Watch out for milk thistle!

milkthistleMilk thistle is a flowering herb related to the daisy and ragweed family. It is native to Mediterranean countries. It’s ironic that milk thistle is used as a dietary supplement often taken to help protect the liver, while it can be contaminated by high levels of mycotoxins that are potentially harmful to the liver.

This has again been confirmed by a recent report by the European Food Safety Authority looking at the presence of the two mycotoxins T2 and HT2 in the diet. They found that milk thistle contained about five times higher levels of the two mycotoxins than any other product tested, with 220 µg/kg (T2) and 370 µg/kg (HT2) on average for milk thistle compared to oats with 40 µg/kg (T2) and 90 µg/kg, the second highest contaminated product.

And it is not the first time that a dietary supplement of some sort is at the top of the contamination table for a range of harmful compounds. And still people take them to improve their health. What’s wrong?

A little bit of background

Milk thistle is a plant also known as Chardon de Marie, Holy Thistle, Lady’s Thistle, Lait de Notre-Dame, Marian Thistle, Mariendistel, Mary Thistle, Shui Fei Ji, Silibinin, and many other names (in case you are looking for it).

Silymarin is the main active ingredient in milk thistle. Silymarin is both an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. But it is unclear what benefits, if any, silymarin may have in the body.

Irrespective of clear proof of any beneficial effects, milk thistle has been used in alternative medicine as a possibly effective aid in treating heartburn, or seasonal allergy symptoms. Other uses not proven with research have included treatment for malaria, mushroom poisoning, spleen or gallbladder problems, menstrual problems, liver problems, and other conditions.

Milkthistle-supplementThere is not enough scientific evidence to say whether or not milk thistle can help liver problems. Some early research suggests milk thistle may aid people with alcohol-related liver disease. Other studies show no improvement in liver function in this group of people.

Some studies also show milk thistle may offer a possible benefit for people whose liver is damaged by industrial toxins, such as toluene and xylene.

However, more information is needed before it is possible to say that milk thistle actually benefits the liver.

Thus, let’s be clear that medicinal use of milk thistle compounds has not yet been supported by any regulatory authority. Still they are in common use all over the world.

Possible effect of mycotoxin contamination

Contamination of milk thistle with T2 and HT2 toxins have been reported from several parts of the world. T2 toxin and its deacetylated form HT2 toxin are members of the large family of trichothecenes. Fusarium species are the predominant moulds that invade cereal crops and produce T2 and HT2 under cool and moist conditions. Similar to most trichothecenes, T2 and HT2 not only inhibit protein synthesis and cell proliferation in plants, but also cause acute or chronic intoxication of humans and animals.

Toxic effects include growth retardation, myelotoxicity, hematotoxicity, and necrotic lesions on contact sites.

And this can be serious business.

Alimentary toxic aleukia (in simple terms a decrease in important white blood cells), a disease which is caused by trichothecenes, killed many thousands of USSR citizens in the Orenburg District in the 1940s. It was reported that the mortality rate was 10% of the entire population in that area.

During the 1970s it was proposed that the consumption of contaminated food was the cause of this mass poisoning. Because of World War II, harvesting of grains was delayed and food was scarce in Russia. This resulted in the consumption of grain that was contaminated with Fusarium moulds, which produced the two mycotoxins.

So what to do?

As for many dietary supplements it is probably best to stay away at least until any beneficial effect has been finally proven. There is also very little official oversight of the composition of any dietary supplement product. It has been proven again and again that they might contain several other compounds than what is declared on the label. Some that are themselves directly toxic.

So don’t gamble with your health!

Advertisements

Going nuts!

Sorry about the title. I couldn’t resist as going nuts seems to provide quite a few health benefits. Nothing completely new, but recently published scientific findings strengthen the case for the benefits of eating nuts. All in moderation of course.

The week started with news that eating almonds on a regular basis may help boost levels of the good (high-density lipoprotein or HDL) cholesterol while also improving the way cholesterol is removed from the body.

