Saturday, 14 December 2013

Festive Spice

It is the time of year many of us are thinking of novel Christmas gift ideas and as a medical herbalist, I am always reminded of the wonderful aromas of herbs & spices that we have come to associate with this festive season. It serves as a useful reminder of the historical uses of some of these medicinal plants and how they can be best utilised or indeed how imaginative one can be when creating unique gifts for our loved ones. Best suggestions for gifts include creating aromatic blends for oil burners or scented candles but equally popular are creating bath and massage oil blends to elicit the fragrance and aromas that are synonymous with the festive season.
Of course, we need to start with the mainstay of this season: frankincense and myrrh. I have written about their historical and current use in addition to its cultivation and harvesting in a previous post:

Gold, frankincense and myrrh - the traditional gifts a
associated with the baby Jesus and herbs/spices
associated with Christmas

The world has a long history of trading in frankincense, particularly in the Middle East, North Africa and the Indian subcontinent. The proliferation of Christianity saw the use of frankincense spread to Europe and the West. There are many grades of frankincense nowadays but originally, it was the holy frankincense (Boswellia sacra) grown primarily in the Dhofar region of Oman that was cultivated which some refer to as true frankincense. The time-consuming process of deriving the resin which takes many weeks to gather and process saw the introduction of Somalian and Ethopian 'frankincense' (which isn't really frankincense at all - it is a similar resin but from a different tree). Normally, Indian frankincense (Boswellia frereana, Boswellia carterii or Boswellia serrata) is sold, as it is readily available and cheap, and often used as a poor substitute for true frankincense - much like turmeric being used instead of the more expensive and completely different saffron.

Nonetheless, the different species of frankincense share many medicinal properties so it is unsurprising that the frankincense commonly sold all over the world is really a mix of these different plants. Trusting the source or origin will require a determined effort to establish the source of 'true' frankincense, often reflected in the price and its quality!
The medicinal properties of frankincense are numerous; from stress-relief and combating depression to a myriad of beneficial actions in skin conditions and anti-inflammatory disorders such as arthritis. It is thought that it is the increasing demand for frankincense to relieve stress and tackle depression that is really driving the current trade in this precious aromatic resin. So what of the future for frankincense? Well, climate change, over-use and conflicts in the Sub Saharan regions (such as Somalia and Ethopia where the tree grows naturally) has seen the price of frankincense skyrocket in recent years. Continued civil war in these regions combined with a risk of desertification and climate change (droughts are disastrous for the tree population) will impact heavily on the supply and sustainability of this wonderful plant.

The second of the gifts to baby Jesus according to the bible, this medicinal plant (Commiphora molmol) is closely related to frankincense. It is the resinous sap that is used for medicinal purposes which are many. Around 90% of the world's myrrh originates from Somalia so it is unsurprising that myrrh trees are becoming ever more rare. Lawlessness and lack of peace in the region has devastated the country with the destruction of many of its natural resources. Equally however, population growth has had a huge impact on the region and the landscape (but population growth is also a global issue not unique to Eastern Africa resulting a other problems for the planet). Population growth means that farmland expansion, overgrazing, bush encroachment and human-induced fires have depleted what little fertile soil is available. Poor management of forests and fertile land is at risk of desertification and although resinous plants such as the Commiphora spp and Boswellia spp can survive, it can only do so up to a point, without being threatened by climate change. The holistic benefits of wild crafted organic essential oils such as frankincense and myrrh are enormous are we are in serious danger of losing these valuable plants for good. Myrrh has many medicinal properties and is primarily used as an anti-infective agent so it is often given to combat infections (minor skin infections, fungal and nail infections). It is a great astringent and often given to reduce inflammations of mucous membranes especially in the mouth and gums, therefore very useful in soothing the symptoms of tonsillitis, gingivitis (inflammation of the gums), mouth ulcers and sore throats. Myrrh is added to a mouth gargle in this instance. It is also especially effective when added to steam inhalations to relieve the congestive symptoms of sinusitis. Of course, the aroma of this herb along with others that are decongestants add a pleasant smell to the mix.

