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.

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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.

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

The fight is on over sugar

ScientistIt is difficult even for experienced scientists to agree on the interpretation of their findings. Add to that external research funding linked to commercial interests and it is even more difficult to know what to believe.

A case in point. If you thought excessive sugar intake is the root of the evil obesity epidemic you might have to think again.

Or not….

Sugar advice questioned

There has been a scathing attack on global health advice to eat less sugar. Through industry proxies, a scientific review now claims that warnings to cut sugar are based on weak evidence and cannot be trusted.

The review identified 9 guidelines that offered 12 recommendations, all indicating a suggested decrease in the consumption of foods containing nonintrinsic sugars (that is added sugar to you and me). The recommendations were based on various health concerns, including nutrient displacement, dental caries, and weight gain. However, the reviewers claimed that no guideline met criteria for trustworthy recommendations and were all based on low-quality evidence.

The review was paid for by the International Life Sciences Institute, a scientific group funded by multinational food and agrochemical companies.

Tainted from the beginning. When will industry ever learn.

The review findings immediately questioned

Predictably, the review quickly received sharp criticism from public health experts. It was but the latest effort of the food industry to influence global nutrition advice by supporting prominent academics questioning the role of sugary food and beverages in causing obesity and other health problems.

The review was seen as an attempt to undermine sugar guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO) to consume fewer products with added sugar, such as soft drinks, candy and sweetened cereals. It is a classic example of how industry funding is used to influence opinion.

To be fair to the review team, they wanted their results to be used to promote improvement in the development of trustworthy guidelines on sugar intake. They also emphasised that the review findings should not be used to justify higher intake of sugary foods and beverages.

Still, nutrition experts say that the review team ignored the hundreds of randomised controlled trials that have documented the harms of sugar. There are strong scientific evidence that sugar contribute to adverse health conditions like weight gain and Type 2 diabetes. The view is that the review team ignored the real data, created false scores, and somehow got through a peer review system difficult to understand from a reputable journal like Annals of Internal Medicine.

The WHO contrary point of view

soda

So until we have the general scientific opinion swinging over to supporting sugar, it is clearly best to stick to the WHO recommendations.

A WHO guideline of 2015 recommends that adults and children reduce their daily intake of free sugars to less than 10% of their total energy intake. WHO also believes that a further reduction to below 5% or roughly 25 grams (6 teaspoons) per day would provide additional health benefits.

Free sugars refer to monosaccharides (such as glucose, fructose) and disaccharides (such as sucrose or table sugar) added to foods and drinks by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, and sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates. But the guideline does not refer to the sugars in fresh fruits and vegetables, and sugars naturally present in milk.

Contrary to the above review findings, WHO states that they have solid evidence that keeping intake of free sugars to less than 10% of total energy intake reduces the risk of overweight, obesity and tooth decay. Based on the quality of supporting evidence, these recommendations are ranked by WHO as “strong”.

So there you have it. And if you embark on reducing your sugar intake remember that much of the sugars consumed today are “hidden” in processed foods that are not usually seen as sweets.

Surprising details about salt

water2We recently published a blog abut the health impact of high salt intake. We told you that the body relies on sodium from salt for a variety of functions, including blood pressure and the transmission of nerve impulses. And that it is important that the sodium level in blood is carefully maintained.

But there is more.

The conventional wisdom has long been that if you eat a lot of salt you will become thirsty and drink water, diluting your blood enough to maintain the proper concentration of sodium. Ultimately, you will get rid of the excess salt and water through urine. One way of increasing urine production is to increase blood pressure – the negative health impact of too much salt in the diet.

Sounds simple enough, but some of this may be very wrong.

Surprising findings

Two new studies have put part of this simple theory on its head. In long-term studies of simulated space travel the participants were given a well controlled diet with either 6, 9 or 12 g of salt per day. Eating more salt actually made the participants less thirsty, but somehow hungrier despite the amount of food being exactly the same.

