News Briefs – November 2006

PAIR CERTAIN FOODS TO BEAT CANCER

Evidence announced by the American Institute for Cancer Research on October 23, 2006 seems to suggest that phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables may work synergistically. That is, the combined effect of some pairs of produce items may be much greater than the total benefit from each separately.

As one example, research done with tomatoes and broccoli makes the point. Lycopene – found in tomatoes, watermelon and other foods – is showing promise as providing some protection against prostate cancer. John Erdman, PhD, from the University of Illinois at Urbana tested four groups of rats. One group received tomato powder; a second group consumed broccoli powder; a third group was fed both powders; and the final group was fed a normal diet supplemented with finasteride, which is a drug prescribed for an enlarged prostate, a non-cancerous condition.

The rats fed both tomato and broccoli powders showed much less tumour growth than the other groups – including the group receiving the prostate drug. Although studies will continue in order to furnish confirmation of these results, Erdman told Vitality that: “Separately, tomatoes and broccoli appear to have enormous cancer-fighting potential. But together, they maximize the cancer-fighting effect.” This is just one example.

Rui Hai Liu, Ph.D., associate professor at Cornell University, found that cranberries had the strongest phytochemical activity of 11 fruits he studied. However, combining cranberries with the right partner fruits can boost this activity even higher, said Liu in response to our questions. “The antioxidant activity of cranberry and apple together is much higher than the separate measurements for these fruits,” he said.

There are over 8,000 phytonutrients in plant foods, added Liu, but it may take a long time to determine the various combinations that boost their individual anti-cancer impact. Meanwhile, he agreed with our conclusion that it is best to combine as many different produce items as possible. Think salads of many colours. And fruit salad too.

NEW JUICE MAY UNCLOG ARTERIES

The Sea Buckthorn berry is a source of compounds proven to lower cholesterol, which could in turn prevent clogging of the arteries – but until now, extraction methods produced a poor-quality juice that does not contain enough of the key compounds to have much impact on health. That is the conclusion of a report in the October 2006 issue of the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture.

Until now? Yes, according to the study, a team of researchers at the Regional Research Laboratory in Trivandrum, India, has solved the problem by developing an extraction technique which uses continuous high speed centrifugation to separate the juice from the solid sludge. The process retains a significant proportion of the key antioxidant chemicals that scientists believe can aid the circulatory system by blocking the action of harmful LDL, or bad, cholesterol.

Analysis showed that – although not yet available – the clear juice extracted using this technique contains more than 40 per cent of the original polyphenol content from the whole sea buckthorn berry, along with 50% of the original flavonoids and 70% of the vitamin C. The remaining pulp is also rich in antioxidant carotenoids, vitamin E and heart-healthy plant sterols.

In addition to its cholesterol reduction ability, the sea buckthorn berry may reduce harmful chemicals in the blood, lower the tendency to clot and help protect LDL cholesterol from oxidation, which can be a factor in coronary heart disease. However, research has not yet determined whether these benefits remain when extracts of sea buckthorn are included in other foods as an additive. Two companies have shown interest in the new extraction process, including one in Mongolia. The berry is commonly used for health drinks in Tibet, Mongolia, Russia and China.

ANTI-ALZHEIMER’S DIET?

Well, maybe not. But a study in the October 10, 2006 issue of Archives of Neurology found that the risk of the memory-destroying disease may be lower by up to 68 per cent among those who pursue the Mediterranean diet – a regimen heavy in fruits and vegetables as well as olive oil, and very low in red meat. Columbia University Medical Center in New York conducted the study, in which the average age of the 1,984 adults studied was 76.

Because of growing evidence that the Mediterranean diet cuts the risk of stroke, heart disease and diabetes, and because it contains a lot of plant sterols linked to lower bad cholesterol, you might be tempted to assume that this diet lowers Alzheimer’s risk by improving heart health. However, when researchers adjusted for vascular risk factors – in other words, eliminating coronary factors from the analysis – the strong link between the Mediterranean diet and a reduced Alzheimer’s risk remained. This indicates the diet protects against Alzheimer’s in some other, as-yet-unknown way.

In a second study in the same issue of the same journal, researchers at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm reported that omega-3 fatty acid supplements may slow mental decline in some patients with very mild Alzheimer’s disease, but do not appear to affect those with more advanced cases. Omega-3 oil is found in fatty fish such as salmon, tuna and sardines. The Mediterranean diet often includes a significant amount of fish.

And yet another study in the same issue was related to memory. French scientists reported on a study showing that overweight middle-aged adults score more poorly on tests of memory, attention and learning ability than their thinner peers. The researchers speculate that – unlike the Mediterranean-Alzheimer’s link – today’s higher rates of cardiovascular disease and diabetes may have a direct effect on general mental decline.

