News Briefs – April 2009

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In the largest study yet of the association between vitamin D and respiratory infections, people with the lowest blood vitamin D levels reported having significantly more recent colds or cases of influenza. The risks were even higher for those with chronic respiratory disorders such as asthma.

Vitamin C has been used for the prevention of colds for decades but little scientific evidence supports its effectiveness. In contrast, evidence has accumulated that vitamin D plays a key role in the immune system. Wintertime deficiency of vitamin D, which the body produces in response to sunlight, has been implicated in the seasonal increase in colds and ‘flu, and previous small studies have suggested an association between low blood levels of vitamin D and a higher risk of respiratory infections.

The newest study analyzed blood levels of vitamin D from almost 19,000 adult and adolescents, selected to be representative of the overall U.S. population. A summary of the study can be found at:


Researchers say taking a special vitamin supplement during pregnancy could prevent hydrocephalus (one of the most common birth brain defects) which involves excessive accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid in the cavities of the baby’s brain. Tests on rats showed that a combination of folates dramatically reduced the rates of hydrocephalus. In fact, they even seemed to work after the condition already had started to develop.

But the work, published in the March 2009 edition of the Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology, is still at an early stage. The team from the universities of Manchester and Lancaster hope to get permission to start clinical trials in pregnant women with babies diagnosed with hydrocephalus. The folate supplement itself is not currently available; so researchers are seeking the support of a company willing to produce it as a pill.

At present hydrocephalus affects one in 1,000 live births. There is no satisfactory treatment for it other than surgical diversion of the fluid through a tube, known as a shunt, from the brain to the abdomen or heart. However, shunts are permanent and prone to infection and blockage, which means patients may require several operations during their lifetime.


A vegetarian diet may help to protect against cancer, a UK study suggests. Analysis of data from 52,700 men and women showed that those who did not eat meat had significantly fewer cancers overall than those who did. But surprisingly, the researchers also found a higher rate of colorectal cancer (a disease linked with eating red meat) among the vegetarians.

Writing in the March 16, 2009 issue of American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the team said the findings warranted further research. Although it’s widely recommended that people eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day to reduce their risk of cancer and other diseases, there is very little evidence looking specifically at a vegetarian diet.

The study suggests there might be some reduction in many cancers in vegetarians and fish-eaters. In the latest study, researchers looked at men and women aged 20 to 89 recruited in the UK in the 1990s. They divided participants into meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans.

During follow-up, there were fewer cancers than would be expected in the general sampling population, probably because they were a healthier than average group of people.

But there was a significantly lower incidence of all cancers among the fish-eaters and vegetarians compared with the meat-eaters.

For colorectal cancer, however, that trend was reversed with vegetarians having a significantly higher incidence of the condition than the other groups. The researchers were surprised at the finding, which contradicts previous evidence linking eating lots of red meat with this disease. The study doesn’t support the idea that vegetarians would have lower rates of colorectal cancer and this requires further study.

When you look at the detail of their diets, the meat-eaters, to which the vegetarians in this group were compared, are eating only moderate amounts of meat each day, well within the recommendations. So colorectal cancer may be found to be linked only to large intakes of meat.

Both groups also just about met the recommendation to eat at least five portions of fruits and vegetables a day.


  • Canadian children deficient in omega-3? A study published in the March, 2009 issue of the Journal of Nutrition found that most Canadian children are deficient in Omega-3 EPA/DHA. The study found that 78 per cent of the children trialed were not receiving adequate amounts of Omega-3 EPA and DHA in their diets. Researchers from the University of Guelph in Ontario found that the median daily consumption of Omega-3 EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) was only 31.5 mg, in a sample group of four to eight year olds. In this study researchers used the suggested daily intake recommended by the Institute of Medicine which is only 90 mg of Omega-3 EPA/DHA per day. Even using this low recommendation level, the study shows that 78% of the sampled Canadian children were well below the recommended level. The study also notes that the recommendation by the American Dietician Association and the Dieticians of Canada is 351 mg of EPA/DHA per day. Based on this recommendation 90% of the children in the study were deficient in Omega-3 EPA/DHA.
  • Baby bottle chemical removed: The makers of babies’ bottles in the US are to remove a controversial chemical from their products, amid growing concern over its possible effects. The six manufacturers say they are reacting to consumer demand by removing Bisphenol A (BPA) from their bottles. There has been growing concern about the possible effects of BPA leaching into babies’ feed when bottles are heated. The current advice for parents is not to pour boiling liquid directly into bottles, not to microwave them or use scratched or worn ones. Research carried out at Exeter University found that adults with high levels of BPA in their system were more prone to heart disease and diabetes. In 2008, Canada formally declared BPA a hazardous substance and announced plans to ban the import or sale of bottles containing it.
  • Wine cuts esophagus pre-cancer? A glass of wine a day may lower the risk of developing a disorder called Barrett’s esophagus, a condition of the lining of the passage running from the mouth to the stomach that can become cancerous. The study was published in the March 2009 issue of the medical journal Gastroenterology.
  • Green tea helps gums: Research in the March 2009 issue of the Journal of Periodontology shows that a cup of green tea per day may help keep gum disease at bay.
  • Obesity risk rivals smoking: Being severely obese is almost as hazardous to health as a lifetime of smoking, shortening life by a decade, a group of Oxford University experts has warned. Even moderate obesity cuts life expectancy by about three years, says the Clinical Trial Service Unit. The findings, published in March 2009 edition of The Lancet, come from data on almost a million people from around the world. Avoiding middle age spread could add years to life. (However, cigarette smoking is still the number one cause of cancer death.)
  • Sleep influences diabetes risk: Burning the candle at both ends during the working week could raise a person’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes, New York researchers say. People who slept fewer than six hours a night were more likely to develop a condition that precedes diabetes than those sleeping for longer, they found. They said the study supported mounting evidence that cutting back on sleep can have a profound impact on health. The six-year study was presented March 12th at the American Heart Association conference.
  • Fat neck syndrome? Measuring the thickness of a person’s neck may provide as many clues to their risk of developing heart problems as measuring their waist, a study says. Researchers from the Framingham Heart Study found even those with relatively trim waistlines appeared to be at greater risk if they had larger necks. Risk was defined as having lower levels of “good” cholesterol for instance, or higher levels of blood glucose. The results were presented to a March 12th meeting of the American Heart Association.


