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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

You Asked: Should we worry about plastic pollution?

plastic pollution in oceanPlastics are the fabric of modern life. They’re in our cars, our planes, our kitchens, our electronics, our furniture, our bottles, our packaging, our floors and our medical equipment. We are using more and more plastics and unfortunately also discarding more and more. And that’s a problem. Plastic debris is commonly sighted on the landscape and is accumulating in marine habitats. A recent study revealed that plastics make up 50-80% of shoreline debris and accumulate in certain areas of the oceans. There is already a huge plastic wastedump in the middle of the Pacific Ocean! Besides being an eyesore, plastic debris poses a danger for wildlife. Marine mammals can become entangled in plastic bags or six-pack holders, and even worse, ingestion can cause death by blocking the digestive tract or by causing the animal to starve due to false satiation. Then there is the problem of potentially toxic compounds such as phthalates or bisphenol A leaching out of plastics. Because some of these chemicals are fat-soluble, they accumulate in adipose tissue of fish. Since humans are at the top of the food chain, we may possibly be exposed to physiologically meaningful amounts, although so far there is no evidence of any harm to people.

Some people believe that switching to bioplastics may be the key to reducing plastic pollutants in the environment. The term ‘bioplastic’ refers to materials made from natural sources such as corn. The common assumption is that these are biodegradable, but that isn’t necessarily the case. It is true that under suitable conditions bioplastics can be degraded by microbes, but this doesn’t happen in landfills where many plastics end up, and even elsewhere the biodegradation is very slow. Then there is the issue of “microplastics,” tiny particles found in many consumer products. They are usually used as abrasives and exfoliants in facial scrubs, shampoos, toothpaste, eyeliner, lipgloss, deodorants and soaps. Due to their miniscule size, these particles typically escape removal at sewage treatment facilities after being washed down the drain and can end up being consumed by animals. As a result, companies are being pressured to end the use of microplastics and switch to other natural alternatives like apricot shells and cocoa beans. Plastics are an integral and irreplaceable part of our lives but we need to take better care with how they are used. One way is to place more emphasis on recycling. So, don’t neglect your blue box. Feed it regularly.

 

Dr. Joe Schwarcz & Alexandra Pires-Ménard

You Asked: What is Gerson therapy?

gersonWhat sort of treatment do you think cancer patients would receive at the Gerson Institute in San Diego? Actually, they would receive no treatment at all, because the “Gerson Therapy” is not sanctioned in the United States. But they would receive plenty of information about traveling to Gerson clinics in Mexico or Hungary, as well as about providing basic “Gerson care” for themselves at home. The Institute does not limit itself to providing information about cancer. It seems the Gerson therapy is effective against virtually every disease. How can this be? Because “it restores the body’s incredible ability to heal itself with no damaging effects, and rather than treating only the symptoms of a particular disease, it treats the underlying cause of the disease.” Right. And the tooth fairy leaves coins under the pillow.

Cancer is a terrible disease that often defies conventional treatment. But the failure of science-based medicine can mean success for the marketers of “alternative” therapies who are unencumbered by the need to furnish evidence. They just have to clamor about how conventional doctors slash (surgery), burn (radiation) and poison (chemotherapy) their patients, hastening their demise, while they offer kinder, gentler, life-saving “natural” treatments. Desperate patients, they well know, will do desperate things. At any cost.

The “Gerson Institute and Cancer Curing Society,” as it officially call itself, adorns its seductive brochure with the credo, “healing with nature.” Aside from the absurd, but appealing notion that “nature” is more adept at healing disease (which it incidentally causes with reckless abandon through natural bacteria, viruses, fungi and moulds) than research-based medicine, one has to question the “natural” aspect of the Gerson regimen.

Is the squirting of coffee up one’s rear end “natural?” What about gulping desiccated liver capsules? Or administering ozone rectally? All these have been part of the program. To say nothing of drinking several glasses of raw calf liver extract a day! That lunacy was given up after several patients’ deaths were linked to a bacterial infection associated with the extracts. The foul liver juice was replaced by a more taste-bud friendly green leaf-apple juice blend, a dozen glasses of which have to be downed to “flush the toxins” responsible for cancer out of the system. Just what these toxins are is never addressed. But to make sure they are eliminated, patients are also dosed with pancreatic enzymes, iodine, vitamin B12, niacin, thyroid hormone, potassium, coenzyme Q10 and organic flax seed oil. Of course all of these bizarre interventions would be acceptable if the treatment worked. Let’s face it, conventional chemotherapy is no picnic. But there is a difference. Chemotherapy at least, has a chance of working.

As the name suggests, there actually is a person behind the Gerson therapy. An established physician, Dr. Gerson fled his native Germany when the Nazis came to power and eventually settled in New York in 1936. As a young doctor he had been tormented by migraines and had sought relief by experimenting with different diets. He traded in his wursts, schnitzels and sauerbraten for a plant based diet that apparently resolved his migraines. Gerson theorized that contamination with artificial fertilizers and pesticides was responsible for his misery. He began to prescribe his “natural” plant-based diet to other migraine sufferers who soon claimed to experience all sorts of additional benefits, including resolution of tuberculosis. Needless to say, there was no objective evidence that any patients had actually been cured in this fashion. How could there be? TB, a bacterial infection, cannot be cured by diet.

