naturally Dangerous, there are simple sugars (such as sucrose, fructose, and glucose) and complex carbohydrates (such as starch). Another issue concerns the speed that complex carbohydrates break down by digestion into simple sugars. This is referred to as the glycemic index. Carbohydrates in potatoes, white rice, bagels, and breakfast cereals break down rapidly and are said to have a high glycemic index. But carbohydrates found in foods such as nuts, whole oats, apples, and beans break down slowly and are said to have a low glycemic index. Should this make a difference to you? Probably not unless you are overweight (most people are) or especially if you are insulin resistant (tending towards type 2 diabetes). Such individuals should limit their intake of high index carbohydrates or eat a combination of foods containing fat or protein that slow digestion. Rats fed a high index diet over four months showed a 70% weight gain. But a Harvard study of lean, healthy women showed no detrimental effect. However, inactive overweight individuals should avoid the high index foods because these raise blood sugar and prompt the pancreas to release insulin. High insulin levels help convert excess blood sugar into stored fat, and can damage cells so as to promote heart disease. If you are lean and active eat whatever foods appeal to you, but the rest of us should pay some attention to foods that contain high index carbohydrates; lay off soft drinks. To be on the safe side eat fruits, vegetables, beans, and nuts. (New York Times, September 14, 2004, page D5)
The public is confused over cholesterol levels and diet. There are two types of cholesterol – HDL and LDL, referred to as good and bad cholesterol. These are protein derivatives of the oily cholesterol molecule, which is essential for life and can be made in the body from vinegar. Little of the cholesterol in your body comes from cholesterol that you eat! Enjoy your eggs, up to a point. Low cholesterol fatty foods such as most stick margarines (which contain unnatural trans-fats) will raise your bad cholesterol and your total cholesterol. The saturated fats found in whole milk, red meat and cheese can increase bad cholesterol, but these fats also increase good cholesterol levels. Natural unsaturated fats found in vegetable oils such as safflower, sunflower, canola, and olive oils as well as nuts can reduce the bad cholesterol and raise the good cholesterol. None of these fats contain cholesterol, but foods such as eggs do. When I see a label on any fatty food saying “cholesterol free”, I wish scientific fraud were a misdemeanor! Refer to the Harvard Nutrition web site: www.hsph.harvd.edu/nutritionsource.
It is true that tea has more caffeine than coffee, by weight, but not by the cup. Win a bet from one of your former friends. Pound for pound, either black or green tea leaves contain more caffeine than coffee beans. But a pound of tea can produce several hundred cups of tea, whereas a pound of coffee makes less than one hundred cups. Thus your intuition was correct, but you could still win a bet. (New York Times, September 14, 2004, page D5)
Some vegetarians avoid meat because they believe it is more nutritious and safer than meat products. Moreover, the public thinks the danger in produce (fruits and vegetables) lies in insecticides and herbicide residues; that is one reason that many consumers purchase organic produce. Actually, produce is more hazardous than meat products, and this real danger has nothing to do with the use of artificial fertilizers, herbicides, nor insecticides. Produce can become contaminated with bacteria on the farm, at packing plants, distribution centers, and during transportation to your market. There are few FDA inspections for fruits and vegetables, even those entering the country from foreign producers. Many more diners become ill from germs hidden on fruits and vegetables than from chicken and hamburgers, even though the latter can also be hazardous. The USDCP (U.S. Center fro Disease Control and Prevention) reports that approximately 76 million people in the U.S. become ill each year from eating contaminated food, and 5,000 die from it. Most commonly bacteria such as Escherichia coli, Salmonella, Shigella, infect unsuspecting consumers who have eaten produce such as green onions, raw sprouts, cantaloupes, tomatoes, and strawberries, many of these, but by no means all were imported from Mexico. Currently 98% of over 5 million food items, mostly fruits and vegetables that are imported each year into the United States, are not inspected! Many of these foods are rapidly and efficiently distributed throughout much of the country by a speedy distribution system. The FDA spends a majority of its efforts inspection produce for traces of herbicides and pesticides, which are much less prevalent and are much less dangerous. Produce packing plants in the U.S. are inspected by the FDA only ever three to five years on the average. The FDA relies mainly on voluntary recall, when a contaminated product is recognized, and sometimes the trail of illness is widespread, but difficult to trace. Following are a few documented examples: hundreds fell sick with bloody diarrhea from green onions traced to Shigella contamination from one source in Mexico; four outbreaks from contaminated raw sprouts were reported in California and traced to manure and contaminated irrigation water; cantaloupes from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas infected 250 people in 30 states within a single year (1990); in 1996, hepatitis-A contaminated strawberries were served in many school lunches in Michigan and was traced to a Mexican farm. What can you do? Cook produce whenever you can. Wash fresh produce; toss out leftovers, use sanitized cutting boards, and avoid items such as alfalfa sprouts, which cannot be decontaminated by washing – even with chlorox (see page 32 in Naturally Dangerous). For a summary of this problem refer to: San Jose Mercury News, January 27, 2004, page 1E.
Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disorder that affects 30,000 people in the U.S. This fatal disease causes a buildup of a sticky mucus in the patient’s lungs resulting in death by the early 30s. A Harvard study of 38 subjects having cystic fibrosis revealed an imbalance between two fatty acids. Compared with a control group of healthy individuals, those suffering from cystic fibrosis had too much arachidonic acid and too little docosahexaenoic acid, DHA. Arachidonic acid is derived from meat and is used by the body to mount an inflammatory response; whereas DHA, which is found in fish, keeps inflammation under control. An imbalance between these two fatty acids leads to inflammation. This genetic problem does not seem to be controlled by changes in the diet, but rather by biochemical reactions dictated by genetic factors.
On page 27 in Naturally Dangerous there is a brief discussion about the possible beneficial effects of spices. A recent, preliminary report from Pakistan indicates that modest amounts of cinnamon can improve glucose metabolism in individuals who were previously diagnosed a shaving type 2 diabetes. This double-blind study involved only 60 individuals who ingested either: 1, 2, or 3 grams of cinnamon in capsules or a placebo over 40 days. All participants taking cinnamon experienced reductions in blood glucose levels ranging from 18 to 29%, with those receiving the greatest amount of cinnamon showing the greatest lowering; those taking the placebo showed no significant change. There was also some reduction in blood cholesterol levels, specifically lower LDL, the bad cholesterol. This result is consistent with prior animal experiments, but these human studies on such a small group over such a brief period should not be considered significant until a more comprehensive study is conducted. Such a study would not be carried out by the pharmaceutical industry because there is no profit in selling cinnamon pills! (Web MDHealth: Cinnamon Helps Type 2 Diabetes, December 5, 2003)
The Atkins low-carbohydrate diet is based on biochemical changes that take place upon starvation. The problem is that the human brain is strongly dependent on the carbohydrate, glucose as a fuel. When levels of glucose, the sugar in the blood, fall too low, our brains become dependent on a backup biochemistry system to meet its energy needs. It helps to understand that the brain can’t make use of fats, the body’s reserve energy source, to meet its constant energy demand, because fats can’t penetrate the blood-brain barrier like glucose does. A glucose deficit becomes a serious problem because, although the brain represents only 2 percent of a person’s body weight, it requires about 20 percent of body’s energy budget and it needs this energy now! The body has a backup system to protect against glucose shortages; it commands the liver to convert some fatty acids into modified forms called ketone bodies or ketones for short. In contrast to fatty acids, these ketones can penetrate the blood-brain-barrier. This backup system is referred to as ketosis and it occurs during starvation or when a person is on an extreme form of the popular Atkins diet. There is some evidence that ketones could be therapeutic and help treat brain conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, and certain cases of severe childhood epilepsy as well as type-1 diabetes. A 1920’s medical treatment for severe childhood epilepsy is a ketonic diet in which patients receive at least two-thirds of their calories from fat. This would not be permitted with adults because of the possibility that bad cholesterol, LDL, and triglyceride levels would rise and levels of the good cholesterol, HDL, would fall. All of these factors could lead to heart disease. There is a possibility of replacing this extreme diet with pure ketones, which would be infused (directly injected into the blood stream). At the present time these ketones are too expensive to be considered for anything except for experiments with animals. Currently purified ketones would cost $20,000 per year even to treat a child, but in the future these could be produced inexpensively using bacteria. (Science News, December 13, 2003, vol. 164, page 376)
