Organic versus Conventional: Which has More Nutrients?

Organic versus Conventional - Which has More Nutrients?.jpeg

Are organic foods safer and healthier than conventional alternatives? Those are two separate questions. Some consumers are interested in getting more nutrients; others are more concerned about getting fewer pesticides. Let's do nutrition first.

As seen in my video, Are Organic Foods More Nutritious?, hundreds of studies have been reviewed and researchers didn't find significant differences for most of the traditional nutrients like vitamins and minerals. They concluded that despite the widespread perception that organically produced foods are more nutritious, they didn't find robust evidence to support that perception. They did, however, find higher levels of phenolic phytonutrients in organic.

These so-called "secondary metabolites" of plants are thought to be behind many of the benefits ascribed to eating fruits and vegetables. Organic fruits and vegetables had between 19 and 69% more of a variety of these antioxidant compounds. The theory was that these phytonutrients are created by the plant for its own protection. For example, broccoli releases the bitter compounds like sulforaphane when the plant is chewed to ward off those who might eat it. Bugs take one bite and say, "Ew, this tastes like broccoli!" But pesticide-laden plants are bitten less by bugs and so may be churning out fewer of these compounds. Plants raised organically, on the other hand, are in a fight for their lives and may necessarily have to produce more protection. That was the theory anyway, but we don't have good evidence to back it up. The more likely reason has to do with the fertilizer; plants given high dose synthetic nitrogen fertilizers may divert more resources to growth rather than defense.

These antioxidants may protect the plant, but what about us? More antioxidant phytonutrients are found in organic vegetables and so yes, they displayed more antioxidant activity, but also more antimutagenic activity. Researchers exposed bacteria to a variety of mutagenic chemicals like benzopyrene, the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon found in barbecued meat, or IQ, the heterocyclic amine found in grilled/broiled/fried meats (as well as cigarette smoke), and there were fewer DNA mutations in the petri dishes where they added organic vegetables compared to the petri dishes where they added conventional vegetables.

Preventing DNA damage in bacteria is one thing, but what about effects on actual human cells? Organic strawberries may taste better, and have higher antioxidant activity and more phenolic phytonutrients, but what happens when you stack them up head-to-head against human cancer cells? Extracts from organically grown strawberries suppressed the growth of colon cancer cells and breast cancer cells significantly better than extracts from conventional strawberries. Now this was dripping strawberries onto cancer cells growing in a petri dish, but as I showed in Strawberries versus Esophageal Cancer, there are real life circumstances in which strawberries come into direct contact with cancerous and precancerous lesions, and so presumably organic strawberries would work even better, but they haven't yet been tested in clinical trials.

Although in vitro studies show higher antioxidant and antimutagenic activity as well as better inhibition of cancer cell proliferation, clinical studies on the impact of eating organic on human disease simply haven't been done. Based on antioxidant phytonutrient levels, organic produce may be considered 20 to 40% healthier, the equivalent of adding one or two serving's worth to a five-a-day regimen. But organic produce may be 40% more expensive, so for the same money you could just buy the extra servings worth of conventional produce. From a purely nutrients-per-dollar standpoint, it's not clear that organic foods are any better. But people often buy organic foods to avoid chemicals, not because they are more nutritious. For more on the best available science comparing the nutritional content, pesticide risk, heavy metal toxicity, and food poisoning risk of organic versus conventionally raised foods )including practical tips for making your own DIY fruit and veggie wash), see:

I imagine that the reaction to this series will be similar to that for the one I did on GMO foods, riling up critics on both sides of the debate:

More on the nutritional implications of stressed-out plants here:

Production method aside, in vitro, Which Fruit Fights Cancer Better?

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: Sally Plank / Flickr. This image has been modified.

Original Link

Organic versus Conventional: Which has More Nutrients?

Organic versus Conventional - Which has More Nutrients?.jpeg

Are organic foods safer and healthier than conventional alternatives? Those are two separate questions. Some consumers are interested in getting more nutrients; others are more concerned about getting fewer pesticides. Let's do nutrition first.

As seen in my video, Are Organic Foods More Nutritious?, hundreds of studies have been reviewed and researchers didn't find significant differences for most of the traditional nutrients like vitamins and minerals. They concluded that despite the widespread perception that organically produced foods are more nutritious, they didn't find robust evidence to support that perception. They did, however, find higher levels of phenolic phytonutrients in organic.

