Nothing wrong with cranberries

Sure there is nothing wrong with eating cranberries. Although the same thing could be said of consuming any fruits as they are all considered healthy so there is some competition. That might be the reason why the Cranberry Institute felt obliged to provide funding for two recent studies showing the beneficial effects of cranberry consumption on memory and blood flow.

But can you believe the conclusions of studies tainted by respective industry contributions? Read on so you can judge for yourself.

Cranberries might improve cardiovascular health

The Cranberry Institute provided financial support to a recent clinical trial which found that daily consumption of cranberries for one month improved cardiovascular function in healthy men.

The study included 45 healthy men who consumed 9g of freeze-dried cranberry powder equivalent to a cup of 100g of fresh cranberries per day or a placebo for one month. Incredibly, the study found that those consuming cranberries showed significant improvements in flow-mediated dilation of blood vessels already two hours after first consumption and after one month of daily consumption indicating both immediate and long-term benefits. The researchers claimed that consumption of cranberries as part of a healthy diet can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by improving blood vessel function.

Sure there is evidence that links polyphenols from berries with heart health benefits. And as it happens, cranberries are rich in unique proanthocyanidins that have distinct properties compared to polyphenols found in some other fruits.

Cranberries might also improve memory

The Cranberry Institute wanted more good news by financially supporting a study investigating the impact of cranberry consumption on memory and brain function. Past studies have shown that higher dietary flavonoid intake is associated with slower rates of cognitive decline and dementia. And foods rich in anthocyanins and proanthocyanidins, which give berries their red, blue, or purple colour, have been found to improve cognition.

Thus, the commercially funded research team from the University of East Anglia (UK) investigated the impact of eating cranberries for 12 weeks on brain function and cholesterol among 60 cognitively healthy participants between 50 to 80 years old. Again, half of the participants consumed freeze-dried cranberry powder, equivalent to a cup of 100g of fresh cranberries, daily. The other half consumed a placebo.

The study, one of the first to examine cranberries and their long-term impact on cognition and brain health, showed that consuming cranberries significantly improved memory of everyday events (visual episodic memory), neural functioning and delivery of blood to the brain (brain perfusion).

The cranberry group also exhibited a significant decrease in LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol levels, known to contribute to the thickening or hardening of the arteries caused by a build-up of plaque. The researchers claimed that the potentially improved vascular health may have in part contributed to the improvement in brain perfusion and cognition.

Of course the researchers considered the findings encouraging, especially as a relatively short 12-week cranberry intervention was able to produce significant improvements in memory and neural function. They see it as an important foundation for future research in the area of cranberries and neurological health.

Ocean Spray Inc. also at it

The U.S. cranberry juice giant, Ocean Spray Inc., has spent millions of dollars funding research to try to prove the health aspects of consuming cranberry juice. There has long been a myth that cranberry juice can prevent urinary tract infections (UTIs). Back in the day, before antibiotics were a thing, acidification of the urine was a recommended treatment for UTI. It was believed that because cranberries are acidic, they would make urine more acidic to fight off bacteria. This was attributed to formation of hippuric acid through metabolism of the quinic acid present in cranberry juice.

Unfortunately, later studies reported that the concentration of hippuric acid in the urine was insufficient for an antibacterial effect unless very large volumes of cranberry juice were ingested.

Subsequently, proanthocyanidins present in cranberries as well as blueberries were reported to inhibit binding of the type 1 P-fimbriae of Escherichia coli to uroepithelial cells, preventing bacterial adherence within the urinary tract.

However, researchers from the University of Manitoba found that the two proposed mechanisms for a beneficial effect of cranberries on UTIs had not yet been shown to have a role in human infection.

EFSA and FDA dismisses cranberry health claims

In 2009, Ocean Spray Inc. submitted a health claim for cranberry juice to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) supported by several scientific studies. However, the EFSA Panel concluded that the evidence provided was not sufficient to establish a cause and effect relationship between the consumption of Ocean Spray cranberry products and the reduction of the risk of UTIs in women by inhibiting the adhesion of certain bacteria in the urinary tract.

In 2017, Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc. tried again, this time logging a health claim for cranberry juice with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). After reviewing the petition and other evidence related to the proposed health claim, the FDA determined that the scientific evidence supporting the claim did not meet the “significant scientific agreement” standard required for an authorized health claim. However, at the same time FDA announced that it does not intend to object to the use of certain ‘qualified health claims’ regarding consuming certain cranberry products and a reduced risk of recurrent urinary tract infection (UTI) in healthy women. As long as a qualifying statement was included on the label stating that FDA has concluded that the scientific evidence supporting this claim is limited and inconsistent.

