Food fraud – fake honey

Food fraud is nothing new, but the intensity and frequency have been on the rise. From counterfeit extra-virgin olive oil to intentional adulteration of spices and the manufacturing of fake honey, food fraud has been estimated to be a $US40 billion a year industry. In a series of posts we will cover a range of recent issues.

First cab off the rank is fake honey.

honey_(Hillary_Stein)The brutal reality is adulterated honey is big business. It is all too easy to cheat by diluting honey with cheap sugar syrup substitutes, such as rice syrups, corn syrups, high fructose corn syrups and acid inverted sugar syrups. It can also be adulterated with natural syrups such as maple, cane sugar and molasses.

This is nothing new as food fraud experts point out that honey is one of the most commonly mislabelled foods around the world. After enough scandals involving cheap adulterated Chinese honey flooding the American market, the US Federal Trade Commission imposed stiff tariffs on Chinese honey in 2001 to try to stop it from being imported. That just meant that the Chinese honey was laundered through other Asian and some European countries before finding its way to the American market.

A new scandal erupted in mid 2018 as researchers determined that almost half the honey sold on Australian supermarket shelves was fake honey.

China is a common source for the sugar syrup culprits with Chinese websites selling them with claims that they can pass various official honey tests (see below).

Destroying the good name of honey

Humans have been harvesting honey for more than 6,000 years. It has been used as both a food and a medicine. Historically, people have used it to sweeten food and make fermented beverages like mead. Today it is also used in industrial food processing of baked products, confectionary, candy, marmalades, jams, spreads, breakfast cereals, beverages, milk products and many preserved products.

Honey is also considered to carry health properties. It contains a number of antioxidants, including phenolic compounds like flavonoids, that have been linked to reduced risk of heart attacks, strokes and some types of cancer.

Honey seems to have a positive effect on cholesterol levels. It leads to modest reductions in total and “bad” LDL cholesterol while raising “good” HDL cholesterol. Several studies show that honey can lower triglyceride levels, especially when used as a sugar substitute.  Elevated triglycerides are a risk factor for heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Honey also has antimicrobial properties. When applied to the skin, honey can be part of an effective treatment plan for burns, wounds and many other skin conditions. It is particularly effective for diabetic foot ulcers.

For children over one year of age, honey can act as a natural and safe cough suppressant. Some studies show that it is even more effective than cough medicine.

Destroying the business for beekeepers

Honey_bee_(Jon_Sullivan)Substituting cheap sugar syrups for honey would negate many of the positive properties of honey. If that is not bad enough it makes it difficult for beekeepers to compete and threaten the survival of bees. No bees – a starving world, it’s as simple as that.

Bees and other pollinators fertilise three-quarters of global food crops and have seen severe declines in recent decades, due to loss of habitat, disease and harmful pesticides. In the UK, wild honey bees are nearly extinct, solitary bees are declining in more than half the areas studied and some species of bumblebee have been lost altogether.

The large bee losses reported worldwide over the last decades have stimulated a lot of research on the monitoring of bees and the potential causes of the losses including pathogens, pests, diseases, nutrition, pesticides, habitat and climate changes. During this process, extensive datasets have been generated and collated on honeybee losses that have been linked to diseases, pests and pathogens in Europe and North America. Less is known about the situation for solitary bees and bumblebees.

Fake honey is a further nail in the coffin.

Beating the cheaters

Many of the syrups sold by the Chinese promises to be able to beat what’s called a C4 sugar test, which is the official test used in Australia and many other countries for testing of honey adulteration.

Sugars produced from tropical plants like sugar cane and maize/corn are produced using a photosynthetic pathway referred to as the C4 pathway.  Nectar which is collected by bees comes from plants that use a different process of photosynthesis, referred to as the C3 pathway.  There is a measurable difference in the ratio of the naturally occurring carbon-12 and carbon-13 isotopes in sugars arising from the C3 and C4 pathways, and this test uses this difference to identify whether C4 sugar appears to have been added to the honey.

nmrBut what to do when the cheaters even cheat the test? Well, there is a method called “Nuclear Magnetic Resonance” (NMR for short). The nuclei in atoms have electrical charges, and many also have a physical property known as spin. This means they are sensitive to magnetic fields in NMR machines with the nuclei of each type of atom reacting differently. By measuring how the nuclei in the sample respond to different magnetic fields a fingerprint of what is in the sample is created.

