Wellbeing

Folic acid to fortify flour ‘would cut birth defects’

UK experts are backing the call for flour to be fortified with folic acid.

UK experts are backing the call for flour to be fortified with folic acid.

The move which they say would have prevented about 2,000 cases of serious birth defects since 1998.

The failure to fortify flour has caused serious disabilities, including spina bifida, and resulted in terminations and stillbirths, their study said. The US and 77 other countries already have a policy in place.

The Department of Health said it was currently considering the matter. The Scottish government has urged UK ministers to take a quick decision on the issue in order to agree a uniform approach across the UK.

This follows the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition recently saying it was in favour of folic acid being added to flour for bread in the UK.

Folate (the natural form of folic acid) is found in some foods, such as green vegetables, nuts and granary bread.

Folic acid is added to some breakfast cereals, but it is very difficult for pregnant women to get enough from diet alone.

That is why in 1992, the Department of Health in England recommended that women take folic acid supplements before pregnancy to reduce their risk of having a baby with a neural tube defect (NTD) – which involve defects of the brain, spine or spinal cord.

But recent research shows that only 28% of pregnant women take them at the correct time.

However, the government has so far been reluctant to force manufacturers to add folic acid to all bread.

This study, published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood, said the current policy was not working and the UK should be following the example of the US in fortifying flour with folic acid.

The US has seen a 23% fall in pregnancies with neural tube defects since the policy was introduced in 1998.

The researchers estimated that a similar policy in the UK would have prevented 1,798 pregnancies with NTD in England and Wales, 152 in Scotland and 64 in Northern Ireland over a 14-year period up to 2012.

This equates to a fall of 21% in pregnancies with neural tube defects over that period.

While most of the NTD pregnancies are terminated, around 75 babies a year are born with serious disabilities.

The research team, led by Prof Joan Morris from the Wolfson Institute of Preventative Medicine at Queen Mary University of London, said putting folic acid in flour was safe and could only be a good thing.

“Europe is the only region not to have a policy of fortifying flour with folic acid, despite evidence that it can cut the risk of neural tube defects by around 70%.” Reaching more women

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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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Are fruit and vegetables less healthy than in the past?

Research from the New Scientist has suggested an increase in sweeter fruit and vegetables in recent years may be harming us.

Research from the New Scientist has suggested an increase in sweeter fruit and vegetables in recent years may be harming usAlthough breeding vegetables such as cabbages or Brussel sprouts to taste less bitter may convince children to eat them, scientists have warned that we are losing the aspect of the vegetable that makes them healthy in the first place.

Researchers said that according to research carried out in Florida 30 years ago, white grapefruit used to be significantly more popular than sweeter red and pink grapefruit. Today the latter is reported to be twice as popular – but it is nowhere near as healthy.

Red and pink grapefruit is more popular despite being less healthy.

White grapefruit contains 50 per cent more phytonutrients, bitter compounds which are linked to improving the cardiovascular system, than red and pink grapefruit.

Jed Fahey, a molecular scientist at Johns Hopkins University, told the New Scientist: “Eating fruits and vegetables without phytochemicals would in many ways be analagous to drinking the empty calories of a can of soda.

“Yes, you could survive on de-bittered fruits and vegetables, and they would help maintain life, but not good health.”

Fruit and vegetables are full of phytonutrients and the ones found in Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage and kale have been found to have particularly powerful anti-cancer properties.

According to the Nutrient Rich Foods index, “dark green” vegetables are the most healthy for you, including leafy salads, chard, cabbage, spinach and broccoli.

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Seven a day- new healthy eating guidelines

A recent study has suggested that we should significantly increase the amount of fruit and vegetables we eat from five a day to at least seven.

Seven a day- new healthy eating guidelinesWe have known for a long time that eating more fruit and vegetables is likely to be good for us, and the famous five a day campaign was always intended as a recommendation aimed at promoting the minimum we should eat, rather than a maximum.

What this study adds to things we had previously known is that eating vegetables is better for us than eating fruit (probably because fruit has far more sugar in it) and that eating tinned fruit seems to be positively bad for us (again, probably because it is often in a syrup).

On the basis of this study, you should aim to eat at least four portions of vegetables a day and around three portions of fruit. Importantly, you should eat them, not drink them. The study found no real benefit from drinking fruit juice.

So how do you reach your seven-a-day? If you’re feeling continental, you might start the day with an omelette containing a decent handful of spinach. The protein in the eggs will keep you full for longer and spinach is rich in folate and betaine – vitamins that help regulate homocysteine (high levels of which are associated with heart disease).

Alternatively you could add a handful of strawberries or blueberries to your cereal, or wolf down an orange

For lunch and your evening meal you are going to be eating vegetables, with fruit as a dessert. But which vegetables? Again, the recommendations are that you add as much colour as possible to your diet. The different colours of different plants represent some of the thousands of different bioactive compounds, known as phytochemicals, which keep plants alive and healthy.

Eat them raw or lightly steamed rather than boiled to death.