Not looking convincing?

It’s up to you to decide what you think. As I said in the beginning there is nothing wrong in eating cranberries as they would be as healthy as any other berries.

To help you make up your mind here is a quote from the well known nutrition expert Marion Nestle:

“Without even getting into whether cranberry powder is equivalent to cranberries, whether anyone can eat cranberries without adding their weight in sugar, or whether any other fruit might have similar effects, we should ask whether it makes any sense at all to think that any one single food could boost memory and prevent dementia in the elderly.”

So there you have it.

Filmjölk’s health benefits

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

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

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

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

How is it produced

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

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

Potential health benefits of filmjölk

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

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

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

Possible benefits include:

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

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

What to believe

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

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

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

How much coffee in your coffee?

A cup of coffee to raise the spirit.

A cup of coffee to raise the spirit.

A bit cryptic I agree and the question should rather be how much caffeine do you think you have in your cup of coffee? But since you have no way of measuring that, unless you have access to a chemical laboratory, you can only control the amount of coffee beans you use for your cup of coffee and the brewing method. And you can use those measures as a proxy for the amount of caffeine you consume.

Why worry about the amount of caffeine?

Because the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has just published an opinion on caffeine and alertness. This new opinion confirmed that at least 75 mg of caffeine is necessary to improve alertness. For some reason SmithKline Beecham Limited wished EFSA to agree that 40 mg of caffeine would have the same effect. But EFSA didn’t budge. EFSA was clear in saying that

at the particular dose range between 40 and < 75 mg, no effect of caffeine was found on the majority of outcome measures of reaction time

after reviewing a number of studies submitted by the applicant.

The EFSA scientists also believed that

“increased alertness might be a beneficial physiological effect”

and I assume we all take that for a given. So there you have it, your cup of coffee needs to contain at least 75 mg of caffeine to wake you up.

How to get enough caffeine in your cup of coffee?

As a rule of thumb it’s usually presumed that a regular cup of coffee contains 100 mg of caffeine but it may range between 40 and 176 mg and to be honest the mean is probably closer to 80 mg. This will fit with the standard recipe when calculating exposure of 7 g of ground coffee beans for a cup, which would result in close to 80 mg of caffeine in the cup since arabica coffee beans contain about 11 mg/g. So far so good and we would be over the magical 75 mg caffeine alertness level.

But remember that we haven’t yet looked at the volume of coffee in the cup. The size of a cup can vary from as little as 25 mL (Greek coffee) to a large cup of 330 mL and in extreme cases up to 480 mL for a Starbucks Pike Place cup or a McDonald’s Mocha Frappe. The volume of coffee in an average cup in Europe is actually 120 mL, while in the USA it would be closer to 240 mL.

Large variations in the size of a cup of coffee (Photo: akatori)

Large variations in the size of a cup of coffee (Photo: akatori)

So how does the volume of coffee influence the caffeine level? As it happens not that much since we seem to keep the caffeine level fairly constant for a cup irrespective of size. An Italian espresso of 30 mL would still contain a minimum of 40 mg of caffeine and could be close to the 75 mg mark. This is strong coffee but might be a little low in caffeine to reach the EFSA benchmark. On the other end of the spectrum is a typical 240 mL American cup of coffee that might not hold more than 95 mg of caffeine. Not so strong I would say, no offence intended, but well over the desired level if you drink it all. Even the large McDonald’s Mocha Frappe of 480 mL limits the caffeine to 125 mg per cup, but Starbucks Pike Place is not so restrictive offering 330 mg of caffeine per 480 mL cup.

Confused again?

Well I have to confuse you even more because tastes are different and brewing methods abound. If you go for robusta coffee and use the same amount of beans as for arabica you would double your caffeine intake.

You might think that a strong, rich flavour would indicate an extra dose of caffeine, but the truth is that light roasts actually pack more of a jolt than dark roasts. The process of roasting burns off some caffeine.

And finally, while the caffeine concentration in a normal brew of filtered coffee would amount to 0.6-0.8 mg/mL, it would be 1.7-2.3 mg/mL in the coffee expressed from an espresso coffee machine. But you would obviously pick the size of your coffee cup accordingly to not overindulge.

