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You Asked: Why is Canada banning citronella-based insect repellants?

citronellaHealth Canada is set to ban topical mosquito repellants that contain oil of citronella. The oil contains methyleugenol, a compound that has caused liver tumours in rats fed in large doses, but this really has no relevance to topical application by humans While there is no evidence of harm from any topical application, other than the rare allergic reaction, no formal studies of safety have been carried out. In this case Health Canada seems to be applying the letter of the law. Insecticides, whether natural or synthetic, are regulated by Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) which is distinct from the Natural Products Directorate. The law is that any pesticide has to be backed up by appropriate safety studies and the requirements here are far more stringent than those for natural products. The required safety studies for citronella have never been carried out because the product is not patentable and no company wants to invest the necessary funds.

Contrary to arguments voiced by some conspiracy theorists, Big Pharma, producers of DEET, is not behind the ban. Citronella isn’t a significant competitor for the simple reason that it doesn’t work very well. Basically, what Health Canada is saying to citronella repellant producers is, “hey, you are claiming your product is an insecticide, then it has to be regulated as one and the same rules apply as for any other insecticide.” And since the safety studies are not available, the law says citronella cannot be sold as an insecticide.

What is disturbing here is that Health Canada has gone after what almost certainly is an innocuous product while allowing a nonsensical homeopathic mosquito repellant, Mozi-Q, to be sold, even furnishing it with a homeopathic drug identification number. This absurdity comes about because homeopathic products fall under different regulations. There is no requirement for safety or efficacy. A ridiculous situation. Especially given that Mozi-Q presents a real risk. People apply it, believing the homeopathic hype and then go out and get bitten by a mosquito that potentially injects a non-homeopathic dose of West Nile virus.

Anyone wishing to still use citronella extracts will have purchase them in the U.S. where FDA or EPA see no problems. Don’t look for citronella in Europe though, their regulations are even stricter than Canada’s. But dog owners who have been using oil citronella to condition dogs from barking don’t have to worry, citronella scents will still be allowed for the device that hangs around their pet’s neck. And citronella extract will continue to be used extensively in the perfumery industry. Nobody smells a problem there.

Joe Schwarcz

You Asked: Can ASEA improve health as advertised?

ASEAWhen I first came across a “wonder” product called ASEA on the web, I thought someone had come up with a clever parody.  The Internet of course is full of of ads for supplements, drinks and gimmicks of every conceivable variety that promise to keep us out of the clutches of the grim reaper.  There are extracts of exotic berries and herbs.  There are miraculous minerals and mushrooms.  There are oxygenated and magnetized waters.  And then there is ASEA.

The product’s name derives from the word “sea” and the Latin prefix “a” meaning “from.”  From the sea!  A very appropriate name.  The ingredients on the label tell the story.  Distilled water and salt!  What we have here is sea water!  That’s why I thought this was a parody.  Selling salt water as an anti-aging regimen?  Isn’t that sort of like selling ice to Arctic explorers?  I thought someone was making fun of all the nonsensical products being sold.  But it turns out that is not the case.  This is a real product, sold for very real money.  Lots of very real money.

Asea is promoted in ads as “Time machine in a bottle,” the message obviously being that imbibing in this salt water will turn back the clock.  Of course you can’t make any such claim on the product itself because that would require some sort of evidence, so the bottle simply says, “advancing life.”  A nebulous, meaningless statement.  I suppose one could say that since salt is essential to life, it does advance life.  But if you are going to make a case for selling salt water as a rejuvenation therapy, you have to come up with something a bit more impressive than “advancing life.”  So what claim did ASEA come up with?  “The world’s only Redox Signaling supplement.”

Someone must have been reading the scientific literature and came across “redox signaling,” an interesting and evolving area of research.  Our nerve cells communicate with each other through chemicals called neurotransmitters.  Some of these chemical messengers are free radicals, which are highly reactive species that can either gain or loose electrons, or in proper terminology, take part in oxidation or reduction reactions.  The term redox signaling is used when the chemical messengers between cells are free radicals.  What this has to do with ASEA is a mystery.  And we don’t get much help from the information on the label which states that “ASEA is a proprietary blend of naturally occurring reactive molecules derived from a patented redox balance process.  This unique process rearranges the constituent components into a beneficial mixture that is critical to to proper balanced cellular chemistry enabling the immune system to function at its optimum level.”  This is nothing more than meaningless double talk.  What reactive molecules are they talking about?  The only ingredient listed is salt.