NMR is a very sensitive technique already used in other parts of the food industry, such as testing fruit juices and wines. In honey, it can distinguish between the different types of sugars and detect other components that give honey its unique flavours. It is a relatively new method that may be adopted by official bodies in the future.

A brighter future

There is hope that honey adulteration might become a cheat of the past with the new analytical methods. This will allow honey consumers to enjoy their passion and beekeepers to secure their future.

And bees will be allowed to perform their work benefiting the worlds food crops.


Spoiling the fun – no booze!

beer_glass_(Tim_Dobson)“Hygge” is a Danish word for describing a feeling of wellness and contentment, possibly after consuming a beer or two as Denmark is top of the list in the number of drinkers in a country at over 95%. But, there is also a Swedish secret to a balanced and happy life and that is described by the word “lagom”, not too little, not too much, but just right. Applied to alcohol consumption it would mean drinking in moderation.

Up to now there has been numerous studies showing that drinking in moderation can actually be good for you. We have previously described potential health effects of consuming beer, wine or liquor while acknowledging the downside of excessive drinking.

Now a new study is attempting to spoil the fun.

New study claims no safe level of alcohol consumption

A systematic review of the existing literature on alcohol consumption published in August 2018 concludes that there seems to be no safe level of drinking alcohol. The study, part of the annual Global Burden of Disease, assesses alcohol-related health outcomes and patterns between 1990 and 2016 for 195 countries and territories and by age and sex. It does not distinguish between beer, wine, and liquor consumption due to a lack of evidence when estimating the disease burden. Instead, researchers used data on all alcohol-related deaths generally and related health outcomes to determine their conclusions.

First, the researchers explored 694 data sources on individual and population-level alcohol consumption. Not surprisingly they found that alcohol use patterns varied widely by country and by sex, the average consumption per drinker, and the attributable disease burden. Globally, more than 2 billion people were current drinkers in 2016.

Second, the study reviewed 592 prospective and retrospective studies on the risk of alcohol use. Based on this vast range of data sources they built a large and complex statistical model to estimate the relative risk for 23 health outcomes associated with alcohol use.

As a result of the modelling the researchers claim that in 2016, nearly 3 million deaths globally were attributed to alcohol use, including 12% of deaths in males between the ages of 15 and 49. They conclude that while moderate alcohol consumption may be preventive for some conditions such as ischaemic heart disease and diabetes, when combined with increasing risk of cancers and other outcomes there is a steadily increasing harm from alcohol consumption. This leads them to argue that there is ‘no safe level’ of alcohol consumption.

This is a rather bleak conclusion if true. Gone are the purported health effects of moderate drinking found in many other studies.

Is this as important as the authors claim?

The first consideration should be: Are the finding of significance in a real life situation and not just from a statistical point of view? To be able to gauge this the findings should be presented as absolute values rather than relative changes. If you notice above the study only presented relative risk outcomes. Thus, readers couldn’t tell how dangerous drinking alcohol really was for them.

However, this was remedied by the press office of the Lancet journal, in which the study was published. Thus, Lancet clarified that when comparing no drinks with one drink a day for 15–95 year olds, there was a 0.5% higher risk of developing one of the 23 alcohol-related health problems. This meant that the 914 in 100,000 that would develop a health condition in one year if they did not drink, would increase to 918 people in 100,000 who drank one alcoholic drink a day.

That is a difference of 4 people per 100,000 in a year.

People who drank two drinks a day had a 7% higher risk of alcohol related health problems or a difference of 63 per 100,000 in a year and people who drank five drinks every day had a 37% higher risk or a difference of 348 per 100,000 in a year.

A drink or two should be fine

Alcohol drinksIt is clear that heavy drinking has its toll on health and should be avoided, but to claim that abstention is the only solution is barely supported by the facts presented.

Presumably people who choose to drink alcohol moderately get some pleasure from it, and any risk needs to be traded off against this enjoyment, as expressed by David Spiegelhalter of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication, Cambridge University.

I suggest that you will feel “hygge” by sticking to “lagom” when consuming alcohol and most of us will be fine.

Tea in the News

tea jugTea is the second most consumed beverage on earth after water. The daily cup of tea has many positive associations. Winding down (thought to be due to the relaxing presence of the amino acid L-theanine), or winding up (thanks to caffeine’s influence).