These so-called "secondary metabolites" of plants are thought to be behind many of the benefits ascribed to eating fruits and vegetables. Organic fruits and vegetables had between 19 and 69% more of a variety of these antioxidant compounds. The theory was that these phytonutrients are created by the plant for its own protection. For example, broccoli releases the bitter compounds like sulforaphane when the plant is chewed to ward off those who might eat it. Bugs take one bite and say, "Ew, this tastes like broccoli!" But pesticide-laden plants are bitten less by bugs and so may be churning out fewer of these compounds. Plants raised organically, on the other hand, are in a fight for their lives and may necessarily have to produce more protection. That was the theory anyway, but we don't have good evidence to back it up. The more likely reason has to do with the fertilizer; plants given high dose synthetic nitrogen fertilizers may divert more resources to growth rather than defense.

These antioxidants may protect the plant, but what about us? More antioxidant phytonutrients are found in organic vegetables and so yes, they displayed more antioxidant activity, but also more antimutagenic activity. Researchers exposed bacteria to a variety of mutagenic chemicals like benzopyrene, the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon found in barbecued meat, or IQ, the heterocyclic amine found in grilled/broiled/fried meats (as well as cigarette smoke), and there were fewer DNA mutations in the petri dishes where they added organic vegetables compared to the petri dishes where they added conventional vegetables.

Preventing DNA damage in bacteria is one thing, but what about effects on actual human cells? Organic strawberries may taste better, and have higher antioxidant activity and more phenolic phytonutrients, but what happens when you stack them up head-to-head against human cancer cells? Extracts from organically grown strawberries suppressed the growth of colon cancer cells and breast cancer cells significantly better than extracts from conventional strawberries. Now this was dripping strawberries onto cancer cells growing in a petri dish, but as I showed in Strawberries versus Esophageal Cancer, there are real life circumstances in which strawberries come into direct contact with cancerous and precancerous lesions, and so presumably organic strawberries would work even better, but they haven't yet been tested in clinical trials.

Although in vitro studies show higher antioxidant and antimutagenic activity as well as better inhibition of cancer cell proliferation, clinical studies on the impact of eating organic on human disease simply haven't been done. Based on antioxidant phytonutrient levels, organic produce may be considered 20 to 40% healthier, the equivalent of adding one or two serving's worth to a five-a-day regimen. But organic produce may be 40% more expensive, so for the same money you could just buy the extra servings worth of conventional produce. From a purely nutrients-per-dollar standpoint, it's not clear that organic foods are any better. But people often buy organic foods to avoid chemicals, not because they are more nutritious. For more on the best available science comparing the nutritional content, pesticide risk, heavy metal toxicity, and food poisoning risk of organic versus conventionally raised foods )including practical tips for making your own DIY fruit and veggie wash), see:

I imagine that the reaction to this series will be similar to that for the one I did on GMO foods, riling up critics on both sides of the debate:

More on the nutritional implications of stressed-out plants here:

Production method aside, in vitro, Which Fruit Fights Cancer Better?

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: Sally Plank / Flickr. This image has been modified.

Original Link

Why Does the Meat Industry Routinely Feed Animals Antibiotics?

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When farm animals are fed antibiotics, they can develop antibiotic-resistant bacteria in their guts. Manure contamination of meat can then transfer these gut bacteria to humans. These bacteria can even spread to vegetarians, since drug-resistant bacteria in the animal feces can also spread to people through crops or the environment. Exhaust fans can blow MRSA superbugs straight out into the surrounding area from pig or poultry operations. This may explain why human MRSA infections in Europe have been tied to just living in a region with industrial pig production, whether or not people have direct contact with livestock. These findings may not just be limited to Europe.

European factory farms pale in comparison to what we have here in the U.S. From an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association's Internal Medicine: "proximity to swine manure application to crop fields and livestock operations was each associated with MRSA and skin and soft-tissue infections [in people in the U.S]. These findings contribute to the growing concern about the potential public health impacts of high-density livestock production."

An article published in Lancet Infectious Diseases explains that, "achievements in modern medicine, such as surgery, the treatment of preterm babies, and cancer chemotherapy, which we today take for granted, would not be possible without access to effective treatment for bacterial infections. Within just a few years, we might be faced with dire setbacks, medically, socially, and economically, unless real and unprecedented global coordinated actions are immediately taken" to protect these wonder drugs. Therefore, the use of antibiotics just to promote the growth of farm animals to slaughter weights should be banned worldwide. Europe stopped feeding pigs and chickens tetracycline and penicillin to promote growth about 40 years ago, something the U.S. meat industry continues to do to this day.