All I can say is that if you feel alert you have probably exceed the 75 mg of caffeine required to improve your reaction times. Good on you, you will get through the day at your peak.

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Whisky – is it really “livets vatten”?

For the drinkers out there it was a while since we covered the alcoholic beverages beer and wine in previous blogs. So you will be happy to see that the focus today is whisky. I use the Scottish spelling and since the Scottish brew might have been influenced by an influx of Scandinavian vikings I allude to the Swedish expression “livets vatten”. But similar to the chicken and egg conundrum, on the contrary it might be that the Swedes translated the gaelic “uisge beatha” which actually means water of life. Or more likely both expressions might come from the Latin “aqua vitae” with the same meaning.

So what is whisky?

Whisky might be good for you (Photo: vissago)

Whisky might be good for you (Photo: vissago)

Whisky is a strictly regulated spirit worldwide with many classes and types. The typical unifying characteristics of the different varieties are the fermentation of grains, distillation, and ageing in wooden barrels. Italy, again, was at the forefront in the art of distillation with the earliest records where alcohol was distilled from wine dating from the 13th century. As most things alcoholic, its use spread through medieval monasteries, largely for purported medicinal purposes. From here the Irish beat the Scots in being the first to produce actual whisky in 1405, with the Scots almost a century late with their first records dating from 1494.

To be honest the first outputs from the attempts to make whisky were not very enjoyable. The distillation process was still in its infancy and the whisky was not allowed to age. As a result it tasted very raw and brutal compared to today’s versions. Renaissance-era whisky was also very potent and not diluted. Over time whisky evolved into the much smoother drink that we can enjoy today. People all over the world make and drink the different varieties of whisky, and each whisky has a distinct taste. Some of the differences might come from the grain used which can be rye, barley, wheat or corn.

But is it the water of life?

Although any type of alcohol can be deadly in excess, the medical community has found some health benefits to drinking moderate amounts of alcohol, especially whisky. A large shot of whisky can help protect against heart disease, scientists have claimed. They found that both whisky and red wine helped to protect against coronary heart disease by raising the body’s level of antioxidants. And as an interesting fact for the whisky lovers more of the protective compounds were absorbed from drinking whisky. Researchers also claim that drinking the equivalent of three or four pub measures of the spirit can boost the body’s general defences against disease.

No need to go overboard though, the scientists found that the benefit was achieved by drinking just once a week. So as usual alcohol should be enjoyed in moderation to accumulate the beneficial effects. And maybe not by all. Common public health advice is that any alcohol, if you drink as little as one to two units a day, can protect against coronary heart disease. But this is relevant only if you are in a risk group, such as menopausal women or men over 40 years who are prone to heart trouble.

Some more specific facts

Ellagic acid migrate from oak casks to whisky (Photo: peridude)

Ellagic acid migrate from oak casks to whisky (Photo: peridude)

People in the risk groups who consume one or two alcoholic drinks daily, including whisky, have a 50 % lower chance of having a stroke or developing dementia in old age. This moderate amount of drinking can also decrease the chance of developing diabetes by 30 to 40 %. Alcohol contains ellagic acid, an antioxidant that also is believed to destroy cancerous cells.

Ellagic acid is a natural phenol antioxidant found in numerous fruits and vegetables. The highest levels of ellagic acid are found in blackberries, cranberries, pecans, pomegranates, raspberries, strawberries, walnuts, wolfberry and grapes. Ellagic acid is also found in oak species like the North American white oak and European red oak and migrate to whisky during the ageing process in oak barrels. According to scientists whisky contains more ellagic acid than other types of alcohol.

The downside

An important reminder though if you have to look after your waist line. Alcoholic beverages of all sorts have a high energy content. Although there are many different recipes for beer with varying calorie content, a typical can of beer can be estimated to contain 150 calories. A standard restaurant glass of wine has around 123 calories. This could be compared to a shot of 80-proof whisky (confusingly 40 % alcohol) that contains 65 calories. On a volume basis whisky contains more calories than beer and wine. However, a typical serving of beer is many times the size of a serving of whisky. By that measure “a beer” has more calories than “a whisky.” Wine is comfortably in the middle by both measures.

And if you are going out to brag about the ellagic acid content of whisky with your mates be warned. The beneficial findings of ellagic acid to health is still preliminary. So some caution might be in place until the findings have been endorsed by the appropriate authorities.