I thought that perhaps I could learn something about the mysterious chemistry involved by watching the company’s video entitled “The Science Behind Asea.”  Turned out to be nothing more than a comic series of testimonials about improved mood and energy.  Of course you can get testimonials about anything either by hiring actors to play the role of satisfied customers or by interviewing people who are experiencing a placebo effect.  I’m still not convinced that this whole thing didn’t start out as a joke by someone wondering if they could sell something as ridiculous as salt water as a health product.  They found it worked, and now they are in the business that amounts to selling hair dye to bald people.  What I have to say to people promoting ASEA is “see ya.”

Joe Schwarcz

You Asked: Is fish really brain food?

brain foodIs fish really brain food? P.G. Wodehouse certainly thought so. In his wonderful “Jeeves” stories, Bertie Wooster encourages his brainy butler to eat more fish whenever a particularly challenging problem arises. But to what extent does fiction mirror real life? One can make a theoretical case for fish consumption based on the fact that docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, the famous omega-3 fat in fish, is the main component of brain cell membranes, and that communication between brain cells is a function of the integrity of these membranes.

There is actually some experimental evidence to support a link between fish consumption and brain health. Infants born to mothers who consumed more fish during pregnancy have been shown to have improved verbal intelligence, better fine motor skills and pro-social behavior. A study has also correlated fish intake during pregnancy with IQ in 8-year old children. It is likely that these effects are due to increased blood levels of DHA in the offspring, but as is generally the case, the scenario is complicated. When blood is drawn from umbilical cords, it turns out that the concentration of the various fatty acids depends on the genetics both of the mother and the baby. In other words, depending on genotypes, an infant may benefit more or less from fish in the mom’s diet.

What about brain function at the other extreme of life, senior citizens? To get some insight here, researchers examined MRI brain scans of 260 individuals over the age of 65 who had normal cognitive function looking for differences associated with fish consumption as determined by dietary surveys. Subjects who ate baked or broiled but not fried fish every week had larger grey matter volumes in the areas of the brain responsible for memory and cognition. Interesting, but there was no determination as to whether these increased volumes translated to any change in brain power.

Curiously, no relationship was found with omega-3 fat intake as calculated from the diet surveys, suggesting that eating fish weekly may prevent brain ageing regardless of omega-3 content. But it may also be that eating fish is a marker for some other effect. People who ate fish were more likely to have a university education than those who didn’t. So perhaps it is mental exercise that was responsible for the changes in brain volume. There is also evidence that eating fish reduces the risk of heart disease. Maybe eating fish makes people smarter and more capable of understanding why they should be following the guidelines designed to reduce the risk of heart disease.

Joe Schwarcz

You Asked: Are pasteurized cheeses safe to consume?

pasteurized cheeseWhile selling raw milk in Canada is illegal, the sale of cheese made from unpasteurized milk is allowed as long as the cheese has been aged at 2 degrees C or above for at least 60 days. Studies have shown that if this procedure is followed, the added salt and acids produced by the added bacterial cultures prevent harmful listeria, salmonella and E. coli bacteria from growing. The risk that remains is very small but not zero. It is the soft and semi-soft cheeses that have a better chance of retaining problematic bacteria and this is where the issue gets more complicated because these cheeses reach their peak ripening point at 20-30 days. Quebec, contrary to the rest of Canada and most U.S. states, now allows soft cheeses like Brie and Camembert made from unpasteurized milk to be sold without the 60 day requirement, citing the European example where these cheeses have always been made from raw milk with no problem.

Still, to be on the safe side, it would be prudent to avoid raw milk cheeses during pregnancy, infancy or by people with compromised immune systems. But identification of cheeses made from unpasteurized milk is difficult since labeling is not required. Many artisan cheeses will voluntarily reveal that they are made from raw milk, hoping to capture the attention of foodies who believe that the taste is superior. Whether that is true is arguable. It is interesting that people who clamor for the labeling of any food that may somehow be linked to genetic modification are silent about asking for the labeling of raw milk cheeses.