The Pew Commission recently published a five year update on their landmark blue ribbon commission report on current agricultural practices that found "the present system of producing food animals in the United States presents an unacceptable level of risk to public health." Their number one recommendation was to ban the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics, but agriculture lobbies are not going to give up the use of antibiotics without a fight (See Antibiotics: Agribusinesses' Pound of Flesh).

In December 2013, the FDA released "Guidance for Industry," their voluntary, non-binding recommendation for industry. They recommend antibiotics no longer be used to just fatten animals for slaughter, but emphasize that they are just that: toothless, non-legally enforceable suggestions. As mentioned in the Pew Commission report, "this voluntary approach has come under withering criticism from the public health and medical communities concerned about the increase in antibiotic-resistant bacterial pathogens."

The USDA is even considering going backwards, eliminating the requirement to even test for Staph aureus at all in the Federal School Lunch Program. They understand that "school-aged children are considered a 'sensitive population', hence, more stringent requirements, including sampling plans, may be considered to help assure safety and public confidence. However, the cost of such programs must be weighed against the cost of buying the food needed to support the program."

As one University of Iowa epidemiologist said, "although human health should take priority over farm animals, farmers will be reluctant to change until researchers can come up with safe and cost-effective practices to replace the use of antibiotics." How much are antibiotics really saving the industry? The net bottom-line benefit from the use of antibiotic feed additives may only be about $0.25 per animal, which means eliminating the risky practice of feeding antibiotics by the ton to farm animals would raise the price of meat less than a penny per pound.

For those not familiar with MRSA, please see my past videos on the topic:

For more on antibiotic use on the farm, see:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: AJC ajcann.wordpress.com / Flickr

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How to Prevent Childhood Obesity and Diabetes

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Thirty years ago, virtually all diabetes in young individuals was thought to be autoimmune Type 1 diabetes, but since the mid-90s, we started to see an increase in Type 2 diabetes among youth, particularly in the United States. Indeed, "the term adult onset diabetes has now been scrapped and replaced with 'Type 2' because children as young as eight are now developing the disease." And the effects can be just as devastating. A 15-year follow-up of children diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes found an alarming rate in young adults of blindness, amputation, kidney failure and death in young adulthood.

Why the dramatic rise in childhood diabetes? The dramatic rise in childhood diabetes is due to the dramatic rise in childhood obesity. During the past 30 years, the number of children diagnosed as being overweight has increased by more than 100 percent. Once an obese child reaches age six, it's likely they'll stay that way. And even if they don't, being overweight in our youth predicts adult disease and death regardless of adult body weight.

Being an overweight teen may predict disease risk 55 years later, including twice the risk of dying from heart attack, more cancer, gout, and arthritis. In fact being overweight as a teen "was a more powerful predictor of these risks then being overweight in adulthood." This underscores the importance of focusing on preventing childhood obesity.

How do we do it? From the official American Academy of Pediatrics clinical practice guidelines: the problem appears to be kids eating too much fat and added sugar, and not eating enough fruits and vegetables.

Doctors, at every occasion beginning soon after a child's birth, should endeavor to give sound advice regarding nutrition and growth so that obesity and its complications may be curtailed. What might sound advice sound like?

The chair of the nutrition department at Loma Linda published a review suggesting not eating meat at all might be an effective strategy. Population studies have consistently shown that vegetarians are thinner than comparable non-vegetarians.

In the largest such study to date (highlighted in my video How to Prevent Prediabetes in Children), a body mass index over 30 is considered obese, 25 to 30 overweight, and under 25 an ideal weight. The non-vegetarians were up at 28.8, showing the average meat-eater in the U.S. is significantly overweight. As one gets more and more plant-based, the average BMI drops. But even the average vegetarian in the U.S. is overweight. The only dietary group that was, on average, ideal weight were those eating strictly plant-based. It comes out to be about a 30-pound difference between average vegans and meat-eaters.

In school-aged children, the consumption of animal foods (meats, dairy, or eggs) is associated with an increased risk of being overweight, whereas plant-based equivalents like veggie burgers, veggie dogs, and veggie cold cuts were not. The whole plant foods like grains, beans, and nuts were found to be protective.