And it ended with news of a new brain imaging study showing that consuming walnuts activates an area in the brain associated with regulating hunger and food cravings, thus discouraging overeating by promoting feelings of fullness.

The goodness of almonds

almonds2It has previously been shown that a diet that includes almonds lowers the bad (low-density lipoprotein or LDL) cholesterol, which is a major risk factor for heart disease. But not as much was known about how almonds affect HDL cholesterol, which helps lower the risk of heart disease.

HDL is like a garbage bag that slowly gets bigger and more spherical as it gathers cholesterol molecules from cells and tissues before depositing them in the liver to be broken down and excreted.

The researchers wanted to see if almonds could not just increase the levels but also improve the function of HDL cholesterol.

In a clever trial researchers found that HDL cholesterol levels and functionality improved when participants received 43 grams – about a handful – of almonds a day compared to when the same participants ate a banana muffin instead.

This should reduce the risk of heart disease and in addition almonds also provide a dose of good fats, vitamin E and fibre that might improve health, with the caveat that the research was supported by the Almond Board of California.

The goodness of walnuts

walnuts2Walnuts are not far behind almonds as they too are packed with nutrients linked to better health. Not being enough, it was also previously known that people reported feeling fuller after eating walnuts although not necessarily why.

Now to determine exactly how walnuts stop food cravings scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe how walnuts could change activity in the brain.

During one five-day session, volunteers consumed daily smoothies containing 48 grams of walnuts and during a separate session they received a walnut-free but nutritionally comparable placebo smoothie, flavoured to taste exactly the same as the walnut-containing smoothie. The order of the two sessions was random.

As in previous observational studies, participants reported feeling less hungry during the week they consumed walnut-containing smoothies than during the week they were given the placebo smoothies. And fMRI tests administered on the fifth day of the experiment revealed for the first time details of the neurocognitive impact these nuts have on the brain.

When participants were shown pictures of highly desirable foods, fMRI imaging revealed increased activity in a part of the brain called the right insula after participants had consumed the five-day walnut-rich diet compared to when they had not.

As this area of the insula is likely involved in cognitive control and salience, it meant that participants were paying more attention to food choices and selecting the less desirable but healthier options over the highly desirable but less healthy options.

But again you should know that this study was supported by commercial interest, this time the California Walnut Commission.

Be careful with the calories

So good news on all fronts but how to handle this information? Binge on almonds and walnuts every day?

Well, it may pay off to be a bit careful with the calorie intake as eating a handful each of both almonds and walnuts in the same day would equate to eating two banana muffins daily. And not many nutritionists would recommend that.

Vegemite in the spotlight

At it again, are they? That is public health scientists trying to find correlations between individual food items and a positive or negative health impact. Often negative effects unless the research is sponsored by the food manufacturing company.

In this case we don’t know as the research doesn’t seem to be published yet, but the findings were anyway released to the press. And to be fair they got a lot of publicity, at least in Australia, so good on them.

We are talking about yeast-based spreads.

yeast-extracts

Vegemite is the yeast-based spread of choice in Australia. It is a thick, black food spread made from leftover brewers’ yeast extract, thus rich in B vitamins. It is supplemented with various vegetables and spices to make it more appetising. It was developed in Melbourne, Victoria and has been around commercially since 1923. It is salty, slightly bitter, malty with a taste of beef bouillon. Vegemite is similar to the British, New Zealand and South African Marmite, the German Vitam-R and the Swiss Cenovis. As it is so popular in Australia there are several competing products like Promite, MightyMite, AussieMite and OzEmite.

A market survey from 2014 found that an astonishing 7,550,000 Australians ate one of the iconic yeast-based spreads once a week.

And it might be good for you

Now new research has found beneficial health effects in people who eat the vitamin B-containing spreads.

But there are several caveats. The study involved only 520 people split across three countries: Australia, New Zealand and the UK. It was conducted over the internet with the normal vagaries of such studies. The survey participants were asked how often they consumed yeast-based spreads, which products, and how long they’ve eaten them for.

Importantly, the survey also asked participants about their dietary and lifestyle habits as well as their current mental and emotional state, information not easy to capture accurately.