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Foods boosting the immune system

The immune system is marvellous in defending against many disease-causing microorganisms. But sometimes they manage to sneak through despite all efforts as we all have experienced some time or other during each year’s feared cold and flu season. It’s now that time in the Southern Hemisphere and we are all hoping that the immune system will provide adequate protection. Question is, can something be done to boost the immune system? Maybe an improved diet could help? Or certain vitamins or herbal preparations? Maybe a complete lifestyle change will be necessary?

Boosting the immune system is an enticing but elusive idea for many reasons. It is not a single entity but a complex and interrelated system that requires balance and harmony to function well. There is still much to learn about the intricacies and interconnectedness of the immune response to be able to actively push it in the right direction. Disappointingly I have to tell you that there are no scientifically proven direct links between specific lifestyle changes and enhanced immune function. But don’t give up so easily, general healthy-living strategies are certainly a good way to give your immune system a boost.

The impact of exercise, stress and diet

Exercise to relieve stress and improve immune response (Photo Sangudo)

Exercise to relieve stress and improve immune response (Photo Sangudo)

Regular exercise is a good start. It improves cardiovascular health, lowers blood pressure, helps control body weight, and protects against a variety of diseases. Exercise can contribute to general good health and therefore to a healthy immune system. It may contribute even more directly by promoting good circulation, which allows the cells and substances of the immune system to move through the body freely and do their job efficiently.

Stressful situations might damage various aspects of our immune response. Social stress can be even more damaging than physical stress. Stress can disrupt communication between the nervous system, the hormone system, and the immune system. These three systems communicate using natural chemical messages, and must work in close coordination to be effective. Long-term stress releases stress hormones that affect the thymus, where lymphocytes are produced, and inhibit the production of cytokines and interleukins, which stimulate and coordinate white blood cell activity. However, the exact impact of stress on the immune system and overall health is still unclear. And it might not be easy to deliberately reduce stressors anyway.

But what about the impact of diet, this is by all means a blog about food. Many food products and supplements on store shelves claim to boost or support immunity. The first advice I can give is to be skeptical of any such health claim. The European Food Safety Authority has evaluated a range of claims of foods that will boost the immune system, but failed to find proof for most of them. However, EFSA produced favourable opinions for a range of individual micronutrients. These include beta-carotene as a precursor of vitamin A and vitamin A itself, vitamin B6, B12, folate, vitamin C and D, and a range of minerals including zinc, copper, selenium and iron.

So what can you do?

If you suspect that your diet is not providing you with all your micronutrient needs you should seek out foods rich in the above micronutrient. Beta-carotene and other carotenoids can be found in apricots, asparagus, beets, broccoli, cantaloupe, carrots, corn, green peppers, kale, mangoes, turnip and collard greens, nectarines, peaches, pink grapefruit, pumpkin, squash, spinach, sweet potato, tangerines, tomatoes, and watermelon. Vitamin C can be found in berries, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cantaloupe, cauliflower, grapefruit, honeydew, kale, kiwi, mangoes, nectarines, orange, papaya, red, green or yellow peppers, snow peas, sweet potato, strawberries, and tomatoes. Zinc can be found in oysters, red meat, poultry, beans, nuts, other seafood, whole grains, fortified cereals, and dairy products. Selenium can be found in Brazil nuts, tuna, beef, poultry and fortified breads, and other grain products.

So the choice of food is great. And most people eating a varied diet would satisfy the demand for the above micronutrients without much problem. However, should you have a skewed diet, taking a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement in moderation might help in further boosting the immune system.

Leaving science aside for a moment

Chicken soup as a folk remedy (Photo: Wendy Cooper)

Chicken soup as a folk remedy boosting the immune system (Photo: Wendy Cooper)

But you want more you say. Don’t despair, the internet is full of advice on foods that are proposed to improve the immune response. And here you have to rely on your beliefs.

The not-so-skeptic could try chicken soup for fending off sniffles. It is supposed to provide the fluids needed to help fight off viruses, to be a powerful mucus stimulant to help clear nasal congestion as well as thin mucus. It’s also thought to have a mild anti-inflammatory effect than can help ease cold symptoms.

Onion and garlic are both old folk remedies. In combination these flavourful healers are claimed to contain numerous antiseptic and immunity boosting compounds and, as an added plus, garlic might help to open clogged sinuses.

