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!


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…


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!


Purple is the new green

Why not purple broccoli (Photo: AJC)

Why not purple broccoli… (Photo: AJC)

The constant nagging of children to eat their greens often has little effect. But have you ever heard parents urge their children to eat their purples. I didn’t think so, but they probably should. In flowers, bright red and purple colours are used to attract pollinators. In fruits, the colorful skins also attract the attention of animals, which may eat the fruits and disperse the seeds.

If that holds true for children it could be a way of making fruit and vegetables more attractive. And thus encourage increased consumption to reach the goal of 400 g a day set by the World Health Organization. It is clear that there are considerable benefits in increasing consumption of fruit and vegetables for most of us. In many parts of the world, fruit and vegetable consumption is dismal.

But what about health aspects of the purple colour itself?

No lack of praise of purple foods

First you need to know that the colour is caused by anthocyanins that are water-soluble pigments belonging to a parent class of molecules called flavonoids. They may appear red, purple, or blue depending on the pH. Anthocyanins are powerful antioxidants and there is no lack of praise of purple fruit and vegetables on the web. Just a few examples:

  1. The top benefactor in purple foods is their antioxidant content. The powerful health benefits of antioxidants are only too well known: they neutralise the agents of aging and disease, and keep you looking younger longer.
  2. A basket filled with luscious blue or dark red fruit and vegetables does much more than look good in still life paintings or on your kitchen counter. It contains a wealth of incredible health benefits.
  3. There is evidence that purple foods improve heart health, vision, and brain power. Recent studies found that adults who eat purple and blue fruits and vegetables have reduced risk for both high blood pressure and low HDL cholesterol; they are also less likely to be overweight.
  4. Let’s take a deeper look into these dark nutritional superheroes. Here are five reasons to eat more purple foods: purple foods kill cancer, are ulcer-fighters, are good for your liver and heart, and prevent urinary tract infections.

Convinced? Not so fast. Vegetables and fruits are rich sources of antioxidants. There is good evidence that eating a diet with lots of fruits and vegetables is healthy and lowers risks of certain diseases. But it isn’t clear whether this is because of the antioxidants, something else in the foods, or other factors.

So what are antioxidants?

... or purple carrots ...

… or purple carrots …

Antioxidants are man-made or natural substances that may prevent or delay some types of cell damage by counteracting oxidative stress. Free radicals can cause oxidative stress, a process that can trigger the cell damage. Free radicals are highly unstable molecules that are formed during exercise and conversion of food into energy or can be accumulated from a variety of environmental sources, such as cigarette smoke, air pollution, and sunlight. Oxidative stress is thought to play a role in a variety of diseases including cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and eye diseases such as cataracts and age-related macular degeneration.

Antioxidants are found in many foods, including fruits and vegetables. They are also available as dietary supplements. Examples of antioxidants include vitamins C and E, selenium, and carotenoids, such as beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin. As well as flavonoids, like the purple anthocyanins.

The flavonoids have long been thought to be nutritionally important for their antioxidant activity, but actually have little or no value in that role. Unfortunately, research has now proven that flavonoids are poorly absorbed by the body, usually less than five percent, and most of what does get absorbed into the blood stream is rapidly metabolised in the intestines and liver and excreted from the body.

But don’t give up yet!

Anthocyanins may indeed benefit human health, but for quite different reasons. The body sees them as foreign compounds  and through different mechanisms, they could play a role in preventing cancer or heart disease. They appear to strongly influence cell signaling pathways and gene expression, with relevance to both cancer and heart disease. A relatively modest intake – like the amount found in five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables – is sufficient to trigger a much larger metabolic response.

Flavonoids also increase the activation of existing nitric oxide synthase, which has the effect of keeping blood vessels healthy and relaxed, preventing inflammation, and lowering blood pressure – all key goals in prevention of heart disease.

Both of these protective mechanisms could be long-lasting compared to antioxidants, which are more readily used up during their free radical scavenging activity and require constant replenishment through diet.

So why not go for purple foods

... or spiff it up with a purple spud.

… or spiff it up with a purple spud.

So not too bad after all. Beetroot and eggplant have long been obvious choices, and of course all the berries. But now there are also purple carrots, cabbage, potatoes, onions, sweet potato, maize and asparagus.

