Thursday, September 21, 2006

Omega 3, probiotic and vitamin myths

Ever since Cleopatra bathed in milk to keep her skin radiant, people have sought short cuts to health and beauty. Alchemists chased the elixir of immortality, snake-oil salesmen touted dubious concoctions claimed to cure, as one brand had it, "all painful complaints and weaknesses". (It turned out to be 20% pure alcohol.). Government regulation of medicines and food stopped the more outlandish claims, but now a new phenomenon has emerged: the collision of science and nutrition.

Consumers have grown more health-conscious just as researchers are discovering more about how nutrients work. It has enabled the makers of smart foods, health supplements and other "nutraceuticals" to promote claims based on what, to consumers, may appear to be sound scientific grounds. Take fish oils. Scientists agree that omega-3 fatty acids known as DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) are important constituents of our brains. The body cannot make the substances, so they are absorbed from food such as fish, nuts, seeds and to a lesser extent certain vegetables. Food manufacturers have latched onto this and started adding omega-3 to their products, as well as selling supplements. St Ivel, a large manufacturer, promotes milk with added omega-3 as "Clever Milk"...

But for the average child with a varied diet does extra omega-3 have any benefit? Last week an expert at a British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) conference in London said the science did not justify such hype. Professor Peter Rogers of Bristol University presented a review of studies into fish oils and behaviour. He concluded that there is no firm evidence that omega-3 improves cognitive function or mood. "A few years ago I was enthusiastic about this area because I thought it was very plausible that fatty acids could improve mood and cognitive function," he said. "But we haven't found striking effects in studies. Some research has shown benefits, but other studies have failed to find those effects. "We have to look at the totality, not cherry-pick - and more research needs to be done."

The Food Standards Agency agrees. "There is no clear evidence that increased intakes of omega-3 fatty acids improve cognition for the majority of children or adults," it says.

Other scientists believe that such fatty acids will eventually be shown to be beneficial in many ways, for the elderly as well as the young. A trial is now under way, for example, to study the effect of fish oils on Alzheimer's disease. But even these optimists have warnings about supplements. "The labelling is rubbish," said Dr Ann Walker, an expert in human nutrition at Reading University, who regards fish oils as potentially very beneficial - at the right dosage. "Many say `one a day', or something like that. But there's a huge difference between a capsule and a spoonful. You have to look at the actual quantities of EPA and DHA and do your own calculations." Two portions of oily fish a week - as the government recommends - equates to about 500mg of omega-3 a day.

Nor are all fatty acids free from risk. Oily fish can be contaminated with pollutants such as heavy metals. Omega-6, found in sunflower oil, is also an essential fatty acid, yet in large quantities it can cause inflammation.

What about probiotics? Supermarket shelves are now infested with yoghurts, drinks and other concoctions that claim to provide bacteria that promote good health. They are supposed to counter harmful bacteria, especially in the gut. But Professor Glenn Gibson, another expert at Reading University's renowned Food Biosciences department, recently reported that many probiotic products were useless. "They've got the wrong bacteria or the wrong numbers," he said. To be effective, he said, products had to have lactobacilli or bifidobacteria in minimum quantities of 10m per bottle.

Laboratory studies have also shown that the bacteria in some probiotic products are destroyed by the digestive system before they reach the part of the gut where they can take effect. Again, there's no clear benefit, let alone a panacea. Claire Williamson, a scientist at the BNF, said: "Not all products are effective, though my understanding is that in some the bacteria do survive the digestive system - and there are thought to be some health benefits. But that's not to say you're going to be dancing in the street or living another 20 years." ...

What about vitamins? Surely vitamin supplements are a no-brainer? But it's not that simple, said Williamson. Not all vitamins are well absorbed if taken as supplements. Nor may they be the ingredients that make fruit and vegetables so healthy for us. Trials with vitamin supplements have failed to show the same positive health effects as studies of fruit and vegetable consumption. This is probably because other compounds in foods, known as phytochemicals, play an important part in promoting good health. "It shows that it's hard to replace the benefits from food with supplements," said Williamson.

Phytochemicals include substances called polyphenols which are found in green tea and red wine. They may account for the reputation green tea and red wine (in moderation) now enjoy for preventing certain diseases. But these are no miracle elixirs either: polyphenols are also found, albeit at lower quantities, in ordinary English breakfast tea...

It's also difficult and time-consuming to follow all the twists and turns of health claims. Judith Wills, author of The Food Bible and other books on nutrition, said: "People must go barmy when they try to understand what is going on. They see all these claims but don't realise all the ins and outs. They see a big headline, but it's based on just one small study - and the next week there will be another study saying something completely different."

Consumers also have to contend with the law of unintended consequences. A recommendation for healthy action in one direction may turn out to be bad in another, unexpected way. "There's now a big debate on vitamin D, which is important against cancer," said Walker. "One group are saying you mustn't go in the sun because of the risk of skin cancer; but another is saying you need sunlight to make vitamin D to prevent other cancers. "We could be doing more harm than good by avoiding the sun."