And the press release didn’t mention how the detailed consumption information was handled in relation to the beneficial effects.

But here is the interesting part.

stress2

Anyway, believe it or not, people who ate yeast-based spreads expressed lower levels of anxiety and stress compared to those who ate none, and even more astonishingly those who consumed spreads containing B12 were even less stressed and anxious than those who used the other brands.

As each spread varied in levels of B vitamins – including B1, B2, B3, B9 and B12 – it is important to note the finding that those containing B12, like Marmite, MightyMite, AussieMite and the newer salt-reduced Vegemite, but not the original Vegemite, were most effective.

Is this a joke or what?

Well, even the scientists advised that the survey results do not prove that the spread improved mental health as it may be something else going on in the lives of the survey participants.

So true.

They certainly stressed that they would like to investigate their findings further by carrying out randomised control trials with yeast spreads to see if they can improve depression and anxiety in people.

Not complete pie in the sky science

Actually there is some basis for the hypothesis proposed by the scientists. B vitamins are essential in keeping our bodies energised and in regulating the nervous system. A previous Australian study was suggestive of significant decreases in the experience of workplace stress after 90 day supplementation with a B multivitamin.

After individual differences in personality and work demands were statistically controlled, the vitamin B treatment groups reported significantly lower personal strain and a reduction in confusion and depressed/dejected mood, but this did not cover all mood swings.

And there are a few other studies with similar results.

So what can we learn from the findings?

Animal_foods

It is clear that yeast extracts contain some of the world’s richest sources of B vitamins. And it is also clear that B vitamins are essential in assisting some of our important bodily functions.

Even so, I have to say that I prefer not to belong to the “happy little Vegemite” group, as the advertising jingle promotes, as I cannot stand the taste.

And there are many other sources of B vitamins. They can be found naturally in animal products including fish, poultry, meat, eggs and dairy, as well as whole grains, walnuts, soy and rice milk.

 

I’d love to believe

1024x1024 mobile phone wallpapers download - www.wallpaper-mobile.com

Red wine benefits?

I’d love to believe that the resveratrol in red wine possesses a range of health benefits including anti-cancer effects, anti-inflammatory effects, cardiovascular benefits, anti-diabetes potential and protection against Alzheimer’s. Thus good for all adult ages. A glass of wine a day might keep the doctor away.

But it might be wishful thinking. It is true that resveratrol can inhibit growth of cancer cells in a culture and in some animal models, but it is not known whether it can prevent cancer in humans. It has increased the lifespans of yeast, worms, fruit flies, fish, and mice fed a high-calorie diet, but again this has not been shown in humans. So the brutal truth is probably that the amount of resveratrol in red wine is too small to have any measurable beneficial effects in humans.

But we can still believe!

whiskybottle

Whisky benefits?

I’d love to believe that the ellagic acid content of whisky actually can reduce oxidative stress. Ellagic acid has been shown to have antiproliferative and antioxidant properties in a number of in vitro and small-animal models. It may directly inhibit the DNA binding of certain carcinogens, and it has a chemoprotective effect in cellular models.

But again it might be too good to be true. Ellagic acid has been marketed as a dietary supplement with a range of claimed benefits against cancer, heart disease, and other medical problems. In 2008, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration called it a fake cancer ‘cure’ consumers should avoid. So not much luck there.

But we can still believe!

It might actually be premature to give up red wine and whisky completely. As antioxidants, like resveratrol and ellagic acid, are additive any contribution is useful. Complement the spirits with plenty of berries, dark green vegetables and nuts and you will not go wrong. Red wine and whisky will be outdone on the health front, but so what.

But there is more…

chilipeppers

Red chilli pepper benefits?

I’d also very much love to believe the latest reports that consumption of hot red chilli peppers can reduce deaths due to heart disease or stroke. Going back for centuries, peppers and spices have been thought to be beneficial in the treatment of many diseases. A new study using National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey (NHANES) III data collected from more than 16,000 Americans who were followed for up to 23 years, found that hot red chilli pepper consumption decreased mortality by 13%.