A statistical study of approximately 3,000 Dutch children showed that 2-year-old children that regularly eat whole milk and butter are less likely to suffer from asthma when they become older. It would appear that diet plays a role in asthma and that milk fat is beneficial. Pediatricians in the U.S. suggest that children drink whole milk until the age of 2, and then switch to 2 percent milk. Other evidence indicates that consumption of saturated fat increases the risk of later cardiovascular disease. What is a mother to do? (New York Times, 07/08/03, page D6)
Several studies have indicated that the diets consumed in countries around the Mediterranean Sea are more healthful. For example, in the 1950s a study of the population of the island of Crete showed low rates of coronary heart disease and some types of cancer – in spite of the fact that these people consumed lots of fat. Moreover, these people lived longer than similar Northern European or American populations. A 2003 statistical study involving 22,043 Greek adults also reveals that adherence to a traditional Mediterranean diet is associated with significantly lower overall death rates and in particular lower death rates from heart disease and cancer. (The New England Journal of Medicine, June 26, 2003, vol. 348, No. 26, page 2599, by A. Trichopoulou, T. Costacou, and D. Trichopoulas) The foods in this diet are: ample olive oil (a monounsaturated fat), fruits, vegetables, whole-grain cereals, nuts, and legumes. Modest amounts of fish and some poultry, but little red meat are consumed along with moderate quantities of wine – taken with meals. The participants in this study who were between 20 and 86 years old recorded their dietary habits over a five year period. Traditional Mediterranean food groups were given points to produce a Mediterranean-diet scale and the score on this scale was compared with the health records of these participants (along with an additional measure of their physical activities). Beyond this good news, there are some mysteries associated with this statistical study. No appreciable associations were found between improved health and the consumption of particular foods, such as olive oil. It is possible that each food causes a small improvement or that there is some synergistic or interactive effects. Another possibility is that there are deleterious items in Western diets such as trans fatty acids found in many prepared foods in the U.S. and in literally all fast foods. Also foods having a high glycemic index (those that rapidly release glucose) are not present in the Mediterranean diet. That is, we Americans are consuming harmful foods and that is the reason those people eating the Mediterranean diet are healthier. The recent study did show a small statistically favorable correlation between death rates and a greater consumption of monounsaturated fats versus saturated fats. But trans fats were apparently not looked for.
On page 17 of Naturally Dangerous, the Celiac disease is described as a somewhat rare, inherited autoimmune condition that plagues a few unfortunate people who must avoid eating wheat or other grains because these foods contain a protein called gluten. Those individuals who have this immune response to gluten can become very sick. Their immune system attacks fibers in the stomach called villi that are essential for the absorption of nutrients from food. This can lead to malnutrition, osteoporosis, infertility, and even cancer. Recent studies have shown that the Celiac disorder is much more common than the figures accepted by the medical community when Naturally Dangerous was written. The exact proportion of patients who have Celiac depends on the spectrum of ethnicities within a population because this inherited disorder is more common in some ethnic groups than in others. For example, Celiac is more frequent in people having a Celtic origin. A recent small U.S. study showed an incidence of one in 133 people have this disease, but the precise percentage is still uncertain. It is clear that the Celiac disease is the most prevalent genetic disease in the U.S. Moreover, after a straightforward detection, there is a simple cure: patients must avoid eating any food that contains gluten. The problem is that there is still no legal requirement that foods be labeled with gluten warnings. You would be surprised how many prepared foods and sauces contain gluten. As a result, this largely undiagnosed, but easily treated disease is causing serious and expensive medical problems across the country.