Instead of drinking more, the participants were drinking less when getting more salt. But still increased urine production to get rid of the excess sodium. So where was the excreted fluid coming from? Well, the only explanation available would be that the fluid had been generated from existing body constituents.

How bizarre!

To get to the bottom of the findings the scientists repeated the experiments on mice and found that they burned more calories when they got more salt in the diet. Since they had unlimited access to food – in contrast to the humans above – they ate 25% more just to maintain their weight.

The animals were getting water – but not by drinking it. Instead an increased level of glucocorticoid hormones helped break down fat and muscle in their own bodies. This freed up water for the body to use. However, this process requires energy, thus the mice ate more food.

We already know that a starving body can burn its own fat and muscle for survival. That something similar happens on a salty diet was a surprise. But this is what camels do to create water from the fat in their humps when travelling through deserts with no water.

No, it’s no dieting solution

dieting_(fantasyhealthball)

So could this be a new weight loss fad? To eat more salty foods as salt seems to be involved in weight loss. In contrast to the previous opinion that a high-salt diet encourages a greater intake of fluids, which increases weight.

No, the advice is not to increase salt intake for three reasons:

  • Firstly, more salt in the diet will make you hungrier and you will eat more unless you have a very strong resolve. This would defeat the purpose of the dieting.
  • Secondly, the resulting high glucocorticoid levels are known to cause osteoporosis, muscle loss, diabetes and other metabolic problems.
  • And finally, the increased blood pressure due to the high salt intake can cause heart disease and premature death.

So it is a no brainer to still reduce salt intake. But at least now you know more about what happens when you eat too much salt.

Disappointing news – or not – about moderate drinking

heart

Many studies and reviews have supported the notion that moderate alcohol consumption is beneficial for heart health. Why not have a daily glass or two of wine at dinner, as it could ward off disease. And now they come and spoil the fun.

A joint group of Canadian, Australian and US scientists took a hard look at the evidence presented in previously published research and found little support for a heart protective effect of moderate alcohol consumption.

And here you are believing the previously good news, who can you really trust? But not all is lost so read on.

So what did they find?

The new assessment initially agreed with the previous findings as a fully adjusted pooled analysis of all the 45 studies reviewed found significantly reduced coronary heart disease mortality for current moderate drinkers, actually for all current drinkers.  So all good now, can I continue to have a glass or two of wine to dinner and feel healthier?

Unfortunately not, as the researchers found confounding factors in that they could see an influence of age, gender, ethnicity, and heart health at baseline. When correcting for such factors they claim that moderate consumption of alcohol was not significantly protective for people at ages 55 years or younger at baseline, or for studies controlled for heart health at the beginning of the study. They even claimed that the appearance of cardio-protection among older people may reflect systematic selection biases that accumulate over the life course.

Their hypothesis is that non-drinkers may, in fact, be former drinkers who quit or cut down for health reasons. So, of course the remaining healthy drinkers will fair better than their poor abstainers that are already sick. And the seniors who are healthy may be more likely to keep enjoying that glass of wine with dinner thus biasing the results.

However, the researchers stop short of turning the previous findings on its head. They only conclude that there remain grounds for skepticism about the hypothesis that alcohol use can be cardio-protective, and recommend that future prospective studies not only avoid biased abstainer reference groups, but also take steps to minimize other forms of selection bias across the life course, including that from competing disease risks.

So there is still hope?

red_wine_(boo_licious)Yes, there is still hope that a daily glass of wine might keep you healthy longer as the researchers can’t prove it one way or the other. Only that there are grounds for a healthy skepticism as there remain plausible alternative explanations for their observed review findings.

So let’s make it clear. For now, no one is saying that people who enjoy alcohol in moderation should stop. Should there be no direct benefits, at least the risks of low-level drinking would be small.

Let’s drink to that, but only in moderation!