Several health benefits have been attributed to tea, especially green tea consumption. There are claims that green tea has the potential to fight cancer and heart disease, that it can lower cholesterol, burn fat, prevent diabetes and stroke, and stave off dementia. Pretty impressive stuff, but probably far from the real truth. Sure the catechins in tea act as free radical scavengers and might prevent DNA damage. However, it is more likely that the theory that drinking green tea is good for memory is true. Researchers have actually shown that epigallocatechin-3 gallate, a key property of green tea, can affect the generation of brain cells, providing benefits for memory and spatial learning.

So should you drink more tea?

Time to be a little careful as recent research has uncovered a connection of a less pleasant kind – the possibility of pesticides and other carcinogenic chemicals in your tea. Independent lab testing in 2018 by CBC News Canada found that many tea brands contain pesticides over levels permitted in that country.

CBC tested 10 samples of black and green teas including Canada’s most popular brands: Lipton, Red Rose, Tetley and Twinings. Other popular brands tested included No Name, Uncle Lee’s Legends of China, King Cole and Signal. Half of the teas tested contained pesticide residues above the allowable limits in Canada. And eight of the 10 brands tested contained multiple chemicals, with one brand containing residues of 22 different pesticides.

In a way this is nothing new. In 2012, Greenpeace found  that every one of 18 tea samples from nine Chinese tea manufacturers contained a mixture of at least three different kinds of pesticides. In total, as many as 29 different pesticides were detected. Six of the samples contained more than 10 different kinds of pesticides. Pesticides banned in China for use on tea plants and tea leaves were found on 12 samples from eight different tea companies.

Indian tea didn’t fare much better. About 94 per cent of 49 Indian tea brands tested by Greenpeace in 2014 contained pesticide residues, and 59 per cent contained at least one pesticide above the Maximum Residue Level (MRL) set by the EU. Similar to the Chinese teas, 68 per cent of the pesticides discovered in the teas weren’t registered for use in tea cultivation.

Recent European Union pesticide report

Tea plantsFew samples were used for the ad hoc testing above, which could have biased the results. A more comprehensive report from the 2016 testing of pesticide residues in food in the European Union was published in 2018 by the European Food Safety Authority. Although pesticide levels exceeding the MRL amounted to only 3.9 per cent in total, for some products, including tea, the levels were much higher. Of 1016 tea samples tested, 36 per cent contained no detectable pesticides at all, while 24 per cent contained pesticide residue levels exceeding the European Union MRL.

Anthraquinone was one of the substances detected in the European testing. In recent years, issues have emerged with regard to the MRL of anthraquinone, which is set at the analytical detection limit of 0.02mg/kg for food, including tea leaves. In many cases, anthraquinone has not even been used as a pesticide on tea plants. The tea becomes contaminated during drying or packaging, or by smoke caused by tea drying.

Should you be worried about pesticides in tea?

The simple answer is not necessarily, but to understand the issue we need to delve a bit deeper into the setting of MRLs.

The MRL is the highest amount of an agricultural or veterinary chemical residue that is legally allowed in a food product. Levels are set based on how much of the chemical is needed to control pests and/or diseases. The product’s chemistry, metabolism, analytical methodology and residue trial data are also assessed.

Limits are set using internationally recognised methods and national scientific data and are well below the level that could pose health and safety risks to consumers. MRLs help enforcement agencies monitor whether an agvet chemical has been used as directed to control pests and diseases in food production.

Unfortunately, allowable maximum residue levels, that fuzzy line of safe use defined by governments, varies greatly from country to country.

Thus, pesticide residues in tea has been a major non-tariff trade barrier affecting tea trade globally as pointed out by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO). The problem was due mostly to certain default MRLs set at analytical detection limits, like for anthraquinone, and not according to agricultural practice or human toxicity.

As a matter of fact the European Union use a default MRL set at the detection limit for at least 6 other pesticides used on tea in some countries.

FAO pointed out that the only way to tackle this problem would be to help fix realistic MRLs which would be acceptable to all stakeholders in order to ensure food safety as well as smooth tea trade globally.

Not sure yet?

Organic tea 2You might question if we really want any toxins in our tea? Well, like any agricultural food product, tea leaves can be contaminated with agri-chemicals that are used to control pests and diseases. This is an irrefutable fact.

The solution? If you’re health conscious and a big tea drinker, paying a bit more for certified organic loose-leaf teas, and infusing it in an old-fashioned pot or stainless steel infuser, would probably be your best bet.