Other notable herbs and spices include the following:
  • cinnamon
  • clove bud
  • cardamom
  • pine
  • silver fir
The most obvious for me is cinnamon - from mulled wine to blended oil fragrances. Cinnammon epitomises the festive season. It's botanical name is Cinnamomum zeylanicum but there are other varieties such as C. camphora which are just as powerful. Cinnamon has been regarded as a precious spice for a long time. It is useful for a host of ailments and its aroma will evoke many a childhood memory of Christmas. Herbalists most often use the bark (found as a culinary spice in rolls of sheets) or in some cases, the bud but aromatherapists use the leaf as it is less sensitising.. It is still a powerful oil however so care should be taken when using it. The essential oil is great in an oil burner as well as an ingredient in candles. Its uplifting properties are such that it will revitalise and re-energise especially after a busy day Christmas shopping! Additionally, it possesses amazing antimicrobial properties and therefore the oil is very useful for colds and breathing difficulties and is a very strong antiseptic, so good to use when having to mix with large crowds where the exposure to foreign microbes is high. It is a brilliant digestive aid and its soothing, warming and antimicrobial properties make it idea for eliminating bloating due to excessive digestive gas, tackles nausea and vomiting by settling the stomach.

Clove Bud

This herb, or rather a spice (depending on your leaning) has a very long tradition of use (both medicinal, and culinary) as well as culture. It is referred to in scientific circles by its botanical name Syzygium aromaticum and it is a powerful antiseptic oil but it is also cleansing and soothing. The oil can be topically applied to relieve the pain and discomfort of toothache and like cardamom and cinnamon, it is a great digestive aid, taken as a spice. However, there are some safety issues associated with this spice, namely with the oil, being toxic when taken internally. It can be sensitive on the skin so best to do a patch test first whenever considering applying clove oil (eg. in a massage oil or other skincare product). It is a great addition to a combination/blend in oil burners or in candles. Like all aromas, it is not a favourite for all but many prefer the fragrance as it is strong, robust and its antiseptic action will cleanse the room.

Cardamom is a seed pod, known since antiquity for its culinary and medicinal properties. The spice is native to evergreen rain forest of southern India and now grown in only few tropical countries. Botanically, it belongs to the family of "Zingiberaceae" and consists of two genera; Elettaria and Amomum. The most common variety used is Elettaria cardamomum. The pods are being used as a flavouring base in both food and drink, in cooking recipes and as well as in medicine.

Health benefits of cardamom
This exotic spice contains many plants derived chemical compounds that are known to have been antioxidant, disease preventing and health promoting properties. The spicy pods contain many essential volatile oils. The therapeutic properties of cardamom oil have found application in many traditional medicines as antiseptic, antispasmodic, carminative, digestive, diuretic, expectorant, stimulant, relieves stomach pain and acts as a tonic.

Cardamom is a good source of minerals like potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Potassium is an important component of cell and body fluids that helps control heart rate and blood pressure. Copper is required in the production of red blood cells. Additionally, it is also an excellent source of iron and manganese. 100 g pods contain 13.97 mg or 175% of daily-required levels of iron. Iron is required for red blood cell formation and cellular metabolism. Manganese is a co-factor for the enzyme, superoxide dismutase, which is a very powerful free radical scavenger. Further, these aromatic pods are rich in many vital vitamins, including riboflavin, niacin, vitamin-C that is essential for optimum health.

Medicinal use
The therapeutic properties of cardamom oil have found application in many traditional medicines as antiseptic and local anesthetic, antioxidant in addition to health promoting and disease preventing roles.

Culinary uses
In general, cardamom seeds are sought-after in sweet and dessert preparations. The pod is split open to expose underlying seeds using either fingers or small knife. The seeds are then crushed using a hand mill just before their use in cooking. However, whole pods are preferred in savory dishes, which give a further punch to the recipe since their peel contains certain amounts of valuable essential oils.