Joe Schwarcz

 

You Asked: Is “black cumin seed” really a “cure for all things,” as one newsletter purports?

black cumin seedUmm….no. But this “miracle” cure is making the rounds. It is the “foundation for a longer life,” according to one ad. This time it is an extract from the seeds of the nigella sativa plant, also sometimes called black cumin, black sesame, black caraway, black onion or fennel flower seed. The seeds, we are told, have a history of use as a spice and medicine in Africa, India and the Middle East and were even found in the tomb of King Tut. They are reputed to treat skin conditions, respiratory infections, intestinal disorders and parasites, headaches and toothaches. Nigella is also supposed to promote lactation in nursing mothers and uterine contractions during labor. As if that weren’t enough, it is also said to work as an insect repellent and to have anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antioxidant properties. And of course there is the usual claim that adorns almost all such wonder products, it boosts the immune system and inhibits cancer cell progression.

There are two points to note right off the bat here. The more claims made, the more our suspicions should be aroused. The body is a very complex system and different problems require different types of intervention. Asthma is not treated with the same drugs that are used to treat headaches. Then there is the reference to antiquity. Just because some substance has been used for a long time does not mean it has been used effectively. After all, bloodletting went on for a couple of thousand years before we figured out that it really wasn’t very effective. And homeopathic “medicines” have been hoodwinking people for over two hundred years. So the ancient Egyptians supplying a departed King Tut with “black seeds” to use in the afterlife (assuming that the claim they were found in the tomb is true) means absolutely nothing in terms of justifying its use as a medicine. The same goes for stories about Queen Nefertiti supposedly using black seed oil to improve the health of her nails and hair.

Of course the unreasonable reliance on ancient “wisdom” and the plethora of questionable claims do not mean that the seeds do not have therapeutic potential. But the only way that can be ascertained is by proper scientific study. And there have been studies. As any such natural product, “black seeds” contain a large number of compounds, but the one that has intrigued researchers is nigellone and its derivative, thymoquinone.  In laboratory studies thymoquinone has antioxidant effects and anti-cancer effects but there is nothing breathtaking about this, thousands of compounds that have such effects in the test tube. But the human body is not a giant test tube. Neither are we giant rats, so that effects seen in rodents are not directly applicable to humans. There have been a couple of small studies in people that have shown benefit for asthma and high blood pressure, but it takes properly controlled, randomized, double-blind trials before treatment recommendations can be made. Safety has to be ascertained, products have to be standardized and dosages have to be determined. Unfortunately while these are legal requirements for prescription drugs, such is not the case for natural remedies. Wild, unsubstantiated claims abound and money from people desperate for simple solutions to complex problems flows freely into the coffers of marketers.

So what is the bottom line here? Many currently used pharmaceuticals have their origin in plant extracts so it is certainly possible that black cumin seeds contain compounds that may eventually prove to be useful. But when someone is in pain, they are not told to graze in a field of poppies, they are given the right dose of properly purified morphine that is indeed extracted from poppies. Maybe at some time we will have a properly standardized evidence-based extract of black cumin seeds that can be recommended for some condition. But that time is not now.

Joe Schwarcz

You Asked: Instaflex for joint pain?

instaflexHad a question about Instaflex, a widely advertised supplement for arthritic joints that contains a variety of ingredients each of which has potential antinflammatory properties. Although this product has been around for a while, interest was stirred recently because of a discussion on “The Doctors,” a CBS TV show. Reference was made to a clinical trial that showed efficacy. Indeed a properly controlled double-blind randomized trial at Appalachian State University showed that those taking Instaflex reported a 37 percent reduction in joint pain. The placebo group reported a 16 percent reduction in pain. This is better than what has been reported for studies using any of the ingredients alone. The study also noted that a 20-pound weight loss has been shown to decrease joint pain by 54 percent.

