News Briefs – April 2006

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Federal standards fail to guard against damage to bones and teeth from fluoride in drinking water, says a new study by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

Released March 22, 2006, the report assesses the controversial practice of adding fluoride to drinking water. About 60% of Americans and 40% of Canadians currently receive fluoridated water from their household taps, including residents of Toronto. Originally added to protect teeth from decay in the days before manufacturers began adding fluoride to toothpaste, many groups have questioned the hazards of long-term accumulation within bones — especially now that fluoride is ingested from toothpaste (children often swallow it), water, soft drinks and all food products cooked or made with water. Pitted, discoloured teeth with broken enamel can be a condition known as dental fluorosis and occurs increasingly due to an excess intake of fluoride from all sources combined. In other parts of the world where fluoride is found naturally in high concentrations in water and soil, weak and deformed bones are common at an early age. But the small amount added regularly to North American drinking water has been considered by most groups to be within safe limits. Most soil and water tables on this continent are considered to hold fluoride in amounts too low to cause problems. Until now.

An expert panel at the NAS concluded that about 200,000 Americans might be consuming water that is at or above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) safety standard due to the naturally-occurring fluoride found in certain areas.

Children are at particular risk in communities with water at or near the EPA limit, where about 10% of young people develop severe tooth enamel fluorosis, the report said.

The report does not examine risks or benefits from the purposely fluoridated water that millions of North Americans drink, which contains about one quarter the government’s limit, or less. That limit is a substantial 4 milligrams of fluoride per litre also expressed as 4 parts per million (ppm); Toronto’s water is fluoridated at about .8 ppm. But children in some areas get a riskier 4 ppm, says the NAS study, due to naturally-occurring fluoride.

Some groups such as the Fluoride Action Network (FAN) have long opposed fluoridation of water under any circumstances, partly due to a lack of evidence that fluoride protects teeth against decay and partly because of the long-term risk of bone cancer and skeletal fluorosis. FAN reminds the public that parents should not let children apply their own toothpaste and that — as the label clearly recommends — only a pea-sized amount should be used. Above all, children should be monitored to ensure they do not swallow any toothpaste.

The NAS report does not get into that debate. Instead it seems to suggest that fluoridation is not a one-size-fits-all solution and that local fluoride conditions should be taken into account before adding even more fluoride to public drinking water.

For more information on fluoride from the Fluoride Action Network (FAN), visit:


Ginger could help protect against kidney damage, a condition that threatens one in three diabetics. These are the results of an animal study published in the March 10, 2006 issue of Food Chemistry. The ginger plant (Zingiber officinale) is a rich source of antioxidants, including gingerols, shogaols, zingerones and other ketone derivatives. It has long been used as a remedy for nausea, especially associated with morning sickness.

The new study assessed the effects of ginger on the blood antioxidant levels and kidney health of diabetic rat models. After eight weeks of supplementation the researchers reported: “Antioxidant capacity in the ginger supplemented rats was higher when compared to the other groups.” The researchers proposed that the ginger might work by regulating natural blood vessel balance. More study is needed before any firm conclusions can be drawn. Questions also remain about the size of the dose, and whether smaller doses would be equally effective.

Ginger has been given a class one safety rating by the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), indicating that a wide dosage range is safe.


The “five-a-day” message is well known but it doesn’t seem to be filtering down to everyday life. Recent studies have shown that consumers in both Europe and the U.S. are failing to meet recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO) to eat 400 grams of fruit and vegetables a day.

A new study, from the Instituto Nacional de Salud Publica, Mexico, reports that women who ate a diet high in fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, carrots and leafy vegetables, considerably reduced their risk of asthma.

Published in the March 2006 issue of the journal Thorax, the researchers reported the results of an investigation of 68,535 women’s dietary habits. After 11 years of follow-up, the study found that women who consumed more than 90 grams per day of leafy vegetables had a 22% lower risk of asthma than those who ate less than 40 grams per day.

Similar risk reductions were also seen for tomatoes (20%) and carrots (18%).

The researchers also reported that women who used dietary supplements were more likely to be thinner, eat significantly more fruit and vegetables, but also more likely to report allergies. The study also noted that leafy vegetables are a rich source of folate, which has been linked to reduction in DNA damage due to oxidative stress.

The strengths of the study include the large number of prevalent asthma cases and the wide variability of the reported diets.


Modern medicine is redefining old age and may soon allow people to live regularly beyond the current “upper limit” of 120 years, experts said March 15. It used to be thought there was some built-in limit on life span, but a group of scientists meeting at Oxford University for a conference on life extension and enhancement consigned that idea to the trash can.

Richard Miller, PhD, of the Michigan University Medical School said tests on mice and rats — genetically very similar to humans — showed lifespan could be extended by 40%, simply by limiting calorie consumption. This ongoing lifestyle change reduces caloric intake, often by as much as 25%, while maintaining full nutrient intake, usually with the use of supplements.

Translated into human terms, that would mean average life expectancy in Western countries could rise from near 80 to about 112 years — with many individuals living a lot longer.