Here are some preparation tips:
  • This delicate spice is being used as flavouring agent in both food and drinks.
  • The pods have been in use in the preparation of sweet dishes in many Asian countries. Elaichi-pista (cardamom and pistachio) kulfi is famous summer dessert in India, Pakistan, and Iran. Elaichi kheer is another popular rice pudding with added pistachio, and raisins in these regions.
  • It is used as a flavoring base in the preparation of tea, coffee, and cold drinks.
  • Black cardamom (badi elaichi) is mostly preferred in savory dishes, to prepare rice-pilaf, meat stews, and lentil-curry in many parts of Nepal, India, and Pakistan
Another lovely oil for this time of year, helping to clear unwanted energies and soothe mental fatigue.Pinus syvestris is the most widely available oil being both cleansing and restorative which is also good for the respiratory system; it has both warming and cooling properties at the same time. It is therefore prescribed by herbalists for coughs and colds as well as for congestion of the sinuses. It is thought to be helpful for gall bladder, reducing inflammation which will help with fat digestion, easing any discomfort when eating plenty of rich foods at this time of year. It is also a good oil for urinary tract infections such as cystitis when used in a bath blend with one of the urinary antiseptics. Pine is also a great oil to add to household cleaning products because of its fresh and invigorating smell and being a natural fragrance, stands out head and shoulders above the commercial and synthetic versions.
The species

Silver Fir

Abies alba, silver fir or European silver fir, in the Pinaceae family, is an evergreen coniferous tree species native to the mountains of Europe, from the Pyrenees north to Normandy, east to the Alps and the Carpathians, and south to southern Italy and northern Serbia. The essential oil contains almost 50% d-limonene a potent immunostimulant - it stimulates lymphocyte proliferation increasing the total white blood cell count, increasing the number and phagocytic activity of macrophages and stimulating antibody production. Additionally, natural killer cell activity was enhanced in vitro by d-limonene. In other words, the herb is a powerful immunostimulant and silver fir is thereforea great oil for a cold or flu! Try using it in a diffuser, in an inhaler or for a luscious combination try silver fir blended into neroli blossom infused jojoba oil and rub it on your chest, back and feet!

Diffuser Blend for Winter Cold and Flu
5 drops Silver Fir essential oil (Abies alba)
5 drops Orange essential oil (Citrus sinensis)
5 drops Elemi essential oil (Canarium luzonicum)
Add these oils right into your diffuser

Inhaler For Sinus Congestion and a Cough
5 drops Silver Fir essential oil (Abies alba)
5 drops Black Spruce essential oil (Picea mariana)
5 drops Hemlock essential oil (Tsuga canadensis)
Drop these oils right onto the cotton part of the blank inhaler

Nighttime Cold and Flu Oil
10 drops Silver Fir essential oil (Abies alba)
5 drops Lavender essential oil (Lavandula angustifolia)
2 drops Ylang Ylang essential oil (Canaga odorata)
1 oz Neroli blossom infused jojoba oil

For more information about essential oils and how to use them, go to or or to check on essential oil safety go to 

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

A nice cup of tea

Women harvesting tea leaves
in Assam region of India
Tea has enjoyed a long tradition over the centuries and it really is the original herbal drink. The health benefits of tea (Camellia sinensis) are numerous and well established with a vast array of studies to support our reasons for drinking it. But of course, it remains a stalwart in the beverages world despite it being discovered by accident by a Chinese Emperor when a leaf from a nearby tree dropped into his hot water and so taken was he by its wonderful aroma, he proclaimed it good for health & well-being. From this humble beginning, tea is now enjoyed in almost every country across the globe and only just eclipsed by water as the most widely consumed drink. Ostensibly, there are 3 types of tea but they all originate from the same plant species (Camellia sinensis). It is the manner in which the leaves are prepared as well as to some extent the region in which the species is grown and cultivated that gives rise to various flavours dictated by our taste. Many tea specialists prefer the tips of the young shoots as they believe this provides the best flavours...... but as with many things to do with palate, much is dependent on taste.