The daily dosage is three capsules taken together in the morning or evening. The total dose contains:

Glucosamine Sulfate 1,500 mg
Methylsulfonlylmethane (MSM) 500 mg
White Willow Bark Extract 250 mg (Standardized to 15% salicin)
Ginger Root Concentrate 4:1 250 mg
Boswellia Serrata Extract 125 mg (Standardized to 65% boswellic acid)
Turmeric Root Extract 50 mg (Standardized to 95% curcumin)
Cayenne 40m H.U. 50 mg
Hyaluronic Acid 4 mg

Joe Schwarcz

You Asked: Is it true that coffee beans are being fed to animals in Sumatra & another country & removed from their deposits & processed for drinking coffee?

coffeeThese coffee beans have been put through a special machine. A living machine, called the Javan civet cat. The luak is a species of civet cat found only on the island of Java in Indonesia. Like all civet cats it posesses anal scent glands which secrete a fluid with a characteristic odor. In a concentrated form it smells terrible but when diluted it has a pleasant musky odor and can be used in perfume manufacture. The luak apparently loves coffee. But it is very particular in its taste. It only eats the choicest beans. The luak’s digestive system, however, cannot handle the coffee beans very well and most of them are secreted a few hours after being eaten in a partially digested form. Somehow the contact with the animal’s digestive juices changes the chemistry of the beans. When these beans are roasted, the coffee they produce is extremely tasty and full-bodied. Hopefully the enhanced flavor is due to partial digestion and not to contamination from the anal secretions of the civet cat. Plantation workers routinely search the grounds for the special beans which are then brewed into coffee in Indonesia’s most select hotels, probably with the visitors not being informed about the origins of the great taste.I actually got a gift of a sample and frankly it tasted like any other coffee.

Joe Schwarcz

You Asked: Is there any benefit to drinking Yerba mate tea?

yerba mateYerba Mate, the ad says, has powerful rejuvenating effects. Well, who wouldn’t go for a little rejuvenation? So what is this wonder product? Yerba is a tea brewed from the dried leaves of the Ilex paraguariensis plant, a small shrub that grows in Paraguay, Brazil and other South American countries. The tea is also sometimes known as Paraguay tea. The Guarani Indians of Paraguay and Argentina have been brewing this beverage for centuries and claim it can do everything from boosting energy levels and intelligence to providing all the nutrients needed for life. In Europe mate is often used for weight loss, though there is no scientific evidence to show that the plant boosts metabolism or acts as an appetite suppressant. But what about the other claims?

An analysis of extracts taken from the mate plant reveals the presence of a couple of hundred compounds, as one would expect for any plant material. There are vitamins and minerals and the usual array of antioxidants but there are no magical ingredients. Any stimulation from the beverage can probably be ascribed to caffeine, although yerba contains less than coffee or other teas. Claims about yerba mate being “nature’s most perfect beverage” or “the beverage of the Gods” are just hot air. And speaking of hot, that’s how yerba mate is traditionally consumed. That can be a problem. Drinking mate tea has been linked to esophageal cancer in South America where the beverage is consumed at extremely high temperatures.

A rarely discussed problem with consuming plant extracts is misidentification, mislabeling or adulteration. Here’s an interesting, but hopefully rare, case in point. A family of four in New York City shared a pot of mate tea. An hour later the 10 year old son became restless and agitated and had to be taken to hospital. His pulse was rapid, his pupils dilated and nonreactive, his skin was flushed and his mucous membranes were dry. These are typical signs of anticholinergic poisoning, meaning that the activity of acetylcholine, an important chemical for conveying messages between nerve cells was being impaired. Doctors quickly injected him with physostigmine, a drug that boosts acetylcholine activity. Recovery was swift. But by then his eighteen year old brother reported feeling confused and loss of memory.
Since there are no compounds in yerba mate tea that could explain these effects, adulteration of the beverage was suspected.

A chemical analysis revealed the presence of atropine, scopolamine and hyoscyamine. Tell-tale components of the belladonna plant, a classic anticholinergic poison! Nobody knows how belladonna leaves got into the tea but eventually seven other cases of poisoning turned up. Still these are isolated incidents, and the chance of anyone having a reaction to yerba mate is remote. But so is the chance of any rejuvenating effect. Incidentally, the Guarani Indians traditionally drink yerba mate out of a bull’s horn, which seems appropriate given some of the outlandish claims that are made on behalf of the beverage.

 

Joe Schwarcz

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