Mushrooms have been claimed to increase the production of cytokines, which help fight off infection. They contain polysaccharides that might support the immune system. The most potent cold- and flu-fighting mushrooms are supposed to be shiitake, maitake and reishi, should you believe in their healing power.

There are no arguments about citrus fruits that clearly contain large doses of vitamin C that can reduce cold symptoms. This trick should not be dismissed.

Less clear are findings that eating a cup of low-fat yoghurt each day would reduce your susceptibility to colds by 25 percent. The claimed beneficial component is the Lactobacillus reuteri bacteria that might block the replication of viruses invading the body when we get sick.

A cup of hot tea is always nice. It doesn’t hurt that it is claimed to be soothing and a great home remedy, helping to thin mucus and ensure proper hydration. For added health benefit, sips of green or black tea are both filled with flavonoids, which are potent antioxidants.

And what about ginger that can soothe a scratchy throat, while containing chemicals called sesquiterpenes that might target rhinoviruses causing the common cold. Ginger is also supposed to be a natural pain and fever reducer and a mild sedative. You could add a couple of tablespoons of shredded ginger root to your tea, or why not make ginger tea.

Honey is supposed to have numerous medicinal properties and because it coats your throat it is a natural way to soothe sore throats. It also has antioxidant and antimicrobial properties to help fight infections from viruses, bacteria, and fungi.

Make recipes more flavourful with spices like black, pepper, garlic, thyme, rosemary, sage and oregano. This might give you an added immune-system boost.

But back to science

The choice is yours. But by all means don’t smoke, maintain a healthy weight, drink alcohol only in moderation and get adequate sleep. And why not take steps to avoid infection, such as washing your hands frequently and cooking meats thoroughly. And maybe add a bit of ginger and chicken soup for good measure.

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Not all doom and gloom

Brain beneficial oils - omega-3 (Photo: Illuminati Owl)

Brain beneficial oils – omega-3 (Photo: Illuminati Owl)

In a previous post we wrote about the negative influence of lead on brain development. It is still a serious issue even if the banning of leaded petrol was a great step forward in remediating the problem long-term. But it is not all doom and gloom. It is possible to help brain development along or at least make sure that we retain normal brain health. The beneficial substances are omega-3 fatty acids. It has been known since the 1930s that omega-3 fatty acids are needed in the diet to support normal growth and development, but appreciation of their health benefits took a dramatic step forward during the 1990s.

There are three omega−3 fatty acids that are important in human physiology: α-linolenic acid (18:3, n−3; ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5, n−3; EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (22:6, n−3; DHA). They have either 3, 5, or 6 double bonds in a carbon chain of 18, 20, or 22 carbon atoms, respectively. Although the body can convert short-chain omega−3 fatty acids to long-chain forms (EPA, DHA), the efficiency is a low 5% in men, but greater in women, possibly to support the demands of the foetus and neonate for DHA.

EFSA supports health claims for DHA

Let’s first focus on DHA. It is the major structural lipid in brain tissue and the central nervous system, and the membrane lipids of brain grey matter and the retina contain very high concentrations of DHA. Since it is an essential fatty acid, that is it cannot be formed by the body except in very limited amounts from ALA, the praise of foods with reasonable levels of DHA is no surprise. In fairly rare support in the health claims area, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in 2011 noted that there was a well established connection between DHA and brain function. EFSA concluded that a cause and effect relationship had been established between the consumption of DHA and the maintenance of normal brain function. It considered that in order to bear such health claim, foods should contain 250 mg of DHA in one or more servings.

Sardines one fish high in omega-3

Sardines – a fish high in omega-3

So how are consumers reacting? A little surprisingly by increasing their intake of omega-3 supplements, not fish and seafood that naturally contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Although other foods with added omega-3 fatty acids like spreadable oils and fats, fish fingers and fortified milk have appeared on the market, for adults sales of omega-3 supplements are about five times higher than sales of foods with added omega-3 counted on a value basis according to Nutraingredients.

However, the situation is different for young children. Here it is clear that parents are determined to optimise their children’s brain development with sales of baby milk formula completely dominated by products with added DHA.

Keeping a healthy brain at old age

It is expected that an ageing global consumer base will drive increased sales of foods with added omega-3 fatty acids as consumers start to realise their benefits. There is potential to target a wide range of brain-health related concerns, including depression. For more than a decade, studies have pointed to an association between fish consumption and depression. Across the globe, rates of depression are lower in populations that eat more fish, particularly omega-3 rich fish such as salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel. Studies have also shown that omega-3 levels are lower in people with depression than in people without. A 2012 study of elderly people with mild cognitive impairment showed that increasing the intake of omega-3 fatty acids reduced depressive symptoms and the risk of progressing to dementia.