For the rest of us we can be assured that using only 2g of tea leaves for a cup of tea will pose no major health hazard.

Still it would be good if the tea producing countries could get their act together and sharpen their agricultural practices.


Dietary supplements questioned

pillsThe best the experts can say is that the most commonly consumed vitamin and mineral supplements don’t cause any harm. That is as they barely provide any consistent health benefits at all. Still in the latest Australian diet survey almost a third of the participants reported that they had taken at least one dietary supplement on the survey day. Are we so gullible?

Or rather, some of you must be gullible. I haven’t taken any dietary supplements since my mum forced me to swallow a daily spoon of cod liver oil many, many years ago.

Our crusade

Thus we’ve been on a crusade now for some time to have people understand that it is money wasted to be buying most dietary supplements. And we have repeatedly directed an evil eye towards food supplements on this blog site, being it herbal supplements or micronutrients.

Sure, in cases where specific vitamin or mineral deficiencies have been identified by healthcare providers, they might be treated by taking an appropriate dietary supplement. Or, probably even better, diet adjustments to get the right nutritional balance from the food and drink consumed.

But you don’t have to take my word for it, just listen to the experts.

Further confirmation

publicationsThe negative view of dietary supplements was further confirmed by a recent systematic review of 179 existing scientific studies covering single randomized control trials published in English from January 2012 to October 2017. The supplements examined included vitamins A, B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B6 (pyridoxine), B9 (folic acid), C, D, E, beta-carotene, and the minerals calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium and selenium. Multivitamins were defined as including most of these vitamins and minerals.

In studies testing the four common supplements of multivitamins, vitamin D, calcium and vitamin C, there was no reduction in incidence of heart disease, stroke or premature death. This means there was no benefit from taking them, but also no harm.

They also evaluated less common supplements that did have some positive impacts on early death, heart disease and stroke. Here they found folic acid supplements showed a reduction in heart disease and stroke.

While a small benefit for taking folic acid was found, researchers also found some adverse effects from supplementation. Among those taking statin medication to lower blood cholesterol, slow or extended release vitamin B3 (niacin) increased the risk of early death by 10 per cent.

For studies testing “antioxidant” supplements, there was a marginally significant increased risk of early death.

Surprised scientists

The authors actually expressed surprise to find so few positive effects of the most common supplements consumed. Therefore they concluded that in the absence of significant positive data — apart from folic acid’s potential reduction in the risk of stroke and heart disease — it’s most beneficial to rely on a healthy diet to get your fill of vitamins and minerals.

diet2_(Masahiro_Ihara)So far, no research on supplements has shown us anything better than healthy servings of less processed plant foods including vegetables, fruits and nuts.

Most people in Western countries don’t have an optimal diet. This review shows taking supplements as an “insurance policy” against poor dietary habits does not work. If it did, there would have been a reduction in early deaths.

Eat whole foods

Taking supplements is very different from eating whole foods. Complications or health problems due to nutrient intakes are virtually always due to taking supplements, not eating foods. When you concentrate on one vitamin, mineral or nutrient in a supplement, you miss out on the other phytonutrients found in plant foods that contribute to overall health.

Convinced now? Thought so.

Beetroot might delay dementia

I know, it is all too early. But I get easily carried away when I see some potentially good news in relation to food. In this case it is the heavily coloured beetroot. So here we go.

A little background

old_coupleSomeone in the world develops dementia every 3 seconds. There were an estimated 50 million people in 2017 living with dementia. This number will almost double every 20 years. Much of the increase will be in developing countries. Already 58% of people with dementia live in low and middle income countries.

There are over 100 forms of dementia. The most well-known form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, which accounts for 50-60% of all cases. We all know about the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s disease. Its incidence rises with age.

Scientists are still trying to figure out what causes this progressive and irreversible brain disorder. But one prime suspect is beta-amyloid, a sticky protein fragment, or peptide, that accumulates in the brain, disrupting communication between brain cells called neurons. Much of this damage occurs when beta-amyloid attaches itself to metals such as iron or copper. These metals can cause beta-amyloid peptides to misfold and bind together in clumps that can promote inflammation and oxidation in nearby neurons, eventually killing them.

Beetroot to the rescue??

beetrootPrevious research have suggested that beetroot juice can improve oxygen flow to the aging brain and possibly improve cognitive performance. There are some indications that the positive effects could be mediated by betanin, the compound in beetroot that gives the vegetable its distinctive red colour.