But unfortunately the findings, widely published by the popular press, are based solely on epidemiological data. Exploring epidemiological data, even if prospective in nature, is fraught with obstacles. The authors themselves point out that given the observational nature of the investigation, causality can only be suggested, not confirmed.

However, on the bright side there is some support for the findings in a theory that capsaicin in chilli peppers can influence cellular and molecular mechanisms that prevent obesity and modulate coronary blood flow, and also possesses antimicrobial properties that may alter the gut microbiota.

In a sign of our desperate need to find some beneficial news the popular press was inundated by citations of the positive findings. Some examples:

  • “Can eating spicy food lead to a longer life? Chili peppers could be the secret” says National Post.
  • “Spicy food could be the secret to a healthy heart and a longer life, says new study” says The Telegraph.
  • “This Is Your Body On Spicy Foods” says The Huffington Post.
  • “Eat Peppers, Live Longer?” says New York Times.
  • “Red hot chilli peppers: the way to a longer life?” says The Sydney Morning Herald.

If you’re on to a good thing the press will pick it up. Doesn’t mean it’s true though. But we can still believe!

Magical dietary fibres

hamburger_(Tony_Evans)

Dietary fibre can influence appetite (Photo: Tony Evans).

We have all heard the “eat more fibre” mantra and wondered what this is all about. So did scientists. Sure we have long known it is good for gut health and function. Recently with the exploration of the gut microbes – the microbiota – we have learnt that dietary fibre can support survival and growth of the good bugs. That we have written about before.

Now scientists have found another piece of the puzzle. Some of the fermentation products produced by the gut microbes from the dietary fibre that our own enzymes cannot digest have the potential to influence our appetite. That is incredible and provides a further insight into the obesity conundrum.

The new mechanism

Obesity is currently one of the most serious global threats to human health. Susceptibility to obesity is determined by genetic background, diet, and lifestyle. Now it has become apparent that the resident intestinal microbes in the large intestine also play an important role.  During the process of microbial fermentation of non-digestible fibre, the short-chain fatty acids acetate, propionate and butyrate are formed.

While short-chain fatty acids can serve as an energy source, the scientists showed that they also act as signaling molecules for the free fatty acid receptor 2 (FFAR2) found in enteroendocrine L cells in the large intestine. These specialised gut cells secrete the appetite suppressing hormone peptide YY (PYY). FFAR2 signaling was found to drive an expansion of the PYY cell population within the large intestine, leading to increased circulating PYY. This is associated with a reduction in food intake and protection against diet-induced obesity.

Evidence points to the production of short-chain fatty acids by the gut microbiota as an important appetite regulatory signal.

So what are fibres?

almonds

Almonds are good sources of dietary fibre.

Just to be clear, dietary fibre is the indigestible portion of food derived from plants. Chemically, dietary fibre consists of non-starch polysaccharides such as arabinoxylans, cellulose, and many other plant components such as resistant starch, resistant dextrins, inulin, lignin, chitins, pectins, beta-glucans, and oligosaccharides. Food sources of dietary fibre are often divided according to whether they provide predominantly soluble or insoluble fibre.

Soluble fibre is found in varying quantities in all plant foods, including in a range of legumes, in oats, rye, chia, and barley, in several fruits, in vegetables, in root tubers and in nuts, with almonds being the highest in dietary fibre.

Sources of insoluble fiber include whole grain foods, wheat and corn bran, legumes such as beans and peas, nuts and seeds and vegetables such as green beans, cauliflower, zucchini and celery.

So there you have a wide variety of healthy foods with the potential of reducing your hunger pangs and alleviate the risk of overweight and obesity.

More dietary fibre

microbiomeniaid

Beneficial bugs (Photo: NIAID)

Be kind to your intestinal flora and it will be kind to you in return. We are talking about the microbiome, the trillions of bugs in your large intestine living in symbiosis with you.

We have written about the microbiome before. All the good deeds the bugs can do if you just feed them the right raw material. And dietary fibre is the ideal food source to support the needs of the beneficial bugs.