I am primarily a coffee drinker, but I may change. There is growing evidence that drinking tea is especially good for your health. Based on small statistical studies it is claimed that drinking over 10 cups of green tea a day can extend your life and that drinking tea can lower the risk of heart attacks (by 44 percent), and reduce esophageal, stomach and kidney cancers. The explanation is that antioxidants in green tea, known as polyphenols, are much more effective than traditional antioxidants, Vitamins E and C. Both green and black teas come from the same plant, but green tea is treated differently; its drying, called fermentation, is interrupted by a process called pan-frying. I find green tea to be bitter, but the bitter taste is said to depend on how long it is steeped and at what temperature. One to one and one half minutes at 170 degrees is claimed to be best. What about caffeine? Green tea contains about one third of that in coffee, but decaf tea is said to be just as healthful. (Jonathon Reynolds, New York Times Food section, 1/19/03)
On page 31 of the book some tropical fruits not sold in the U.S. are reported to be dangerous. Recently, upon receiving a call from a local kidney specialist, I became aware of a potentially deadly tropical fruit that is sold in the U.S.! Star fruit (carambola) originated in Southeast Asia and is readily available in many tropical countries such as Brazil, Thailand, and Taiwan. It belongs to the oxalidaceae family, species Averrhoa carambola. Star fruit contains an unknown neurotoxin that has apparently killed patients with renal disease, particularly patients who are on dialysis. It appears that these patients cannot clear this toxin in their urine and that it accumulates in the body, and eventually crosses the blood-brain barrier resulting in irreversible damage and death. There is presently no known treatment for star fruit intoxication. If you look star fruit up on the internet, you will find many enticing recipes. Beware, it may be a long time before this dangerous food becomes outlawed in the U.S. or elsewhere.
A new, unnatural, and potentially toxic substance has recently been found in many common foods that are cooked at high temperatures. Researchers in Sweden’s National Food Administration detected this synthetic compound, acrylamide, in fried foods, such as french fries, potato chips, and in cookies, crackers, breads and breakfast cereals. By employing a new method of analysis, scientists found small amounts of acrylamide (400 micrograms per kilogram) in prepared foods. High temperatures used in producing these foods seem to cause this compound to form; acrylamide was not detected in boiled foods since boiling water never gets above 100 degree Centigrade. In test animals, at high doses acrylamide can cause cancer and neurological damage. Food scientists have tried to play down this situation on the ground that the amount of acrylamide in foods are modest and the results are preliminary. It would be nearly impossible to remove acrylamide from the food supply, because it is so pervasive. Up to 90% of the U.S. food supply may contain some trace of acrylamide. So far this situation has not received the nearly hysterical warnings about perceived dangers that trace insecticides and herbicides and genetically modified “Franken foods” have. Your author continues to be more concerned with trans fats found in 40% of american foods as these are known to be linked to elevated levels of the “bad cholesterol”, LDL. (Science News, May 4, 2002, p. 277). A more recent Swedish study downplays the likelihood that people will develop cancer from eating foods that are contaminated with tiny amounts of acrylamide. (Science News, February, 8, 2003, p. 84, see also Science).
There is a continuing debate concerning the virtue or curse of vegetarian diets. Some epidemiological evidence indicates that meatless diets improve cardiovascular health, but a recent study suggests that vegetarians may have an overabundance of homocysteine, which is a well recognized risk factor in cardiovascular disease. This buildup of homocysteine probably results from a deficiency of vitamin B12. (Science News, February 16, 2002, Vol.161, p. 100).
There has been some debate about whether cooking makes food less healthful. Now comes an extreme diet fad: totally uncooked food. This is almost a cult, but it has numerous followers and a few restaurants (about 20 in the United States) serving only uncooked food. The arguments given for uncooked “living foods”, is that such diets extend life and ward off disease. But these arguments are pseudoscientific, a politically correct term, meaning that there is little or no scientific basis for these claims. The living food advocates claim that heat destroys natural enzymes in food and argue that these plant enzymes facilitate digestion. Enzymes are proteins that the body breaks down into their amino acid constituents for incorporation into our proteins. Moreover, plant enzymes are designed by nature to promote very specific reactions in plants and such enzymes would have no role in animal metabolism. Sometimes cooking makes a food more healthful. For example, lycopene, the beneficial antioxidant in tomatoes is only effective after the tomatoes have been cooked, which releases this red pigment from its carbohydrate conjugate. One can argue that cooking can remove small amounts of vitamins, however, cooking sterilizes food by killing dangerous bacteria.
