What Are the Benefits of Organic?

What Are the Benefits of Organic?.jpeg

The medical literature has been historically hostile to organic foods, blaming in part erroneous information supplied by the health food movement for our ignorance of nutrition. But until just a few generations ago, all food was organic. It's kind of ironic that what we now call conventional food really isn't very conventional for our species.

By eating organic we can reduce our exposure to pesticides, but it remains unclear whether such a reduction in exposure is clinically relevant. In my video, Are Organic Foods Safer?, I talked about some of the test tube studies comparing health-related properties of organic versus conventional foods. Organic produce was found to have higher antioxidant and antimutagenic activity combined with better inhibition of cancer cell proliferation, but in terms of studies on actual people rather than petri dishes, there isn't much science either way.

Why can't you just compare the health of those who buy organic to those who don't? Organic consumers do report being significantly healthier than conventional consumers, but they also tend to eat more plant foods in general and less soda and alcohol, processed meat, or milk, and just eat healthier in general. No wonder they feel so much better!

Therefore, there is an urgent need for interventional trials, or studies following cohorts of people eating organic over time like the Million Women Study in the UK, which was the first to examine the association between the consumption of organic food and subsequent risk of cancer. The only significant risk reduction they found, though, was for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. This is consistent with data showing a higher risk of developing lymphoma in those who have higher levels of pesticides stored in their butt fat, a study undertaken because farmworkers have been found to have higher rates of lymphoma.

Parental farmworker exposure is also associated with a birth defect of the penis called hypospadias, and so researchers decided to see if moms who failed to choose organic were at increased risk. Indeed they found that frequent consumption of conventional high-fat dairy products was associated with about double the odds of the birth defect. This could just be because those that choose organic have other related healthy behaviors, or it could be that high-fat foods like dairy products bioamplify the fat-soluble toxins in our environment.

In my video, Are Organic Foods Healthier?, you can see two other general population pesticide studies that have raised concerns. One study found about a 50 to 70% increase in the odds of ADHD among children with pesticide levels in their urine, and another that found triple the odds of testicular cancer among men with higher levels of organochlorine pesticides in their blood. 90% of such pollutants come from fish, meat, and dairy, which may help explain rising testicular cancer rates in many western countries since World War II.

What about interventional trials? All we have in the medical literature so far are studies showing organically grown food provides health benefits to fruit flies raised on diets of conventional versus organic produce when subjected to a variety of tests designed to assess overall fly health. And what do you know--flies raised on diets made from organically grown produce lived longer. Hmm, insects eating insecticides don't do as well. Not exactly much of a breakthrough!


For how to best get pesticides off of conventional produce, see my video How to Make Your Own Fruit and Vegetable Wash.

Pesticides are one thing, but Are Organic Foods More Nutritious?

Overall, Are the Benefits of Organic Food Underrated or Overrated?

For more on the impact of food contaminants during pregnancy, 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:

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

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What Are the Benefits of Organic?

What Are the Benefits of Organic?.jpeg

The medical literature has been historically hostile to organic foods, blaming in part erroneous information supplied by the health food movement for our ignorance of nutrition. But until just a few generations ago, all food was organic. It's kind of ironic that what we now call conventional food really isn't very conventional for our species.

By eating organic we can reduce our exposure to pesticides, but it remains unclear whether such a reduction in exposure is clinically relevant. In my video, Are Organic Foods Safer?, I talked about some of the test tube studies comparing health-related properties of organic versus conventional foods. Organic produce was found to have higher antioxidant and antimutagenic activity combined with better inhibition of cancer cell proliferation, but in terms of studies on actual people rather than petri dishes, there isn't much science either way.

Why can't you just compare the health of those who buy organic to those who don't? Organic consumers do report being significantly healthier than conventional consumers, but they also tend to eat more plant foods in general and less soda and alcohol, processed meat, or milk, and just eat healthier in general. No wonder they feel so much better!