On arrival at the factory, the freshly plucked leaves are laid out to wither/dry a little. This allows for some of the water to evaporate from them to the extent they can be flexible. They then undergo one of 3 processes depending on the preparation:

1. black tea
2. green tea
3. oolong tea

Black Tea
This is the dried form that is most popularly consumed and widely available. After drying, the leaves are passed through a series of oversized mincing machines which cuts, tears and curls the leaves. This process ruptures the cells (by cutting through the cell walls to release the flavours), therefore the immediately start to oxidise and quickly turn colour (initially to a coppery brown, rather like a half eaten apple would turn colour). The batch is left uncovered and the process lasts about an hour or so. In this time, the leaves undergo further oxidation so that by the time they leave the factory, the leaves are now black (hence the name).

Green Tea 
The fresh leaves of the Camellia sinensis are steamed  at very high temperature instead of dried. This means that the enzymes responsible for oxidisation are inactivated and therefore the constituents which are thought to confer the health benefits of tea (such as the polyphenols) remain intact. The polyphenols are better known as flavonoids or catechins. One of the main catechins on geen tea is a rich antioxidant called epigallocatechin-3-gattate (EGCG) which is 100 times more effective than vitamin C and 25 times more effective than vitamin E at protecting cells and genetic material) from free radical damage that is linked to many disease states. EGCG also has twice the benefits of resveratrol, a polyphenol found in red wine (and known to limit the negative effects of smoking and a fatty diet). Although many people believe green tea is better for you than black tea, there is only a marginal difference in the levels of antioxidants between the two (black tea has slightly less). The lack of oxidisation in green tea simply means that it has a more delicate flavour compared to black tea. However, many people don't like the taste of green tea preferring the raw and gutsy flavours of black tea instead. In this regard, it really is a question of taste!

Oolong Tea
Workers in a tea plantation in China
heating the tea leaves by hand

This is another variation of the preparation of the leaf. Here, the leaves are rolled and shaped into long thin strands. They are partially oxidised because after they are picked, they are allowed to dry in a similar manner to the preparation for black tea and allows them to be oxidised. However, the time for this oxidation is limited and the processed is stopped when the leaves are heated. They are shaped one last time after the heating. Many people believe that semi-oxidation produces floral note that characterise oolongs and have, over time, become synonymous with this type of tea. Some oolongs are roasted instead which produces darker aromas and flavours (many believe these flavours resemble ripe fruits, nuts, roasted grains, caramel, coffee or chocolate). The range in oxidation, shaping and roasting/heating makes oolong tea a broad category with an enormous span of flavours and aromas. Most oolongs hail from China and other countries of the far east such as Japan and Taiwan, where the hand-rolled leaves are much sought after. However, other countries such as India and Sri Lanka have now started to make oolong tea invariably on a large scale in a factory setting. Whether this is a good or bad thing remains to be seen as much of this is dictated by demand in those regions and in other parts of the world.

Tea Blending

Many of the tea specialists across the world have their own unique blends. What this means is that in different regions, the leaf of the world, Camellia sinensis acquires different chemical constituents lending itself to different flavours and textures when it is dried and roasted. The art of tea blending has been perfected over many years and many traders are passionate about their recipes and guard it as a closely kept secret. Equally, different cultures have different ways of drinking tea. It can be drunk as a brew on its own (black tea) or as many would in the West, drink it with milk. The addition of sugar also enhances the flavour. In India, tea is an incredibly popular drink, however, the classic, traditional way of making Indian tea is  to brew the leaves with hot milk and rather less water (if at all).... almost like a tea equivalent of a latte!