FIRST SPINACH, THEN LETTUCE?

Feel free to eat spinach again. The outbreak caused by E. coli-contaminated spinach made 200 people seriously ill, killed at least three and caused the kidneys to shut down in 31 cases. The precise source has been narrowed down to cow manure – often used as a fertilizer on organic crops instead of synthetic fertilizer – found on one of three farms owned by Natural Selection Foods, the world’s largest organic grower.

But these farms’ crops have been ploughed under and it is unlikely that any tainted and packaged spinach remains on store shelves. Canned spinach is safe because of the high temperatures used in canning. By some reports, the scare has prompted consumers to start buying locally grown produce instead of the imported variety from California.

Also, lettuce that may have been infected with E. coli was recalled in October in the US. Like the tainted spinach, the suspect lettuce originated on a (different) organic farm in California. Removal of the lettuce from store shelves is now almost complete.

CINNAMON LOWERS BLOOD SUGAR

Diabetics might be able to reduce their blood sugar by using a cinnamon extract, according to a new study in the October 2006 issue of the European Journal of Clinical Investigation.

People with diabetes have high blood sugar levels because their cells don’t respond to insulin, the hormone that signals when glucose – the form sugar takes in the blood – needs to be stored. Over time, the extra glucose in the blood damages tissues and general health. Eating a high-fibre, low-sugar diet and exercising are important ways to keep blood-glucose levels normal. Cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia) is an aromatic herb with sweet and warming qualities. Animal studies and preliminary studies in humans have previously suggested that cinnamon has blood glucose-lowering effects that could help people with type 2 diabetes.

In the latest study, 65 people with diabetes being treated only with diet or oral medications – none treated with insulin – were given either a cinnamon extract equivalent to 3 grams of cinnamon per day, or a placebo, for four months. Fasting blood-glucose levels dropped 10 per cent in those who used the cinnamon but did not change in the placebo group. Blood-glucose levels decreased the most in those who had the highest levels at the beginning of the study.

Researchers recommended further studies to clarify whether cinnamon works well enough to be used as a first-line treatment, along with diet and exercise, or whether it should be used in conjunction with oral medications. Meantime, cinnamon is a safe and inexpensive addition to a program designed to help manage high blood sugar from diabetes.

The number of people being diagnosed with adult-onset, or type 2, diabetes has grown to about 150 million people worldwide.

News Notes

• Veggies keep seniors’ brains sharp: In a study published in the October 22, 2006 issue of the journal Neurology, older people who ate more than two servings of vegetables daily scored about “five years younger” on a scale of mental sharpness at the end of the six-year study than those who ate few or no vegetables.

• Two drinks for healthy men: The October 2006 edition of the Archives of Internal Medicine details research that concludes that two drinks a day can help prevent heart attacks in even healthy men – non-smoking men of healthy weight who exercise, and who eat lots of produce, fish and polyunsaturates, and very little transfats and red meat. Moderate alcohol consumption seems to boost good cholesterol in the blood. Women were not included in the study. In other research, scientists from Johns Hopkins University discovered that resveratrol – a substance in red grape skins and seeds and in red wine—protects the mouse brain in advance from stroke damage, by about 40 per cent.

• FDA warns against diabetes “cures”: The US Food and Drug Administration and the US Federal Trade Commission – in a project launched in partnership with Canadian and Mexican authorities – have sent warning letters to about 180 online marketers of dietary supplements alleged to be fraudulent. No products can cure, treat or prevent diabetes, stressed the joint October 19 media release. About one quarter of the firms have since changed their claims or removed the offending web page.

• Chinese Club Moss: Ever heard of it? Let’s hope we hear a lot more. The University of North Carolina Hospitals are participating in a national clinical trial on Chinese club moss – sponsored by the prestigious National Institute on Aging – to see if it could help treat Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. Patients will receive either a placebo or dose of Huperzine A – an alkaloid extracted from the plant. Stay tuned.

• Pot users warned of brain damage: A new sci-fi TV advertisement in the UK is attempting to re-educate the public about the damage cannabis can do to the brain. The government drug helpline, Frank, says studies show that prolonged use of cannabis can lead to mood swings, poor motivation, and paranoia. A recent study found that 8 out of 10 of those experiencing psychiatric disorders for the first time were heavy users of marijuana. Meanwhile a study in the October 2006 issue of Molecular Pharmaceutics suggests that THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, may help prevent Alzheimer’s.

