« Older Entries

You Asked: Can the “Smart Drinking Pill” reduce the risk of drinking alcohol?

Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 6.05.47 PMThe jury is out on whether drinking small amounts of alcohol is beneficial or detrimental. Some studies suggest a drink a day may be good for the heart. On the other hand, alcohol is a known carcinogen linked to cancers of the mouth, esophagus and breast. But when it comes to consuming excessive amounts of alcohol, the verdict is in. Liver damage, hypertension, neuropathies, seizures, gout, pancreatitis and dementia are all possible consequences of too much alcohol. And then of course there is the problem of impaired driving and life destruction due to addiction.
Liver damage is a major concern and one that is addressed by the makers of the “Smart Drinking Pill.” They claim that the mixture of plant extracts, vitamins and minerals in the pill can prevent liver damage and present an “option other than to quit drinking.” Milk thistle, artichoke extract and dandelion root are backed by some evidence in terms of offering liver protection, and the vitamins may be of some help given that people who drink a lot tend to have depleted levels. Liver function is generally determined by measuring blood levels of two enzymes, namely aspartate transaminase (AST) and alanine transaminase (ALT) that are produced by the liver as it detoxifies foreign substances. High levels indicate the liver has to work excessively and is prone to damage.
The single piece of evidence provided by makers of “The Smart Drinking Pill” is a blood test of a single individual whose AST and ALT went from high to normal after two months on the pill with no change in alcohol consumption. And what was this individual’s consumption? Thirty to forty drinks a week! Suggesting that reduction of the liver enzymes means that you can “responsibly enjoy alcohol without having to suffer the negative health consequences” is absolutely foolish. At that level of consumption there are many other risks than liver damage. If someone is drinking that quantity of alcohol the only smart thing to do is to cut back. The Smart Drinking Pill just encourages unhealthy behaviour.
Dr. Joe Schwarcz

You Asked: Are pasteurized cheeses safe to consume?

Screen Shot 2014-12-26 at 2.45.34 PMWhile 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.

 

Dr. Joe Schwarcz

You Asked: Nutritional yeast and adverse reactions?

nutritional yeastHad a question from a gentleman with a history of bloating after meals. He had a particularly bad episode after a dinner that included chicken Florentine soup and he wondered whether the “nutritional yeast” added to the soup could be the cause.  Nutritional yeast is just an inactivated form of the yeast that has been used for brewing beer and making wine for millennia. Because it has been inactivated with heat or salt, it does not cause fermentation, that is it does not convert sugar into alcohol. It is basically composed of protein with a good load of vitamins and minerals and has commonly been used as a dietary supplement. Indeed, Marmite and Vegemite are two formulations of the yeast that are popular in the UK and Australia, although having tasted these, I can’t understand why.

Nutritional yeast is basically used to add flavour to foods. Part of the effect is due to its natural content of glutamic acid which brings out flavour. Indeed, glutamate is the active component of the classic flavor additive monosodium glutamate (MSG). Some people do have an adverse reaction to glutamate but it is rare. It is, however, possible that some other component in nutritional yeast can cause a problem in susceptible individuals. Idiosyncratic reactions to food are not uncommon. The only way to determine if the yeast causes a problem is to carry out a challenge. Has anyone experienced an adverse reaction with nutritional yeast?

Dr. Joe Schwarcz

You Asked: What are Bach flower remedies?

Bach remediesBach flower remedies have been around for close to a hundred years and were the brainchild of Edward Bach a British physician. Actually, there doesn’t seem to have been much “brain” involved in the development of this curious alternative healing method. Bach was a traditionally trained physician who became disenchanted with the way medicine was being practiced and began a search for novel healing methods. Then in 1930, at the age of thirty, as he was walking through a field of flowers glistening with dew, he had an epiphany. He somehow surmised that the spiritual essence of a flower was transferred to the dew when the flower was exposed to the sun, and that this dew had healing properties.