Health Benefits of Tea
Given the abundance and variety of biochemicals in tea, it is unsurprising that it has been closely aligned to health effects. Chemicals such as flavonoids (antioxidant properties), amino acids, vitamins, caffeine and several polysaccharides easily lend themselves to health benefits which have been extensively investigated. It has been suggested that green and black tea confer some protection against cancer though the catechins found in green tea are thought to be more effective in protecting against preventing certain obesity-related cancers such as liver and colorectal cancer. Both green tea and black teas protect against cardiovascular disease. Recent epidemiological data have been conducted to investigate the effects of green tea consumption on the incidence of human cancers. These studies suggest significant protective effects of green tea against oral, pharyngeal, oesophageal, prostate, digestive, urinary tract, pancreatic, bladder, skin, lung, colon, breast, and liver cancers, and lower risk for cancer metastasis and recurrence. A recent study found a 50% greater risk of prostate cancer amongst men who drank more than seven cups of tea per day, compared to those with moderate or lower tea intake. Preliminary lab studies show that "a wide variety of commercial teas appear to either inactivate or kill viruses,". Several types of green and black teas, regular and iced, were tested on animal tissues infected with such viruses as herpes simplex 1 and 2 and the T1 (bacterial) virus. found that "iced tea or regular tea does destroy or inactivate the [herpes] virus within a few minutes." Similar results were obtained with the T1 virus.

Green Tea vs Black Tea
There is no definite answer when it comes to deciding. Black tea has been around for centuries and continues to enjoy popularity and appeal across a wide sector of the general populations across the world. However, as with all things, much depends on individual taste and if consuming it is for a particular health benefit. The research is extensive but the conclusions suggest that what ever form tea is consumed, there is always a health benefit. On a cautionary note and paradoxically, I should warn that excessive consumption of black tea has been linked to oral cancers, mainly because of the tannins in them. However, adding milk may counteract this although there is no clinical evidence to suggest the cancer risk of excessive consumption of black tea. Further, excessive and timing of consumption may impact on iron absorption

Other Teas eg. rooibush, yerbe mate etc....??
There is now a wide selection of herbal teas but despite their popularity, the vast majority cannot do without this household essential. It has had a bit of a chequered history with regards to trade but there is no question that it remains one of the all time favourite beverages in numerous countries across the world. We all love a nice cup of tea! Enjoy.......

For more information about green tea, a good review article can be found here: 
For everything to do with tea, you can visit this site - it's all about tea and would you believe it, there is a UK Council on the subject! 

Thursday, 3 October 2013

A Good Night's Sleep

Getting a good night's sleep can be problematic
The importance of sleep cannot be adequately emphasised. Current statistics put women at the top with regards to sleep disruption with 1 in 3 being affected by disrupted sleep or not being able to fall asleep. Regular lack of sleep has a profound impact on health and the long-term consequences can lead to depression, irritability, headaches, impaired reflexes, reduced mental alertness and physical tiredness amongst other symptoms. Sleep can be affected by a number of factors such as:
  • Anxiety & worry
  • Pain (various causes)
  • Illness (various)
  • Hot flushes & other menopausal symptoms
  • Hormonal fluctuations (may affect production of melatonin, an important component in determining the circadian rhythm/body clock of the body)
  • Mental illness eg. depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Stress
  • Other factors & outside influences eg. noisy neighbours, uncomfortable bed, partner who snores
  • Medication
  • Diet (quality of food and timing of meals)
Additionally, variable shift work has a negative effect on the body. A variable shift pattern does not allow the body to adapt sufficiently and this interferes with the natural body clock (the circadian rhythm). Consequently, hormones are disrupted and the body is in a constant state of change. It’s a bit like being in a perpetual state of jet lag which, on any long-term basis, is not beneficial at all to the body. The solutions to tackling disrupted sleep depends very much on the nature of the problem, establishing a cause and effect and deep-rooted issues which may require specialist help such as counselling for depression, specific help for emotional trauma etc… Some of the strategies could involve the following:
  1. Examining diet and lifestyle
  2. Adopting a holistic approach to the problem. Examine all aspects of: - Mind (mental well-being)
    -Body (physical well-being)
    - Spiritual well-being
    - Psychological well-being
    3. Other measures to relax & unwind
    4. Effective pain management
    5. Meditation, tai chi & other stress-busting measures