Therefore, there is an urgent need for interventional trials, or studies following cohorts of people eating organic over time like the Million Women Study in the UK, which was the first to examine the association between the consumption of organic food and subsequent risk of cancer. The only significant risk reduction they found, though, was for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. This is consistent with data showing a higher risk of developing lymphoma in those who have higher levels of pesticides stored in their butt fat, a study undertaken because farmworkers have been found to have higher rates of lymphoma.

Parental farmworker exposure is also associated with a birth defect of the penis called hypospadias, and so researchers decided to see if moms who failed to choose organic were at increased risk. Indeed they found that frequent consumption of conventional high-fat dairy products was associated with about double the odds of the birth defect. This could just be because those that choose organic have other related healthy behaviors, or it could be that high-fat foods like dairy products bioamplify the fat-soluble toxins in our environment.

In my video, Are Organic Foods Healthier?, you can see two other general population pesticide studies that have raised concerns. One study found about a 50 to 70% increase in the odds of ADHD among children with pesticide levels in their urine, and another that found triple the odds of testicular cancer among men with higher levels of organochlorine pesticides in their blood. 90% of such pollutants come from fish, meat, and dairy, which may help explain rising testicular cancer rates in many western countries since World War II.

What about interventional trials? All we have in the medical literature so far are studies showing organically grown food provides health benefits to fruit flies raised on diets of conventional versus organic produce when subjected to a variety of tests designed to assess overall fly health. And what do you know--flies raised on diets made from organically grown produce lived longer. Hmm, insects eating insecticides don't do as well. Not exactly much of a breakthrough!


For how to best get pesticides off of conventional produce, see my video How to Make Your Own Fruit and Vegetable Wash.

Pesticides are one thing, but Are Organic Foods More Nutritious?

Overall, Are the Benefits of Organic Food Underrated or Overrated?

For more on the impact of food contaminants during pregnancy, 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:

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

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Hives from Tick Bite-Induced Meat Allergies

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In a previous video Alpha Gal and the Lone Star Tick, I started talking about a tick bite-induced meat allergy, called Alpha-Gal, that is unlike any other food allergy we know. The most interesting feature of the reactions may be that first symptoms can occur hours after eating meat. Normally, an allergic reaction to a bee sting, for example, happens within minutes. With this meat allergy, we could have a piece of bacon for breakfast and our throat wouldn't start closing off until the afternoon. Because the cause and effect are temporarily separated, we often blame other factors, such as what we ate for lunch, or we just call it "spontaneous" or "idiopathic" anaphylaxis, which is just doctor-speak for "we have no idea what the cause is."

The delay likely occurs because the alpha-gal is probably absorbed along with the fat in meat, given that the allergic reaction occurring four to five hours after meat ingestion corresponds to the peak absorption time of fatty acids from the intestinal tract.

What makes the allergy even more difficult to diagnose is that the majority of victims experience only occasional overt reactions, despite regular meat consumption. Fattier meats, like pork rinds, may provoke episodes more consistently and severely, but still don't trigger a reaction every time.

Tick bite-induced meat allergy is on the rise. Ten years ago we didn't even know this thing existed, but now in tick-ridden states as many as 20% of the population have these anti-meat allergic antibodies (See Tick Bites, Meat Allergies, and Chronic Urticaria). And more and more people are coming in affected, though probably no more than 10% who test positive go on to experience hives or serious allergic reaction to meat.

We're also seeing it more and more in kids. Researchers in Virginia have found that it is not uncommon, though identification of the allergy may not be straightforward. Unlike in adults, who frequently present with systemic reactions, the majority of children with this syndrome present with just skin manifestations, such as hives. However, this doesn't mean it's not serious. In fact, nearly half the kids ended up in the ER, and about 1 in 12 needed to be hospitalized.