Raw-foodists are typically vegans, meaning that they eschew eggs and dairy products, but, as mentioned in Naturally Dangerous, vegans have difficulty obtaining sufficient B12, and can become seriously ill form a lack of this vitamin.
A major difference between cooked and uncooked foods is their flavors, but that is subjective – it’s in the mouth of the consumer. Some curious facts about living food advocates is that wine is “kosher”, but tofu is out (it comes from cooked soybeans. Surprisingly, these uncooked recipes require extensive equipment and arguably more time than traditional food preparation does. Several “uncookbooks” are available. (New York Times Magazine, September 1, 2002, p. 52)
The lucrative organic foods industry was given a boost in 2002, when the Federal Government put into effect a new national system of organic food labeling. The use of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, and sewage sludge disqualifies a food from being labeled “organic”. There are different categories of organic products. Those labeled 100% organic, contain only organically produced ingredients. “Organic” designates foods containing at least 95% organically produced ingredients. “Made with Organic” products consist of 70% organic ingredients. Organic foods continue to be more expensive than conventionally produced foods, making these more profitable to the producers. Premiums range from 59% for corn to 177% for soybeans. Big grocery stores are carrying more of these profitable organic foods.
Arguments in favor of organic foods are based on a claim published by Swiss scientists that organic farming is more energy efficient and preserves soil quality (Science 2002, vol. 296, p. 1589; p. 1694; vol. 298, p.1889; p.1890). Others say organic farming creates less groundwater pollution and reduces farm workers exposure to toxic chemicals and pesticides. However, eschewing artificial fertilizer for manure and compost lowers the productivity of farms by a factor of approximately fourfold. If the entire World were to farm without using synthetic nitrogen based fertilizer, it is estimated the over 2 billion poor people would starve to death.
The popular emphasis on organic foods has created a potential conflict with the Agriculture Department, which ruled for the first time in October 2002 that the national school lunch program can serve meat that has been sterilized through irradiation, which would disqualify this food as organic. This move was intended to counteract increased food related bacterial illnesses, which had been increasing 10 percent each year. At nearly the same time, very liberal cities such as Berkeley and Palo Alto, California, were beginning to offer organic food in their school lunch programs. Elementary school students, traditionally picky eaters, were avoiding the organic foods in their school luncheons in favor of fast foods such as pizza and French fries.
In March 2001, an interesting article appeared in the prestigious journal Science reporting on extensive epidemiological (statistical) studies of the relationship between the consumption of fat and heart disease and cancer. These studies, costing several hundred million dollars, were conducted both in the United States and Europe. These studies found that no health problems are caused by the consumption of fat!! That is not to say that obesity is healthful; this condition is certainly harmful. But does eating fat make a person obese? That is where the “Atkins diet” comes into play. This diet allows unlimited consumption of fat and protein (steak, sausage, eggs, butter --), but restricts the intake of carbohydrates(bread, pasta, pancakes, high-fructose corn-syrup--). On the basis of anecdotal reports and some small controlled studies, the Atkins diet does appear to result in substantial weight loss, more so than low-fat, low-calorie diets. One potentially dangerous side effect reported from a study of the Atkins diet is an additional loss of calcium in the urine of participants. Over long periods this could result in osteoporosis. Nevertheless, the Atkins diet is becoming so popular that upscale low-cost food stores on the West Coast, such as Trader Joe’s, are featuring Atkins baking mixes, which contain very little carbohydrates.