This may be because plant-based diets are low in energy density and high in starch, fiber, and water, which may increase feelings of fullness and resting energy expenditure, meaning resting metabolic rate. Eating plant-based appears to boost metabolism, such that you just burn more calories at rest. However, we're not sure how much of the benefits are due to increased consumption of plant foods versus decreased consumption of meat.

"Plant-based diets should be encouraged and promoted for optimal health. Local, national and international food policies are warranted to support social marketing messages and to reduce the social, cultural, economic and political forces that make it difficult to promote such diets." For example, although the advice to consume a plant-based diet is sound, questions arise concerning the relatively high price of produce.

We could reduce the burden of childhood obesity and prevent further spread of the disease, but we need to ensure that plant foods are affordable and accessible to children of all income levels. Getting diabetes in childhood cuts about 20 years of their life. What parent wouldn't go to the ends of the Earth to add decades to their children's lives? Fruits and vegetables may not fit on the Dollar Menu, but our kids are worth it.

We make life and death decisions at the grocery store buying food for our family. It's never too early to start our kids off on the right foot. See my video Heart Disease Starts in Childhood.

And healthy doesn't have to mean more expensive. Check out Eating Healthy on a Budget.

For some tips on getting our kids to eat their vegetables, see my videos Tricks to Get Kids to Eat Healthier at School and Tricks to Get Kids to Eat Healthier at Home.

Once one has prediabetes, there's a way to prevent it from progressing further. See my video How to Prevent Prediabetes from Turning into Diabetes.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: DAVID Swift / Flickr

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Sweet Potato Proteins vs. Cancer

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Sweet potatoes can be considered a superfood. They are one of the healthiest and cheapest vegetables on the planet. (And one day, perhaps, even off the planet, as NASA has chosen the sweet potato for space missions.) A study out of the University of Washington aimed to identify which vegetables provided the most nutrients per dollar. In my video, Anti-Cancer Potential of Sweet Potato Proteins, you can see a graph of affordability versus nutrition for different foods. The healthiest foods, like dark green leafy vegetables, may also be the cheapest, and the highest nutrient-rich food scores per dollar were obtained for sweet potatoes.

Sweet potatoes are not just packed with nutrition but may also have special cancer-fighting properties. In 1931, a unique protein was discovered in sweet potatoes. It turns out that 80% of the protein in sweet potatoes is a type of protease inhibitor with potential anticancer effects. These proteins were originally tested against leukemia and appeared to suppress the growth of leukemia cells in a petri dish.

But how would a sweet potato protein ever get into our bloodstream? As soon as most proteins hit our stomach, they start getting digested. To get around the digestion issue, researchers tried sweet potato protein against tongue cancer cells (sweet potato proteins certainly come in contact with our mouth!). Tongue cancer is often treated with chemotherapy, and most of the chemo drugs for tongue cancer have adverse effects, so it is indispensable for us to find other therapeutic strategies. Sweet potato protein rapidly diminished viability of the cancer in vitro within a matter of days, leading the researchers to propose that sweet potatoes may be useful for human tongue cancer. But could they possibly help with other cancers as well?

Remarkably, this special class of proteins doesn't just survive digestion, but may also be absorbed into the bloodstream intact (in at least two of the nine women with advanced cervical cancer researchers tried giving them to).

Most recently, sweet potato proteins were tried on colorectal cancer cells, one of our most common and deadly cancers. Normally we just surgically remove the colon, but that only works in the early stages since there are often "micrometastases" outside the colon that can subsequently lead to cancer recurrence and death, so we've been searching for anti-metastatic agents. Not only does sweet potato protein slow down the growth of colon cancer cells, but it may also decrease cancer cell migration and invasion.

Sweet potato consumption has also been associated with lower gallbladder cancer rates, but it has never been directly put to the test, but what's the downside?

Sweet potatoes are one of my favorite snacks. During the harsh Boston winters during my medical training, I used to put two freshly microwaved sweet potatoes in my coat pockets as natural hand-warmers. When they cooled down, my hand-warmers became instant healthy snacks!

More videos on getting the most nutrition for one's dollar:

What other vegetables might contain cancer fighting properties? See #1 AntiCancer Vegetable.

