News Briefs – November 2005

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Cranberries Have “Novel” Bacteria-Blocker

Cranberries may be able to block bacteria in a unique way — a way that grape juice, apple juice, green tea, and dark chocolate cannot duplicate.

A U.S. study published in the October 2005 issue of Phytochemistry found that cranberry juice cocktail shows novel bacteria-blocking benefits, even following a single serving. The activity is based in its natural condensed tannins, called proanthocyanidins, or PACs. The researchers note that cranberry contains an unusual “A-type PAC linkage,” which they suggest is responsible for the “anti-adhesion” mechanism. That simply means the bacteria find it difficult to stick and find a home among the body’s cells. Otherwise good foods with B-type PACs showed minimal to non-existent anti-adhesion activity.

“The results of this study show that not all PAC-rich foods are alike. It is the A-type structure of cranberry’s PACs that may be important in protecting against harmful bacteria in the urinary tract,” said Amy Howell, lead author of the report and a research scientist at Rutgers University, in an e-mail interview.

These new findings reinforce earlier research that found the anti-adhesion benefits of a glass of cranberry juice cocktail starts within two hours of consumption and can last for up to 10 hours.
Think this warrants further research and may prove beneficial beyond the urinary tract? You’re right. To further explore this novel health benefit, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is funding 11 cranberry studies, primarily researching the unique activity of cranberry in preventing adhesion of certain disease-causing bacteria to cells and tissues in our bodies.

While much of this program focuses on the well-known effect of cranberry in helping prevent urinary tract infections, the NIH grants will also fund research on cranberry’s bacteria-blocking mechanism at work in maintaining oral health. Other recent findings suggest a similar effect on the bacteria that cause most stomach ulcers.

The study was presented at the Seminar on Health Effects of Cranberries last month in Quebec.

Attention Smokers

“Phytoestrogens are associated with a decrease in risk of lung cancer.” Quite a statement. But that’s the conclusion of a study published in the September 28, 2005 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Lung cancer is a smoking risk. But the lung cancer risk reduction from greater intake of phytoestrogens was found in both smokers and non-smokers.

Phytoestrogens are phenolic compounds that are natural components of certain plant foods and are structurally similar to mammalian estrogens. They have estrogenic activity in humans but their activity is a tiny fraction of that of human estrogens. Consequently, phytoestrogens inhibit the action of human estrogens, which has desirable effects such as reducing the risk of breast cancer. Foods such as beans, cabbage, soybeans, tempeh, grains and hops contain phytoestrogens.

This was a questionnaire-type of study and therefore not as scientific as some other types. The scientists warn there are “limitations and concerns regarding case-control studies of diet and cancer” such as this one. But these conclusions should lead to further studies using what are termed “large-scale, hypothesis-driven, prospective studies.”

Hurricane Katrina and the Toxic Soup

Louisiana did not need any additional environmental problems. With a rapidly disappearing coastline, a number of invasive species that have played havoc with the ecosystem, a Formosan termite crisis in New Orleans of shocking proportions and lax pollution laws, the state had major problems before Katrina and Rita landed. Now, it will have even more.

Katrina has caused the destruction of wetlands in the affected regions, which traditionally have a mitigating effect on hurricane damage acting as a sponge to slow floodwaters. The cavity trees in Louisiana’s national wildlife refuges are 40 to 50% gone — destroying much of the habitat of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. It is unknown how many animals drowned, how many birds were destroyed by high winds, or what the effect of oil and chemical spills will be on wildlife. It is estimated that 200,000 nutrias (Ed. note: a nutria is a large beaverlike rodent) died in the two hurricanes.

The gulf is the source of much of the wild shrimp harvested in the U.S., as well as oysters, crabs, red fish, snapper, Spanish mackerel, flounder and tuna. State officials and local experts claim that concerns about eating these products are overstated.

