I have always loved science. It’s a broad and fascinating area. I’ve just never been very good at it to actually go get a degree in a scientific field. I mean, I love to learn science-y stuff but, compared to other subjects, I pick it up a little more slowly. I’ve also become more immersed in reading up on medical topics in the past four years so as to have something to talk about with Mr. Genius at the dinner table. Add to that, for the past couple of years, I have been learning more about nutrition since being diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. (There, the cat’s out of the bag and frankly, m’dear, I don’t give a d**m about it. I.e. I’m NOT looking for sympathy. There are others worse off than me who need your help and understanding more. In fact, even Mr. Genius’s comps topic is Fibromyalgia so he’s learning a crap ton about it and will prove it in front of a committee that will grill him in the next few months.) Basically, what causes my fibro flare-ups is poor sleep hygiene. I’m a mom, that oughta explain it well enough. This may or may not also lead to some not so great nutritional habits because throwing in a frozen pizza during flare-ups is not a very smart move, but yeah.

So, enough of an intro. To leave room for the main reason of the post, we’ll just jump ahead now. I discovered an online course through edx.org called “CHEM 181x: Food for Thought” last year taught by three professors at McGill University all about the science and pseudoscience of nutrition. I came across it too late and was unable to catch up and finish on time. But good news! The guys are back again this year. My current idea is to take some notes (with some occasionally added personal commentary or extra stuff) and share them with those short on time but still interested. I love science. I love medicine. Mr. Genius has pressed me to share what I learn. So here goes, dusting off the cobwebs again! Let’s see if even I can keep up!

CHEM 181x: FOOD FOR THOUGHT with Professors Harpp, Schwarcz, and Fenster

“If you ate today, thank a farmer.”

Apples turn brown due to a chemical reaction when you take a bite. Enzymes are released that react with chemicals called polyphenols and produce a polymer that is brown in color. The arctic apple is a type of apple with recombinant DNA technology to prevent browning. It is currently still unavailable at this time.

“There are no magic solutions to nutrition. There is no single food that is going to deliver all the nutrients we need.”

Lesson 1:
Due to the Information Age, we have TOO MUCH overwhelming and confusing information. “The word “chemical’ has become synonymous with poison, toxin” when “the world, of course, is made up of chemicals.” “Something that is natural does not necessarily equate to safe, and synthetic certainly does not equal to danger.”

Miracle foods and their anticancer properties: Pomegranates contain aromatase inhibitors. Pouring pomegranate juice on breast cancer cells in a petri dish in a lab showed a slower rate of multiplying cancer cells BUT that does not translate quite as well into the real world, meaning drinking lots of pomegranate juice will not cure someone of breast cancer, like POM advertisers tried to do. This is called cherry-picking data. Petri dish results to not always translate so easily into human body results. Same with dried apricots which contain Beta-carotene, an antioxidant, and apricot pits, which contain Laetrile. Apricot pits also contain cyanide, which kills not only cancer cells, but ALL cells. Cyanide is a great antioxidant…NOT.

“In the world of science, what we do is go by the data. We go by the peer-reviewed scientific literature, not by hearsay, not by they say, and not by emotion.” “People want to be told that there’s this certain food that is going to produce only good things, and this component that is going to kill you. It doesn’t work like that. So our emphasis will be looking at overall diets, and yes, they can be good or bad.”

Hippocrates got a few things right, one being “Let thy food be thy medicine” and another being pigeon droppings being a cure for baldness. He was also the first to be correct about flax being good for digestion.

Flax seeds contain omega-3 fats, less than what is in fish but still second-best if necessary. They also contain lignans which have estrogen-like properties (phytoestrogens) which can be both good and bad, depending on the dose. In the case for flax seeds, the lignans seem to help reduce the risk of breast cancer (that is, if you eat 20 grams of ground flax seed to have any effect. Possibly doable but rather difficult). The soluble fiber of flax seeds helps reduce cholesterol while the insoluble fiber helps regulate our digestive system. Overall, flax seed = good for you.