Are sweet potatoes best steamed? Should we eat the skin? Find out in my video: Best Way to Cook Sweet Potatoes.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: thebittenword.com / Flickr

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How Do Broccoli Supplements Compare to Sprouts?

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Your parents would have been smart to tell you to to "eat your broccoli." But what about broccoli sprouts? Or broccoli supplements?

There have been a number of randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials on the use of broccoli sprouts as a complementary treatment in diabetes to reduce oxidative stress, inflammation, and insulin resistance and fasting blood sugars.

In my video, Biggest Nutrition Bang for Your Buck, I describe how to grow our own sprouts simply and quickly in five days. New science suggests, though, that it's even simpler and quicker than I described. If we look at other sprouts, their antioxidant phytonutrients appear to peak around sprouting day five (up to 10-fold higher than day two), but the sulforaphane content in broccoli sprouts appears to peak at around 48 hours, so 2-day-old sprouts may be even better (See Sulforaphane: From Broccoli to Breast).

What if we don't enjoy eating broccoli or broccoli sprouts but still want the benefits of the broccoli phytonutrients? Do the broccoli supplements on the market work? One group of researchers tested BroccoMax, which boasts a half pound of broccoli's worth in every capsule. Researchers compared six capsules a day to a cup of broccoli sprouts. In the video, Broccoli: Sprouts vs. Supplements, you can see the spike in broccoli phytonutrients in the bloodstream of those eating sprouts. The cup of broccoli sprouts dramatically outperforms the six capsules at a small fraction of the cost. The researchers conclude that the bioavailability of broccoli phytonutrients is dramatically lower when subjects consume broccoli supplements compared to the whole food.

What's so great about broccoli sprouts? See: The Best Detox and Sulfurophane: From Broccoli to Breast.

They can be overdone, though. See: How Much Broccoli is Too Much?

More on cruciferous and cancer here:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: whologwhy / Flickr

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How Much Longer Do Fruit and Vegetable Eaters Live?

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Probably the least controversial advice in all of nutrition is to eat more fruits and vegetables, which is to say to eat more plants since the term vegetable basically means all parts of the plant that aren't fruit. We've known that eating more fruits and vegetables helps us live longer, but a new study helped us see exactly how much longer (featured in my video Fruits, Veggies, and Longevity: How Many Minutes Per Mouthful?).

Researchers in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition followed people and their diets over time to create a dose-response curve between fruit and vegetable consumption and mortality. Subjects who consumed five fruits and vegetables a day lived an extra three years compared to their non-plant-eating counterparts.

Compared to those eating five servings of fruits and veggies a day, those who ate four lost a month off their lifespan. Those who ate three servings lost three months. Then the curve started going off the cliff. At two servings a day, subjects lived seven months shorter, and at one serving a day, practically a year and a half, at half a serving a day, subjects lived nearly two years less, and at zero servings subjects lost three years.

This study mostly looked at people in their 50's and 60's. Is it too late by our 70's? No. Women in their 70's with the most carotenoid phytonutrients in their bloodstream were twice as likely to survive five years than those with the lowest. This means doubling one's likelihood of survival merely by eating some more fruits and vegetables.

In a study out of Taiwan, researchers concluded that spending just 50 cents a day on fruits or vegetables could buy people about a 10% drop in morality. That's quite a bargain. Imagine if there was a drug that--without side-effects--could lower our risk of death 10%. How much do you think drug companies would charge? Probably more than 50 cents.

The more plants we eat the more antioxidants we get. Why is this important? See The Power of NO and the Mitochondrial Theory of Aging. Or in terms of specific diseases, Food Antioxidants and Cancer and Food Antioxidants, Stroke, and Heart Disease.

Calculate Your Healthy Eating Score to see how one might maximize the intake of protective foods.

Nuts are technically just a dried fruit with (typically) a single seed so no wonder Nuts May Help Prevent Death.

Botanically speaking beans are fruit too. Check out Increased Lifespan From Beans.

Also, the more healthy foods we eat, the less room there is for less healthy foods:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 - 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: Richard Giles / Flickr

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How Plants Can be Both Safer and More Effective

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During the last decade, the drug industry has followed an assumption that a single drug hitting a single target was the "rational" way to design drugs. We're learning that Mother Nature may be a bit too complicated for that. "Strategies for targeting single genes or proteins ignore a very important fact that most, if not all diseases, involve a sophisticated network system." For example, one little family of immune molecules involves about 50 different keys fitting into about 20 different locks, often acting with redundancy, making selection of an appropriate drug to antagonize one key or one lock ineffective in the long run. A whole list of agents has been developed to target a specific molecule for the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease, for example, but they have all flopped. That's why drug companies are now working on so-called "promiscuous" drugs that try to affect multiple pathways simultaneously.