And what will be the impact of Hurricane Katrina on marine life? Untreated sewage, decomposing bodies of pets and livestock, oil and toxic chemicals originating from domestic, agricultural and industrial sources have mixed into the floodwaters. Those waters have been pumped back into Lake Pontchartrain and into the Gulf of Mexico. The eventual effect that will have on marine and human life is extremely unclear.

But initial test results are encouraging. In mid-September samples of water, fish and sediment in the Gulf of Mexico were collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The agency said in a statement that “the first limited round of tests show that the water quality and the fish in the Gulf of Mexico” did not indicate “elevated exposure to contaminants” from oil spills.

Further tests in mid-October by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) confirmed earlier tests showing that the water isn’t as toxic as was once feared. These tests involve placing aquatic invertebrates and fish in samples of the floodwater being pumped from New Orleans. The water samples were taken in the canals before they were actually pumped into Lake Pontchartrain. After 48 hours in the water, all of the fish survived. This is positive because the water that marine life will actually inhabit will not be pure flood water, but rather a highly diluted solution of flood water and lake water.

DEQ and other agencies will continue to sample fish from Lake Pontchartrain to make sure contamination in the water and sediment pumped from flooded sections of the city have not made aquatic life inedible.

Mould is shaping up to be the biggest health danger to humans. It’s in most homes that were flooded and is posing health dangers that will make many houses tear-downs and force schools and hospitals to do expensive repairs. Standing water created ideal growth conditions and allowed mould to penetrate so deep that experts fear that even studs of many homes are saturated and unsalvageable.

Vanadium Trace Mineral Research

Vanadium — a trace mineral taken in supplements by bodybuilders and for sugar control — might just promote faster recovery from food poisoning or other infections. Or at least that’s what new research suggests.

A team from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign gave the mineral in its typical supplement form, vanadyl sulphate, to mice before they were exposed to a pathogen. The vanadium had a significant effect on how the subjects fought off the disease.

The team also saw a benefit in diabetic mice, which could be important if the same results are demonstrated in people. Diabetics tend to have lingering tiredness and apathy long after some infections have been beaten. And the incidence of diabetes is rising in many parts of the world.

The researchers do not suggest adding vanadium supplements to everyday diets. But their findings could add to the little knowledge on vanadium’s nutritional role.

The body is thought to need an estimated 10 to 20 mg of the mineral each day. It is mostly received from plant material. Vanadium’s use for building muscles has not been confirmed but vanadium has improved insulin sensitivity and reduced blood sugar in diabetics.

Recovery after illness of the vanadium-treated mice, diabetic or not, was 50% faster than that of the untreated control mice. The reason for this observation is not known but in theory, it might have something to do with vanadium’s ability to inhibit tyrosine phosphatases — which help to modulate signalling proteins — in the immune system.

The trial was reported in the October 2005 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Pomegranate for Prostate

Rapidly becoming popular as a health drink, pomegranate juice works against prostate cancer cells in lab dishes and in mice, report researchers at the University of Wisconsin Medical School.

Prostate tumours shrank in mice (that had been infected with human prostate tumours) which drank pomegranate juice. The report appears in the October 11, 2005 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The juice is rich in antioxidants — powerful chemicals that give fruits and vegetables their deep colours and which also act against the chemicals that damage cells, leading to cancer and other disease.

“There is good reason now to test this fruit in humans — both for cancer prevention and for treatment,” said Hasan Mukhtar, PhD, a professor of dermatology who led the study.

It is a leap from treating mice infected with human cancer to treating people. However, other studies have also suggested pomegranate juice and other antioxidant-rich foods may help fight tumours, including those of the prostate. Prostate cancer is the second-biggest cancer killer of men after lung cancer.

By the way, do you know the name of the hand-held explosive device named after the pomegranate? We’ve included more information on this unique fruit in another section of News Briefs titled “More on Pomegranates,” below. Check it out.

All-Natural Preservative

Aloe vera gel could be used to preserve the freshness of fruits and vegetables, suggests research at University of Miguel Hernández in Alicante, Spain.