Up to a quarter of the population breaks out in hives at some time in their lives, but some children can be affected for weeks or months. It can be triggered by infections, foods, drugs, parasites, or be autoimmune, but in a large subset of cases we don't know what the trigger is, and so, call it chronic "idiopathic" urticaria. It's a common thing pediatricians see. The only cure is avoiding and eliminating whatever is triggering it, but in three quarters of cases we have no clue.

We now know that many children who had been diagnosed with mysterious hives or allergic reactions and may have been specifically told that the reactions were not a result of a food allergy, may have actually been suffering from anti-gal meat allergies. The serious nature of the reactions and the rising frequency of allergic swelling and hives across all age groups underscore the importance of identifying what's going on, and physicians should keep this new diagnosis in mind.

Allergies to meat might be more common than previously thought, as much as 2% of the population (which would mean millions of people). But to put this in context, Americans are much more likely to suffer an anaphylactic reaction due to seafood, tick bite or not, no matter where they live. A national survey of emergency rooms found shellfish was by far the most frequently implicated food, and unlike many other allergies, kids don't tend to outgrow fish and shellfish allergies.

Some fish allergies are actually allergies not to the fish, but to worms in the fish, like anisakis, which are found particularly in cod, anchovies, and squid. Exposure to these parasites in fish, living or dead, is a widespread problem. In fact, we can even have an allergic reaction to the parasitic fish worm when we eat chickens that were fed on fishmeal. This is one of the ways someone who's allergic to fish could get triggered by chicken.

Because of these worms, researchers recommend that people stop eating seafood and sushi altogether, because besides inducing allergenic reactions, the worms may cause a leaky gut syndrome, which often is unrecognized and can predispose someone to other, more important pathologies than just being itchy all over.

I previously covered anisakis in Allergenic Fish Worms and other allergenic parasite reactions in Chronic Headaches and Pork Tapeworms.

The worms might not the only thing increasing allergies in fish. See:

I also did a 4-part series on allergies in general if anyone's interested:

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: Meredith P. / Flickr

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How a Tick Bite Can Lead to Food Allergies

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In the beginning, Aristotle defined two forms of life on planet Earth: plants and animals. Two thousand years later, the light microscope was invented and we discovered tiny, single-celled organisms like amoebas. Then, the electron microscope was invented and we discovered bacteria. Finally, in 1969, biologists recognized fungi as a separate category, and we've had at least five kingdoms of life ever since.

In my video, Higher Quality May Mean Higher Risk, I talk about the potential downsides of consuming proteins from within our own kingdom, such as the impact our fellow animal proteins can have on boosting our liver's production of a cancer-promoting hormone called IGF-1.

In Eating Outside Our Kingdom, I talked about other potential advantages of preferably dipping into the plant and mushroom kingdoms for dinner, not only from a food safety perspective (we're more likely to get infected by animal pathogens than Dutch Elm Disease), but because of the potential for cross-reactivity between animal and human proteins. Our immune system is more likely to get confused between a chicken leg and our own legs than it is with a banana, so there may be less potential to trigger an autoimmune reaction, like degenerative brain diseases or inflammatory arthritis (See Diet & Rheumatoid Arthritis). In attacking some foreign animal meat protein, some of our own similarly composed tissues may get caught in the crossfire.

It's not just proteins. If you remember the Neu5Gc story (see Inflammatory Meat Molecule Neu5GC), sialic acid in other animals may cause inflammation in our arteries (see Nonhuman Molecules Lining Our Arteries) and help breast tumors and other human cancers to grow (see How Tumors Use Meat to Grow: Xeno-Autoantibodies). Now a new twist has been added to the story.

The reason Neu5Gc triggers inflammation is because humans lost the ability to make it two million years ago, and so when our body is exposed to it through animal products, it's treated as a foreign molecule, causing inflammation. But there's also another oligosaccharide called alpha-gal that humans, chimps, and apes lost the ability to make 20 million years ago, but is still made by a variety of animals, including many animals we eat.