Where does this leave parents and other consumers? Wills recommends a diet of healthy scepticism about fads and panaceas. Vitamins may be worth it if your food is dominated by processed junk; and the very young or elderly may benefit from fish oils, though there's no guarantee. But the best option, say most experts, is a good, varied, natural diet. And a cup of tea, green or otherwise, while you ponder reports of the next miracle cure.

More here


The new nine-to-five degree, which spells the end to three-month summer vacations, is proving a hit with lawyers, hoteliers and professionals keen to get ahead in the job market. As the first full-time fast-track students embarked on their courses yesterday, universities piloting the revolutionary programmes were already turning away candidates, having filled their quotas. The new degree compresses three years' work into two, as students toil through both summer vacations. They cost 3,000 pounds less than a traditional honours course and ministers hope that this will encourage more people who are put off by top-up fees and student debts to apply.

This year the proportion of state school pupils and those from low-income families at university dropped to its lowest level in three years, despite government pressure to increase numbers. Julie Smith, senior lecturer in law at Staffordshire University, said that the department had been "pleasantly surprised" by the numbers applying. With school-leavers, career-changers, European, African and Canadian students, she says that the degree has a healthy mix. "There will always be more than one tutor for every module, so they will have back-up," she said. "If any student finds it too much, they can slow down along the way and even do the three-year degree." Staffordshire is one of five universities, with Derby, Leeds Metropolitan, Northampton and the Medway partnership, offering fast-track degrees. The Higher Education Funding Council for England is pouring 3 million into the flexible learning programmes and expects about 600 students to enrol in the first year.

Andrew Haldane, who leads the fast-track learning projects in Derby, said that tutors expected to accept a full quota on each of their courses in the joint honours tourism and hospitality sector as well as in business studies. More tutors will be recruited in January. However, he said that he expected few universities to follow suit until they were properly paid for the extra tuition. "We get slightly more than two years' worth (of tuition fees), but it's a good deal less than three," he said. "So if demand is shown for these programmes, the council would need to address that."

Last week Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, suggested that universities could replace three-year residential honours degrees with flexible credit-based systems, part-time courses and programmes delivered over the internet. Cliff Allen, deputy chief executive of the Higher Education Academy, said there was a market for accelerated degrees, but added that, without extra resources, they could be seen as "cut-price". The future, he said, would probably lie in the more flexible vocational degrees centred on workplace learning.



Police have warned fish farmers to increase their security after 15,000 halibut were released from their cages in an attack believed to have been carried out by animal rights activists. Thousands of dead fish are being washed up along the west coast of Scotland after the raid at Kames Marine Fish Farm, near Oban. The perpetrators are thought to have attacked last week. Detectives believe that the attack could be linked to a spate of other farm attacks throughout the country. The letters ALF (Animal Liberation Front) were spray-painted near by.

The loss is estimated to have cost the fish farm at least 500,000 pounds as boats, cranes and offices were also vandalised. The halibut died from starvation or getting caught in seaweed. They were also being eaten by herring gulls and otters.

The fish farmer, who did not wish to be identified, said: "They claim they liberated them into the sea but sadly, as we all know, farmed animals, whether they are fish or any animals, don't survive unless they are looked after. The fish farmer added: "We farm them in a sustainable way. The welfare of the fish is at the forefront of our minds. Isn't it better to have farmed fish than to be pillaging the seas where stocks are declining dramatically?" Fish farms in Scotland, Kent and the South West have been attacked in the past year.



Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary, admitted yesterday that the NHS “no longer knows where it is going”. “Where will we be in five years, ten years, fifteen years’ time?” she asked. She gave no answer, other than it lay in the hands of local NHS organisations — and the Government’s reforms were designed to empower them to discover it.

In a speech peppered with such admissions, Ms Hewitt said that it was hard for anyone to understand that after years of unprecedented investment, the service was dealing with financial problems. “After years of more staff, there are now job losses,” she acknowledged — a fact she has hithero denied by arguing that posts, and not jobs, were being lost. But she went insisted that reforms were the way to sustain the values of the NHS and that the Government would not undermine those values. “The changes and reforms we are making are not only compatible with our traditional values: they are essential if we are to protect those values in a fast-changing world,” she told an audience in London.

Speaking to the Institute for Public Policy Research, Ms Hewitt said that the NHS was “a 1940s system operating in a 21st century world”, and where patient care was improving it was despite the system, not because of it. Calling for an end to the old “top-down” system, Ms Hewitt emphasised the need for strong local commissioning of services, underpinned by national standards and targets. On the issue of private service providers, she said: “If independent providers can help the NHS provide even better care and value for patients, we should use them.”


Archbishop speaks out: "The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey of Clifton has issued his own challenge to "violent" Islam in a lecture in which he defends the Pope's "extraordinarily effective and lucid" speech. Lord Carey said that Muslims must address "with great urgency" their religion's association with violence. He made it clear that he believed the "clash of civilisations" endangering the world was not between Islamist extremists and the West, but with Islam as a whole. "We are living in dangerous and potentially cataclysmic times," he said. "There will be no significant material and economic progress [in Muslim communities] until the Muslim mind is allowed to challenge the status quo of Muslim conventions and even their most cherished shibboleths."

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