Do They Deserve the Spotlight?
In today’s world, with an overabundance of information in the media, and especially on the internet, it can be challenging to decipher truth from fiction. Over the past decade, a growing interest has developed around food, especially how certain foods have wonderful properties to increase our health and that there might be other foods that we should absolutely avoid because they could decrease our health. As researchers continue to investigate how specific nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and trace elements interact with our bodies, their preliminary results often spread quickly to the general public, instead of remaining within the scientific community until scientists have sufficient time to fully examine their initial findings.
If you have ever played the childhood game ‘telephone’, where a short message is whispered from person to person around a group, you know that when the last person announces the message out loud, it usually only faintly resembles the original message, if at all. When the media passes on information about new food claims, the message can follow a similar pattern to this game, for many reasons.
Firstly, reporters often leave out very important facts to save time or space, depending on the specific media stream. Some have a particular bias, especially if a publication is promoted within a niche market.
Secondly, most researchers write papers for publication in medical journals, with other scholars as the intended audience. When non-experts read and report on journal articles containing advanced medical or scientific language and complex concepts, they could misinterpret the data collection, relevant factors, and even the true meaning of the results. Sometimes a study is only a pilot project, involving very few study participants, intended to test a simple hypothesis. It is not prudent to assume that what works for a few will work for everyone.
Finally, as is the case with any business, the media is trying to sell a product. Catchy headlines and appealing images can embellish the truth and attract a larger audience, even when the evidence is weak.
Since not all of the information that you come across in newspapers, magazines, and on television regarding food is misleading, it is important to use common sense while forming your own conclusions. This is especially important before introducing food or supplements into your dietary regime, or before eliminating food that is normally a dietary staple. Drastically changing your eating habits without personalized healthcare advice from a professional could lead to nutrient deficiencies.
Consider the following points before making changes to your diet:
From whom or where is this information coming? Is the food claim an opinion of the writer, a health professional, a regulatory body, or the grower or manufacturer? If it is from a medical study, does it state a medical journal as its source? Watch out for purely marketing pieces designed to capture your interest and sell a product. Be cautious if authors don’t mention any references to back up their claims, and go the extra step to verify that what the author claims is actually stated in the referenced source. We’re shocked at how many authors make unfounded statements.
Quantity of the Food/Product
When an advertisement links a specific food item to improving a person’s health, it is very important to determine how much of that food item you would need to consume in order to obtain the claimed benefit. Many medical studies will use a concentrated dose (extract) of the food’s components, removed either through a physical or chemical process, instead of the food in its natural state. In these cases, it would be virtually impossible to consume sufficient quantities of the original food to take in an equivalent dose to that in the study.
Foods Guilty by Association
Watch out for those who claim to be experts recommending the addition or elimination of foods, or even entire food groups, when there is no direct evidence justifying this action. For example, in an online news article we found, an author claimed that certain foods fight gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), specifically listing five items: oatmeal, ginger, pasta, applesauce, and beans. Reading past the catchy headline, the explanation behind this recommendation is that these foods have a high-fibre and low-fat content. It’s not that this information is necessarily incorrect, but if an individual fails to read past the headline, then they might make the false assumption that only these specific five foods fight GERD, when many foods fitting the same criteria may also help alleviate symptoms, as no food actually fights GERD.
When in Doubt
If ever in doubt, it is best to follow Canada’s Food Guide. Consuming a variety of nutritious foods will benefit your health far more over time than trying to squeeze in your tenth serving of one particular ‘miracle’ food.
We investigated the scientific background of a few foods to determine whether they really deserve a spot on our grocery list based on all the media attention they have gained.
Olive oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, margarine, butter, flax seed oil, peanut oil – the list goes on-and-on; it can be overwhelming trying to decide which oil is best to use for cooking. Each type of oil differs in its concentration of good fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) and bad fats (trans and saturated).
Good Fats: The so-called good fats earn this title based on their ability to lower total and LDL cholesterol levels and increase the level of HDL cholesterol in the body. These include canola oil, flax seed oil, peanut oil, olive oil, non-hydrogenated soft margarine, safflower oil, and sunflower oil.
Bad Fats: Oils high in saturated and trans fat, and thus not as beneficial to cardiovascular health, include vegetable shortening, hard margarine, butter, palm oil, and coconut oil.1
When it comes to all types of fat, though, moderation is what is important. Also, keep in mind that each oil has a different smoke point, so choosing an oil that is appropriate for the specific cooking method is key. For example, olive oil has a low smoke point (375°F), so it is best to use a different oil for frying, such as safflower oil, with a higher smoke point (510°F). However, using olive oil in recipes that require a lower heat or no heat, such as dressings and sauces, is an excellent way to gain the many health benefits of this fat, without exposure to the toxins of burnt fats.
