Beneficial basil – or not!

Fruit and vegetables are important parts of the daily diet. They are low in fat, salt and sugar and a good source of dietary fibre. Fruits and vegetables contain many vitamins and minerals that are good for your health. They also importantly contain a range of exciting phytochemicals – biologically active substances that can provide protection from some diseases. Now it’s time to cover fenchol – a phytochemical found in basil.

Fenchol is a natural compound abundant in some plants including basil. It is used extensively in the perfume industry, as well as in the food processing industry. It has a smell of pine, lemon and camphor. Fenchol has many known medicinal properties, most notably antibacterial, antimicrobial, and antioxidant effects. And now there might be one more.

Gut-brain communication

A recent preclinical study by scientists at the University of South Florida Health explored interactions between the gut microbiome and the brain. Emerging evidence had indicated that short-chain fatty acid metabolites produced by beneficial gut bacteria contribute to brain health. However, the abundance of such metabolites is often reduced in older people with mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease, but a possible association remained largely unknown.

When these gut-derived microbial metabolites travel through the blood to the brain they bind to and activate the free fatty acid receptor 2, a cell signalling receptor expressed on brain cells called neurons with a hitherto unknown effect. One hallmark pathology of Alzheimer’s disease is hardened deposits of amyloid-beta protein that clump together between nerve cells to form amyloid protein plaques in the brain. This contributes to the neuron loss and death that ultimately cause the onset of Alzheimer’s, a neurodegenerative disease characterized by loss of memory, thinking skills and other cognitive abilities.

The research findings

In step one, the new study showed for the first time that the stimulation of the free fatty acid receptor 2 can be beneficial in protecting brain cells against toxic accumulation of the amyloid-beta protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease. By blocking the receptor the scientists found an abnormal build-up of the amyloid-beta protein proving the importance of functioning receptors for sustained brain health.

In step two, the scientists performed a large-scale virtual screening of 144,000 natural compounds to find other potential candidates that could stimulate the free fatty acid receptor 2 equally well compared to the microbial metabolites. Among the leading 15 compounds, the most potent in binding to and stimulating the receptor was fenchol.

In step three, further experiments in human neuronal cell cultures, as well as worm and mouse models of Alzheimer’s disease demonstrated that fenchol significantly reduced excess amyloid-beta accumulation and death of neurons by stimulating the free fatty acid receptor 2 signalling.

Still early days

Although the intriguing preclinical findings look promising it is still early days. Before you start throwing lots of extra basil into your salad to help prevent the development of dementia, be aware that much more research is needed including in humans. A key question is whether fenchol consumed in basil itself would be more or less effective than administering the compound in a pill.

And a final caveat, if you google fenchol you will find several websites covering cannabis in which it is also present. But I would stick to basil to enhance the taste of food as well as possibly preventing the development of dementia – or not.

Time for Ginger

We have so far produced around 200 blogs covering harmful or beneficial effects of food and food ingredients but none about the potential beneficial effects of ginger. So when a team from the University of Michigan published a story about 6-gingerol, the main bioactive compound in ginger root, and its beneficial effects on certain autoimmune diseases in mice, we decided that it was time for another good news story.

A caveat though, the Michigan Medicine research covered administration of pure 6-gingerol to mice affected by lupus, a disease which attacks the body’s own immune system, and an associated condition called antiphospholipid syndrome causing blood clots. The 6-gingerol prevented neutrophil extracellular trap release, which is triggered by the autoantibodies that these diseases produce.

If it sounds complicated, be reassured that we will rather focus on more general beneficial effects of consuming ginger.

The common use of ginger root

Ginger is a flowering plant whose rhizome, ginger root, is widely used as a spice and a folk medicine. It is actually one of the first spices to have been exported from Asia, arriving in Europe with the spice trade, and was used by ancient Greeks and Romans. It belongs to the same family as turmeric and cardamom.

