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!

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Salt satisfaction

salt2Sodium serves a vital purpose in the human body as it helps nerves and muscles to function correctly, and it is an important compound involved in maintaining fluid balance. Most of our dietary sodium intake is provided through the consumption of sodium chloride (common or table salt). About 80 per cent of this would come from processed foods and 20 per cent from salt used at the table or in home cooking. Table salt is made up of just under 40 per cent sodium by weight, so a 6 g serving (1 teaspoon) contains about 2,400 mg of sodium (note that some of the calculations below use the more exact 39 per cent of sodium).

Apart from table salt, it has been estimated that a further ten per cent of dietary sodium intake would be provided from naturally occurring sodium or sodium-containing food additives.

So far so good, but unfortunately high intakes of sodium can increase blood pressure, and high blood pressure can increase the risk of developing heart and kidney problems. To limit the negative effects of consuming too much sodium the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that daily sodium intake should not exceed 2,000 mg (equivalent to 5 g of salt).

Initial reassuring results for the Australian population

Estimates of salt intake is most often made using a 24 h diet recall methodology. Using this method, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) in 2008 estimated that daily intake of salt across all Australians was 5.5 g. This amount of salt would deliver an average of around 2,150 mg sodium per day. Taking into account non-salt sources of sodium and salt added by the consumer, FSANZ assumed a probable daily sodium intake of around 2,500 mg. Even if small reductions in sodium intake can lead to big health benefits, this was considered to be close enough to the WHO recommendations. However, because this is an average, there would be a lot of Australians who eat more than this and more than the recommended maximum intakes.

A repeat diet recall survey to update the estimate of mean daily salt intake was performed in 2011-12 through the Australian Health Survey (AHS) with slightly higher results at 6.2 g for the Australian population, equivalent to 2,404 mg of sodium. In this case the amount included sodium naturally present in foods as well as sodium added during processing, but excluded the discretionary salt added by consumers in home prepared foods or at the table. Adjusting for the latter might indicate a daily sodium intake of 2,600 mg per person, which is still only marginally higher than the WHO’s recommended maximum of 2,000 mg and therefore little cause for alarm.

But now for the bad news.

eat-less-saltNow new research shows that the dietary recall method used by the AHS and others likely substantially underestimate mean population salt consumption. The researchers suggested that Australians are consuming 50 per cent more salt than what was previously thought.

Researchers at George Institute for Global Health analysed the salt intake of 419 residents of Lithgow in NSW using two methodologies – the previous 24 h diet recall questionnaire but also 24 h urine samples. Based on the diet recall method, which was used by AHS, the average Lithgow resident consumed 6.8 g a day when including discretionary use. But based on 24 h urine collections, the researchers were able to conclude that the average was actually 9.0 g per day, equivalent to 3,545 mg of sodium. Correcting for salt lost through non-urinary excretion, the average was adjusted to 9.9 g per day or 3,900 mg of sodium.  This is almost double the WHO’s target for daily salt and sodium intake and suggests a several folds greater disease burden attributable to excess salt consumption in Australia.

The lesson

This is but one example of the challenges involved in estimating food intake. The 24 h recall method is considered superior to the food frequency questionnaire method so often used in epidemiological surveys. Still it showed a considerable bias. Again I suggest that epidemiological correlations between food intake and disease should be taken with a grain of salt (pun intended).

New liquorice warnings

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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.

Ignoring responsibility at your peril

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Oils aren’t always what they say (Photo: Illuminati Owl)

The agri-food industry is no innocent bystander. Maximising sales and profit is more important than looking after their customers. They cleverly invent crops tolerant to their own herbicides through genetic engineering so they can sell both seeds and encourage the spread of questionable poisons. They add sugar to many of their products for children so that people will crave sweet foods throughout life. They cheat on extra virgin oil because they can and reap the profit. They replace beef in processed beef products with cheaper horse meat to gain an upper hand. The lists goes on and on.

And rightly the public is upset. This is reflected by the many news items published by the popular press condemning the latest cheat by industry.

But what about consumer responsibility?

Acrylamide is a good example as it is formed during heating of food as we have previously pointed out. Evidence from animal studies have shown that acrylamide and its metabolite glycidamide are genotoxic and carcinogenic: they damage DNA and cause cancer. While evidence from human studies on the impact of acrylamide in the diet is inconclusive, scientists agree that acrylamide in food has the potential to cause cancer in humans as well and it would be prudent to reduce exposure.

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Go easy with the toaster (Photo: DonoVan Govan)

Thus, in early 2017, the UK Food Standards Agency issued consumer recommendations on how to minimise the formation of acrylamide during home cooking by avoiding singeing their toast or leaving roast potatoes to char in the oven.

Acrylamide is a natural by-product of heating and has been present in our food since fire started to be used for food preparation. It is formed by a reaction between amino acids and sugars when foods are heated at high temperatures (over 120°C) during frying, roasting or baking. It can thus be found in a wide range of foods including roasted potatoes and root vegetables, chips, crisps, toast, cakes, biscuits, cereals and coffee.