Building on the previous work, scientists at the University of South Florida wanted to find out if betanin, a compound that readily binds to metals, could block the effects of copper on beta-amyloid and, in turn, prevent the misfolding of these peptides and the oxidation of neurons.

In laboratory studies, the scientists measured oxidative reactivity of beta-amyloid only, beta-amyloid bound to copper, and copper-bound beta-amyloid in a mixture containing betanin.

On its own, beta-amyloid caused little or no oxidation. However, as expected, beta-amyloid bound to copper induced substantial oxidation. But when betanin was added to the copper-bound beta-amyloid mixture, the researchers found oxidation dropped by as much as 90%, suggesting that misfolding of the peptides was potentially suppressed.

A little beetroot in the diet wouldn’t hurt

Now that sounds like some good news, although remember that this was very early pure chemical laboratory studies. Anyway it can be good to know that the concentration of betanin in red beetroot can reach 300–600 mg/kg. Other dietary sources of betanin include the Opuntia cactus, Swiss chard, and the leaves of some strains of amaranth.

Betanin is also allowed in unlimited amounts as a natural red food colouring agent (E162). It can be found in ice cream, some sugar confectionary and fruit or cream fillings. Betanin is also used in soups as well as tomato, bacon and other meat and sausage products.

So go for some extra beetroot in your diet.

A glimmer of hope for red wine connoisseurs

1024x1024 mobile phone wallpapers download - www.wallpaper-mobile.comIt is not easy to be balanced when you have just seen some good news you want to believe of beneficial health effects. As on the other hand there are already plenty of incontroversial harmful health effects documented. What to do?

Let’s start with the negative side. And it is clear that you should take it easy on alcoholic drink consumption, as alcohol can be harmful to health. In the liver, enzymes convert alcohol into acetaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Competing with its use to metabolise fat, a molecule called NAD (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide) is reduced to NADH during the conversion. Unfortunately, in people who drink daily, the body might not be able to detoxify acetaldehyde fast enough to counteract the negative effects. To make matters worse, heavy drinking can exhaust the levels of NAD, which can lead to accumulation of fat in the liver and often liver cirrhosis over time.

And that’s not all. The energy content of alcohol can lead to obesity in those who drink excessively. Being obese, in turn, carries a lot of health risks, including heart disease and diabetes.

So the alcohol itself in alcoholic beverages can clearly be damaging to health.

The other side

But just so you know there is not all doom and gloom.

We have written about beneficial compounds found in a range of alcoholic beverages before. There are a number of antioxidants like resveratrol in wine, ellagic acid in oak barrel aged whisky and xanthohumol in beer.

As antioxidants can help prevent the initiation of cancer they might at least partly counter the effects of acetaldehyde. Problem is that to ingest sufficient amounts of such compounds the alcohol you consume might negate the benefits.


But there is a further brighter side.

Alcohol consumed in moderation can actually be beneficial in itself. It has long been known that consumption of small amounts of alcohol may lower the risk of illnesses such as cardiovascular disease.

old_coupleWhile a couple of glasses of wine can help you relax after a busy day, new research shows that it may actually help clean the mind as well. The new study shows that low levels of alcohol consumption reduce brain inflammation and helps the brain remove waste, including the proteins beta amyloid and tau that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

Thus the new study showed for the first time that low doses of alcohol are potentially beneficial to brain health.

These finding adds to a growing body of research that point to the health benefits of low doses of alcohol. While excessive consumption of alcohol is a well-documented health hazard, many studies have linked lower levels of drinking equivalent to approximately two to three drinks per day with improved overall brain health and a reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases as well as a number of cancers.

Adding to doom and gloom

As we enjoyed the good news linked to having a couple of glasses of red wine on a weekly basis further bad news on the impact of heavy alcohol consumption was published.

According to a nationwide observational study of over one million adults diagnosed with dementia in France, more than half of 57,000 cases of early-onset dementia before the age of 65 were related to chronic heavy drinking of more than 60g of pure alcohol on average per day for men and 40g  per day for women.

So what can we learn from science?

Say that a normal size bottle of red wine contains about 80-85g of pure alcohol and that is true for a typical alcohol content varying between 13.5% and 14.5%.

Therefore, enjoying a bit more than half a bottle of a good red wine a few times a week for men and a little less than half a bottle for women might be beneficial to both body and soul.