Aubrey de Grey, a biomedical gerontologist from Cambridge University, goes much further. He believes the first person to live to 1,000 has already been born and told the meeting that periodic repairs to the body using stem cells, gene therapy and other techniques could eventually stop the aging process entirely.

De Grey argues that if each repair lasts 30 or 40 years, science will advance enough by the next “service” date that death can be put off indefinitely — a process he calls strategies for “engineered negligible senescence.”

His maverick ideas are dismissed by others in the field, such as Tom Kirkwood, PhD, director of Newcastle University’s Center of Aging and Nutrition, as little more than a thought experiment. Kirkwood said researchers had only scratched the surface in understanding how life expectancy worked.


A Canadian study of 12,082 children suggests those treated with antibiotics under the age of one are twice as likely to develop asthma in childhood. And researchers writing in the U.S. journal Chest found that additional courses of antibiotics in the first year of life increased asthma risk still further.

Earlier studies suggested the drugs may affect the way the immune system works. Experts believe they kill off beneficial bacteria in the intestine and that this may lead to changes in the way the body deals with disease.

Lead study author Carlo Marra of the University of British Columbia said: “Antibiotic use in children has been found to coincide with an increased incidence of childhood asthma.”

Although antibiotics are commonly used to treat ear and respiratory infections and bronchitis, not every childhood infection needs antibiotics. Current guidelines recommend that children under age two receive an antibiotic for diagnosed ear infection. However, the majority of upper respiratory tract infections and bronchitis are viral — for which antibiotics are ineffective.


Getting too little — or too much — sleep may increase a person’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes, new research suggests.

“Sleep duration may be a novel risk factor for the development of clinical diabetes,” conclude researchers in the March 2006 issue of the journal, Diabetes Care. Men getting no more than six hours of sleep per night, as well as those getting more than eight hours of shut eye per night, are at significantly increased risk for developing diabetes, compared to men getting seven to eight hours of sleep each night.

The risk of diabetes is roughly twice as high in men reporting short sleep duration and more than three times as high in men reporting long sleep duration — compared with men sleeping the moderate seven to eight hours nightly.

This same distribution of risk with respect to sleep duration has been reported previously for coronary heart disease, all cause mortality and diabetes in women.


Important research was published in the March 2006 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Swedish researchers have determined that subjects with the highest amount of dietary folate intake — 350 micrograms per day or more ingested as folate-rich food — were 75% less likely to develop pancreatic cancer compared with subjects with the lowest amount of dietary folate — less than 200 micrograms per day.

The researchers note that there was no association between folic acid derived from supplements and pancreatic cancer risk. Subjects who took folate supplements of 300 micrograms per day or more had the same risk compared to subjects who did not take supplements.

It may seem confusing that folate from food produces an effect that is not seen with folate from supplements. However, some health effects can derive from folic acid itself — in which case it would likely not matter whether it came from food or pill. But other health effects derive from a combination of folic acid and other phytonutrients compounds in folate-rich foods; in these instances, folic acid supplements would not produce the synergistic effect of both folate and the various folate-related components in food. Foods containing a lot of folate include: Brussels sprouts, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, lentils and especially oranges or orange juice.

The number of deaths from stroke in North America has dropped by 5% since the introduction of folic acid fortification, while figures in the non-fortifying UK have not changed. This illustrates a condition — stroke — the risk of which may be reduced by folate alone.


The lethal strain of bird flu poses a greater challenge to the world than any infectious disease, including AIDS, and has cost 300 million farmers over $10 billion in its spread through poultry around the world, the World Health Organization (WHO) said March 8. The H5N1 strain of bird flu in humans has evolved into two separate strains, U.S. researchers reported, which could indicate the virus will soon mutate; mutating is the first step in developing a human-to-human contagious strain — which would definitely result in a pandemic. Reports that a cat contracted bird flu and has not fallen ill could mean the virus is adapting to mammals and poses a potentially higher risk to humans, a WHO official said. Bird flu has killed five young people in Azerbaijan. Confirmation of the five deaths takes the World Health Organization toll from the virus to 103. U.S. schools — recognized incubators of respiratory diseases among children — are being told to plan for the possibility of an outbreak of bird flu and to make prepare to teach kids who have been sent home.


• Oily fish fights prostate cancer spread: According to a study published in the March 2006 edition of the British Journal of Cancer, a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids might help to inhibit the spread of early prostate cancer. Coincidentally, vitamin E succinate (VES) — a vitamin E analog — inhibits prostate cancer, according to a study published in the March 2006 issue of the International Journal of Cancer.

• Dying for cookies: Increased demand for palm oil is fueling destruction of the rainforest habitats of Sumatran and Bornean orangutans, pushing those and other already endangered species even closer to extinction, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). In a full-page ad in the March 21, 2006 edition of the New York Times, CSPI says orangutans are literally dying for cookies, as food manufacturers are replacing partially hydrogenated oils with palm oil in cookies, crackers, cereals, and microwave popcorn. For the first time in 20 years, the amount of soda sold in the United States has dropped.