New liquorice warnings

liquorice_candy_(US_Government)

Liquorice is a popular sweetener found in many soft drinks, food products, snacks and herbal medicines. It has a rich history as an old remedy that was used by ancient Egyptians and Assyrians made into a sweet liquid drink. There is a traditional belief that liquorice is a healthy natural substance without side effects driving its liberal consumption that can occasionally be hazardous.

If you have followed this blog for a while you might remember that we have covered the good and the bad of liquorice before. Now we also cover the ugly.

The good

Liquorice is extracted from the roots of the plant Glycyrrhiza glabra, a member of the pea family. Most liquorice roots are wild-harvested with collection occurring mainly in Central Asia (Iran, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and China). Liquorice extract is produced by boiling liquorice root and subsequently evaporating most of the water. Large-scale extraction is limited to China and Iran. Glycyrrhizin, that is 50 times sweeter than sugar, is the main active component in liquorice extract and apart from sweetness also provides the desirable liquorice flavour. Moderate consumption of liquorice is associated with several health benefits in that it can quickly soothe sore throats and coughs among some other positive effects.

The bad

Unfortunately, it has long been known that excessive and prolonged consumption of glycyrrhizin intensifies the effects of the stress hormone cortisol by inhibiting the enzyme that inactivates cortisol and may interfere with the sodium and potassium balance. High levels may increase hypertension. Thus, it has been suggested to limit consumption of glycyrrhizin to 100 mg per day, the approximate amount found in 60–70 g of liquorice candy. However, it is not that easy to estimate intake of glycyrrhizin as various forms of candies, beverages, supplements and extracts contain very different amounts of the active components.

The ugly

Pregnant womenRecently new warnings were issued by the Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare to women to avoid consuming large amounts of liquorice during pregnancy as it can have long-term harmful effects on the development of the foetus. A new Finnish study had shown that youths previously exposed to large amounts of liquorice in the womb performed less well than others in cognitive reasoning tests carried out by a psychologist. The difference was equivalent to approximately seven IQ points.

Those exposed to liquorice also performed less well in tasks measuring memory capacity, and according to parental estimates, they had more ADHD-type problems than others. With girls, puberty had started earlier and advanced further.

In this study a large amount was defined as daily consumption of more than 70 mg and compared to consumption of less than 35 mg glycyrrhizin.

The lesson

Although cortisol is essential to the development of a foetus, large increases initiated by excessive consumption of liquorice can be detrimental.

A bathtub of sugary soft drinks

bathtub

Consumption of sugar sweetened beverages equal a bathtub worth per year.

Can you believe it, when analysing data collected through the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey, Cancer Research UK found that teenagers aged between 11 and 18 drink almost a bathtub full of sugary drinks on average in a year. To be more precise the average soft drink consumption for this group equalled 77L per year. That is actually a very small bathtub as they normally vary in size from 77L to say 170L. However, when taking a bath the water volume is most often just half that so drinking a bathtub of soft drinks per year is a fairly accurate estimate.

The figures shed light on the extreme sugar consumption of UK teenagers in that they eat and drink three times the recommended limit, with sugary drinks being their main source of added sugar. This contributes to the development of overweight and obesity and obese children are around five times more likely to grow into obese adults. The situation is similar in many other countries. Sales of sugar sweetened beverages in Australia equates to 75L per year for every adult and child, while overall consumption of sugar sweetened beverages per person in the USA has been estimated at 115L per year.

And on it goes. So what can be done?

Taxing sugar in soft drinks

In an effort to reduce the detrimental effects of consuming excessive volumes of sugary drinks, a tax has been suggested similar to the tax on tobacco. Several countries have already imposed a tax while others are in the process to do so.

Norway has had a generalised sugar tax on refined sugar products, including soft drinks, in more than 35 years. Hungary’s tax introduced in 2011 has seen 22% of people reduce energy drink consumption and 19% of people reduce their intake of sugary-sweetened soft drinks. France introduced a targeted tax on sugary drinks at a national level in 2012 and found that sales of soft drinks declined in the year following the introduction of the tax, following several years of annual growth. Annual sales of soft drinks in Mexico declined 6% in 2014 after the introduction of a tax in 2013.