Eggs enriched with omega-3

Eggs enriched with omega-3

There might be differences in the effect of different omega-3 fatty acids. A review published in the journal of the American College of Nutrition in 2009 found that studies that used pure DHA or more than 50% DHA reported no effect on depression. Studies using pure EPA or more than 50% EPA found that symptoms improved. On the other hand higher levels of DHA seemed to be able to prevent post-partum depression. So they seem to both be essential to good health, but with slightly different effects. While good sources for ALA are flax seeds and walnuts, fish and seafood and omega-3 enriched eggs are the main food sources for EPA and DHA. And by the way there are many other health effects associated with omega-3 fatty acids than brain health. So keep the good oil flowing.

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Quinoa – the new fad

Andean countries - the origin of quinoa (Photo: Nathan)

Andean countries – the origin of quinoa (Photo: Nathan)

You have probably tried quinoa by now, the new food for the health conscious consumer. That is in the Western World though – quinoa has been around since ancient times and been much appreciated in Andean countries. Now the United Nations has made 2013 the ‘International Year of the Quinoa’ to raise awareness of the nutritional, economic, environmental and cultural values of the crop.

Quinoa is a grain-like crop grown primarily for its edible seeds. It is a pseudocereal rather than a true cereal, or grain, as it is not a member of the true grass family. It is mainly cultivated by farmers in the Andean highlands. It was first domesticated by the Incas around 3,000 years ago. Bolivia and Peru account for more than half of the annual 70,000 tons of quinoa produced in the world with smaller contributions from Colombia and Ecuador. Cultivation is expanding to include Paraguay, Australia, Kenya, India, North America and Europe, although still most of the crop is farmed through traditional means in the Andean region.

Quinoa was of great importance in the diet of pre-Columbian Andean civilisations, secondary only to the potato. It is highly valued for its nutritional qualities. The protein quality and quantity in quinoa seed is often superior to those of more common cereal grains. It is higher in lysine than wheat, and the amino acid content of quinoa seed is considered well-balanced for human and animal nutrition. It includes all nine essential amino acids. Quinoa contains almost twice as much dietary fibre as most other grains and is high in phosphorus, magnesium and iron. It is also a source of calcium, and thus useful for vegans and those who are lactose intolerant. Quinoa is gluten-free and considered easy to digest.

Quinoa in its natural state has a coating of bitter-tasting saponins, making it unpalatable. Most quinoa sold commercially has been processed to remove this coating. This bitterness has beneficial effects during cultivation, as the plant is unpopular with birds and therefore requires minimal protection.

Quinoa salad (Photo: Karen and Brad Emerson)

Quinoa salad (Photo: Karen and Brad Emerson)

Quinoa is used to make flour, soup, breakfast cereal, and alcohol. Most quinoa used by the health-conscious Western population has been sold as whole grain that is cooked separately as rice or in combination dishes such as pilaf. However, quinoa flour works well as a starch extender when combined with wheat flour or grain, or corn meal, in making biscuits, bread, and processed food.

In addition to the general good it is supposed to do for your body, there is talk that quinoa may actually directly benefit your skin and hair. The high levels of magnesium might promote skin elasticity and regenerate skin cells, while vitamin B2 (riboflavin) could build up connective tissues that is integral to cell repair. But so far there is no consistent proof for such claims. As a matter of fact the European Food Safety Authority in an opinion published in 2009 on the effects of quinoa on hair growth stated that a cause and effect relationship could not be established between the consumption of quinoa and maintenance of normal hair.

But everyone to their own beliefs.

There might be downsides to all the good news. The growing global demand for quinoa by health food enthusiasts isn’t just raising prices for the Andean “super grain” and living standards among Bolivian farmers. The scramble to grow more is prompting Bolivian farmers to abandon traditional land management practices, endangering the fragile ecosystem of the arid highlands. And there is some thought that the high prices might encourage export and deplete access to the food by the native population.

However, the United Nations has hailed the ancient grain quinoa as a valuable and extraordinary crop that can help in the push forward on food and nutrition security. It hopes that increased production of and access to nutritious foods like quinoa will aid efforts to reduce world hunger by half.

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