Meanwhile, since ancient times, natural agents derived from plants--fruits, vegetables, spices, beans, and grains--have been preferred as potential therapeutics for most chronic diseases, not only because of their safety, affordability, and long-term use, but also "for their ability to target multiple cell signaling pathways, a therapeutic virtue." (See Magic Bullets vs. Promiscuous Plants).

One example of a successful promiscuous plant-based drug is aspirin. It doesn't just target inflammation and offer pain relief, but can act as a blood thinner and help prevent preeclampsia and even some types of cancer. Curcumin is another hopeful plant-based medicine. Aspirin is an extract of the willow tree bark (and is present in other fruits and vegetables); curcumin is an extract of turmeric root. It's so anti-inflammatory that it may even work through the skin--a traditional use was to wrap sprains and injuries with turmeric soaked poultices, a use that continues to this day. Curcumin is so anti-inflammatory that it can help counter the effects of mustard gas.

In a petri dish, curcumin extinguishes the response of spleen cells to an inflammatory cytokine. Promising effects have also been observed in patients with a variety of inflammatory diseases. One of the great things about curcumin is that it also appears to be very safe. One of the reasons may be that despite its powerful pharmacological effects, the same pathway promiscuity that may account for its effectiveness may act synergistically to neutralize side-effects. For example, turmeric has been traditionally used as a bronchodilator to open airways in conditions like asthma. Many of the adrenaline-like drugs that do the same thing can raise blood pressure. The reason turmeric doesn't may be because it has different components with opposing activities, such as calcium channel-blocking effects that may actually lower blood pressure, and so the side effects may cancel each other out.

This strength in promiscuity, though, is also a weakness. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been reluctant to approve plant extracts, which by definition are composed of mixtures of different compounds. It's a Catch-22. One drug, one chemical, one mechanism of action and you can patent it, get FDA approval, and make a billion off it, but it may not work very well. On the other hand, there might be a safe, natural alternative that works better, but industry and the government may not be interested.

However, there is hope on the horizon. The FDA approved a green tea ointment as a prescription drug for the treatment of genital warts (See Treating Genital Warts with Green Tea), making it the first prescription plant approved in the United States. If you think that's neat, check out Treating Gorlin Syndrome With Green Tea.

So have drug companies abandoned their model and started pouring money into plants? No. "Having discovered that so-called magic bullet has been largely unsuccessful, they just propose creating non-selective drugs. Instead of magic bullets, magic shotguns."

I go into more detail about the Catch-22 in my last video Plants as Intellectual Property - Patently Wrong?

Aspirin isn't just found in willow tree bark, but throughout the plant kingdom, including fruits and vegetables. See: Aspirin Levels in Plant Foods.

My video Power Plants shows how plant foods are not to be underestimated.

More on turmeric curcumin and inflammation here:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 - 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: Shu / Flickr

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Plants as Intellectual Property: Patently Wrong?

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Since ancient times, Mother Nature has been a fertile source for drugs used to treat human diseases. One such remedy is the spice turmeric, specifically known for its naturally-yellow compound, curcumin, which has been used for at least 2,500 years. In light of the long and established experience with curcumin as a foodstuff and safe, low-cost, effective medicine, the spice is moving rapidly from the kitchen shelf toward the clinic.

Curcumin has shown some promising effects against a wide range of diseases, so well in fact that curcumin appears to possess all the desirable features of a designed-from-scratch, multipurpose drug.

If it's so safe and effective, why aren't more studies being done? Part of the delay is attributable to a U.S. patent, granted in 1995 to researchers at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, for curcumin's wound-healing properties, which prevented its development as a therapeutic. In a landmark case, highlighted in my video, Plants as Intellectual Property: Patently Wrong?, the Indian Council of Scientific and Industrial Research spent years arguing and finally proved that curcumin has been part of the Indian traditional system of medicine for centuries and so should be considered part of the public domain. It's like patenting broccoli. The patent was finally over-turned in 1997, a triumph for those trying to stop the misappropriation of traditional knowledge by multinational corporations. But if no one profits, who's going to pay for research?