The fibre gap

Insufficient nutrients for our gut bacteria have been linked to a loss of certain beneficial bacterial species in western societies and are likely impacting our immunological and metabolic health. Most westerners consume only half of the amount of dietary fibre recommended by dietary guidelines. Nutritionists refer to this as the “fibre gap,” and it is a problem because dietary fibre is the primary source of nutrition accessible to gut bacteria in humans.

Scientists have long promoted the importance of strategically increasing dietary fibre intake as one path forward in regaining gut microbial biodiversity. Although this advice is far from new, the now proven depletion of the microbiome with a fibre deficient diet adds a new perspective to the western diet that we are currently eating.

Comparative studies between rural communities from Africa and South America and industrialised western communities from Europe and North America have revealed specific adaptations of their microbiomes to their respective lifestyles. These adaptations include higher biodiversity and enrichment of Bacteroidetes and Actinobacteria in rural communities, and an overall reduction in microbial diversity and stability in western populations.

Restoring fibre intake can have immediate effects

Some scientists are concerned that a dramatic shift away from a diet similar to the one under which the human-microbiome symbiosis evolved is a key factor in the rise of non-communicable disorders like obesity. There is also a lot of epidemiological evidence that food products containing dietary fibre can help prevent the development of colon cancer and reduce the incidence of coronary heart disease.

It is clear that people living in non-industrialised societies have an average intake of fibre that is much higher than the low norms of western societies. In an experiment scientists compared the effects of a traditional South-African and a modern American diet.  Twenty South Africans gave up their corn porridge and vegetable stews for burgers and fries. And 20 Pittsburghians sacrificed fast food staples for the low-fat, high-fiber fare that South Africans traditionally eat that contained 55 grams of daily dietary fibre. Surprisingly, the Americans had improved markers for colon cancer already within two weeks, while the South Africans showed the opposite effects.

The good news is the finding that changes in the microbiome are largely reversible within a single generation if the fibre intake is increased. However, there are also bad news. With several generations on a fibre deficient diet a progressive loss of diversity is seen, which is not recoverable. So your children and children’s children will lack some of the beneficial microbial species, indicating that extinctions can occur in only a few generations.

Convinced yet?

Veggies

Eat more fibre-rich food

It is recommended to eat 25-30 grams of dietary fibres a day from a variety of foods rich in both insoluble and soluble fibre.

Foods higher in insoluble fibre include:

  • whole grain breads and cereals
  • the outer skins of fruit and vegetables
  • nuts and seeds
  • raw lentil, kidney beans and chickpeas

Foods higher in soluble fibre include:

  • fruits and vegetables
  • dried beans and lentils
  • oats

To help meet your daily dietary fibre requirements look at the below table from the Dietitians Association of Australia:

Food Fibre content
3/4 cup whole grain breakfast  cereal  4.5g
2 slices wholemeal bread 4.5g
1 apple (with skin) and 1 orange  5.5g
2 cups mixed raw vegetables 10g
1/4 cup legumes eg. baked beans 3g
Total 27.5g

A teaspoon of horseradish

Horseradish

Horseradish another superfood if you believe there are such foods.

Here we go again, another superfood. This time with cancer fighting properties. And the scientists say that a teaspoon is enough to achieve the beneficial effects. So what’s not to like?

Well, the pungent aroma and the bitter taste of the food in the first place. We are talking about glucosinolates found in a range of cruciferous vegetables, but in horseradish in particular.

And when the glucosinolates are activated some of the resulting compounds have proven to be protective against cancer. And that we like.

A bit of background

Glucosinolates are natural components of many pungent plants such as mustard, broccoli, cabbage, and yes horseradish. About 132 different glucosinolates are known to occur naturally in plants. As is common, these natural chemicals contribute to a plant’s defence against pests and diseases.