• Soda wars: Soft drink sales usually go up annually. But last year, sales of cases of pop went down 0.7%, to just over 10 billion cases. Part of the reason for the decrease is attributed to the criticisms of soda’s contribution to the growing problem of obesity among teens and children. Other reasons cited have been dislike of the taste and concerns about artificial sweeteners. Some forecasters predict that soda sales will continue to decline at a small but steady pace over the next few years. Soft drinks are still the most consumed beverage in America, but they are losing ground to bottled water, sports drinks and energy drinks.

• Atkins risk: The popular high-protein, low-carbohydrate, Atkins diet could be linked to a life-threatening complication, according to doctors who published a case report on it March 17, 2006, in the British medical journal, The Lancet. Doctors from New York University wrote about a 40-year-old woman who developed a dangerous condition called ketoacidosis, a buildup of acids called ketones in the blood, which can lead to patients falling into a coma.

• Sex while asleep? Strange behaviour by insomniacs taking prescription drugs — ranging from binge eating to having sex while asleep — have raised safety questions about anti-insomnia medications such as Sanofi-Aventis’ Ambien. Researchers haven’t found a cause for the sleep-related eating disorder, although patients with a prior history of sleep-walking and women may be at higher risk, Michael Cramer Vornemann, MD, lead researcher at the University of Minnesota Medical School and the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, told the “Today” show on March 15.

• Sweet colon: Researcher published in the March 2006 issue of BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine examined the effect of honey on gut microflora in mice. The study observed that colon bifido bacteria and lactobacilli counts were increased markedly in the study group receiving a diet supplemented with honey.

• Selenium and colorectal cancer: A study coordinated by the National Cancer Institute suggests higher consumption of selenium may reduce the risk of advanced colorectal cancer. There was a significant inverse association between blood levels of selenium and advanced colorectal cancer among recent smokers. This relationship was not found in nonsmokers and former smokers who had quit smoking more than 10 years before. The study concluded selenium may reduce the risk of developing advanced colorectal adenoma, particularly in the high-risk group of recent smokers.

• Nipple piercing death: A 17-year-old Newfoundland girl is believed to have died from toxic shock syndrome — and the infection that killed her may have resulted from a nipple piercing, the province’s chief medical examiner says. The report appeared in Canadian Press on March 10, 2006. Toxic shock syndrome is characterized by sudden fever, chills, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle aches and rash, says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The cause is usually toxins produced by strains of Staphylococcus aureus, a bacterium commonly found on the skin and on mucous membranes, such as the mouth.

• Cocoa anyone? Intake of cocoa may lower blood pressure and help prevent cardiovascular and all-cause mortality, according to data from The Zutphen Elderly Study in the March 23, 2006 journal, Archives Internal Medicine.


A-Peeling Fruit

Myth: Eating a poppy-seed bagel or muffin can cause you to fail a drug test.

Fact: Opiate drugs, such as heroin, morphine and codeine, are made from the seeds of opium poppies. The poppy seeds used in baked goods often come from the same or a similar type of poppy. While the amount you’d typically consume would be too small for you to feel the effects, it can produce a positive result in a urine drug test. Several people have lost their jobs solely because they ate a poppy-seed muffin or bagel for breakfast before taking a drug test. As a result, the test is being revised to account for this eventuality.

Don’t Get Burned

Paprika is a well-known and beneficial spice. But it can be altered easily to save manufacturing costs, by blending in less expensive ingredients. For example, some companies pad their paprika with “defatted capsicum material.”

Legal identity standards for spices prohibit this kind of blending if the product is then labelled as “paprika.” But if it is blended with other ingredients, paprika could legally be sold as “chili powder.”

So why should you read these spice labels carefully? If paprika is retailing for $1.60 an ounce and chili powder is selling for just $0.66 an ounce, the difference transforms an honest transaction into an illegal hoax.

Doesn’t that just burn you up?

Here’s Our Beef

Myth: Low-fat ground beef will slash your fat intake.

Fact: There is no such thing as low-fat ground beef. It’s a labelling trick. The word “lean” on most ground beef labels refers to the non-fat portion of the meat. Three ounces of cooked, ground beef that is labelled “80% lean” contains a third of a day’s worth of saturated fat. That is not lean. Even “90% lean” ground beef has about 20% of a day’s saturated fat.

Do you really want to slash the saturated fat? Ask your butcher to grind up turkey breast, but without the skin. Remember: Packaged products that list “turkey” as their only ingredient likely still contain skin. The skin is considered part of the turkey.

What’s Up, Doc?

Come on, doc. Why have you never mentioned it? Unlike some vegetables, carrots are more nutritious when eaten cooked instead of raw.

Because raw carrots have tough cellular walls, the body is able to convert less than 25% of their beta-carotene into vitamin A. Cooking partially dissolves the cellulose-thickened cell walls, freeing up nutrients. So long as the cooked carrots are served as part of a meal that provides some fat, the body can absorb more than half of the carotene.

Also, carrots are usually cut into pieces before boiling or steaming. As a result, half the proteins and soluble carbohydrates will be lost in the water. So it is more advisable to cook carrots whole and then slice them up.

The one exception to the better-when-cooked rule for carrots is juicing. This also breaks down the membrane walls and releases nutrients.

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