The ancestors of the carrot can be traced back to Iran and Afghanistan, and the original carrots were predominantly purple. It was only during the 17th century that western Europeans began cultivating orange carrots.

The purple sweet potato has only been available commercially since 2006, after a North Carolina sweet potato farmer received some as a gift and began to cultivate them on a large scale.

The vividly colored cauliflower variety was achieved after painstaking cross breeding and has a similar flavor to its white cousin.

The purple-black maize is commonly grown in the Andes Mountains and is a popular food in Bolivia, Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru.

Purple kale is cultivated from the dwarf variety of kale, and adds a splash of color to green salads. Like green kale, it has a cabbage-like flavor and a slightly chewy texture.

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Good food sources

If you’re after natural and minimally processed foods, the Institute of Food Technologists has suggested a list of eight seeds and berries you might be interested in trying. Forget that they call them superfoods, as we have mentioned before you need a bit of everything to feel good. No individual food can alone keep you healthy, but it sure doesn’t hurt to add some of the foods on the list to your diet.

The good seeds

The healthy chia seed is a good food choice.

The healthy chia seed is a good food choice.

First of the seeds are Chia Seeds that are high in omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. They can be part of homemade trail mixes, baked goods, commercial nutrition bars, beverages and snacks.

Next we have Flaxseeds that are a good source of protein, fibre, antioxidants, phytoestrogens in the form of lignans, and omega-3 fatty acids. They might lower your blood cholesterol.

Sunflower seeds provide monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, protein, fibre, vitamin E, and phytochemicals like choline, lignan, phenolic acids and betaine.

And finally Pumpkin Seeds that are packed with protein, fibre, manganese, magnesium, and phosphorus.

Up to you which one to choose or you could mix them all.

The good berries

If you are more for berries you have a choice of four.

Blueberries, as we have written about before, might reduce blood pressure and arterial stiffness and are packed with fiber, vitamins, minerals, fructose, and antioxidants. The antioxidants might delay progress of diseases like cancer, heart problems, and the aging process.

Açai Berries are a particularly rich source of anthocyanin and have a fatty acid ratio similar to olive oil. They have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties.

Tart Cherries are also high in anthocyanin and have high antioxidant activity with possible benefits including enhanced sleep, anti-inflammation in arthritis and gout, and sports recovery.

And finally Cranberries that have long been associated with benefiting urinary tract health but have also shown to benefit heart health, cancer prevention, oral health, and glycemic response, although conclusive evidence might be lacking.

You want more?

The world healthiest berries (Aronia Berries) missing from the list (Photo: Wikimedia).

The world healthiest berries (Aronia Berries) missing from the list (Photo: Wikimedia).

The Incaberries didn’t make it too the list. I have a pack of dried Incaberries in front of me just now calling it an ‘Exotic berry with super powers!’ They are native to high-altitude, tropical Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador, where the fruits grow wild. Only recently has the plant become an important crop and widely introduced into cultivation in other tropical, subtropical and even temperate areas. To increase their attractiveness they are called Pichuberries in the USA and Golden Berries in Britain.

Incaberries have an antioxidant capacity higher than Goji Berries (also missing from the above list) and other major dried fruits. Dried Incaberries are very high in fibre and contain vitamin C, but quite low levels. They make up for this with a strong antioxidant capacity and lots of phosphorus and potassium. The polyphenol antioxidants in Incaberries have been found to have anti-inflammatory qualities.

All good, but what about Noni Berries and Mangosteen or Aronia Berries and Maqui Berries? Not mentioned despite Aronia Berries being named the healthiest fruit in the world or the healing benefits of Maqui Berries so important to the Mapuche of Chile and Argentina.

I think the Institute of Food Technologists have more homework to do. We want it all!

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The magic of blueberries

The high-bush blueberry

Blueberries highly beneficial to health

In the last post we promised to reveal the goodness of blueberries making them part of the elusive superfood category (caveat about superfoods at the bottom). So here goes.

It has long been claimed that blueberries have highly beneficial health effects, but there is a slight confusion about their naming. Let’s clarify that first. When the Americans talk about blueberries they most often refer to a species called Vaccinium corymbosum L. in Latin. It is a shrub native to North America that can reach 4 m in height and are also called northern highbush blueberries (they do also have lowbush varieties to further complicate things).