The pungent taste of those plants is due to mustard oils produced from glucosinolates when the plant material is chewed, cut, or otherwise damaged. The plants contain the enzyme myrosinase that is released during chewing and transforms the glucosinolate into mainly isothiocyanate (mustard oil), the active form. The myrosinase and glucosinolates are stored in separate compartments of the plant cells so not to damage the plant itself until chewed.

Glucosinolate type and quantity vary depending on the plant variety, although closely related taxonomic groups typically contain only a small number of the different compounds. Many reviews have addressed the occurrence of some glucosinolates in vegetables with a major focus on negative aspects, like antinutritional or goitrogenic effects. However, there is a positive side now getting increased attention represented by beneficial health properties of some other glucosinolates.

So what are the health benefits?

The metabolic activation of glucosinolates results in the formation of isothiocyanates that in turn have been found to inhibit the development of cancer in several organs in rats and mice, including the bladder, breast, colon, liver, lung, and stomach. Also human epidemiological studies suggest that isothiocyanates are protective against cancers of the lungs and alimentary tract. Studies in animals and experiments with cells grown in the laboratory have identified several potential ways in which these compounds may help prevent cancer by:

  • protecting cells from DNA damage
  • inactivating carcinogens
  • having antiviral and antibacterial effects
  • having anti-inflammatory effects
  • inducing cell death (apoptosis)
  • inhibiting tumor blood vessel formation and tumor metastases.

And now a research team has studied the effects of the glucosinolates present in horseradish. The researchers found different concentrations of allyl isothiocyanate (AITC) and  1-cyano 2,3-epithiopropane (CETP) depending on the horseradish variety. And AITC is the one you want. The team suggests that AITC is a good dietary anti-carcinogen, not only because it activates the enzyme responsible for detoxifying cancer-causing molecules, but also because a large proportion of it, 90%, is absorbed when ingested.

Getting sufficient protection

horseradish-prepared

A teaspoon of horseradish is beneficial to health.

Eating 3–4 portions of broccoli per week has previously been shown to provide a protective effects against certain cancers.

And now the researchers showed that horseradish contains approximately 10 times more glucosinolates than its superfood cousin, broccoli.

So your choice. You can eat 3-4 teaspoons of horseradish a week if you can stomach it, or you can replace each teaspoon by a portion of broccoli if that is more appetising. Or a range of other cruciferous vegetables.

Eating in moderation

Pizza size is all in the eye of the beholder (Photo: Valerio Capello).

Pizza size is all in the eye of the beholder (Photo: Valerio Capello).

In 1978, I visited the USA with two colleagues on a mission to study meat quality. After travelling by car for many hours to reach Texas we got very hungry and stopped at a pizza joint in Oklahoma. We had a choice of small, medium, large and very large pizzas. We settled on one medium each as one should eat in moderation, but huge pizzas each covering half of the table arrived. We couldn’t even eat half of the pizzas.

This highlights that there is no universal measure of eating in moderation.

What is moderation?

Eating in moderation seems to be practical advice for a healthy diet, but a new study suggests that it is an ineffective guide for losing or maintaining weight. The scientists found that the more people liked a food, the more flexible their definitions of moderation were. And who doesn’t like pizza?

Of course moderation is a relative term that doesn’t allow a clear, concise way to guide behaviour as people think of moderation through their own objective lens. They tend to exaggerate what moderation is based on individual perceptions. Frugal Scandinavians might see a five-slice pizza as a satisfying amount, while more generous Americans might desire a ten-slice pizza.

The scientists concluded that people do think of moderation as less than overeating, so it does suggest less consumption. But unfortunately they do think of it as more than what they should eat. So moderation is more forgiving of their desires. The study adds to the growing body of knowledge that suggests people are poor judges of the amounts of food they eat.

In a general backlash against dieting there are now entire healthy eating movements oriented toward the idea of moderation. But those movements assume people can actually be good judges of what they’re eating and what constitutes an appropriate amount, which they obviously are not.

So what to do?

Go for a smaller plate to reduce food intake.

Go for a smaller plate to reduce food intake and still be happy.