The formation of acrylamide can be reduced by some simple measures as pointed out by the Food Standards Agency. Aim for a golden yellow colour or lighter when frying, baking, toasting or roasting starchy foods like potatoes, root vegetables and bread. Carefully follow cooking instructions on the pack when frying or oven-cooking packaged food products such as chips, roast potatoes and parsnips. Don’t store raw potatoes in the fridge as it may lead to the formation of more free sugars in the potatoes that can increase overall acrylamide levels.

Parts of the popular press objected

All sensible and practical recommendations. You would have thought that the popular press would support such a consumer initiative. But you would be wrong. Rather, parts of the press attacked the Food Standards Agency for being alarmist. Critics of the advice were quick to point out that animal studies linking acrylamide to cancer have used doses far above the average daily consumption in humans so that extrapolating the results is questionable – even assuming the effect is comparable across species.

DNA

Acrylamide is a genotoxic carcinogen.

But genotoxic carcinogens don’t follow the minimum threshold concentration rule below which they are not dangerous at all. With chemicals that damage DNA it’s a linear dose response, so even the smallest dose contributes to the risk. There is no threshold dose for the effect. And to add to the problem it is almost impossible to prove in epidemiological studies that acrylamide is a human carcinogen as its presence is too common to find a group that is not exposed at all.

Therefore, the united verdict of organisations like the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the World Health Organisation, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and UK scientific advisory committees is that acrylamide has the potential to cause human cancer by interacting with the genetic material in cells. In 2015, EFSA published their risk assessment of acrylamide in food confirming that acrylamide levels found in food potentially increases the risk of cancer for all age groups. This means that acrylamide might contribute to our lifetime risk of developing cancer; although it is not possible to estimate how big this contribution may be.

Time for action

With that united front I suggest that you better follow the recommendations issued by the UK Food Standards Agency. I know that you feel safer when driving your own car compared to flying, although the probability of an accident is much higher on the road. I know that it is so much easier to blame the food industry for all ills, rather than take some responsibility for your own food handling.

Maybe it’s time for some action!

I’d love to believe

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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

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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.

Rosemary benefits – believe it if you must

diet_(Christina_Roervik

Benefits of a balanced diet.

I might be a bit repetitive here, but allow me to be clear at the beginning of this blog. There are no magic individual foods.

Sure there are good and bad foods that might tilt your habitual diet towards being more beneficial or detrimental to health. But it is the overall balance that is most important for a healthy life.

With that caveat in mind, we are going to look at purported health effects of rosemary, a perennial woody herb.

The ageing population of Acciaroli

There’s a little village in Italy called Acciaroli that has been doing the rounds in the international press during 2016. The reason: an unusual number of the small southern Italian township’s population is over the age of 100. And they have the micro-circulation of significantly younger people. These are the small blood vessels that send nutrients to the brain and organs and pull out metabolic waste products, but which tend to deteriorate with age.

Could it be something about the air, the ocean, the mountains, the hills, the olive and berry trees?

Or maybe the food. Scientists found that at every meal they’re eating anchovies, and they eat them fried and greasy. Typically, that will be washed down with a glass or two of wine. Greasy anchovies and wine – maybe a little far fetched for supporting a long life.

What about rosemary? Well, research recently released showed the almost daily consumption of rosemary by the Acciaroli population – infused in the local olive oil, cooked in pasta dishes and chewed raw. And this habit has been linked to improved micro-circulation and a concomitant effect on longevity.

The benefits of rosemary

rosemary

Potential health impact of rosemary consumption.

The first benefit – rosemary tastes great. Italian cooking uses rosemary in abundance. It’s an easy and reliable herb to grow. A light prune once a year will keep the rosemary bush in shape. One plant will provide more than enough for regular use. It works in both savoury and sweet meals. Rosemary, along with roughly chopped garlic, onion, carrots and celery sautéed in olive oil and cooked, forms ‘soffrito’ – the basis for many different stocks, soups, sauces and other dishes.  It can also be used in desserts, like a panna cotta, with some grappa.

The second benefit – rosemary contains a number of phytochemicals, including rosmarinic acid, camphor, caffeic acid, ursolic acid, betulinic acid, and the antioxidants carnosic acid and carnosol. A lot to take in, but let’s focus on rosmarinic acid. Research has shown that it has a number of interesting biological activities, e.g. antiviral, antibacterial, antiinflammatory and antioxidant. The presence of rosmarinic acid in medicinal plants, herbs and spices has beneficial and health promoting effects. In plants, rosmarinic acid is supposed to act as a preformed constitutively accumulated defence compound. If you don’t like rosemary, rosmarinic acid can also be found in many other culinary herbs such as basil, lemon balm, marjoram, sage, thyme and peppermint.

The third benefit – it is also a good source of iron, calcium, and vitamin B6. Although as a herb it is consumed in such small amounts that this might not be important enough to influence health.

No harm done

Convinced yet? Maybe not and the researchers also kept an open mind. Further studies are underway to further explore the findings. But in the meantime there’s certainly no harm in increasing your consumption and use of rosemary or related herbs.

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.