• Here’s a real jolt: Ever had that feeling your decaffeinated coffee still gives you a jolt? It’s not your imagination. Almost all decaf coffee contains some caffeine, a new University of Florida study found. Five cups of decaf is the same as 1 cup of regular coffee. There are implications here for people told to avoid caffeine because of certain medical conditions such as high blood pressure, kidney disease or anxiety disorders. The study was published in the October 2006 issue of the Journal of Analytical Toxicology.

• It’s about your backslide, not your backside: According to a statement accompanying a study in the October 12, 2006 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, stepping on the scales every day can be a big factor in keeping your weight loss program on track. “But stepping on a scale isn’t enough,” wrote Rena Wing, PhD. “You have to use that information to change your behaviour, whether than means eating less or walking more. Paying attention to weight [daily], and taking quick action if it creeps up, seems to be the secret to success.”

• TCM to be standardized: China has announced plans to standardize 500 traditional Chinese medicine remedies and procedures over the next five years, including remedies, procedures, traditional medical terms and acupuncture standards. The goal is to increase acceptance of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) among “foreigners”.

• Tomato vs. lycopene: The September 2006 issue of the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition included a study that compared whole tomatoes with the concentrated tomato compound lycopene. Tomatoes reduced the biomarkers of oxidation and the start of cancer more than lycopene. Researchers believe that, although lycopene plays some key role, other compounds in whole tomatoes are greater cancer fighters.

•Whole grains for gums: Research reported in the October 2006 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concludes that eating plenty of whole grains decreases the risk of developing a serious gum disease called periodontitis. The disease is an advanced form of gingivitis, which causes the breakdown of gum tissue and underlying bone, can lead to tooth loss, and increases the chance of suffering a heart attack or stroke. Of the 34,000 men in the review, those who ate the most whole grains had a 23 per cent reduced chance of developing periodontitis than those who ate the least. For every 1-gram-per-day increase in the amount of whole grains consumed, the risk of periodontitis went down by 6 per cent.

• Supplement usage up: A new Ipsos-Public Affairs telephone survey indicates that 65 per cent of adult Americans take dietary supplements. The survey results were released at the Council for Responsible Nutrition’s (CRN) Washington, D.C., annual conference on dietary supplements.

• Reduce brain tumor risk in children: A study suggests that women who take multivitamins early in pregnancy(especially close to the time of conception) could reduce the risk of their child later developing a cancerous brain tumour. Although the link was not found to be great, the results mirror previous research that showed a more substantial connection. The study appeared in the September 2006 issue of the journal, Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention.

• Pancreatic cancer link: Study results indicate a potential role for vitamin D in the prevention of pancreatic cancer. Scientists found that, compared to those taking just 150 international units (IU) of vitamin D daily, those who took more than 600 IU reduced their risk of pancreatic cancer by 41 per cent, even after adjusting for age, smoking and physical activity. The research appeared in the September 2006 issue of the Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention.

NEWSBITES

Did I eat the whole bag? If you ever wondered whether you watch a lot of television or just an average amount, here’s the test. Americans (sorry we don’t have the Canadian stat for this) watch TV an average of four and a half hours a day. Is that a health risk? Assuming you get in a good forty-minute walk three times a week, no. But studies suggest that for many tube viewers, the greatest danger is paying more attention to the screen than to the amount of food consumed while TV-snacking. And get this: A 3-year Baltimore study, released October 11, found that 30 per cent of men who are seriously hurt or ill delay going to the hospital if there is a sports game on TV.

What food has highest antioxidant content? Could it be green peppers or ripe tomatoes? Pumpkin? Negative. While all produce contains antioxidants, a study at Pennsylvania State University found that the highest scoring food for antioxidant content was the mushroom. And not the exotic shiitake or oyster mushrooms, either. The ordinary mushroom capped the list.

Fish and mercury myth: You should limit fish intake because it contains too much mercury. Is it true? The FDA advisory of which everyone is vaguely aware was actually only intended for pregnant and nursing women, as well as young children—in other words, for those who are most prone to mercury toxicity. It was not supposed to be for the general public; and if this misunderstanding resulted in a one-sixth reduction in fish consumption, there would be an additional 8,000 deaths from heart attacks, according to the November 2005 Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. Do not avoid all fish if you are leery of mercury. Just stay away from high-mercury fish—shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish.

Garlic, sure—but how much? A lot of people have heard about the heart-health benefits of garlic. In fact, some of the research has been contradictory but if you want to consume garlic to lower your blood pressure, bad cholesterol and total cholesterol, just how much is enough? Too much may keep friends away and too little will have no benefit. The American Dietetic Association suggests that in order to obtain the potential health benefits of garlic, you must consume 600 to 900 mg—about one fresh clove—a day.

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

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