Omega-3 eggs, an unnecessary middleman – the amount of flax seed fed to the chickens doesn’t come through to the egg and, in order to get enough omega-3 from eggs, one would need to eat a lot of eggs, thus putting you into the danger zone for cholesterol levels.

Oat bran helps lower cholesterol levels. Of course, the question is, to be beneficial, how much of it do you need to eat for it to impact levels? Answer: 3 grams of beta glucan, the soluble fiber in oat bran = 1 cup cooked oat bran, “not one of God’s gift to the palate”, or one and a half cups of oatmeal. Advertisers often stretch the truth. With Cheerios, one would need 5 servings to reach the daily amount of beta glucan BUT there’s the extra sugar to contend with.

Enzymes are protein molecules composed of amino acids. They are biological catalysts and the body makes all the enzymes we need.

Preservatives are added to prevent toxic mold and fungi growth. They are heavily regulated, not just thrown in willy nilly. Humans even sweat preservatives; propionates, are a metabolic byproduct of eating fat.

The importance of correlation vs. causation and cherry-picking (biased choosing of data often based upon personally held beliefs) – The French have fewer heart attacks because they watch more Jerry Lewis movies. Wearing a skirt causes breast cancers. These are associations and rarely prove causation. (Personally added links – Spurious Correlations here http://www.tylervigen.com/, and http://kfolta.blogspot.com/2013/02/organic-food-causes-autism.html.)

Resveratrol is an antioxidant in red wine and may help reduce the risk of heart disease. Advertisers cherry-pick data and ignore the fact that alcohol is a carcinogen (a substance capable of causing cancer) and animal studies show the need for 100 bottles of red wine a day in order for resveratrol to be protective against heart disease. Not really useful after all, is it?

Science, when selectively reported on, leads one down a misleading garden path with suggestions of miracle fruits, vegetables, and superfoods that seem to change almost daily. What many will say are secrets are actually well-known facts about nutrition. Diet and exercise are no secret.

The obesity epidemic – the culprits are too much fat and/or sugar. One such bad boy is soda pop which contains a large pile of sugar dissolved in it (as to high fructose corn syrup vs. sugar, I’m going to personally put in a link to the skeptical raptor’s blog – http://www.skepticalraptor.com/skepticalraptorblog.php/high-fructose-corn-syrup-just-sugar/). But so does juice drinks, though you’ll also get vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants alongside the sugar so you’d be better off eating a piece of fruit rather than drinking juice. In the quiz, it is noted that the sugar content of juice is not added sugar but from the natural sugars contained in fruits. Yes, fruits contain natural sugars and sugar is sugar.

Another nutritional issue is how food is prepared. Barbequing produces not so great compounds like polycyclic hydrocarbons and as Prof Schwarz has said before, “if it tastes good, there must be some problem.” Every day bbq over charcoal = bad, but the occasional cookout = okay. A high intake of processed meats is linked to colorectal cancer but the dose is what makes the poison. Seriously, one hot dog will not doom you years down the road. Everything in moderation, some things more than others.

One thing to overindulge in is fruits and vegetables, reaching at least five to eight servings a day.

Supplements do not make up for deficiencies in diets. There is more than just vitamins in fruits and vegetables and which ones are the beneficial ones is hard to pinpoint. The jury is still out on most vitamin supplements. Supplementation, in my own personal opinion, should come from the produce section. It’s cheaper that way.

Exercise cannot be bottled. Dang it!

Living a chemical-free food life is impossible. Chemicals are the building blocks of life and the word “chemical is not synonymous with poison or toxin…they are not to be feared. They are not to be worshiped. They are to be understood.” More importantly than worrying about what’s in our food (a stupid first world problem) is that every 3 .5 seconds, someone starves to death because there isn’t enough food to feed every person in the world. Catch a fish, a man eats for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.