Given that public knowledge does not involve any intellectual property, drug companies are not interested in its commercialization. You can buy turmeric in any grocery store for pennies a dose. "Unless there is intellectual property to make money, nobody will come forward," said a leading turmeric researcher.

Then how is any research being funded? Although curcumin itself is no longer patentable, derivatives, formulations, delivery systems, and synthetic methods can be. So, if you take some turmeric molecule and tweak it a little bit, you can patent it for your investors. Unless phytonutrients can be converted into new chemical entities for which more specific medical claims are possible, the development of these plants seems unlikely. Sure, they're extensively exploited as active ingredients of innumerable products on ill-regulated food supplement markets, but apart from this, progress through clinical trials remains sluggish. "Such waste of resources on the way of transformation from renewable materials to high tech/high value products ... is deplorable," drug research scientists write.

So maybe it would be good if Frito-lay did own the patent to broccoli. There's a reason we don't see Super Bowl ads for vegetables.

This reminds me of my video The Lie That Heals: Should Doctors Give Placebos? I went into the topic thinking one thing, but realized that there are strong arguments to be made on both sides.

Turmeric is pretty amazing stuff. Even if we won't hear about most of the research because companies can't patent it, we can educate ourselves:

The concept that the curcumin in turmeric is able to target multiple diseases pathways simultaneously is explored further in my video, Magic Bullets vs. Promiscuous Plants.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 - 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: Jules / Flickr

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Our Tax Dollars Subsidize Unhealthy Foods

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Why do food companies sell junk? Because unhealthy commodities are highly profitable. This is in part because of their "low production cost, long shelf-life, and high retail value," which create perverse incentives for industries to market and sell more junk. In a study highlighted in my video, Taxpayer Subsidies for Unhealthy Foods, researchers at the University of Cambridge stated, "Coca-Cola's net profit margins, for example, are about a quarter of the retail price, making soft drink production, alongside tobacco production, among the most profitable industrial activities in the world." One of the reasons production costs are so low is that we tax-payers subsidize it.

Distinguished UNC Professor of Nutrition, Barry Popkin, writes:

"For more than a century, Western governments have invested heavily in lowering the costs of animal products and some basic cash crops [such as sugar]. Accordingly, Western diets have shifted during the past century, especially after World War II, to include more animal sourced foods--meat, poultry, dairy, seafood, and eggs [as well as more sugar and corn syrup]. During this same period, however, we have begun to realize that a healthy diet actually requires fewer animal products and empty calories, and more vegetables, fruits, beans, and whole grains. Redressing this balance is a complex task requiring not only a shift in agricultural investment and policy, but also changes in social preferences that have developed over decades, in part due to dollar menu meat."

Why is chicken so cheap? In the nine years that followed the passage of the '96 Farm Bill, corn and soy were subsidized below the cost of production to make cheap animal feed. So U.S. tax-payers effectively handed the chicken and pork industry around $10 billion dollars each.

What if we instead subsidized healthy foods? Or taxed harmful ones? Every dollar spent taxing processed foods or milk would net an estimated $2 in healthcare cost savings. Every dollar spent making vegetables cheaper would net $3, and subsidizing whole grains could net over a one thousand percent return on our investment.

Unfortunately, we can't count on Big Broccoli. The produce sector lacks the extensive funding that went to create the National Dairy Council, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the National Pork Producers Council, and the American Egg Board.

Even if we removed the hundreds of billions of dollars in annual subsidies for animal products, it might not be sufficient to tip the balance in favor of healthier diets. According to Professor Popkin, "We have created societies in the West that value and consume meat, dairy, poultry, fish and seafood. Over several generations, a particular way of life has been promoted that has shifted expectations about diet to include large amounts of animal-sourced foods"--the concept that a meal centers around some hunk of meat.

The idea that animal products should form the basis of our diet has been scientifically debunked, but remains the social aspiration of billions of people. As we in the West slowly come to accept that our diets and eating habits are not healthy, it is to be hoped that this will change policies not only here, but throughout the world.

For more on the power Big Food's hold over our political system, check out videos such as:

My video series on corporate influence over our federal nutrition guidelines may also be enlightening:

And if we really wanted to save our country money we could start by trying to wipe out some of our leading killer chronic diseases:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

Image Credit: Rakka / Flickr

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