The researchers dipped table grapes into aloe vera gel and stored them for five weeks at low temperature. Another group of grapes was left untreated and exposed to the same conditions. The untreated grapes deteriorated within a week while the coated grapes remained well-preserved for up to five weeks. The aloe-coated grapes were firmer and had less weight loss and less colour change than the untreated grapes. Gel-treated grapes were also generally superior in taste. And of course, it’s more environmentally friendly than synthetic preservatives.

The gel works primarily by providing a barrier to moisture and oxygen. However, it also seems to inhibit micro-organisms, possibly due to antibiotic and antifungal compounds. The colourless aloe gel used in this study was developed through a special processing technique that maximized the amount of active compounds in the gel. The gel can also be applied as a spray. Although a number of edible coatings have been developed to preserve food freshness, the new coating is believed to be the first to use aloe vera. The study appeared in the October 5, 2005 issue of the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

More on Pomegranates

That’s right, the grenade. That’s the hand-held explosive device named after this fruit. Grenada in Spain was named after the pomegranate as well. When shopping for a good pomegranate — usually on shelves from October to December — look for a large red one that feels heavy for its size. Avoid those with cracks in the skin, which indicates over-ripeness. The juice can be squeezed out just like an orange if you first roll the fruit back and forth on the counter, pressing with your palm to crush the seeds inside; then just halve and squeeze like an orange. Pomegranates keep well: up to three months in the refrigerator and up to three weeks at room temperature. Despite being a fertility symbol, pomegranates don’t proliferate well. If you miss out this fall, you’ll have to wait a full 12 months.

News Notes

· Bird Flu Fears: The U.S. Pentagon is looking at the possibility of using federal troops to enforce a possible quarantine in the event of an outbreak of pandemic bird flu. The H5N1 avian influenza virus has infected more than 100 people, killing 60 since late 2003. Experts fear the virus, which passes to humans from birds, could mutate and start to spread easily from person to person.

· Cancer Often Misdiagnosed: In a review of patient specimens, errors in cancer diagnosis were seen in up to 11.8% of cases, according to a report in the medical journal Cancer. Moreover, in a substantial proportion of cases, the error caused some degree of harm for the patient.

· Veggies For Bones: High consumption of fruit and vegetables — in addition to calcium intake and physical activity — encourages development of total-body bone mineral content (TBBMC), according to a University of Saskatchewan study published in the September 2005 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

· Brain Food: According to a study posted online in the Archives of Neurology, researchers observed that those who ate one fish meal a week had a 10% slower annual decline in thinking, while those who ate two fish meals a week showed a 13% slower annual decline. Rush University Medical Center examined over 3,700 persons aged 65 or older to determine the link between fish and cognitive decline.

· And Brain Vitamins? High levels of homocysteine and low intake of certain B vitamins — including B6, B12 and folate — are linked to cognitive decline, says U.S. research reported in the September issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

· Mad Cow From Urine: The agent that causes mad cow disease and scrapie and chronic wasting disease in deer and elk can be spread through urine, suggested research released October 13 in the journal Science. Cosmetics and pharmaceuticals made using beef products are now checked for brain, nerve matter, spleen and other organ bits because they could contain “mad cow” prions. The researchers suggest urine might be added to the list of watched-for products.

· Caffeine and Pregnancy: Pregnant women should drink no more than three cups of coffee a day, recommend Danish scientists following a large study at the University of Aarhus, of 88,000 pregnant women. To avoid low birth weight or miscarriage, caffeine consumption should be limited to 300 mg, which translates as three cups of coffee or six cups of tea. Full findings are published in the 5 October issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology.

· Caucasians at Risk: Babies born to black or Asian mothers have a better nutritional start in life than their white counterparts, according to new research. They are more likely than Caucasian babies to be breast fed and less likely to have mothers who smoke, according to British findings from the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Institute of Education. That means black and Asian babies may be at lower risk for asthma, wheezing and low birth weight.