Studies have shown that diets rich in olive oil may have similar health benefits as those associated with ibuprofen and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as cardiovascular health and a reduction in the risk of developing some cancers. Ingesting 50g (3½Tbsp) of olive oil per day is equivalent to about 10% of the ibuprofen dosage recommended for adult pain relief.2
Cranberries and cranberry products have a high concentration of bioactive compounds, including flavonols, anthocyanins, tannins, and phenolic acid derivatives. Numerous clinical trials show that bioactive compounds reduce the occurrence of inflammation, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and aging-related disorders.3 The tannic components in cranberries can potentially inhibit bacterial adherence to the epithelial cells, such as Escherichia coli in the urinary tract, which helps prevent urinary tract infections. In a similar process, the components in cranberries can inhibit the adhesion of Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) to gastric epithelial cells, potentially preventing the development of peptic ulcers and gastric cancer. Researchers found that drinking two 250mL drinks of cranberry juice cocktail per day could partially suppress H. pylori infection by interfering with the bacteria’s ability to cling to the stomach walls.4
The use of probiotics in food is still a topic under much debate in the scientific community. Many experts argue that the probiotic concentration in yogurt is insufficient, and the survival time of most active bacteria in this medium is quite short. Others state that yogurt manufacturers choose strains based on their stability in a dairy environment, with little consideration for their health benefits. A key factor is that researchers usually study the probiotic supplements, not the probiotic’s effect when integrated into a food product. Typically, probiotic supplements work better than do probiotics found in food products, often simply due to the quantity and stability of the organism.
While yogurt is a nutritious product that is good for those who are lactose tolerant, using it for probiotic benefit might not be the best use of your money. This is an example of where a supplement may differ in effectiveness from a food source.
A recent magazine article suggested its readers use artichokes to “tame tummy troubles”. Our investigation shows that researchers are examining the artichoke leaf extract for its potentially soothing effect on the GI tract.5 In one small study, participants taking two capsules of the extract, three times a day, for a total of 1920mg/day, noticed an overall improvement in the severity of their dyspeptic symptoms. Researchers suggest that the bitter compounds present in artichokes (e.g., cynaropicrin) are responsible for this beneficial effect. The medicinal quantity of these compounds varies with the plant strain, age, and generation. For example, the highest content of cynaropicrin exists in young leaves, and not in the root of mature fruits or flowers.6 Therefore, experiencing a soothing effect on the GI tract requires consumption of the artichoke leaf extract to ensure a high concentration of these particular compounds. The magazine author incorrectly suggests eating the vegetable itself for tummy relief, even though there is no research available specifically concerning the use of this vegetable. Making the leap from research on a concentrated extract to suggesting the food in its natural state will produce the same effect is just media hype.
Whole artichokes are a very good source of vitamins, minerals, and fibre, which makes them a great choice to include in your diet, but to observe the specific GI benefits seen in the study requires consumption of the extract.
A plant commonly used topically to reduce the effects of burns and wounds on the skin, aloe vera is claimed to have anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and healing properties. It is also becoming more popular as an oral treatment for ulcerative colitis. Most studies testing its internal use have been in the laboratory (in vitro), although in one human study, those who consumed 200mL of commercially produced aloe vera gel showed a positive effect by reducing the disease activity. However, researchers stated that further investigation is necessary to determine aloe vera’s full therapeutic potential.7
Garlic belongs to the Allium class of bulb-shaped plants, which also includes onions, chives, leeks, and scallions. Several population studies have shown an association between an increased intake of garlic and a reduced risk of certain cancers, including cancers of the stomach, colon, esophagus, and pancreas.8 Because not all garlic preparations are the same, it is difficult to determine the exact amount of garlic needed to reduce cancer risk. The active compounds present in garlic may also lose their effectiveness with time, handling, and processing. The World Health Organization recommends a daily dose of 2-5g of fresh garlic (approximately one clove) for the promotion of a healthy GI tract.
Do not rely on anecdotal stories. When considering a health food claim, ask yourself some questions:
Is the product made by a reputable company, one that I trust?
Reputable companies are often better able to spend the time and money needed to research health claims about food. If you are not sure about a company, you may wish to discuss its reputation with your healthcare professional.
Are claims backed-up by medical science?
Keep in mind that scientific studies and research are more trustworthy than first-hand (anecdotal) experience.
Do the health claims seem ‘too good to be true’, or does the product claim to be an amazing ‘cure all’?
There is no one miracle food that will, by itself, help you to manage your disease, disorder, or your overall health.
Does the product label explain how many servings I need to consume and how to fit them into my diet?
It is important to know how much you need to eat. Some ingredients will require very large doses or ongoing daily doses in order to gain the desired health benefit.
Is the product sold as part of a ‘package’ of products?
When making healthy food choices, most of the time, you should not have to purchase other products, such as complex supplements, books, or gadgets.
Have I discussed using the product with my healthcare professional?
It is always best to talk with your healthcare professional first. You can discuss any medical conditions or concerns you may have. It is a way to find out if the food product will really be a benefit to your health or just potentially leave a dent in your wallet.
Since nutrition is a young science, the media frequently and excitedly report on any new research in this field. Individual research studies do not necessarily draw clear conclusions, and the art of science is to piece together many different studies and apply a vast base of knowledge to any new information to draw a true picture and make solid recommendations. Researchers consider the quality of a study and assess the strength of the conclusions made. Even when a promising new study arises, it might not be of significant weight to change the body of knowledge and, therefore, healthy food choice recommendations might not change. When a number of studies make the same conclusions, scientists debate the current recommendations and make changes accordingly. Don’t jump on the bandwagon too soon!