Anti-gal antibodies may be involved in a number of detrimental processes that may result in allergic, autoimmune, and autoimmune-like diseases, such as auto-immune thyroid disorders. We see higher levels of anti-gal antibodies in Crohn's disease victims. These antibodies even react against about half of human breast tumors, and we can find them in atherosclerotic plaques in people's necks. However, those are all mostly speculative risks. We do know that alpha-gal is a major obstacle to transplanting pig organs into people, like kidneys, because our bodies reject alpha-gal as foreign. In fact, alpha-gal is thought to be the major target for human anti-pig antibodies.

It's interesting that if we look at those that abstain from pork for whatever reason, they have fewer swine-specific immune cells in their bloodstream. Researchers speculate that oral intake of pork could ferry swine molecules into the bloodstream via gut-infiltrating lymphocytes to prime the immune response. So we can have an allergic reaction to eating pig kidneys too, but such severe meat allergies were considered rare, until an unusual report surfaced. First described in 2009, the report included details on 24 cases of meat allergies triggered by tick bites.

Within a year, it was obvious that the cases should be counted in hundreds rather than dozens. By 2012, there were thousands of cases across a large area of the southern and eastern U.S., and new cases are now popping up in several countries around the world.

The culprit, the lone star tick, so-called because females have a white spot on their back, are famous for causing Masters' disease, a disease similar to Lyme syndrome, also known as STARI (southern tick associated rash illness). But thanks to the lone star tick steadily expanding its range (even as far as Long Island, NY), it's not necessarily just so Southern any more.

What is the relevance of tick bites to the production of allergy-causing anti-meat antibodies to alpha-gal? Good question. What we know is that if you get bitten by one of these ticks, you can develop an allergy to meat (See Alpha Gal and the Lone Star Tick). This appears to be the first example of a response to an external parasite giving rise to an important form of food allergy. We don't know the exact mechanism, but it may be because there's something in the tick saliva that's cross-reacting with alpha-gal, or because the tick is injecting you with animal allergens from its last meal.

What role may these tick-bite induced allergies play in the development of chronic hives and other allergic skin reactions in children? See Tick Bites, Meat Allergies, and Chronic Urticaria.

Here's some videos unearthing the IGF-1 story:

Neu5Gc is what opened up this whole can of worms:

I wonder if alpha gal is playing a role in the improvements in arthritis and Crohn's on plant-based diets: Dietary Treatment of Crohn's Disease and Diet & Rheumatoid Arthritis.

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: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab / Flickr

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Bee my Valentine

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(Don't bee shy, the camera loves ya!)

This post will be short and sweet, like its main characters. But it won't bee a quickie.

On our driveway, two bumblebees are celebrating Valentine's Day in the best way they know how: making the bee with two backs.

So as naturally nosy primates, we took some photos. (Also available on video.)

Try another angle - beeautiful.

While Valentine's Day in New Zealand was yesterday, I prefer to beelieve there may have been extended courting - some special nectar and pollen, perhaps - and foreplay.

Clearly they have adopted the theme song "Why don't we do it the road", by the Beetles. A bit of research shows bumblebees mating on the ground is normal, but they can continue for 10 to 80 minutes! One observer reported mating bumblebees can bee moved, so I did.

While much of the public concern over bee populations highlights honeybees, we need all pollinators much more urgently than honey.

So I hope you'll join me in wishing the happy couple a much longer and fruitful...coupling...beefore they buzz off.

Further bee puns may bee left in the comments.

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A Low Methionine Diet May Help Starve Cancer Cells

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When designing an antibiotic, we can't create a drug that destroys DNA because that's something that both humans and bacteria share in common. It would kill bacteria, but it might kill us, too. Instead, many antibiotics work by attacking bacterial cell walls, which is something bacteria have that we don't.