More and that balance might be damaged as there is a further guide indicating that the weekly consumption should not exceed 170g of pure alcohol for men and 110g for women.

So dare I say again that as usual the adage “everything in moderation” holds true.

Drink responsibly!

Iron – best in moderation


You can eat fruit and vegetables to your heart’s content.

I like to promote a varied and balanced diet – all in moderation. But no, I get criticised for recommending and not defining a balanced diet. I think it’s self evident, a bit of everything without overindulging in any particular food or food group, possibly with fruit and vegetables a free for all exception.

But food “nazis” want to air their opinions. They used to say that you should seriously reduce your fat intake, particularly saturated fat. Then they changed their tune and gave the all clear to fat, but instead banned carbohydrates in general and plain sugar in particular.

Extreme ketogenic diet

According to the latest fad you should try to get your metabolism into a ketogenic state by removing almost all carbohydrates from your diet. That way you force the body to burn its own fat and produce ketones that the brain can use for its energy needs. You will easily lose weight, mainly through water loss, and feel energised, they say.

Inspired by the US president who in early 2018 used the “shit” word I will indulge in some profanity and say “bullshit”. While a ketogenic diet may be an appropriate short-term solution under strict supervision for some, and will result in weight loss, it could lead to serious health complications over time. In the long run, a keto diet will do more harm than good for a majority of the population, especially if they have any underlying kidney or liver issues.

Ketogenic diets practically eliminate an essential food group from your diet, which means you are not going to be getting all of your daily nutritional needs from this diet. This diet is also very low in fibre, which can cause your digestive system to slow down. You will be forced to take mineral supplements or vitamins to hit your daily needs that you will not be getting from a ketogenic diet.

The essential iron

red blood cells

Our red blood cells need iron to function.

That’s a long winded introduction to get us to iron and the important balance of iron intake. Iron is an essential component of life. It is responsible for transporting oxygen in red blood cells, for activation of enzymes involved in DNA production and for energy production in the cell. Iron deficiency impairs oxygen transfer throughout the body, cell division and energy production yet, excess “free” iron that is not bound to any protein may trigger oxidative stress that can be toxic to the organism.

So it is not the case of the more the better. Both iron deficiency or overload may lead to damaging effects by mediating inflammatory diseases, cancer and neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. And remember that all bugs, including the disease causing pathogens, love iron. Acquiring iron is crucial for the development of any pathogen.  Too much iron through food or supplements encourage pathogen growth.

Complex mechanisms have evolved that illustrate the longstanding battle between pathogens and humans for iron access. Ferritin is one of the central factors regulating cellular iron content and protecting the organism from iron toxicity.

We learn more about iron balance all the time. A recent study looked at the distribution of the ferritin protein within cells and the mechanisms underlying its secretion from the cell. They found iron rich extracellular ferritin strongly implying that ferritin is not merely a vessel for secure and available storage of iron within the cell, but also a key player in tissue and systemic iron distribution.

Always more to learn

Even if we learn more about our complex metabolism all the time, there is still a lot of uncertainty remaining. So the safe bet is still to eat a balanced diet all in moderation, be it iron intake or any other nutrient.

And by all means reduce any excessive sugar intake as long as you maintain your fibre consumption.

Counterbalancing health effects of coffee consumption

coffee4If you’re an avid coffee consumer you must have been delighted to see in the news lately that coffee can have beneficial health effects. Coffee had previously confusingly been in the bad books blamed for everything from stunting growth to causing heart disease and insomnia.

It had also been shown that high consumption of unfiltered coffee (boiled coffee popular in Scandinavian countries or espresso invented in Italy and spread all over the world) fails to catch a compound called cafestol in the oily part of coffee that can increase the bad cholesterol or LDL.

Not so good.

So what changed?

The good news was based on a scientific review aimed to dispel some of that confusion, examining the evidence presented in 218 previous studies. It’s an example of the ever more popular meta-analysis of existing research that by combining previous findings strengthen the proof of the conclusions.

In synthesising the reported findings the researchers found that coffee consumption was more often associated with benefit than harm for a range of health outcomes across exposures. Three to four cups a day seemed to be optimal.

Drinking coffee was consistently associated with a lower risk of death from all causes and a lower risk of several cancers, as well as type 2 diabetes, gallstones and gout.