Ginger has a firm, striated texture. The flesh of the ginger rhizome can be yellow, white or red in colour, depending on the variety. It is covered with a brownish skin that may either be thin if harvested young or thick after mature harvesting.

Ginger has long been perceived to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidative properties and has been used traditionally as a herbal medicine for the treatment of many ailments, including chronic conditions such as asthma and arthritis. The health-promoting properties of ginger have been attributed to its richness in phenolic phytochemicals, such as gingerols and shogaols. The most abundant in fresh ginger is 6-gingerol (used in pure form in the above mentioned research) with concentrations of up to 2 mg/g in the root.

The general benefits researchers have found

Two Spanish researchers reported that ginger appears to be highly effective against nausea in people undergoing certain types of surgery. It may also help chemotherapy-related nausea. However, it may be the most effective when it comes to pregnancy-related nausea and vomiting, such as morning sickness. According to their review of 12 studies that included a total of 1,278 pregnant women, 1–1.5 grams of ginger significantly reduced symptoms of nausea in particular and to some extent also vomiting.

Chronic indigestion is characterized by recurrent pain and discomfort in the upper part of the stomach. It’s believed that delayed emptying of the stomach is a major driver of indigestion. Interestingly, ginger has been shown to speed up emptying of the stomach.

In relation to its antiemetic properties, ginger acts peripherally, within the gastrointestinal tract, by increasing the gastric tone and motility due to anticholinenergic and antiserotonergic actions. This combination of functions explains the widely accepted ability of ginger to relieve symptoms of functional gastrointestinal disorders, such as dyspepsia, abdominal pain and nausea, which is often associated with decreased gastric motility.

Ginger has been an important ingredient in Asian medicine for centuries, particularly for pain relief in musculoskeletal diseases. In a meta-analysis of five studies involving 597 patients ginger proved to be moderately effective in reducing pain and disability caused by osteoarthritis, especially affecting the knee. Osteoarthritis is a common health problem. It involves degeneration of joints, leading to symptoms such as joint pain and stiffness.

Initial findings have shown that ginger may have powerful anti-diabetic properties. In a 2015 study of 41 participants with type 2 diabetes, 2 grams of ginger powder per day lowered fasting blood sugar by 12%. It also dramatically improved hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c), a marker for long-term blood sugar levels. HbA1c was reduced by 10% over a period of 12 weeks.

Sounds like ginger should have superfood status, but note that the number of trial participants have usually been low and the doses used and the frequency of administration have varied. A word of caution might be in place, but still worth a try.

Better use ginger in moderation

If you like consuming ginger and experience beneficial effects on your health, just be sure not to overdo it. It is clear that ginger is fine in small doses, but as usual everything in moderation. Some side effects have been reported in daily doses of more than 5 grams a day, which is a lot. They include gas, heartburn and an upset stomach.

Ginger tea doesn’t seem to have serious side effects. For one thing, it would be difficult to drink enough of the tea to be exposed to anything irritating or harmful. To exceed the 5 gram limit requires quite a few cups of tea a day.

High doses of ginger may help lower blood pressure but can in turn cause some lightheadedness as a side effect. Ginger also contains salicylates, the chemical in aspirin, that acts as a blood thinner. This can cause problems for people with bleeding disorders and could interact with blood thinner medication.

Although ginger has been used throughout the world for centuries as a therapeutic agent for pregnancy-induced nausea and vomiting, a word of caution is appropriate. The best available evidence suggests that ginger is a safe and effective treatment and that possible adverse events are generally mild and infrequent. However, there is still some uncertainty regarding the maximum safe dosage and the optimal duration of treatment. Both important areas for future research.

The bottom line

It is worth repeating that too much of anything – even something as natural as ginger – is bound to cause problems. But if you’re generally in good health and you like the zest that ginger provides, drink up and don’t worry.

Just be aware that due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, ginger prices across the world have soared.