But for Europeans it is more typically a species called Vaccinium myrtillus L. in Latin and more correctly named bilberries, although naming in several local languages translates directly to “blueberry” in English.

Still confused?

Bilberries are distinct from blueberries but closely related to them. The bilberry plant is a low-growing shrub native to northern Europe producing single or paired berries on the bush instead of clusters, as the blueberry does. The fruit is smaller than that of the blueberry but with a fuller taste. Bilberries are darker in colour, and usually appear near black with a slight shade of purple. While blueberry fruit pulp is light green in colour, bilberry is red or purple.

To best distinguish the two use the colour test. If you get a heavily blue-stained tongue after eating the berries, you have just consumed bilberries.

High in antioxidants

With that out of the way, let’s focus on the high content of a range of antioxidants found in both species. Anthocyanins belong to the flavonoid family and are water soluble pigments involved in a wide range of biological activities that may be beneficial to health. Many of the biological properties of the berries are closely associated with the antioxidant activity of the anthocyanin pigments. The bilberry and blueberry fruits, besides anthocyanins, are also rich in other flavonoids (catechin, epicatechin, myrcetin, quercetin, and kempferol), phenolic acids, chlorogenic acid and ascorbic acid, which all possess antioxidant properties as well.

These compounds help to neutralise free radicals which are unstable molecules linked to the development of a number of degenerative diseases and conditions. Antioxidants may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, inhibit platelet aggregation and protect arterial endothelial cells. In addition, these compounds could decrease the risk of cancer, reduce inflammatory damage and modulate immune response.

Quite an impressive range of beneficial effects, don’t you agree?

The magic of one daily cup of blueberries

Bilberries are as beneficial to health as blueberries (Photo: Bjørn Tennøe)

Bilberries are as beneficial to health as blueberries (Photo: Bjørn Tennøe)

Now, a new scientific report claims that just one cup of blueberries per day could be the key to reducing blood pressure and arterial stiffness, both associated with cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular disease is a leading cause of death, with the risk increasing in menopausal women. Thus, over an eight-week period, 48 postmenopausal women with pre- and stage-1 hypertension were randomly assigned to receive either 22 g of freeze-dried blueberry powder (the equivalent to one cup of fresh blueberries) or 22 g of a placebo powder daily, while continuing their normal diet and exercise routines.

At the beginning of the study, the team measured blood pressure, arterial stiffness and select blood biomarkers. At the end of the eight weeks, participants receiving the blueberry powder on average had a 7 mmHg (5.1%) decrease in systolic blood pressure, a 5 mmHg (6.3%) reduction in diastolic blood pressure, and an average reduction of 97 cm/s (6.5%) in arterial stiffness. Nitric oxide, a blood biomarker known to be involved in the widening of blood vessels, increased by 68.5%. The rise in nitric oxide helps explain the reductions in blood pressure.

Although the results are not surprising, previous studies on blueberries included much larger amounts of blueberry powder consumption, anywhere from 50 to 250 g (equivalent to 2 to an unrealistic 11 daily cups).

So what about bilberries?

I am happy to inform you that the highest content of anthocyanins was found in bilberries compared to several blueberry varieties. However, when measuring total activity of all antioxidant compounds, some blueberry varieties beat bilberries, while others fell below the bilberry activity. So there seems to be a dead heat between the Americans and the Europeans.

One daily cup of either variety should do the deed.

Superfood caveat

And finally the superfood caveat. Angst and debate about the merits of what we eat is at an all-time high and separating fact from fiction can be difficult. In case you didn’t know, “superfoods” are so called because they supposedly have health-promoting benefits and may even help with certain medical conditions, or so the superfoods advocates claim.

Nutrition scientists are quick to dispute such claims, saying that the word “superfoods” is simply a marketing tool used by their advocates. To rely solely on superfoods would be dangerous as they cannot substitute for a generally healthy and balanced diet.

Food is in while supplement pills are out

Skewed diet and no pills (Photo: Tony Evans)

Skewed diet and no supplements go together (Photo: Tony Evans)

This blog is not for you if your main meals consist of McDonald’s burgers and KFC chickens, you only drink soft drinks and Red Bull, and you eat doughnuts instead of wholegrain bread, because you would never even contemplate to take vitamin or mineral supplements. You might need it though.