Recall that fats have about twice as many calories as carbohydrates. In terms of total calories consumed, conventional wisdom predicts that compared with a low-fat high-carbohydrate diet, the Atkins diet would result in weight gain, but it does not! In fact, people whose diet consists principally of carbohydrates tend to gain weight (for example Italians eating pasta, and vegetarians avoiding meat products)! There are several explanations for this apparent paradox. One is that your body requires carbohydrates to manufacture body fat. With an insufficient uptake of carbohydrates your biochemical machinery is changed so that much of the fat and protein you consume is not metabolized. With a restricted diet of carbohydrates your body enters a starvation-like state called ketosis, in which your muscles burn body fat for energy. In the medical community there is debate about whether ketosis is healthful or unhealthful. So far there seem to be no rigorous studies to answer that question. Another explanation for the weight gain resulting from the consumption of large quantities of carbohydrates is that insulin levels increase as the result of high blood sugar levels from the digestion of carbohydrates. Insulin stimulates appetite and when insulin levels are high, excess food calories are converted to body fat. We cannot store body fat without insulin!
In the U.S. there is a huge industry that depends on marketing low-fat or fat-free foods – check the shelves of any grocery store. The medical community and nutritional society are firmly in the low-fat camp. Nevertheless, it is well established that certain fats are “essential”; your body can’t make these, but needs them for survival. Essential fats are typically “unsaturated”. The biochemistry governing health and nutrition is very complicated, and there may also be important genetic differences between groups of people. Cholesterol is an interesting example. It is essential for life, but high cholesterol levels are related to health risk. Cholesterol lowering drugs, called statins, reduce levels of our bad cholesterol (L.D.L.)and improve health. However, only about 15% of the cholesterol in our bodies comes from the cholesterol contained in foods we consume. Our other cholesterol is produced from non-fats such as vinegar. Healthy individuals have a feed back mechanism to keep the body’s cholesterol at a proper level. The label “cholesterol-free” in foods is an example of scientifically misleading advertising.
The myriad of factors involving health, weight, and diet are very difficult to study, because epidemiological studies in which the diets of large numbers of people would be controlled over long periods, are very difficult to perform. Moreover, such scientific studies would be unethical There clearly is an obesity epidemic in the U.S. that no one fully understands, but it must be related to our diets and lifestyles. The low-fat message that still dominates traditional medical advice, the media, and advertisements is clearly oversimplified.(Gary Taubes, The New York Times magazine, July 7, 2002, p.22); (Science News, February 8, 2003, p. 88)
On April 17, 2003, Robert Atkins died; the good news for participants in his diet is that he did not perish from a heart attack! He slipped on the ice and fell, striking his head. Atkins fascinating obituary can be found in the New York Times, April 18, 2003, page C13.
This is becoming a hot political potato. In November 2002, Oregon voted down Measure 27, an initiative that would have required any food containing at least one genetically modified ingredient to carry an ominous label: “Genetically Engineered”. Approximately 70% of processed food, one half million food items would qualify for this warning. All readers have eaten such food and, according to the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, there is no evidence showing that biotech foods are anything but safe. This anti-science movement is becoming very political. An interesting question is: how would the average consumer respond to a section of food that does not require this label? We already have “organic foods”, most of which qualify. The difference is price since no one can determine by sight or taste whether a food is genetically modified or not. (Dean Kleckneer, Wall Street Journal, October 31, 2002).
There is a bright side to a genetically engineered crop: Bt cotton, which has a toxin gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to make its own pesticide. This strategy has two advantages: reduced use of pesticides and higher crop yields. In India Bt cotton has been produced with yields raised as much as 80%! So far no environmental group seems to have raised objections to this genetically engineered cotton, but watch out for complaints. Maybe the bollworm preservation group?
Genetically modified foods are more controversial as is discussed on page 34. In March 2003, the EPA approved a new genetically modified corn that is designed to ward off corn rootworm, by producing the insecticidal bacterial protein, Bt. in the corn. It is estimated that each year the destructive rootworm results in $800 million in lost revenue and $200 million in insecticide treatment. Monsanto argues that there is an environmental benefit because less potentially toxic synthetic (unnatural) insecticides will be applied to this corn