ADDENDUM:

One of my readers affected by motion sickness pointed to the beneficial effects of consuming ginger to alleviate the symptoms. This has been documented by New York Times citing research published in Lancet involving 36 people highly susceptible to motion sickness. The subjects were given either two capsules of powdered ginger, an antinausea medication or a placebo, and 20 minutes later spun on a motorised chair for up to six minutes. Ginger delayed the onset of sickness about twice as long as the medication. Half the subjects who took ginger lasted the full six minutes, compared with none of those given the placebo or the medication.

A comprehensive review of the literature on motion sickness by the US Pharmacist provided further support of the beneficial effects of ginger.

Health benefits of pickled capers

If you like to spice your food with capers you may be in luck. Capers are the immature flower buds of the caper bush, Capparis spinosa, growing naturally in the Mediterranean and parts of Asia and Africa. Capers are harvested early in the morning before the heat opens the flower bud. There are also the caper berries, the resulting fruit picked much later in the season.

Archaeological evidence for human caper consumption dates back as far as 10,000 years, according to archaeological findings from Mesolithic soil deposits in Syria and late Stone Age cave dwellings in Greece and Israel.

Multiple health benefits proposed

Pickled capers are common in Mediterranean cuisine, where they provide a salty tang and decorative flair to a variety of meats, salads, pastas and other foods. Apart from the culinary benefits, capers may also have beneficial health effects. Too good to be true, read on and all will be revealed.

Actually, capers have traditionally been used as a folk medicine for hundreds if not thousands of years. True or false, it has been proposed that capers have anti-bacterial, anti-carcinogenic, analgesic, and anti-inflammatory properties. It has also been suggested that capers might strengthen capillaries and inhibits platelet clump formation in blood vessels, relieve rheumatic pain and act as an appetite stimulant. Sounds like a bit much. However, evidence for their efficacy is in some cases supported by clinical findings but as it is often purely anecdotal we need more proof.

Let’s untangle this a bit

It is well known that capers are rich in flavonoid compounds including rutin and quercetin. During the common pickling process of the capers, rutin is further converted to quercetin. This makes pickled capers the richest natural source of quercetin with reported maximum concentrations of 520 mg/100 g. Mechanistically, quercetin has been shown to exert antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anticancer activities in a number of cellular and animal models, as well as in humans through modulating the signalling pathways and gene expression involved in these processes.

And now new research from the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine has found that quercetin activates proteins required for normal human brain and heart activity. Specifically, the researchers discovered that quercetin modulates potassium ion channels in the KCNQ gene family. These channels are highly influential in human health and their dysfunction is linked to several common human diseases, including diabetes, cardiac arrhythmia, and epilepsy.

The study revealed that quercetin modulates the KCNQ channels by directly regulating how they sense electrical activity in the cell. In doing so, it tricks the channel into opening when it would normally be closed. Increasing the activity of KCNQ channels in different parts of the body is potentially highly beneficial, suggesting a previously unexpected mechanism for the therapeutic properties of capers.

Alternative sources of quercetin

So now we know that capers are actually good for our health. Capers are also low in calories and high in vitamins and minerals. Unfortunately, they are also high in salt thanks to the way they’re preserved. As they’re bitter on their own, capers are stored in brine or packed in salt. If you’re watching your salt intake that’s worth bearing in mind.

However, don’t despair as there are alternative sources of quercetin. It is found in many fruits, vegetables, leaves, seeds, and grains. Red onions and kale are common foods containing appreciable amounts of quercetin.

So you just have to dig in.

Red wine and/or exercise – your choice

Deteriorating brain function is the bane of getting old. The most severe and debilitating form of cognitive decline is the development of dementia, a collective term used to describe various symptoms of cognitive decline, such as forgetfulness. The estimated proportion of the general population aged 60 and over with dementia at a given time is between 5-8%.

Dementia is not a single disease in itself, but a general term to describe symptoms of impairment in memory, communication, and thinking. Although it mostly affects older people, it is not necessarily a normal part of ageing as it can be influenced by lifestyle factors.