A recent Cochrane review of 69 food consumption intervention studies, published between 1978 and 2013, found that people consistently consumed more food and drink when offered larger-sized portions, packages or tableware than when offered smaller-sized versions. This is a little confusing and the researchers stated that the mechanisms underlying the “portion size effect” are not fully understood.

However, people generally perceive the amount served to them as representing an appropriate portion size and consume less when offered smaller portions and more when offered larger portions. The way in which food and drink is presented can also influence consumption. The size and shape of a plate or glass can alter perceptions of quantity and influence how much is consumed.

I repeat, the size of your plate seems to be important in how much you eat. And the size of your glass may influence how much you drink.

In support of this theory another study proved that a larger glass of wine — not the amount in the glass, but the size of the glass itself — might make you drink more. Researchers tracked purchases in a bar over 16 weeks, during which time different sizes of wine glasses were used, small (250 mL), standard (300 mL) or large (370 mL), while the serving of wine was kept at 175 mL. With larger glasses there was an almost 10% increase in wine consumption. It may be that larger glasses change our perceptions of the amount of wine, leading us to drink faster and order more.

Go for smaller tableware

Although it seems natural to eat less with reductions in the portion size presented, it is very interesting to notice the influence of the size of glasses and plates. The solution to overindulgence might be to reduce the size of your tableware. That could be quite helpful and easy to fix at home.

Dark chocolate’s beneficial deeds

Only dark chocolate is beneficial to health (Photo: André Karwath)

There are several different varieties of chocolate (Photo: André Karwath)

Having dealt with hazards in food during a lifetime, it is always nice to be able to look at the benefit side. We all need good news stories. However, even good news stories can be deceptive. There is much fuss made over what is called superfoods, while the overall diet is more important. And scientists test individual food components in isolation reporting highly beneficial effects in unrealistic animal experiments that have no relevance to real life. Resveratrol that can be found in red wine is supposed to be heart protective, but will require daily consumption of many bottles of wine to reach an effective dose.

But dark chocolate seems to be the real thing with normal consumption amounts sufficient to be beneficial to health.

Not all chocolates are the same

Chocolate is made from cocoa solids (cacao), mixed with fat (cocoa butter) and finely powdered sugar to produce a solid confectionery. There are several types of chocolate, dark, milk and white, classified according to the proportion of cocoa solids used in a particular formulation.

Dark chocolate, also known as “bittersweet” or “semisweet” chocolate, contains little or no added sugar, but plenty of antioxidant flavonoids that contribute to the dark colour. More flavonoids means darker chocolate.

Dark chocolate has already been hailed for its positive effects on cardiovascular health and can help lower blood pressure.

Milk chocolate is not a good antioxidant source as milk binds to antioxidants in chocolate making them unavailable.

White chocolate contains no cocoa solids at all and therefore is not a good source of antioxidants.

Let’s look at the details

Nitric oxide reduces blood pressure.

Dark chocolate increases the effect of nitric oxide in reducing blood pressure.

It is widely known that dietary nitrate leads to the substantial elevation of circulating nitrite, which is subsequently converted into bioactive nitric oxide. Bioactive nitric oxide relaxes blood vessels, increases glucose uptake and regulate muscular contraction. Dietary supplementation with nitrate rich beetroot juice has become increasingly popular in athletes and has consistently been shown to reduce oxygen demands during submaximal exercise allowing athletes to go further for longer.

Dark chocolate works a little differently. Cocoa beans contain a substance called epicatechin, a flavanol that releases vasoactive components from the endothelial cells in blood vessels increasing the bioavailability of nitric oxide. The increased bioavailability and activity of nitric oxide dilate blood vessels and increases blood flow, resulting in a reduction of blood pressure. Previous research have shown that as little as 6g per day can reduce mild hypertension, while around 40g per day can increase blood flow also in healthy patients.

Providing an edge

The previous findings have now been confirmed in a study undertaken at London’s Kingston University The scientists found that the tasty treat could help give sports enthusiasts an extra edge in their fitness training. They used a group of nine amateur cyclists. After undergoing initial fitness tests to establish a baseline for comparison, the participants were split into two groups. The first group was asked to replace one of its normal daily snacks with 40g of a dark chocolate for a fortnight, while the other participants substituted 40g of white chocolate for one of their daily snacks as a control.