Known impossibles

There are a number of known knowns say food safety types and they insist that we follow their sometimes impracticable or impossible advice. But is scientific opinion always right?

Impossible hand washing advice

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The ever important hand wash (Photo: Marmotto)

They want us to wash our hands for an impossible 20 seconds. It doesn’t sound much but you stand there with cold hands since it might take more than 20 seconds for the warm water to flow through the long pipe.

Well, Health Canada is a little more sensible reducing the washing time to 15 seconds but insisting it should be warm water. However, contrary to popular belief scientific studies have shown that using warm instead of cold water has no effect on reducing the microbial load on hands. Scientific results also show that soap is more effective than water only and drying with a paper towel is preferable to using hand driers for removing the bugs on your hands.

So the practical recommendation? Above all wash your hands before preparing food with a method you feel comfortable with.

Impossible fruit and vegetable advice

They want us to eat 2 portions of fruits and 5-6 portions of vegetables per day. Translated to weight that would be 300 grams of fruit and 450 grams of vegetables or a full 750 grams in total on a daily basis. Are they mad, there will be no place for anything else.

However, to be fair a meta study showed that a diet with more than five servings of fruit and vegetables reduces a person’s risk of developing conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. But according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2014-15, while half of Australians aged 18 years and over met the guidelines for recommended daily serves of fruit (2 or more serves), only 7% met the guidelines for serves of vegetables (5-6 or more serves). A paltry one in twenty adults met both guidelines.

See what I am saying? And the situation is similar in many other countries. So the practical recommendation? Sure, try to increase your consumption of fruit and vegetables. An extra leaf of lettuce and a tomato on your lunch sandwich might help.

Impossible rule change for dropped food

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A dropped slice of chocolate cake might be rescued.

And now we cannot follow the 5-second rule any longer, that is if you drop a piece of food on the floor but pick it up within 5 seconds you are safe to still eat it. What a waste of food. Just imagine you drop a nice slice of chocolate cake on the floor but pick it up immediately before the dog can take it and you still have to throw it away. No way I would say and by the way chocolate is dangerous for dogs so you have to be quick anyway.

Though scientists have backed up the new advice. They experimented with different food and contact surface types and concluded that the 5-second rule is a significant oversimplification of what actually happens when bacteria transfer from a surface to food. Bacteria can actually contaminate the food instantaneously. The scientists demonstrated that the 5-second rule was relevant in the sense that longer contact time resulted in more bacterial transfer, but factors like the nature of the food and the surface it falls on are of equal or greater importance.

And the practical recommendation? Obviously it doesn’t help to be quick, the bugs will still beat you. But you might wash off a hard surface and scrape off a little bit of the chocolate cake before eating the rest. If the food is still to be heated there is no problem. But a buttered sandwich surface down might be best to put in the garbage bin.

Impossible fiddling with temperature probes

They also say that when you prepare your hamburgers you cannot rely on your visual senses anymore. That is colour, firmness and smell are not considered sufficient. You have to use a digital thermometer and make sure that the centre of the hamburger reaches 71ºC. You have to fiddle with the thermometer tip sticking it into the side of the burger to reach all the way to the middle while at the same time avoiding getting your fingers burnt. And you have to do it for each burger separately.

Scientists explain that heat-induced denaturation of myoglobin, responsible for the characteristic dull-brown colour of cooked meats, is influenced by a multitude of factors. The interactions between these factors critically influence the internal cooked colour and can confuse the consumers who often wrongly perceive cooked colour to be a reliable indicator for doneness and safety. But there are some hope. Another scientific study agreed that colour alone was a misleading guide for the core temperature of a hamburger. However, when including texture of the meat and clarity of the meat juice in the judgement the situation improved.

And the practical recommendation? It might pay off to invest in a meat thermometer but once familiar with the cooking time needed to reach the recommended core temperature a bit more flexibility might be possible. As long as you promise to not eat rare or medium-rare hamburgers.

Impossible cross-contamination prevention

cutting-board

Use different cutting boards to avoid cross-contamination. 

And there’s more. You are not allowed to keep the same cutting board and utensils you just used to cut your raw chicken for subsequently preparing your vegetables to eat without further heating. Come on, the food will be cold before you have done all the washing up.

Well, I am sorry to say that scientists are unequivocal on this point. You just have to use different utensils for raw and cooked meat and utensils that have been in contact with raw meat can never be used for produce that will be consumed without further heating.

Known unknowns and unknown unknowns

For all the food safety rules for known knowns, there is little said for the known unknowns that we might worry more about.

What about the bisphenol A in our food packaging material and cash register receipts? There have been several reports of damaging endocrine effects on unborn babies, but this science is still controversial so you’re on your own on this one.

And of course nothing can be said about unknown unknowns.

Acrylamide, a carcinogen, has been present in some heated foods since time memorial following the invention of fire. But it was not until the late 20th century that it was detected by a coincidence. Since then there have been many attempts to reduce its presence in food.

What else is lurking around? That is impossible to say so better relax. Overall, a balanced diet is the best protection for a healthy life. Stay sufficiently safe to stay healthy might be the best motto!

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