South Africa, Ireland and the United Kingdom have all decided to introduce soft drink taxes in 2017-2018. The United States does not have a nation-wide soft drink tax, but a number of cities have or will soon introduce their own taxes. There has been a growing debate around taxing soft drinks in various cities, states and even in congress in recent years. This debate alone has raised awareness of the problem and soft drink consumption is on the way down.

Other countries are still debating the benefits of a sugar tax. In Australia there is an expert group proposal to introduce a tax of 40 cents per 100 grams of sugar, which would lift the price of a two-litre bottle of soft drink by about 80 cents.

What about diet beverages?

dietsodadrinker

Diet beverages might not be the solution to reduce the incidence of obesity.

The reduction in the consumption of sugar sweetened beverages is all good if it is replaced by water. But what about diet beverages? Sugar substitutes like aspartame are supposed to promote weight loss, but a number of clinical and epidemiologic studies have suggested that these products don’t work very well and may actually make things worse. This is quite confusing as energy intake is reduced. However, there has been some evidence that artificial sweeteners actually can make you more hungry and thus may be associated with increased energy consumption.

Now a research team has found a possible mechanism explaining why use of the sugar substitute aspartame might not promote weight loss. Their report show how the aspartame breakdown product phenylalanine blocks a gut enzyme called intestinal alkaline phosphatase (IAP). And IAP is normally protective in that it has been shown to prevent obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

The researchers also showed that mice receiving aspartame in their drinking water gained more weight, had higher blood sugar levels, which indicates glucose intolerance, and higher levels of the inflammatory protein TNF-alpha in their blood, which suggests the kind of systemic inflammation associated with metabolic syndrome.

So what to do?

It is quite clear that just a debate around the detrimental effects of excessive consumption of sugar sweetened beverages can have an effect. Add to that an increase in the price and the benefits are obvious as shown already in several countries.

But it is equally important that the new choice of beverage doesn’t add to the problem. The use of artificial sweeteners might not be as innocent as could be expected.

Scientific knowledge vs. consumer experience

Disparate views between
scientists and consumers
(Drawing: Robin Hutton)

Scientists have long recommended that we eat at least 400g of fruit and vegetables a day with some countries going even further. Australia recommends a daily intake of two fruit and five vegetable portions equivalent to 750g. But the experience of consumers is that this is almost impossible and anyway could be quite expensive depending on seasonality and regional availability.

Many scientists believe that genetically modified agricultural commodities will solve future food shortages following an increasing world population and harsher growing conditions due to global warming. The public is sceptical having experienced previous backlashes. Monocultures are expected to threaten species versatility and superweeds to overwhelm production systems.

Scientists warn about an ‘obesity epidemic’ that will overwhelm the future hospital system and issue nutrition recommendations. The general public experiences an increasingly busy lifestyle with work pressure inundating leisure time. There is little time for food preparation and a living environment conducive of exercise is missing.

What to do?

These are some of the topics discussed in a just released rather unique book that combine the views of sociological and public health expertise to provide a holistic discussion of food safety issues.

The book offers a comprehensive understanding of the current scientific knowledge concerning risks associated with food production, processing and consumption, with particular attention to the gap between scientific research and public perception.

The book is thematically arranged according to the application of theoretical approaches in sociological theory – the socio-cultural perspective, the risk society perspective and the governmentality perspective – each chapter focuses on a particular area of interest or concern in relation to food, for example:

  • the ‘obesity epidemic’,
  • the benefits or otherwise of dietary supplements,
  • caffeine consumption,
  • GM food,
  • alcohol,
  • organic food,
  • the consumption of fruit and vegetables, and
  • pathogens and contaminants.

The existing literature is covered in detail and the book offers illustrative empirical examples, whilst identifying gaps in knowledge and areas for further research.