This remarkable insight came to Bach, as he maintained, through “inspiration.” He found that to sense a flower’s specific therapeutic potential, all he needed to do was hold a petal in his hand. Bach then went on to develop his healing essences by exposing flower petals floating in a glass bowl filled with spring water to sunshine. He claimed that in this fashion the flower’s spiritual energy was transferred to the water, a few drops of which could then be used for healing purposes. Bach’s bizarre notion was that the spirit of the plant communed with the human spirit and alleviated negative moods and the “lack of harmony” between the soul and the body which causes disease. Illness, Bach maintained, “will never be cured by present materialistic methods, for the simple reason that disease in its origin is not material, but is the result of conflict between the Soul and the Mind and will never be eradicated except by spiritual and mental effort.”

Different flower essences are used for different purposes. For example, wild oat essence directs the confused or lost individual toward his or her life path. This, it is said, is the perfect remedy for the “seeker” type personality to ease his soulful yearnings and tiresome wanderings. Wild Oat is also recommended for youth seeking a vocation or anyone experiencing a mid-life crisis. So where is the proof for such claims? The marketers of Bach remedies say that they have no interest in proving the remedies work, they just let the customers make up their own mind. But actually others have carried out placebo-controlled trials. What did they show? That all subjects, whether in the Bach flower essence group or the placebo group, experienced a decrease in anxiety, but there was no difference between the groups.

The conclusion is that Bach-flower remedies are an effective placebo for anxiety but do not have a specific effect. So if you are using “Five Flower Rescue Remedy” to ease fear and restore state of calm and confidence, as is claimed, you are actually getting an inconsequential dose of flower extract with a heaping dose of placebo. Of course I may only have this opinion because I’m not taking any beech flower essence which “helps lessen one’s tendency to be judgmental toward others or hypersensitive to their environments. Critical and blaming natures are often an indication of inner feelings of vulnerability and insecurity. This essence neutralizes intolerant and critical attitudes with feelings of tolerance and acceptance.” I wonder which essence is a cure for nonsensical thinking?

 Dr. Joe Schwarz

You Asked: What is Rooibos tea?

Screen Shot 2014-12-19 at 1.45.44 PMI had a feeling that doing a PubMed search for Dr. Annique Theron would not yield much.  In fact it yielded zero results.  I can’t even find a biography of Dr. Theron, so I have no idea what sort of doctor she is.  But she does exist.  Pictures of the lady are not hard to find.  After all, she founded a company, modestly named Annique, that sells a line of teas and cosmetics based on her “amazing” discovery.  That discovery occurred back in 1968 when, according to the company’s promotional material, Theron stumbled on the natural healing powers of South African Rooibos tea.  She was struggling to calm down her allergenic baby, and for some reason decided to dope her with a concoction made by steeping the leaves of the Asphalatus linearis plant in hot water.  It worked!  So she claims anyway.  In fact it worked so well that Theron decided to investigate its potential in other conditions and found it to have anti-allergenic properties.

She began to spread the word in a book entitled “Allergies: An Amazing Discovery.”  The book appears to be out of print and there is nothing published in the scientific literature by any Annique Theron, so it is hard to know what evidence she had for her amazing discovery.  But it wasn’t long before people were attributing all sorts of miraculous effects to Rooibos tea.  Not only was it anti-allergenic, it was was anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-aging.  Dr. Theron sure saw its potential, and not being anti-profit she founded the “Annique” company that quickly developed an inventory of all sorts of products based on Rooibos tea.  There were digestive aids, detox teas, happy teas along with a whole line of cosmetic products.