Boosting brain function

Sure, a regular glass of red wine has been shown to have the ability to improve cognitive function as we age. We covered this in detail in a previous blog. But so does regular exercise. Exercise has a broad range of beneficial healthful effects.

A new study published on 9 July 2020 tested the hypothesis that it might be possible to reverse brain ageing through systemic interventions such as exercise. The scientists from the University of California tested whether the beneficial effects of exercise on cognition in aged mice could be transferred in plasma from one mouse to another. Indeed, plasma from young or old mice that had exercised when transferred to other aged mice showed beneficial effects in their brains even if they had not exercised.

How is this possible?

To discover what specific biological factors in the blood might be behind these effects, the amounts of different soluble proteins in the blood of active versus sedentary mice were measured. After some intensive search, the scientists identified the enzyme glycosylphosphatidylinositol-specific phospholipase D1 (Gpld1) as a factor in plasma that might mediate this favourable effect.

Gpld1 is produced by the liver. The team found that Gpld1 increases in the blood circulation of mice following exercise, and that Gpld1 levels correlate closely with improvements in the animals’ cognitive performance.

And not only in rats!

Analysis of previously collected human data showed that Gpld1 is also elevated in the blood of healthy, active elderly adults compared to less active elders.

To test whether Gpld1 itself could drive the observed benefits of exercise, the researchers used genetic engineering to coax the livers of aged mice to produce extra Gpld1, and measured various aspects of cognition and memory. They found that three weeks of the treatment produced similar beneficial cognitive effects as six weeks of regular exercise.

The scientists are now working to better understand precisely how Gpld1 interacts with other biochemical signalling systems to produce its brain-boosting effects (as it doesn’t pass the blood/brain barrier). The hope is to be able to identify specific targets for a future food supplement with Gpld1 that could one day confer many of the protective benefits of exercise for the frail.

So what’s your choice?

So now there is a choice, red wine or exercise or maybe both to retain good cognitive function.

But the question is how much exercise is needed to get the optimal benefit. Would the recommended 10,000 steps a day be sufficient and would a glass of red wine add to the benefit?

Or, horror, would the liver be too busy to metabolise the alcohol from the red wine to have time to also produce the Gpld1?

I want to know more!

Alcohol and brain function in old age

Let’s get this out of the way at the start. It is clear that alcohol misuse is a leading cause of morbidity and mortality. As an example, binge drinking has been shown to lead to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.

But what about lower level alcohol consumption?

Some previous studies have reported that low to moderate alcohol consumption show benefits to cognitive function. However, others have found no, minimal, or even adverse effects associated with alcohol consumption.

So what to believe?

Association studies are difficult to interpret correctly as most effects studied are multifactorial and vary over time. In particular, a one time measurement can easily be misleading as the time factor is disregarded.

To overcome this challenge, a study published in June 2020 by researchers from the University of Georgia used repeated measurements of health and lifestyle, including questions on drinking habits, in a group of almost 20,000 middle-aged and older participants over a ten-year period.

The participants had their cognitive function measured in a series of tests looking at their overall mental status, word recall and vocabulary. The test results were combined to form a total cognitive score.

And the good news – light to moderate drinking may preserve brain function in older age.

Compared to nondrinkers, those who had a drink or two a day tended to perform better on cognitive tests over time. The optimal amount of drinks per week was between 10 and 14 drinks.

Even when other important factors known to impact cognition such as age, smoking or education level were controlled for, they saw a pattern of light drinking associated with better cognitive function.

The debate will continue

The debate is clearly not over about potential benefits of moderate alcohol consumption. We have written about the balance of the good and bad of alcohol consumption before.

For a while it looked like the fact that regular, moderate alcohol consumption had been shown to promote heart health was settled. And then came another review of previously published research questioning this conclusion.

Several studies pointed to similar protective benefits of moderate alcohol consumption for brain health. And then a systematic review of existing literature on alcohol consumption concluded that there seemed to be no safe level of drinking alcohol.

Believe what you will, but at my age I will cling to the latest findings as it seems to be a solid design of the study.