Other intervention eg: counselling, massage, hypnotherapy, reflexology etc…
Diet is an integral part of ensuring we get a good night’s sleep. Some of the foods to avoid and some foods that need to be increased are highlighted below:

Foods to avoid
Increase intake of these foods
Biscuits, cakes, chocolates & others foods that are high in refined sugars
Green vegetables except spinach
Coffee, tea, cola drinks, chocolate drinks & fizzy drinks (too much caffeine)
Lettuce (natural sedative)
Red meats, rich creamy dishes & cheese (high in protein & difficult to digest especially late at night)
Porridge (slow-release carbohydrate will regulate sugar and energy levels)
Spicy dishes, curry or oriental foods (can cause heartburn which will disturb sleep)
sunflower and pumpkin seeds (high in magnesium – will relax muscles, relieve stress and promote sleep)
Alcohol & tobacco (disrupts body processes and generally bad for health)
Wholegrain foods & other low glycaemic index (GI) foods (eg. wholewheat foods, brown rice, oats). These regulate blood sugar levels, calm & soothe the gut & nervous system.
Bacon, ham, sausages, sauerkraut, spinach & tomatoes (all increase adrenaline which will keep the body alert at night so that it is difficult to get to sleep)
Increase complex carbohydrates in wholefoods (eg. pasta) boosts serotonin levels which in turn promotes sleep. Serotonin is regarded as the body’s natural relaxant & antidepressant.
Cottage cheese, turkey, yoghurt, bananas & avocado (foods high in tryptophan which is the precursor to serotonin. This in turn promotes sleep.

Valerian tea is very popular with
those who have sleep problems
Lifestyle changes also need to be made in cases of stress, lack of exercise and other issues such as emotional trauma, depression, anxiety and worry. Examples of appropriate measures include:
Stress management – stress has a huge impact on the quantity and quality of sleep. Stress busting measures will not only address the physical effects of stress but also ensures mental and psychological well-being, which in turn will enable proper sleep. Good examples of stress management techniques are yoga, meditation, aerobic exercise, recreational pursuits, hobbies or simply socialising with friends. All are great ways to combat stress. This will restore efficient functioning of body processes such as hormone regulation which, if disrupted, has a profound and negative impact on sleep.
  • Exercise – regular, aerobic exercise is a great way to combat the negative effects of stress, depression or anxiety, all of which affect sleep. In addition to the physical and mental benefits of exercise, sleep will be more regulated as the body can become tired at regular times due to exercise and this will encourages a proper sleep pattern. A calm and relaxed body and mind will positively promote sleep.
  • Herbal help – many have sought relief from a range of herbal supplements, teas, herbal remedies and OTC preparations specifically designed to calm, soothe, relax and sedate the mind and body. Notable herbs include chamomile tea, hops, valerian, passion flower, lemon balm, Californian poppy, lettuce and St. John’s Wort amongst others. These are considered to be herbal sedatives and hypnotics, all of which promote sleep. Their advantage over prescription drugs is that they promote better attributes of sleep without the unwanted side effects such as feelings of grogginess the morning after. Before self-medicating however, it is strongly advisable that the true cause of sleep disturbances is correctly identified so that important issues such as depression, anxiety or emotional trauma does not go undiagnosed and effective treatment is sought. This will eventually have the effect of indirectly resolving any sleep disorders which may well be a symptom of these underlying problems.
Extracts from Modern Living, Holistic Health & Herbal Medicine (2011) by Yaso Shan. Published by Booklocker Inc USA.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

A Great Addition to Superfoods?