Similarly, antifungals can attack the unique cell walls of fungus. Pesticides can work by attacking the special exoskeleton of insects. But fighting cancer is harder because cancer cells are our own cells. So fighting cancer comes down to trying to find and exploit differences between cancer cells and normal cells.

Forty years ago, a landmark paper was published showing for the first time that many human cancers have what's called "absolute methionine dependency," meaning that if we try to grow cells in a Petri dish without giving them the amino acid methionine, normal cells thrive, but without methionine, cancer cells die. Normal breast cells grow no matter what, with or without methionine, but cancer cells need that added methionine to grow.

What does cancer do with the methionine? Tumors use it to generate gaseous sulfur-containing compounds that, interestingly, can be detected by specially trained diagnostic dogs. There are mole-sniffing dogs that can pick out skin cancer. There are breath-sniffing dogs that can pick out people with lung cancer. Pee-sniffing dogs that can diagnose bladder cancer and--you guessed it--fart-sniffing dogs for colorectal cancer. Doctors can now bring their lab to the lab!

It gives a whole new meaning to the term pet scan :)

Methionine dependency is not just present in cancer cell lines in a Petri dish. Fresh tumors taken from patients show that many cancers appear to have a biochemical defect that makes them dependent on methionine, including some tumors of the colon, breast, ovary, prostate, and skin. Pharmaceutical companies are fighting to be the first to come out with a drug that decreases methionine levels. But since methionine is sourced mainly from food, a better strategy may be to lower methionine levels by lowering methionine intake, eliminating high methionine foods to control cancer growth as well as improve our lifespan (see Methionine Restriction as a Life-Extension Strategy).

Here's the thinking: smoking cessation, consumption of diets rich in plants, and other lifestyle measures can prevent the majority of cancers. Unfortunately, people don't do them, and as a result hundreds of thousands of Americans develop metastatic cancer each year. Chemotherapy cures only a few types of metastatic cancer. Unfortunately, the vast majority of common metastatic cancers, such as breast, prostate, colon, and lung, are lethal. We therefore desperately need novel treatment strategies for metastatic cancer, and dietary methionine restriction may be one such strategy.

So, where is methionine found? In my video, Starving Cancer with Methionine Restriction, you can see a graph of foods with their respective methionine levels. Chicken and fish have the highest levels. Milk, red meat, and eggs have less, but if we really want to stick with lower methionine foods, fruits, nuts, veggies, grains, and beans are the best. In other words, "In humans, methionine restriction may be achieved using a predominately vegan diet."

There are also compounds in animal products that may actually stimulate tumor growth. See, for example, How Tumors Use Meat to Grow: Xeno-Autoantibodies. Animal protein may also boost levels of the cancer-promoting hormone IGF-1 (The Answer to the Pritikin Puzzle). Combined, this could all help explain why plants and plant-based diets have been found effective in potentially reversing some cancer processes. See Cancer Reversal Through Diet?, Strawberries versus Esophageal Cancer, and Black Raspberries versus Oral Cancer.

So why isn't every oncologist prescribing a low-methionine diet? One researcher notes that "Despite many promising preclinical and clinical studies in recent years, dietary methionine restriction and other dietary approaches to cancer treatment have not yet gained wide clinical application. Most clinicians and investigators are probably unfamiliar with nutritional approaches to cancer." That's an understatement! "Many others may consider amino acid restriction as an 'old idea,' since it has been examined for several decades. However, many good ideas remain latent for decades if not centuries before they prove valuable in the clinic....With the proper development, dietary methionine restriction, either alone or in combination with other treatments, may prove to have a major impact on patients with cancer."

Why might the medical profession be so resistant to therapies proven to be effective? The Tomato Effect may be partially to blame.

In my video, Anti-Angiogenesis: Cutting Off Tumor Supply Lines, researchers come to the same plant-based conclusion from a different perspective, starving cancers of their blood supply.

-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 and More Than an Apple a Day.

Image Credit: PNNL - Pacific Northwest National Laboratory / Flickr

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