· New Fungus Antibiotic: New antibiotics — generally found in soil or fungus bacteria — have not been found in decades. Now, scientists believe they may have discovered a powerful new antibiotic in a fungus found in northern European pine forests. “Plectasin” may be strong enough to fight even the newer drug-resistant bacteria, according to the Danish lab study published in the October 2005 edition of the journal Nature.

· Cleanliness-Coronary Link: The increasingly accepted “hygiene hypothesis” argues that reduced microbial exposure during infancy — because of obsessive and excessive sanitation — causes increased adulthood health problems such as asthma, allergies and other autoimmune diseases. But new research reported by Medscape on September 23 suggests early-life over-cleanliness may be responsible for an explosion in coronary heart disease. A greater number of childhood infections reduce heart disease risk, says the study.

· How Can You Tell A Rat’s Depressed? A chemical found in cannabis can act like an antidepressant, researchers at the University of Saskatchewan have found. They suggest the compound causes nerve cells to regenerate. The Journal of Clinical Investigation study showed rats given a cannabinoid were less anxious and less depressed. But UK experts warned other conflicting research had linked cannabis, and other cannabinoids, to an increased risk of depression and anxiety.

· Meat Slows Weight Loss: Researchers found that dieters on a vegan diet lose nearly 30% more than a control group. In the study, 64 overweight, postmenopausal women were randomly assigned to a low-fat vegan diet or a control diet based on National Cholesterol Education Program guidelines, for 14 weeks. The study was published in the September 2005 issue of the American Journal of Medicine. Vegans eat no animal products of any kind; some may benefit from vitamin B12 supplements.

· Cancer Deaths In Decline: Overall, Americans’ death rates from cancer have dropped 1.1% a year since 1993, a trend that continued in 2002 — the most recent figures available — researchers reported October 11, 2005 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Newsbites

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% 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.

Calcium Content

Myth: Milk may or may not be a serious risk to health, depending on whom you consult — but skim, partly-skimmed and whole milk all offer the same amount of calcium, right?
Truth: If you take the fat out of milk, what rounds out the rest of that litre of skim? Manufacturers replace some of the fat in skim milk with the calcium-rich portions of whole milk. So while a glass of whole milk has about 290 milligrams of calcium, a glass of fortified skim has nearly 352.

Let Garlic Sit

Research suggests that the potential cancer-fighting properties of garlic’s alliinase are 90% 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 some 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, five to 10 minutes — more of them will be around to survive the cooking process.

Speaking Frank-ly

Okay, we’ll admit a hot dog now and again won’t kill you. But what if you eat, on average, just one dog-like item per day? That would mean either one wiener or one sausage or one slice of some other processed meat. Research done on 190,545 people shows that this can cause a 67% increase in your pancreatic cancer risk. Pancreatic cancer is nearly always fatal. If you’re eating pepperoni sticks and sliced meats regularly, you may want to ditch those dogs except for the rare baseball game.

Do You Love Your Pet to Death?

We’re not the only ones whose health is suffering due to excess weight. Six out of 10 dogs and cats in North America may be overweight, according to one study — and vets say overweight pets get more cancer, more diabetes, more high blood pressure and live much shorter lives. They also suffer fewer age-related aches and pains and are more mobile as a result. Owners were tested too. Half of the owners of overweight pets viewed their obese animals as being of normal weight. To test your dog or cat, lightly run your fingers along the rib cage without pressing. If the ribs feel like a washboard directly beneath the fur, your pet’s likely a good weight. Check with a vet to be sure. But if you can only feel your pet’s ribs by pressing down hard, cut back on the size and frequency of treats and give smaller food portions; exercise can help. Put very small amounts of food out for your dog or cat two or three times daily, rather than a large amount once a day. Maintaining a pet’s ideal weight is tough work. It takes restraint. But a little less kindness at feeding time may be the kindest thing you can do for your loved ones — human or animal.

Michael Downey is a columnist with Vitality Magazine, contributing his News Briefs column every month.

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