Interested?

The book is available now from Routledge:

Risk book

 

 

 

 

 

 

Food and the Risk Society
The Power of Risk Perception
By Charlotte Fabiansson, Stefan Fabiansson

ISBN 978-1-472-47896-2
© 2016 – Routledge

282 pages

Hot potato

Not again! This time it is the simple potato that’s being demonised. This seems to never end in that scientists pick one food after another and try to find a bad apple in a complex diet. Sorry, so far there are no adverse effects reported for apples, but you just wait. Probably just a matter of time.

And the statistics used become more and more elaborate making it impossible to penetrate the reported findings. All based on dubious food frequency questionnaires in the first place.

So what’s new?

Scientists demonise potatoes.

Scientists demonise potatoes for causing hypertension.

I have to give it to them that the researchers of the new report used an impressive number of people, overall over 187,000 men and women from three large US studies covering more than 20 years of follow-up. They all belonged to a cohort of health professionals, the same groups that have been used previously to report potential public health impacts of a range of different foods.

Unfortunately, the major shortcoming of all those reports is their dependence on food frequency questionnaires to capture dietary intake details.

In this case they analysed consumption of 130 foods and beverages, including the frequency of potato consumption. This might be fine for common foods, but what about all other minor foods we eat less regularly? If they aren’t captured you have no idea of their influence. Also you need a pretty good memory to recall all you ate during the past year.

Try it yourself. How often did you consume apples or ice cream? It will be more of a guesstimate and you might not even want to admit that you ate ice cream three times a week.

And also they asked participants to self report if they had been affected by hypertension as diagnosed by a health professional since their hypothesis was that eating a lot of potatoes would lead to an increase in blood pressure.

And the findings?

The researchers predictably found that higher intakes of boiled, baked, or mashed potatoes, and French fries were associated with an increased risk of developing high blood pressure. But now it gets more confusing.

After taking account of several other risk factors for hypertension, the researchers found that four or more servings a week of baked, boiled, or mashed potatoes was associated with an increased risk of hypertension compared with less than one serving a month in women, but not in men.

But higher consumption of French fries was associated with an increased risk of hypertension in both women and men.

And even more confusing, consumption of potato crisps (chips if you’re American) was associated with no increased risk.

And finally, replacing one serving a day of baked, boiled, or mashed potatoes with one serving a day of a non-starchy vegetable was associated with a lowered risk of developing hypertension.

So what to believe?

Should potatoes be included in the vegetable group?

Should potatoes be included among other vegetables or not, who can say?

First the main rationale of the study. Potatoes are one of the world’s most commonly consumed foods – and have recently been included as vegetables in the US government healthy meals programs, due to their high potassium content. Not everyone agrees to this move. So the researchers set out to determine whether higher long term intake of potatoes could be linked to incident hypertension.

And they say their findings have potentially important public health ramifications, as they do not support a potential benefit from the inclusion of potatoes as vegetables in government food programs. Instead the findings support a harmful effect that is consistent with adverse effects of high carbohydrate intakes seen in controlled feeding studies.

But if you noticed that replacing a serving of potato with non-starchy vegetables lowered the risk of hypertension, the findings could actually be related to reduced vegetable consumption when consuming a lot of potatoes. Nitrate in vegetables is transformed to nitric oxide in the body. And nitric oxide is a vasodilator that reduce blood pressure.

Critics of the study

I am not the only critic of the study. In a linked editorial, other researchers argued that, although diet has an important part to play in prevention and early management of hypertension, dietary behaviour and patterns of consumption are complex and difficult to measure. Prospective cohort studies that examine associations between various dietary patterns and risk of disease provide more useful insights for both policy makers and practitioners than does a focus on individual foods or nutrients.

To be fair also the researchers acknowledge some study limitations and said that, as with any observational study, no firm conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect. But that didn’t deter the popular press to latch onto the findings, there are plenty of potato consumers to scare.

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