Liver conditions, such as cirrhosis, saw the greatest benefit associated with coffee consumption. There also seemed to be beneficial associations between coffee consumption and Parkinson’s disease, depression and Alzheimer’s disease.

Overall, there was no consistent evidence of harmful associations between coffee consumption and health outcomes, except for those related to pregnancy and for risk of fracture in women.

Spoiling the good news story

We shouldn’t spoil a good news story, but we have previously mentioned the presence of toxic acrylamide and furan especially in coffee. Now the European Food Safety Authority has published a new opinion on furan confirming the previous suspicion that furan in food could be harmful to health. Based on animal studies they concluded that liver damage and liver cancer are the most critical health effects.

Although the average intake of food containing furan indicates a low health concern for most consumers, for high consumers exposure is up to three times what would be considered of low concern for public health.

The most exposed group of people are infants, mainly through consumption of ready-to-eat jarred or canned foods. Exposure in other population groups is mainly from consumption of grain-based foods and, here you have it, coffee, depending on age and consumer habits.

coffee_beans_(MarkSweep)The highest concentrations of furan were found in whole roasted coffee beans, with a mean value of 4,579 µg/kg. High mean concentrations of furan were also found in ground roasted coffee (2,361 µg/kg) and instant coffee powder (310 µg/kg). This should be compared to mean values ranging from not detected to 57 µg/kg for most other foods.

All is not lost

There is a serious anomaly between the observational findings that coffee consumption is associated with a lower risk of liver damage, while on the contrary animal studies link the presence of furan in the diet to liver damage. And coffee provides the highest exposure to furan in adults.

What’s to give?

As bad as the concentrations of furan seem to be in solid coffee samples, in preparing the coffee beverage there is both a dilution and an evaporative loss of furan down to typical concentrations of about 60 µg/L in the final beverage. Still bad for heavy coffee drinkers.

But there is more.

Coffee contains a complex mixture of bioactive compounds benefiting health.

It contributes a large proportion of the daily intake of dietary antioxidants, greater than tea, fruit, and vegetables. Chlorogenic acid is the most abundant antioxidant in coffee; though it is degraded by roasting, alternative antioxidant organic compounds are formed. Caffeine also has significant antioxidant effects.

Cafestol and kahweol induce enzymes involved in carcinogen detoxification and stimulation of intracellular antioxidant defence, contributing towards an anticarcinogenic effect.

These antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds are likely to be responsible for the  beneficial associations between coffee consumption and liver health, and might neutralise the effects of furan.

coffee drinker

You can still drink your coffee with peace of mind

Please sir, can I have some more bananas

Heart3New evidence points to the importance of vascular calcification in hardening of the arteries, predicting adverse cardiovascular outcomes in several diseases, often with overlapping complications such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, and chronic kidney disease.

Clearly something to avoid so we need to know more about the underlying causes.

Vascular calcification was previously considered to be a passive, unregulated, and degenerative process, but has now been shown to be a highly regulated process of osteochondrogenic differentiation of vascular smooth muscle cells, the main cell type that determines the vascular tone, or simply blood pressure.

Sounds very complex, but just think hypertension and associated harmful effects.

So what’s happening here?

Well, epidemiological studies, but remember they can sometimes be suspect, have suggested a role for potassium. Low serum potassium levels have been linked to cardiovascular calcification and risks of chronic kidney disease and metabolic syndrome.

Even better we have further proof in that more reliable prospective cohort studies have shown that reduced potassium levels are associated with cardiovascular diseases such as hypertension and chronic heart failure. And providing an appropriate dietary potassium intake reduced the disease incidence.

So all good so far, but what is actually happening here?

Looking at the details

To better explain the findings, researchers at the University of Alabama explored the mechanism of vascular disease three ways: living mice were fed diets that varied in potassium, mouse artery cross-sections were studied in culture medium with varying concentrations of potassium, and mouse vascular smooth muscle cells were grown in a culture medium.

And they found that a reduction in the potassium concentration to the lower limit of the physiological range increased intracellular calcium, which in turn promoted vascular smooth muscle cell calcification in all models tested. Their findings provide molecular insights into the previously unappreciated regulation of vascular calcification and stiffness by low potassium intake and emphasise the need to consider dietary intake of potassium in the prevention of vascular complications of atherosclerosis, the researchers said.

And how do we do that?