The benefits of red onions

During the current doom and gloom we need to be cheered up with some positive news. And should you read this when a vaccine has disarmed the coronavirus causing the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and governments around the world have taken the necessary actions to limit global warming to 1.5ºC, well, you might still appreciate some good news. 

So here goes.

Multiple health benefits

The next time you go shopping you might reach for red onions. Onions belong to the Allium family of plants, which also includes chives, garlic, and leeks. Farmers have cultivated Allium vegetables for millennia. These vegetables have characteristic pungent flavours and some beneficial medicinal properties. The benefits among many include a reduction of the risk of several types of cancer, improving mood, and maintaining skin and hair health.

Looking back in time, ancient medical texts from Egypt, Greece, Rome, China, and India all cite therapeutic applications for Allium vegetables.

Contemporary studies confirm the early findings. One review from 2015 found a general relationship between an increased consumption of Allium vegetables and a reduced risk of cancer, especially cancers of the stomach and gastrointestinal tract.

Such a relationship was further supported by a 2019 Chinese study that compared 833 people with colorectal cancer with 833 people who did not have the disease. The researchers found that the risk of colorectal cancer was 79% lower in those who regularly consumed Allium vegetables, such as onions.

Experts do not fully understand the exact mechanism by which some compounds in onions inhibit cancer. There are compounds called organosulfurs in onions, some of which have been shown to suppress aspects of tumour growth. However, further research is necessary to confirm which compounds in onion have protective effects against cancer.

But there is more

A wide range of further beneficial effects have also been proven. Different biological properties, such as antioxidant, antimicrobial and anti-diabetic activities, have been reported.

Not surprising as onions are nutrient-dense. One medium onion has just 44 calories but delivers a considerable dose of vitamins, minerals and fibre.

As a good source of vitamin C, onions may support the building and maintenance of collagen. Collagen provides structure to skin and hair.

A 2014 review found that among various activities of Allium vegetables, regulation of hypoglycaemic activity is considered important in helping to control diabetes. Sulfur compounds including S-methylcysteine and flavonoids such as quercetin are mainly responsible for the hypoglycaemic activity. S-methylcysteine and flavonoids help to decrease the levels of blood glucose, serum lipids, oxidative stress and lipid peroxidation, as well as increasing antioxidant enzyme activity and insulin secretion. 

2019 review found that quercetin, a compound in onion skin, had links to lower blood pressure when the researchers extracted it and administered it as a supplement.

Somewhat surprisingly onions have been shown to be able to fight potentially dangerous bacteria, such as Escherichia coliPseudomonas aeruginosaStaphylococcus aureus and Bacillus cereus.

Onions are also rich in B vitamins, including folate (B9) and pyridoxine (B6) playing key roles in metabolism, red blood cell production and nerve function.

Lastly, they’re a good source of potassium, a mineral in which many people are lacking.

I hope you’re convinced by now.

So why red onions?

Any Allium vegetable would do but there is something special with the red colour of red onions.

A Canadian study revealed that the red onion not only has high levels of quercetin, but also high amounts of anthocyanin, which enriches the scavenging properties of quercetin molecules. Anthocyanin is instrumental in providing colour to fruits and vegetables so it makes sense that the red onions, which are darkest in colour, would have the most cancer-fighting power.

There are plenty more benefits associated with Allium vegetables, but this is it for now as I’m off to buy some red onions.

Not all “bad” cholesterol is equally bad

Cholesterol is essential for all animal life with a typical adult human body containing about 35 g. It is an essential structural component of animal cell membranes and a precursor molecule for all steroid hormones and vitamin D. About one gram is synthesised by the cells of the body per day, while some is excreted through the liver.

Cholesterol is transported in blood bound to proteins called lipoproteins. There are two types of lipoproteins – low-density lipoproteins or LDL and high-density lipoproteins or HDL. Cholesterol bound to LDLs is often called the bad cholesterol and when bound to HDLs the good cholesterol.