And then Gerson had an epiphany. If TB responded to his regimen, why not cancer? By 1958 he had published his book, “A Cancer Therapy,” in which he described curing fifty patients of terminal cancer. That astounding claim prompted the U.S. National Cancer Institute to undertake a review of Gerson’s cases with the conclusion that the validity of the cancer diagnoses and the supposed cures could not be substantiated. Gerson retorted that the review had been unfairly influenced by the “cancer establishment,” for the simple reason that his natural cure was a threat to the grotesque profits realized by the pharmaceutical industry from its expensive but useless chemotherapeutic drugs. That tired old refrain has practically become the anthem of the “alternative” medicine community.

The problem with the Gerson therapy, as now promoted by his daughter Charlotte, and practiced in the Mexican and Hungarian clinics, is not that it is scientifically implausible, nor that it is tortuous to follow, nor that it is repugnantly expensive. The problem is that there is no evidence that it works! The Gerson clinics make all sorts of claims about euphoric patients returning home, cured of their disease. But no follow-up is ever carried out. And whenever independent researchers have tracked Gerson patients, they have found that most had succumbed to cancer within five years of having been “cured” of the disease.

Of course there is even less information available about the success or failure of the “home” version of the Gerson therapy. Administering coffee enemas at home may be a bit of a challenge, but the juicing can be done. Not with any old juicer, though! No siree. We are told that “Dr. Gerson’s research indicates that it is imperative for cancer patients to have a two-step juicer with a separate grinder and hydraulic press. One step juicers generally do not produce the same quality of enzyme, mineral or micronutrient content.” Really? I don’t seem to be able to find that bit of research in the peer-reviewed literature.

The Gerson website actually recommends a specific juicer that will run you in the neighbourhood of $2000. Surely, though, that’s a bargain if it will help you beat cancer. Don’t even think about buying a cheaper juicer, though, because as the Gerson Institute’s captivating brochure tells us, “in fact some patients have failed to experience results simply by using the wrong juicer.” Yup-that must be why they failed to cure their cancer. Wrong juicer! Those cutting-edge researchers at the Gerson Institute surely would not lie to us, would they?

Joe Schwarcz

You Asked: Are chia seeds really that healthy or is it just nonsensical hype?

chiaIt isn’t nonsensical hype but neither are chia seeds some sort of wonder product. A plant growing from a seed is pretty amazing.  So is the hype that grows from a seed of truth in the area of nutritional supplements.  Salba is a case in point.  What is it?  A grain that originated in South America and is reputed to have been revered by the Aztecs because it served as a source of energy for their runners.  I don’t know that, but I do know that the seeds served as the source of the “hair” that sprouted from those little ceramic novelty animals known as “Chia Pets.”  Indeed, it was the speed with which those salba sprouts grew that intrigued University of Toronto researcher Vlad Vuksan.  Did these seeds have some special property, he wondered?  Chemical analysis showed that they were an excellent source of alpha linolenic acid, an omega three fat, as well as of fiber.  Vuksan, whose research focuses on the nutritional aspects of type 2 diabetes became interested because of accumulating evidence that whole grains can play a role in reducing the risk of diabetes and heart disease.  And then the next thing we know is that Salba is being touted by a commercial enterprise as “Nature’s Most Powerful Whole Food,” and people are shelling out money for the seeds that according to the marketers “have been extensively researched at the University of Toronto.”  Now, Vuksan is a respected researcher, but the evidence in this case constitutes one published paper that describes a trial with just twenty subjects.  And the results are not what one would call dramatic.

The subjects were all type 2 diabetics, so the results cannot be automatically extended to the general public.  Everyday they consumed either an average of 37 grams of salba seeds or an equivalent amount of wheat bran.  That’s a lot of seed, about six tablespoons.  The hope was that salba would help with blood glucose control, but it did no better than the bran.  On the other hand it did reduce the systolic blood pressure by some 6 mm of Hg, which is significant.  Salba also reduced C-reactive protein which is a measure of inflammation and had a small effect on reducing the blood’s clotting ability.  These are welcome changes since diabetics are at increased risk for heart disease.  But they hardly justify the hype that has been created by advertisers on behalf of salba.  We hear comments that just 3.5 ounces of salba has as much omega-3 fats as 28 ounces of salmon and as much calcium as 3 cups of milk and as much iron as five cups of raw spinach.  Well, 3.5 ounces is 97 grams, almost three times as much as was used in the study, which already was a large amount.  People who take the “recommended” dose on the package would take 12 grams a day, which yields a trivial amount of calcium and iron.  Furthermore, the type of omega-3 in salba is not the type we find in fish.  And if it comes to that, flax is a much cheaper source of vegetable based omega-3 fats.  Yes, eating whole grains is a good idea, but before we attribute any magical properties to salba we need more than one small study on diabetics that shows a modest decline in some cardiovascular risk factors but shows nothing about disease outcome.  For now, I’m not slaughtering and eating my Chia pet.

 

Joe Schwarcz

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