But if you eat a varied diet and worry about your nutrition, it is very likely that you would also supplement your diet with multivitamins and minerals. This is a real conundrum because if you are in the latter group you actually satisfy your vitamin and mineral needs through your diet and don’t need the supplements.

And did you know that the supplements can actually do more harm than good? I guess you didn’t. It is all about p53, but more about that later.

Too much of a good thing

Don’t get me wrong, vitamins and minerals are absolutely necessary for the body to maintain good health. This has been known for a reasonably long time, with possibly the best example being the complete cure of scurvy with vitamin C. Scurvy was a terrible disease that plagued humans long back through recorded history, but now a rarely seen condition. Many other vitamins and micronutrients are required for good health.

Antioxidants, like selenium, and the vitamins A, C and E, fight free radicals that can damage DNA, cell membranes, and the lining of arteries. Deficiencies can cause all sorts of diseases, some of them very serious. Several studies have shown that people who eat more fruits and vegetables that contain plenty of antioxidants have a lower incidence of cancer and heart disease and live longer. The logic is obvious that if people who eat lots of fruits and vegetables are healthier, then people who take supplemental antioxidants should also be healthier.

But not so. Remarkably, studies involving tens of thousands of subjects have shown that high doses of vitamins and supplements, rather than being helpful, lack beneficial effects or can sometimes even be harmful to health. It seem that humans are adapted to getting nutrients from whole foods and not through pills. Most nutrients require enzymes, synergistic co-factors and organic mineral-activators to be properly absorbed. While these are naturally present in foods, they are often not included in synthetic vitamins with isolated nutrients.

And I have the science to prove it.


Vitamin and mineral supplements can even be harmful (Photo: Steven Depolo)

An evaluation of 38,772 older women found that several commonly used dietary vitamin and mineral supplements, including multivitamins, vitamins B6, and folic acid, as well as minerals like iron, magnesium, zinc, and copper, were associated with a higher risk of total mortality. Iron was of particular concern since it was strongly and dose dependently associated with increased total mortality risk.

A study of 35,533 men found that the risk of prostate cancer increased for the men taking vitamin E, selenium, or both. Although the increased risk was small, it was clear that neither of these supplements was helpful against prostate cancer.

In reviewing 27 trials looking at the efficacy of vitamin supplements in 400,000 adults with no nutritional deficiencies, the typical supplement customers, no clear evidence of a beneficial effect of supplements on all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, or cancer could be found.

Daily multivitamins to prevent cognitive decline among 5,947 elderly men didn’t improve overall cognitive performance or verbal memory. After 12 years of follow-up, there were no differences between the multivitamin and placebo groups.

Many more trials have assessed the role of vitamin and mineral supplements in primary or secondary prevention of chronic disease and have consistently found no beneficial effects or even possible harm. Beta-carotene, vitamin E, and possibly high doses of vitamin A supplements have been seen to increase mortality. How is that?

It might be the p53

The p53 is a gene that has been dubbed the guardian of the genome, your DNA. Its job is to detect and destroy cells with defective DNA, including early cancer cells. Of course you don’t want to interfere in that process, but you might inadvertently do just that by taking extra antioxidants. A team of Swedish scientists has now proved that antioxidants can fuel growth of lung cancers. Antioxidants are supposed to protect healthy cells from chemically unstable oxygen molecules that can damage DNA and cause cancer. But they also shut off the p53 gene, thus allowing cancer cells to grow and divide faster than usual.

So the research results presented above that seemed a bit suspicious at first now has a plausible explanation. Basically, antioxidants help early tumours to survive and grow and can thus increase mortality. The opposite to what you want.

Stop the pill popping

Fruit (Photo: Mariia Kravtsova)

A balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables is sufficient for most people (Photo: Mariia Kravtsova)

The simple truth for the general population with no clear evidence of micronutrient deficiencies is that most supplements do not prevent chronic disease or death. Their use is not justified, and they should be avoided since some might even be harmful. Supplements are only needed where there is a demonstrable micronutrient deficiency. The most promising data in the area of nutrition and positive health outcomes relate to dietary patterns, not nutrient supplements. In most cases, eating lots of fruit and vegetables, and a balanced diet, will provide all micronutrients and vitamins needed. So maybe you should skip that burger tomorrow and go for an apple.