Most of us know that high levels of LDL cholesterol can narrow the insides of blood vessels by forming plaques on their walls, thus restricting blood flow. This increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. HDL on the other hand carries the cholesterol to the liver. The liver then flushes it from the body, thus decreasing the risk for heart disease and stroke.

Sounds simple enough? Sorry, time to think again as it is more complicated than that.

Different subclasses of LDL

Contrary to normal wisdom, it has been shown that about 75 percent of patients who suffer heart attacks have total LDL levels that give no indication of cardiovascular risk. What’s going on?

Well, let’s complicate things a little bit.

It has been known since the early 1950s that LDLs comprise of three major subclasses, with particles of different sizes and densities. Subclass A contains more of the larger and less dense LDL particles; subclass I comprises an intermediate group; and finally, subclass B with smaller and denser LDL particles.

It has previously been shown that small and dense LDL is strongly associated with increased cardiovascular risk.

Now new research studying the molecular effect of the different LDL subclasses on blood vessel endothelium has confirmed that of the three subclasses that comprise LDL, only one causes significant damage. LDL subclass B was found to be the most damaging to endothelial function and contributed the most to the development of plaques. Therefore, it’s not the total amount of LDL cholesterol, but rather the concentration of subclass B to the other two, subclass A and subclass I, that should be used to diagnose the risk of heart attack.

However, don’t worry too much about the LDL subclasses as they are more of a diagnostic tool at this time.

Reasons for high levels of bad cholesterol

Let’s make clear from the beginning that most of our circulating cholesterol is actually formed by our own body and genetically determined. So we can blame our parents. However, environmental factors, in particular diet and exercise, appear to also be able to influence the expression of LDL subclasses. 

It was once thought that eating too much of cholesterol-rich foods (such as eggs) was the main cause of high cholesterol. Sure, some foods are high in cholesterol, but indulging in such foods has little influence on our blood levels of cholesterol as such.

Although typical daily cholesterol dietary intake might be around 300 mg, most ingested cholesterol is esterified and poorly absorbed by the gut. The body also compensates for absorption of ingested cholesterol by reducing its own cholesterol synthesis. For these reasons, cholesterol in food has little, if any, effect on long-term concentrations of cholesterol in the blood.

On the other hand, eating too much of foods high in saturated fats is more of a problem, and this has more impact on blood cholesterol levels. The principle mechanism by which saturated fat intake can influence LDL cholesterol is via decreased LDL receptor activity, which in turn decreases liver clearance and excretion of LDL cholesterol.

Mono- or poly-unsaturated fats have the opposite effect, increasing LDL receptor activity and turn-over of LDL cholesterol.

So what can you do?

People with high levels of LDL cholesterol may thus be able to reduce their cholesterol levels by:

  • Limiting foods that have a high saturated fat content (such as many biscuits, cakes and fatty take-away foods)
  • Replacing saturated fats in the diet with mono- or poly-unsaturated fats found in nuts, avocados and oily fish

It is also useful to include more fibre-rich foods in the diet such as fruit, vegetables and wholegrain bread and cereals.

Remember to keep active as it is also an important part of keeping cholesterol levels healthy.

Eating foods enriched with plant sterols has been proven to lower cholesterol levels by up to 10 percent.

Equally, cholesterol-lowering medication has a similar effect and might be necessary if lifestyle changes are not sufficient to reach a desirable cholesterol level. Statin drugs targets the first 18 steps of a complex 37-step process in the formation of cholesterol.

Dark chocolate or red wine?

Of course I would like to believe the scientists who claim that eating dark chocolate positively affects our wellbeing and that drinking moderate amounts of red wine improve our health. I like both dark chocolate and red wine and sometimes together to get a double wellness whammy. What’s not to like?

Question is are the scientists actually right? We have written numerous posts about claimed superfoods doing wonders to our health when it is actually the overall diet that is most important, not the individual components as such. Sure we have also fallen into the trap of praising some individual foods as the popular press did this time for fashionable dark chocolate and red wine. Even scientists want to get some attention.