Here is the good news

bananas_(Joey_Yee)We can eat more bananas. Bananas, and for that matter avocados, are foods that are rich in potassium. A banana a day (or two) might keep the doctor away and prevent hardening of the arteries.

But unfortunately that’s not the whole truth as one peeled banana weighing 120 g, good as it is, will only provide 422 mg of the European Food Safety Authority recommended 3,500 mg daily intake of dietary potassium. So you will have to eat eight bananas to be close to the recommended intake. That’s a lot.

What about if you add an avocado? Not more than another 485 mg I’m afraid. So more effort is needed.

Why not a single medium baked potato to get a whopping 941 mg of potassium or a medium baked sweet potato that has 542 mg of potassium. Or two watermelon wedges with 641 mg of potassium. A cup of frozen spinach provides a respectable 540 mg of potassium, while a cup of cooked and sliced beets add a further 518 mg.

Sounds like a lot of food, but you should know that actual food has proven to be much better than taking a shortcut by adding potassium supplements to your intake.

So stick to the food as best you can. The choice of food is yours.

Better stop now!

pillsComplementary medicines, to use a nomenclature that make them sound really important, or simply homeopathic medicines or in some instances dietary supplements, have been questioned before. And we and many others have repeatedly issued warnings of lack of evidence for claimed effects, illicit adulteration and the use of cheap fillers instead of the claimed substance. But it seems to no avail.

Agreed, some complementary medicines have actually been proven to work.  But what use is that when many of the products as sold do not match the dosages that have been clinically proven. And if they do it’s virtually impossible for consumers to distinguish the real from the fraudulent products.

When 500 complementary medicines out of 11,000 on the market in Australia were checked by the regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, 400 of the products had compliance breaches.

Not particularly good.

The nail in the coffin

Traditional Chinese medicine is widely used all over the world as a form of complementary medicine for various indications and for improving general health. There is also an ever-growing market worldwide for a variety of health products, which contain herbal or other natural ingredients with claimed nutritional, physiological or health-promoting effects.

Such products are widely believed to be ‘natural’ and safe by many consumers, but some can pose severe danger to health in that undeclared compounds are lurking in the supposedly beneficial remedies. Adulterations commonly include prescription drugs, drug analogues and banned drugs.

Scientists in Hong Kong recently examined the files of 404 patients seeking medical attention due to moderate to severe reactions (including deaths) to the use of complementary medicines or other health products. Testing the implicated products  found more than 1200 illicit compounds. The 487 complementary medicines or health products consumed by the patients contained on average three adulterants with a maximum of an astonishing 17 undeclared adulterants.

The details of the findings

The six most common categories of adulterants detected were NSAIDs (17.7%), anorectics (15.3%), corticosteroids (13.8%), diuretics and laxatives (11.4%), oral anti-diabetic agents (10.0%) and erectile dysfunction drugs (6.0%). None of them declared on the packet.

Sibutramine, a slimming agent (anorectic) that has been withdrawn from the market due to its association with increased cardiovascular events and strokes, was the single most common adulterant identified.

Other banned drugs, such as phenolphthalein, fenfluramine, phenformin, phenylbutazone and phenacetin, were also not uncommonly detected in these adulterated complementary medicines. These drugs were usually withdrawn from the market owing to their higher toxicities and potential carcinogenicity.

Drug analogues, for which the chemical structures are substantially similar to those of the original compounds, were also occasionally identified. These drug analogues were probably added to the illicit products in an attempt to evade detection by regulatory authorities. The presumption that these analogues have similar pharmaceutical effects as the original drugs is unproven and, worse still, they may lead to adverse effects that are different or even more severe than those associated with the original compounds.

Psychosis, iatrogenic cushing syndrome, and hypoglycaemia were the three most frequently encountered adverse effects. Other effects included heart palpitations, renal impairment, abnormal thyroid function, damaged liver function and adrenal insufficiency.

Serious warning warranted

pharmacy_(Chis_de_Rham)Disguised as natural and safe products, some complementary medicines are clearly hazardous to the public with the overall area needing new and effective regulatory control.

The Hong Kong scientists stressed that the findings should serve as a serious warning to consumers and health professionals. If still tempted to use complementary medicines, as a short term solution at least make sure that they come from a reputable manufacturer.

In the longer term there is an urgent case for introducing mandatory testing of all complementary medicines both for purity and confirmation of claimed health effects.

In the meantime it might be best to save your money rather than risk your health in filling the pockets of shonky operators.