Truth be told, Rooibos tea was around long before Theron’s supposed discovery.  Dutch settlers in South Africa brewed the needle-like leaves as an alternative to expensive tea which had to be imported.  It was enjoyed mostly for its sweet taste until Theron put it on the world map with her undocumented discovery.  Researchers, wondering if the plant contained any compounds that could substantiate the folkloric stories, began to study its chemistry.  And they isolated a number of compounds with biological effects, including some antioxidants such as aspalathin and nothofagin. One substance they did not find was caffeine.  Advertisers tout the antioxidant capacity of Rooibos, pointing out that it surpasses that of green tea.  This is a laboratory finding that doesn’t have much meaning for consumers.  What about all the other research that Rooibos tea boosters tout?  Well, if you are interested in whether Rooibos tea prevents the breakdown of red blood cells in Japanese quail, the answer is yes, to a moderate extent.  Or if you want to know if it can suppress the age-related accumulation of lipid peroxides in rat brain, you’ll find a slight effect there too.  Interested in whether the leaves of the plant contain estrogenic compounds? They do.

The fact is that while academically interesting, such research is marginal in terms of any meaning for humans.  And there are no controlled trials showing any benefit for people.  The taste, though, may be interesting.  The newest incarnation of Rooibos is as so-called “red espresso.”  It’s made in an espresso machine using the powdered leaves instead of coffee.  This is what the ad for the world’s first tea espresso sounds like: “With its unique combination of health properties, plus delicious taste and style, red espresso revolutionizes the café space by making it something never thought possible: healthy.  Loaded with antioxidants and 100% natural.  Of course you can say the same for coffee.

 

Dr. Joe Schwarcz

You Asked: Blueberries and Milk

blueberries and milk“I put blueberries and milk on my cereal in the morning. Which one should I give up?” That was the question I received via email. A reference was included to a study about the antioxidant activity of blueberries being impaired when consumed with milk, as well as one about milk consumption being linked to greater risk of bone fractures and to earlier mortality. While both these studies appeared in the peer-reviewed literature and are interesting, their practical significance is questionable.
The milk study focused on people drinking more than three glasses of milk a day and could not rule out “reverse causation,” namely that some subjects were drinking more milk because they already had risk factors for osteoporosis. As far as earlier mortality goes, the authors suggest it may be linked to an inflammatory effect attributed the galactose, a breakdown product of lactose, the sugar found in milk. But this is pure conjecture. It is also possible that people who drink a lot of milk have a higher calorie intake or a lower vegetable intake, or exercise less, all of which can be confounding factors. Milk may not be as important a dietary component as Canada’s Food Guide suggests, but there is no need to avoid it. Moderation is the key.

Blueberries are widely perceived as “healthy” based upon their content of antioxidants. These naturally occurring substances are found in numerous fruits and vegetables and are thought to be responsible for the benefits attributed to a diet that contains lots of plant products. Laboratory investigation can determine the antioxidants present in food but to what extent they are absorbed into the bloodstream is a more difficult question. We don’t eat single food components, we eat food. Studies have shown, for example, that polyphenols, a family of antioxidants found in tea, are more poorly absorbed when milk is added to tea because proteins in milk bind to the polyphenols. The blueberry study aimed to investigate the fate of two particular antioxidants, namely caffeic and ferulic acid when consumed with or without milk. Eleven subjects, a very small number in terms of scientific studies, consumed 200 grams of blueberries either with 200 mL of whole milk or 200 mL of water. For two days prior, the subjects were asked to abstain from foods containing antioxidants including all fresh fruits and vegetables as well as tea, coffee, juices, wine and chocolate. This unrealistic eating pattern already adds confusion to the study.

In any case, analysis of the subjects’ plasma indicated a somewhat reduced antioxidant content when the blueberries were consumed with milk. This has little relevance to health. Blueberries are not commonly consumed with milk, except perhaps when they are eaten together with cereal. And there is no compelling evidence that the antioxidant content of plasma is a determinant of health. Furthermore, the plasma’s antioxidant potential is determined by the overall content of the diet and is not going to be affected to any significant extent by the handful of blueberries added to cereal whether consumed with or without milk.

 

Joe Schwarcz

 

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

« Older Entries
Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.