Very new research from Winnipeg, Manitoba, has just found that proteins in the common garden pea may provide a natural remedy against high blood pressure and chronic kidney disease (CKD). The pea protein could be used as a natural food product such as an additive or dietary supplement to help the millions of people worldwide that suffer from these conditions, suggested the researchers.

Rotimi Aluko, PhD, food chemist at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, presented the findings at the American Chemical Society’s 237th National Meeting which took place March 22 – 26 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Hypertension or high blood pressure is a major risk factor for people with chronic kidney disease (CKD). Estimates suggest that the number of people with CKD is on the rise, now standing at 13% of North American adults. This compares with 10% in the 1990s. CKD is difficult to treat, and many patients progress to “end-stage” kidney disease and have to have dialysis or a kidney transplant.

Peas have long held prime position as “nutrition superstars.” They contain a healthy amount of protein, fibre and vitamins and come in a “low-fat, cholesterol-free package.”

The yellow garden pea is a variety used in many parts of the world and is popular with vegetarians, being a great basis for a soup and eastern dishes like dal, where the peas are cooked to a thick puree and flavoured with spices.

Aluko told Vitality that: “In people with high blood pressure, our protein could potentially delay or prevent the onset of kidney damage.” It could also help people with kidney disease live longer by helping them maintain their blood pressure, he added.

For the study, the team extracted pea protein hydrolysate from the yellow garden pea and fed a small dose each day to laboratory rats bred to have a severe type of kidney disease called polycystic kidney disease. After 8 weeks, the rats on the pea protein diet showed a 20% drop in blood pressure compared to diseased rats that had been fed a normal diet. This is significant because a majority of CKD patients actually die from cardiovascular complications that arise from the high blood pressure associated with kidney malfunction.

In both rats and humans, polycystic kidney disease severely reduces the output of urine, preventing the kidneys from being able to rid the body of toxins. In this study, the rats fed on pea extract showed a 30% increase in urine production, restoring it to within normal levels.

Aluko called this a “huge improvement,” and said the rats showed no adverse side effects from eating the pea protein. The researchers now hope to test the pea protein on humans with mild hypertension. Speculating on how the pea protein achieves the effects they found, the researchers suggested it stimulates the production of COX-1, a protein that boosts kidney function, but they don’t know for sure.

However, eating yellow peas in their natural state won’t give you the same health benefits as the pea protein they extracted in the lab, which can only be activated with special enzymes. If the human trials are successful, the researchers envisage their special protein being commercially available within the next two to three years. The extract could be made into pill form or into powder for adding to food and drinks.

The research was funded through the Canadian government’s Advanced Foods and Materials Network of Centre of Excellence (AFMnet). Nutri-Pea Ltd, a private Canadian company that specializes in making food products from yellow peas, also took part in the project.


  • Açai berry “free trial” scam: The Center for Science in the Public Interest is warning consumers not to enroll online in supposedly “free trials” of diet products made with the trendy Brazilian berry açai (pronounced a-sigh-EE). First, there’s no evidence to suggest that açai pills will help shed pounds, flatten tummies, cleanse colons, enhance sexual desire or perform any of the other commonly advertised functions. More important, thousands of consumers have had trouble stopping recurring charges from appearing on their credit cards after they cancel their free trials.
  • Intensive care errors ‘frequent’: Errors in the administration of injected medication in intensive care units occur frequently, a study across 27 countries suggests. Austrian researchers collected data on more than 1,300 patients, 200 of them in the UK, over a 24-hour period. Of the 441 patients affected, seven suffered permanent harm and five died partly because of the error, the March 13, 2009 issue of the British Medical Journal reported.


Don’t cook garlic unless you let it sit.

Research suggests that the potential cancer-fighting properties of garlic’s alliinase are 90 per cent blocked by heating. So if you don’t want to chow down on raw garlic, how can you cook with it and still benefit from the anti-carcinogenic activity many believe it offers? Simple, Let it sit for a while. The alliinase is only activated once the garlic has been crushed, chopped or chewed and exposed to air. But the longer after being chopped up, that garlic is allowed to sit before it’s heated, the more alliinase compounds are formed. And if you allow more of these compounds to form—over say, 10 minutes—more of them will be around to survive the cooking process.

Nursing or ‘on the bottle’?

Myth: The traditional wisdom is that having a drink helps a nursing mom produce more milk.

Truth: Researchers in Philadelphia found that alcohol may actually hinder lactation in some women. Breastfeeding mothers made 13 per cent less milk when they drank alcohol in orange juice shortly before nursing than when they had plain OJ. The alcohol content of the mixed drink was equivalent to that of two glasses of wine.

Setting the record straight: brown sugar

Myth: Brown sugar is better for your health than regular white sugar.

Truth: There are numerous varieties and the darker versions are always seen as being less harmful to health. But sugar is sugar. The only difference between white and brown versions is that brown sugar includes a tiny amount of molasses, added for the sole purpose of giving color. Any nutrients in the molasses are too insignificant to measure.

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