So-called “leafy greens”, which include spinach, chard, lettuce and kale, are a good source of minerals like magnesium, manganese and potassium.

Cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and other members of the brassicas family contain sulphur and organosulphur compounds. Sulphur is essential for the production of glutathione, an important antioxidant, as well as amino acids like methionine and taurine.

Fruit and vegetables with yellow or orange in them are rich in carotenoids. Foods rich in carotenoids include, not surprisingly, carrots. The type of carotenoid you find in carrots can be converted to retinol, an active form of vitamin A. As vitamin A is important for healthy eyesight, this may explain why carrots are supposed to help you see in the dark. Vitamin A also plays an important role in bone growth and regulating our immune system. As well as carrots you will also find carotenoids in melons, tomatoes, peppers and squash.

Another class of carotenoids that produces the colour red are called the lycopenes. You’ll find lots of lycopene in rich, red tomatoes. Oddly enough cooking tomatoes actually boosts the levels of lycopene. The reason is that heat helps break down the plant’s thick cell walls, making the nutrient more available.

Blue and purple foods get their colouring from a group of flavonoids called anthocyanins. You’ll find decent levels of these particular flavonoids in blackberries, blueberries, purple carrots and red cabbage. There is some evidence that anthocyanin – rich blueberries may improve memory and cognitive function in people as they get older. White

Examples include garlic, white onions, shallots and leeks. These are rich in alliums and allyl sulphur compounds. Although there is no compelling proof that garlic will ward off vampires, it does appear to be quite good at killing microorganisms.

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Fasting may increase life span

Extreme fasting and calorie counting boosts lifespan in monkeys, according to new published research.

Fasting may increase life spanUntil now, the rationale for following an ultra-low calorie diet to ward off ageing has been based on experiments in worms and mice but now studies reported in Nature Communications found that primates also benefited from the regime.

Advocates of the Calorie Restriction (CR) diet claim that by severely restricting the number of calories they consume they will live longer, perhaps into their hundreds.

They cite a wealth of scientific evidence dating back more than 75 years.

Much of the research is based on experiments in animals such as mice and worms, with primate studies giving conflicting results. Now, a US team has published new evidence showing CR also shows benefits in primates.

“CR works to delay ageing in primate species,” Dr Rozalyn Anderson of the department of medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told BBC News. “Our study data is consistent with that.”

The study found CR boosted survival in a group of rhesus monkeys studied over the course of decades.

And she said conflicting findings, from a previous study at a different institute, might be due to flaws in the control group. But she said CR was a research tool not a lifestyle recommendation.

“The concept is to delve into the biology of ageing and try to understand what’s the basis for increased risk for diseases as you get older and with advanced age,” she said. “It would be very difficult to implement CR in a long term way in humans.”

A US study is currently looking at whether healthy humans live longer on less food.

The participants restrict calories by 25% over several years, existing mainly on a diet of vegetables, fruits (especially apples), and soups.

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Sugar worse than salt claim health experts

Health experts claim avoiding sugar could be more important than avoiding salt when it comes to your healthy heart.

Sugar worse than salt claim health expertsScientists have clashed over claims that sugar may be worse for blood pressure and heart health than salt.

US experts say people need to place a greater focus on cutting sugar intake and suggest the benefits of lowering salt levels are “debatable.” Their arguments are published in the journal Open Heart.

But other researchers have said the claims are “disingenuous” and “scientifically unnecessary”. They maintain both need to be reduced.

Researchers from St Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute, and Montefiore Medical Centre in the USA reviewed a selection of evidence from basic science experiments, animal studies and human research.

They came to the conclusion that sugar – particularly fructose – may play a stronger role in high blood pressure and other cardiac conditions than salt.

And they say lowering salt consumption under certain levels may do more harm than good as the research team suggests attempts to reduce salt in processed food may drive people to eat more.

The US experts focus on a particular type of sugar – added fructose – often found in processed foods and sugary beverages.

But they say naturally occurring sugars in whole foods, for example those in fruit and vegetables, are not a cause for concern.

Data from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey in England suggests most adults and children eat more sugar than recommended.

The World Health Organization recommends sugars should make up less than 10% of total energy intake per day – this works out at about a maximum of 50g (1.7oz) of sugar for the average adult.

But the global health body recently acknowledged that halving this, to 5% of total energy intake per day, would have additional benefits.

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Late night eating increases weight gain

Eating later in the evening might trigger weight gain say researchers who have been studying the effect in mice.

Late night eating increases weight gainEven when given the same amount of calories overall, mice that ate around the clock put on more fat.

Fasting for at least 12 hours appears to switch on important fat burning pathways in the body.

The US team told the journal Cell Metabolism they now plan human tests to see if the same is true in man.

During the study around 400 mice were fed diets high in sugar or fat or both, or normal diets and over different time periods.

Overall, mice that were only allowed to feed for nine or 12 hours gained less weight than mice that could eat the same amount food but at any time they wanted in a 24-hour period.

Even when the restricted feed time mice were allowed a blow out at weekends and could eat when they liked, they still gained less weight, suggesting that the diet can withstand some temporary interruptions, the researchers said.