We have been told about the wonders of superfoods for a while now as evidenced by their relative availability in health foods stores, supermarkets, juice bars and even in skincare products. Up until recently, goji berry was unheard of in the western world but their popularity as a superfood has meant that we are learning more about its nutritional benefits as well health claims made about them. But are these claims justified or are they mere hype?

The goji berry in its natural state
Goji berry is also known as wolfberry and two species of box thorn from which berries are harvested are Lycium barbarum and Lycium chinensis and as the name implies, it is the berry that is consumed. Both Lycium spp are native to south-eastern Europe and Asia. Its bright orange-red berry has been consumed in Asia for generations as an aid to living longer so perhaps the indigenous people of the region already knew about its superfood benefits even then? Goji berry made its appearance in the UK in the 1990s and was immediately classified a s a Novel Food by the FSA (UK Food Standards Agency). Over time and given its popularity as a health food has meant that goji berry was being used to treat many common health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure , fever and age-related eye problems (macula degeneration and glaucoma). Various preparations still exist and goji berry can be eaten raw, cooked or died (like raisins) and used in herbal teas, fruit/vegetable juices or smoothies, wine and medicines. In June 2007, the FSA removed goji berry from its Novel Food list on the basis that there was a significant history of the fruit being consumed in Europe before 1997.

So what is in this magical fruit that confers these great benefits and what research or evidence is there to support the marketing claims?

There are plenty of substances in goji berry that make it a very good source of important micronutrients such as vitamin C, calcium, potassium, iron and zinc. It also contains beta-carotene, vitamin B2 and selenium. There are also a host of other nutrients such as sugars, plant sterols and unsaturated fats. However, preliminary medical research into goji berry does not support the many marketing claims that have been made of the purported health benefits and biological effects of the fruit and therefore does not hold up to scrutiny and as such does not have the approval of any regulatory authority in this regard.

The dried form of goji berry is
very popular as a health food
The nutritional benefits of goji berry are numerous but then again, so are many other foods that have high levels of important micronutrients. Its  most claimed nutritional attribute is an exceptional level of vitamin C (the highest in plants) and we know this to be a potent antioxidant (great at preventing ageing, disease and generally keeping you well). However, processing the fresh fruit into the dried form, storage conditions and transportation means that vitamin C levels can vary quite widely and in some instances not being any higher than strawberries, red/black berries and many other citrus fruits. Therefore goji berries may not always possess comparable or higher levels of vitamin C despite the marketing claims. Whilst these discrepancies exist, not to mention the lack of proper scientific evidence on the health claims, it would be misleading to label goji berries as a functional food. However, it is not to say that these berries are not great for health, we just don't consume sufficient quantities of it in its natural and fresh form to reap any suggested benefits from them.

Other use of goji berries are to be found in soap bars (made from its seed oils), as an additive for manufacturing, a juice concentrate, whole fruit puree, powders from the fruit or juice concentrate (made from spray drying), pulp powders, whole or ground seeds and seed oils (essential oils or oils extracted rather like grape seed oil).

Goji Berry in Skincare
In addition to the nutritional benefits of this fruit, extracts of it can be found in a range of synthetic and natural skincare products. Some chemicals can weaken the cosmetic benefits of goji berries so opt for more natural varieties. The basis upon which it is added is that given its high antioxidant content, it can work at the local level and surface skin layer. It is thought to reverse skin damage, increase collagen synthesis and prevent premature ageing. The ingredient joins the list of products classified generally as anti-ageing cosmetic/ skincare products. Whether there is any evidence to these anti-ageing products remains to be seen as there is limited scientific and clinical studies on goji berries and anti-ageing in human trials. However, it is not to say that it cannot be good as a skincare ingredient, after all, it is an incredibly nutritionally-dense substance and in theory, it should do wonders for our skin! The only way to determine this of course is to trial it yourself and as ever, brand will be a determining factor as will a healthy diet and lifestyle which all influence how we age.

