Archive for March 2016

In search of the perfect sweetener

Too much refined sugar is blamed for a wave of obesity and ill-health, so the search is on for the perfect sweetener.

Too much refined sugar is blamed for a wave of obesity and ill-health, so the search is on for the perfect sweetener.

Derived from a plant called Synsepalum dulcificum, it is unlike any artificial sugar – because it works not by making foods sweeter, but by making them taste sweeter.

The so-called miracle berries contain a molecule called miraculin which binds to receptors on your tongue, changing their shape. This makes sour foods taste sweeter. One advantage of temporarily changing your taste buds, rather than the food itself, could be the effect this has on your gut bacteria.

For years now there has been a vigorous debate as to whether using artificial sugars will help you lose weight or not. A recent meta-analysis which looked at the results of more than 100 different human studies concluded that when artificial sweeteners replace sugar in the diet (rather than simply being added on top) then this can lead to weight loss.

The Harvard School of Public Health, however, points out that there are lots of conflicting studies, including those which suggest that drinking artificially sweetened drinks may increase your risk, not just of weight gain, but of type 2 diabetes.

No-one really knows how artificial sugars could do this but a study done by a group in Israel suggests it might be via the impact of artificial sugar on your gut bacteria.

In this study, published last year in the science journal, Nature, the Israeli researchers asked a group of lean and healthy volunteers who didn’t normally use artificial sweeteners to consume the maximum acceptable dose for a week.

At the end of the week half the volunteers were showing signs of glucose intolerance, an early step in the journey to type 2 diabetes. The researchers think this could be because the bacteria in their guts reacted to the artificial sugars by secreting substances that cause inflammation. This is certainly what they have seen in animals.

As one of the researchers, Dr Eran Elinav, put it: “Our relationship with our own individual mix of gut bacteria is a huge factor in determining how the foods we eat affects us.” Clearly not a fan of artificial sweeteners, he went on to add that there should be a “reassessment of today’s massive, unsupervised consumption of these substances”.

Whatever the health effects or otherwise of artificial sweeteners, consumers are wary of them, which is where those promoting the joys of natural miracle berries hope to score. The trouble is that the berries are expensive to grow and don’t last long, so scientists in Japan (where the berry is popular) are now trying to produce the all-important miraculin molecule by genetically engineering tomato plants. That is obviously some way off. For now the simplest and cheapest way to get a dose of miraculin is to buy tablets which contain the dehydrated pulp of the fresh berries.

So what are they like? Eagerly I put one on my tongue, waited about five minutes for it to dissolve and then I was good to go. I had read enthusiastic claims that it would make foods, such as oranges, taste as if they had been ‘freshly plucked from the Garden of Eden” and kill my sugar cravings stone dead.

That was not my experience. The tablet I tried certainly took the bitter edge off licking a lemon, but the aftertaste was flat and remarkably unpleasant. An expensive red wine was transformed by the tablet into a sweet, fizzy abomination. I tried eating a segment of orange. Far from making the orange irresistible, the tablet made it inedible. The only good thing, as far as I was concerned, is it put me off eating anything at all until the effects had worn off (about an hour).

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Drinking three cups of coffee a day could help you live longer

Coffee is good for health and can protect against early death from a range of illness.

Coffee is good for health and can protect against early death from a range of illness.

Drinking three to five cups of coffee a day might help you live longer, according to new research.

Moderate coffee consumption reduces the risk of dying prematurely from heart disease, neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, and Type 2 diabetes, scientists found.

It also seems to lower the risk of suicide – but no association was seen with rates of cancer death.

“This study provides further evidence that moderate consumption of coffee may confer health benefits in terms of reducing premature death due to several diseases.” Professor Frank Hu, Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health

Whether or not the coffee drunk contained caffeine made no difference. The benefits are thought to be linked to other plant compounds in coffee besides the stimulant.

Lead scientist Ming Ding, from the Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health in the US, said: “Bioactive compounds in coffee reduce insulin resistance and systematic inflammation. That could explain some of our findings. However, more studies are needed to investigate the biological mechanisms producing these effects.”

The results, published in the journal Circulation, are from a pooled analysis of three large on-going studies with a total of 208,501 male and female participants.

Coffee drinking was assessed using food questionnaires completed every four years for around 30 years.

Compared with less or no coffee drinking, moderate coffee consumption was associated with a significant reduced risk of death across a range of causes.

The analysis took into account other factors that could have influenced the results including smoking, body mass index (BMI), levels of physical activity, alcohol consumption and diet.

Co-author Professor Frank Hu, also from the Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health, said: “This study provides further evidence that moderate consumption of coffee may confer health benefits in terms of reducing premature death due to several diseases.”

Emily Reeve, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said: “It is important to remember that maintaining a healthy lifestyle is what really matters if you want to keep your heart healthy, not how much coffee you drink.

“Previous research suggests that drinking up to five cups of coffee a day is not harmful to your cardiovascular health, and this study supports that. But more research is needed to fully understand how coffee affects our body and what it is in coffee that may affect a person’s risk of heart attack or stroke.”

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Why a stir-fry diet could protect against osteoporosis

A diet rich in soy could help protect against brittle bone disease.

A diet rich in soy could help protect against brittle bone disease

A stir-fry diet, rich in soy, could protect women from bone weakening and osteoporosis in older women, a new study suggests.

Women become more susceptible to the brittle bone disease after going through the menopause as levels of protective oestrogen fall.

Since soybean foods contain plant chemicals called isoflavones that mimic the hormone, it has been suggested they might combat some effects of the menopause.

“Supplementing food with isoflavones could lead to a significant decrease in the number of women being diagnosed with osteoporosis” said Dr Thozhukat Sathyapalan, University of Hull

To test the theory, 200 women in early menopause were either given a daily supplement containing soy protein with 66 milligrams of isoflavones, or one only containing soy protein for six months.

Women on the soy-plus-isoflavones supplement had significantly lower levels of a blood protein marker of bone loss, suggesting a reduced risk of osteoporosis. They also had less risk of heart disease than those taking soy protein alone.

Lead researcher Dr Thozhukat Sathyapalan, from the University of Hull, said: “We found that soy protein and isoflavones are a safe and effective option for improving bone health in women during early menopause.”

“The actions of soy appear to mimic that of conventional osteoporosis drugs.”

“The 66mg of isoflavone that we use in this study is equivalent to eating an oriental diet, which is rich in soy foods. In contrast, we only get around 2-16mg of isoflavone with the average Western diet. Supplementing our food with isoflavones could lead to a significant decrease in the number of women being diagnosed with osteoporosis.”

Bones grow and repair themselves rapidly during childhood and youth, but the process slows down with age and bone density begins to diminish from the age of 35. Women lose bone rapidly in the first few years after the menopause which can lead to osteoporosis and the risk of fractures.

Around three million people suffer from osteoporosis in the UK and more than 300,000 people receive hospital treatment for fractures every year because of the condition.

Exercise and eating foods which are rich in calcium and vitamin D, and getting enough sunlight, are essential for healthy bones, but this is the first study to show that soy can also help prevent fracturing.

Next the scientists plan to investigate the long-term effects of taking soy protein and isoflavone supplements and whether they have benefits beyond bone health.

The findings were presented at the Society for Endocrinology’s annual meeting in Edinburgh.

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