And when obese mice who had been eating freely were moved to a restricted schedule they lost 5% of their body weight even though they were eating the same number of calories as before.

The researchers believe a key to controlling weight gain could be sticking to a consistent 12-hour fast every 24 hours.

In the experiments, fasting at night had beneficial effects on blood sugar and cholesterol and reversed the effects of diabetes in the mice.

Study leader Dr Satchidananda Panda, an associate professor at the Salk Institute in California, said that brown fat, which burns energy at a much higher rate is also activated by this approach.

Additional work in mice by another team showed that limiting eating to half the day also altered the balance of microbes in the gut, which experts say might be important.

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Body clocks- peak “rush hours” discovered

A pair of “rush hours” every day rapidly change the way tissues throughout the body work, scientists have discovered.

Body clocks- peak rush hours discoveredThe animal study, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, monitored the function of cells, in 12 tissues, through the day.

It found large shifts in activity just before dawn and dusk.

Experts said the findings could help time medication to hit sweet-spots in the body clock.

The body’s internal clock is known to drive huge changes – it alters alertness, mood, physical strength and even the risk of a heart attack in a daily rhythm.

A team at the University of Pennsylvania investigated the impact of the time of day on the way DNA functions in experiments on mice.

Every two hours they looked at samples from the kidney, liver, lung, adrenal gland, aorta, brainstem, cerebellum, brown fat, white fat, heart, hypothalamus, lung and skeletal muscle.

They showed that 43% of genes, sections of DNA, involved in protein manufacture altered their activity throughout the day.

Different genes had different activity patterns in different tissues so the research team conservatively estimate that more than half of genes would show daily fluctuations if every tissues type was sampled.

The liver was the most dynamic with 3,186 genes showing a daily pattern compared with just 642 in the hypothalamus.

It is already known that some drugs work better at certain times of the day.

Heart disease is driven by artery-clogging cholesterol, which is mostly made in the liver at night. Taking statins in the evening makes them more effective.

The researchers said 56 of the top 100 selling drugs and nearly half of the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines acted on genes which were now known to have this daily oscillations.

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Spices- are they good for your health?

Spices have been revered for their health benefits throughout history- but are they really good for your health?Spices- are they good for your health?According to Ayurvedic medicine, an ancient belief system in Hinduism, spices can be warming or cooling and are used to affect the balance of the digestive system.

“They act as a stimulus to the digestive system, relieve digestive disorders and some spices are of antiseptic value,” explains Dr Krishnapura Srinivasan, a scientist at the Central Food Technological Research Institute in Mysore, India.

It is not surprising that spices have become associated with dieting. As far back as 2500 years ago, the Chinese teacher and philosopher Confucius recommended eating ginger at every meal to improve digestion. But there is still no scientific consensus on how spices affect our health.

“There’s a perception that spices are good for dieting as this is often covered in the media; women will often latch on to anything that sounds as though it’s an easy way to lose weight,” explains Azmina Govindji, an award-winning dietician from the British Dietetic Association.

Scientists at the Human Performance Lab at Appalachian State University, North Carolina, US, recently studied whether culinary doses of red pepper and turmeric would reduce chronic inflammation in overweight females aged 40-72.

They hypothesised that inflammation in overweight people could be caused by oxidative stress. This is a process when chemically reactive molecules known as free radicals trigger physiological events or damage tissues.

But the results of the month-long clinical trial were negative. No evidence was found to suggest that red pepper or turmeric alters inflammation by influencing oxidative stress.

This could point to the need for higher doses and longer testing periods, scientists say. Or that the spices simply have no effect.

Cayenne pepper is another spice touted as a weight loss solution. You might have added it to poached eggs or corn on the cob, but how about eating it with maple syrup? Deep fried calamari with garlic and lemon mayonnaise Crispy calamari deep fried with cayenne pepper, salt and paprika

The cayenne pepper and maple syrup diet made headlines in 2007, when US singer Beyonce Knowles reported losing 20lb (9kg) after following it for two weeks.

So why is the spice hotly tipped as a solution to weight loss?

“There have been suggestions that red cayenne pepper may be a useful aid to weight management, especially in people who don’t normally eat chilli peppers,” says Ms Govindji.  “But this remains to be confirmed.”

The effect of red pepper on thermogenesis, a process which affects metabolism and appetite, was studied by scientists at Purdue University, Indiana in the US.

The study found that as body temperature increased, metabolic rate increased, and the desire to eat fatty foods was decreased in participants who ate red pepper as part of a meal compared to those who didn’t.

Another study by researchers at Kyoto University, Japan found that males in the country who consumed a normal diet along with a red pepper extract known as “CH19-Sweet” experienced slightly decreased body fat and weight loss after two weeks.

But can we draw any real conclusions from studies such as these?  Whether you’re taking a leaf out of the Hairy Dieters book and roasting some cumin-crusted vegetables, or cooking up a spiced apple and raisin crumble, ultimately it is not the spices alone that help you lose weight but how you cook with them.

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