A miracle bites the dust

niacinIt’s frustrating, but most scientific studies end with the line, “more research is needed.” But not always. We have one of these rare cases in a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine about the use of niacin to improve cholesterol profile. Niacin is familiar to many as the B vitamin that prevents pellagra but when it is used to decrease LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) and increase HDL (the “good” cholesterol) it is given in far higher doses than the amount that prevents pellagra. At a dose of 1000 mg a day, niacin is a drug. It has been used for decades in people with cholesterol problems because it clearly does decrease LDL and increases HDL. But that is not the same as reducing cardiac events. Now we have a study that quite categorically shows that in spite of the impact on cholesterol levels, niacing does not reduce cardiac events. Furthermore, it complicates diabetes and results is an increased risk of gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal and dermatological problems.

This was a very well designed study of some 25,000 people who were taking statin drugs because of cardiac risk. They were properly randomized to take a placebo or time-released niacin in combination with laropripran, added to reduce the classic flushing side effect of niacin, After four years the results were definitive. No reduction in cardiac events and an increase in side effects. No doubt the “natural treatment” advocates will declare that this study was contrived by Big Pharma to show that natural therapies do not work. Of course at doses needed to alter blood cholesterol, niacin can hardly be called natural. We’ll see how many of the websites that promote niacin for reducing cardiac risk will change their sales pitch. Will Dr. Agatston change his mind? How about Dr. Oz who also recommends taking 400 mg of niacin a day. And Joe Mercola, who wildly promoted niacin on Dr. Oz’s show while telling people to stay away from statins? Will be interesting to see.


Joe Schwarcz



Joe Mercola and “Foods You Should Never Eat.”

Dr. MercolaJoe Mercola is an osteopath who runs a popular health website on which he offers all sorts of advice, mostly questionable. He also sells a huge variety of products ranging from an array of supplements to Himalayan salt, organic clothing and tanning beds. These products, like most of Mercola’s advice, are sold based on a mixture of truths, fallacies and outright absurdities, with the latter category dominating. Mercola himself is scientifically negligible, but as they say, even a blind squirrel sometimes finds an acorn. Recently he produced a manifesto highlighting “the nine foods you should never eat,” namely canned tomatoes, processed meats, margarine, vegetable oils, microwave popcorn, non-organic potatoes, table salt, soy protein isolates and artificial sweeteners. Let’s start with idea that, the whole concept of foods that “you should never eat” is flawed. It is always a question of how much. There is no doubt that a diet heavy in processed meats is undesirable, but eating a hot dog once in a while (preferably with an exciting baseball or hockey game in front of it) is not a death sentence. Mercola’s allegations about the danger of methanol as released from aspartame are senseless; methanol occurs in higher amounts naturally in many foods and beverages. Equally absurd is his push for Himalayan salt, and his claim that trace minerals found in it make it preferable over regular salt. Salt is salt and should be limited. Mercola’s notion that soy products are risky because they contain genetically modified components is scientifically unsupportable. While there may be some environmental issues, foods that contain ingredients derived from gm plants do not differ chemically from conventional varieties.
Mercola makes a number of factual errors. Microwave popcorn is to be avoided because it contains the contaminants PFOA and PFOS which according to Mercola are used to keep microwave packaging grease free. Not so. Compounds in the family of fluorinated alcohols are used. Margarine does not contain free radicals, these reactive species only have a cursory existence and are not found in foods. The insinuation that pesticide residues in potatoes present a danger is unsubstantiated. Such residues are carefully regulated and are found in trace amounts. The assertion that cooking with vegetable oils introduces oxidized cholesterol into the system is wrong. Cholesterol is not found in any vegetable product. Promoting coconut oil, a saturated fat, as the healthiest cooking oil is unfounded. The amount of bisphenol A introduced as a result of eating canned tomatoes is a minute component of the diet and is outweighed by the benefits of eating tomatoes. By and large, I would of course agree that a diet based on fresh, unprocessed foods is desirable. Our emphasis should be on consuming 7 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Whether local or organic I don’t think makes much difference, but when a choice exists, and there is no big financial burden, might as well go for the organic. If there is something you should never swallow, I would say it is Mercola’s foolish rants about anything he doesn’t sell.


Joe Schwarcz

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