The effects of the athletes’ daily chocolate consumption were then measured in a series of cycling exercise tests. The cyclists’ heart rates and oxygen consumption levels were measured during moderate exercise and in time trials. After a seven-day interval, the groups then switched chocolate types and the two-week trial and subsequent exercise tests were repeated.

After eating dark chocolate, the riders used less oxygen when cycling at a moderate pace and also covered more distance in a two-minute flat-out time trial.

All good news.

Benefits confirmed by EFSA

Only dark chocolate is beneficial to health (Photo: Simon A. Eugster)

Only dark chocolate is beneficial to health (Photo: Simon A. Eugster)

And the beneficial effects have been confirmed by the European Food Safety Authority.

The Belgian chocolate manufacturer, Barry Callebaut, has exclusive use of an existing authorised claim stating that cocoa flavanols “help maintain the elasticity of blood vessels, which contributes to normal blood flow”. The authorised conditions of use require the product label to state that 200mg of cocoa flavanols are needed for the beneficial effect. The current claim can only be used for cocoa beverages with cocoa powder or for dark chocolate which provides at least a daily intake of 200mg of cocoa flavanols.

There has been concern that authorising claims on products such as chocolate could encourage over-consumption. However, the EFSA Opinion states that the amount required for the effect can be eaten within the context of a balanced diet.

So as long as you keep within your normal calorie intake level, feel no guilt when indulging in some dark chocolate.

Wholegrain or no grain?

BX found in rye grains and other wholegrains.

We have a dilemma. On the one hand science tells us that wholegrains are good for us and particularly for gut health, on the other pseudoscience says that grains were not part of our ancestors diet and should be avoided. Too high amounts of ingested carbohydrates through grains, not just simple sugars so goes the story, are fattening but fat is not. I like my rye bread but happily without butter so what is a simple mind to do?

Enter benzoxazinoids

Well, new scientific findings come to the rescue in the form of benzoxazinoids, or BX for short, found in rye bread and other wholegrain foods. A new name to memorise for a magic natural compound. When it is a matter of health, you can now stick to wholegrain with the BX factor, a group of bioactive health-promoting substances. In Denmark, rye bread is a staple food and most people are aware that rye bread is healthy, but not many know that what makes bread a healthy food is not only vitamins, minerals, protein and fibre but also benzoxazinoids.

Appropriately, the presence of BX in wholegrain was discovered by scientists from Aarhus University in 2010. Certain medicinal plants and young cereal plants have previously been found to contain BX, but it was a revelation that they could also be found in ripened rye and other wholegrains as well as in the final baked bread and other bakery products ready for consumption. Even better, scientists have found that the BX compounds pass through the gut wall and circulate in the body in different chemical forms.

And the benefits

Have a rye-bread sandwich and feel good about it (Photo: Mogens Engelund).

Have a rye-bread sandwich and feel good about it (Photo: Mogens Engelund).

So the scientists wanted to know more. They examined whether BX could have an effect against allergies or whether they regulate the immune system. This part of the study was done by examining blood cells in the laboratory. There was no apparent anti-allergic effect, but there was an effect on the immune system. Eating a diet rich in BX compounds made certain immune system cells react more strongly to some types of bacteria. Previous studies have reported antimicrobial, anticancer, reproductive system stimulatory, central nervous system stimulatory, immunoregulatory, and appetite- and weight-reducing effects of BX or BX derivatives. The health benefits of wholegrain intake may be associated with the solitary or overlapping biological effects of fibers, lignans, phenolic acids, alkylresorcinols, BXs, and other bioactive compounds. All good anyway.

With the new findings in mind, the scientists speculated that it might be possible to grow crops with an optimum content and composition of these health-promoting compounds, so that consumers can increase their BX intake without having to eat large quantities of food.

You can now have a rye-bread sandwich to lunch and feel good about it. Forget about the paleo zealots.