Dark chocolate and health

Let’s start with reviewing the dark chocolate findings. Scientists from the University College London, the University of Calgary and Alberta Health Services Canada assessed data from 13,626 adults from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Daily chocolate consumption and type of chocolate was assessed against scores on the Patient Health Questionnaire, which assesses depressive symptoms.

As usual, a range of other factors including height, weight, marital status, ethnicity, education, household income, physical activity, smoking and chronic health problems were taken into account to ensure the study only measured chocolate’s effect on depressive symptoms. Overall, 11.1% of the population reported any chocolate consumption, with 1.4% reporting dark chocolate consumption.

The scientists found that eating dark chocolate positively affected mood and relieved depressive symptoms. As a matter of fact, individuals eating any amount of dark chocolate had 70% lower odds of reporting clinically relevant depressive symptoms than those who reported not eating chocolate at all.

So far so good!

Woman smile

To be believable it is important to find a biological mechanism that can explain the results. And there are several. Chocolate contains a number of psychoactive ingredients which produce a feeling of euphoria and phenylethylamine which is believed to be important for regulating people’s moods. Also, dark chocolate in particular has a higher concentration of flavonoids, antioxidant polyphenols that have been shown to improve inflammation and play a role in the onset of depression.

Another strength of the study is that daily chocolate consumption was derived from two 24‐hour dietary recalls and not from much more dubious food frequency questionnaires that are so common.

And the bad!

Although the study included a large overall sample, there were less than 200 individuals that reported dark chocolate consumption. There could also be other confounding factors not taken into account.

There is some caution expressed by the scientists themselves claiming that further research is required to clarify causation. It could be the case that depression causes people to lose their interest in eating chocolate, or there could be other factors that make people both less likely to eat dark chocolate and to be depressed.

What about red wine and health?

Scientists at King’s College, London have reported that red wine consumption could be linked to better gut health. The study included a group of 916 female twins and tested the effects of consuming beer, cider, red wine, white wine and spirits on the gut microbiome, the micro-organisms found in the digestive tract.

And compared to other alcoholic drinks they found that the gut microbiome of red wine drinkers was more diverse – a sign of better gut health. The researchers speculated that the positive effect of red wine could be due to its higher amount of chemicals called polyphenols that act as antioxidants.

So what to say!

Well, this could be a big thing.

We know that our gut microbiota can affect multiple aspects of our general health and play a role in many illnesses. As a matter of fact, gut microbes are responsible for producing thousands of chemical metabolites affecting our overall metabolism, our immune system and our brain.

We have long known of the unexplained benefits of red wine on heart health. The study findings that moderate red wine consumption is associated with greater diversity and a healthier gut microbiome could at least partly explain its beneficial effects on heart health.

And there is more

As a check on possible genetic or family biases, the scientists found that the twin who drank red wine more often than the related twin had a more diverse gut flora. White wine drinkers who should be socially and culturally similar, had no significant differences in diversity.

Also, in further support of the findings they were shown to be consistent with results from two other studies of similar size in the US (the American Gut project) and Belgium (Flemish Gut Project) basing the conclusions on a total of about 3000 twins.

And in a previous experimental Spanish study from 2012, admittedly involving only ten healthy middle-aged males, the volunteers were given one of three different beverages to drink each day in each of three 20-day periods: normal strength red wine, low alcoholic red wine and gin. Drinking any type of red wine resulted in a larger percent of certain beneficial gut bacteria, but consuming gin had no effect on the gut flora.

So all good?

Not so fast.

Note that again the main study was observational and not experimental and the previous experimental study was very small. The study subjects in the observational study self-reported their food and drink intake with the usual associated bias. The scientists then prospectively tried to statistically link the reported alcoholic drink consumption with test results from the gut microbial analysis. Using twins strengthens the findings but doesn’t conclusively show causality.

