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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

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
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