There are the usual professional warning that the positives should still be weighed up against the negative impacts of alcohol. Any potential benefits of red wine polyphenols should be considered alongside alcohol’s links to over 200 health conditions, including heart disease and cancers.

But the beneficial effects were achieved by a very moderate glass of red wine a week or even a fortnight.

The moral of the story

If you’re going to eat chocolate pick the dark variety and you will not only have an enjoyable time but you might also be happier.

And the same goes for alcohol consumption. Drink in moderation and pick red wine and the resulting happiness might also be associated with improved health.

Also remember that the beneficial polyphenols found in dark chocolate and red wine can also be found in a range of other foods.

Filmjölk’s health benefits

In a previous post we covered fraudulent milk products being at the top of food cheating. Today we turn it around by covering the health benefits of consuming filmjölk. Never heard of filmjölk? Just read on.

First you need to know that people in Scandinavian countries are masters of food preservation because of the historic need to guarantee food supply during harsh winters. By necessity a range of cultured, naturally fermented foods were born. They include gravlax, pickled herring, cheeses and sourdough breads, pickled beetroot and, of course, filmjölk.

Filmjölk is similar to cultured buttermilk or kefir in consistency but is not the same as it is a unique product. It is sometimes translated as “sour milk” but there is a wide range of such products. So in the absence of an official English translation the name filmjölk or filmjolk is getting international tracking.

Different varieties of filmjölk are commonly found in the Scandinavian countries, but are also popular in neighbouring Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Somewhat surprisingly, filmjölk has found its way into supermarkets in the USA, the United Kingdom and Australia.

How is it produced

Commercial filmjölk is made from pasteurised, homogenised, and standardised cow’s milk by fermenting the milk with a variety of bacteria from the species Lactococcus lactis and Leuconostoc mesenteroides. The bacteria metabolise lactose into lactic acid so filmjölk is easier to digest if you are lactose intolerant. The acid gives filmjölk a sour taste and causes proteins in the milk to coagulate, thus thickening the product. The bacteria also produce a limited amount of diacetyl, a compound with a buttery flavour, which gives filmjölk its characteristic taste.

Prior to the commercial production of filmjölk, many families made their own filmjölk at home. A filmjölk-like product has probably been around since the Viking Age or longer. Nowadays it is possible to buy the bacterial cultures to make your own filmjölk if you want to.

Potential health benefits of filmjölk

The bacteria in filmjölk produce folic acid, an important vitamin for the development of growing cells. Filmjölk is also high in lactic acid, which is known to improve the nutritional value of food, and may alleviate intestinal infections and improve the digestion of lactose. 

Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that when consumed confer health benefits on humans. Particular probiotic versions of filmjölk on the market usually add various strains of Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium lactis.

Probiotic foods have gained a lot of attention in both research and mainstream media lately. There has been a huge growth in interest in probiotic products over the last decades around the world. There is a growing body of evidence to support their importance in our diet; both to treat and prevent specific diseases and as part of a healthy diet. 

Possible benefits include:

  • improving heart health
  • counteracting lactose intolerance
  • increasing iron levels in the blood
  • lowering the risk of yeast infections
  • improving the symptoms of diarrhea and constipation
  • reducing cholesterol levels
  • boosting the immune system
  • reducing the symptoms of certain allergies
  • fighting inflammation

An impressive list should it be true. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has evaluated several claims in relation to probiotic foods. In 2011, it agreed that certain probiotic strains could assist in the digestion of lactose. Other applications for health claims on probiotics have been submitted for evaluation to EFSA but no further application has received a positive opinion. 

What to believe

Unfortunately, many of the positive health effects of probiotics are strain-specific, which is one of the reasons these effects are so complicated to evaluate. A “strain” refers to a specific group within a species and there are often many such strains.

This strain specificity of probiotic properties has made research into the health benefits of probiotics and labelling of probiotic microbes much more difficult.

But why worry about that? Irrespective of the belief in potential health benefits you can enjoy filmjölk just for the taste of it. With some unspecified health benefits on the side.

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.