  • for a healthy dose consume a small handful (10-30g) each day
  • check out the labels of natural skincare brands with botanical ingredients that include goji berries in them but be careful - more expensive ones does not translate to better quality and organic and parabens-free doesn't mean it is a superior product
  • be careful if you are on conventional medicines as goji berries may interact with them and stop them working (leading to other problems or an exacerbation of your existing condition)
  • if you have pollen allergies, you should limit consumption of goji berries or avoid it altogether if the allergy is severe
  • be careful about dried fruit intake if you are diabetic and always consult your doctor beforehand
For more information and advice about goji berries and some of the other superfoods go to: or check out

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Stevia - The Great Sugar Alternative?

The stevia plant (Stevia rebaudiana)
Given our love of refined sugar and the global obesity epidemic with the consequential increase in disorders associated with it such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease (especially coronary heart disease) and quite possibly cancer to name but a few, the desperate search for an alternative was inevitable. Combined with current and past concerns over artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and saccharin which still rumbles on to this day, it is unsurprising that a plant and its natural extracts which has had a long tradition of use in South America as a natural sweetener has taken the food industry by storm and with zero calories is being hailed  as a major weapon in tackling the obesity crisis that is threatening the health of millions of people around the world. Extracts from stevia has been studied for some time but it is only now that it is being mass produced on a commercial scale in a bid to offer a natural sweetener and a sugar alternative to address the burgeoning obesity-related disorders across the world. But what do we know about this plant? How and when did it become mainstream?

Long before the media frenzy over stevia, there were concerns being raised about saccharin and aspartame, two of the most popular artificial sweeteners which infiltrated our foods whether we knew it or not. Health concerns of aspartame are many and varied from adverse reactions such as headaches, muscle spasms and anxiety to exacerbating existing conditions such as MS, diabetes and Alzheimer's Disease. Saccharin on the other hand has had a long and chequered history over its alleged carcinogenic (cancer-causing) properties. Little wonder then that stevia is proving very popular.

History &Traditional Use
Stevia is a genus that encompasses over 240 species. It is in the sunflower family (Asteraceae) and is native to subtropical and tropical regions from western North America to South America including central America and Mexico. The species of great interest to the food industry is Stevia rebaudiana (common name sweetleaf or sugar leaf). Human use of sweetleaf originated in South America and has enjoyed a long history of use in both food and medicine. The Guarani people of Paraguay and Brazil have been using stevia for more than 1500 years. In its whole, unprocessed form, stevia leaves have 30-45 times the sweetness of refined sugar (sucrose). The leaves can in fact be eaten fresh or cut leaves can be used in beverages and foods to sweeten them.

The traditional method of use by Paraguayan Guarani Indians was to dry the leaves and use this form to sweeten tea, herbal teas particularly yerbe mate and traditional medicines. Dried and fresh leaves are also chewed as a 'sweet treat'. Stevia was regularly used in drinks many times a day with no side-effects. The use of dried leaves (pieces or powdered) is unacceptable in domestic cooking because it can leave a sediment, it can cause frothing and discolour the food green which can make it distinctly unappealing and unappetising!

It's medicinal attributes was as a cardiac stimulant, its anti-obesity effects, a hypotensive, relief of heartburn and lowering of uric acids levels therefore good for gout. There is much interest in the scientific community to investigate some of these traditional uses to determine potential and new drug treatments.

Plant constituents and AC
The active constituents that confer sweetness to stevia are collectively referred to as steviol glycosides: stevioside, rebaudiosides A, D and E, dulcosides A and B.  However, only two of these have attracted attention regarding the food industry: stevioside and rabaudioside A.

Stevioside is a non-carbohydrate glycoside compound. Therefore, it lacks the properties that sucrose and other carbohydrates have. Rebaudioside A has the least bitterness of all the steviol glycosides in the stevia plant. To produce rebaudioside A commercially, stevia plants are dried and subjected to a water extraction process. This crude extract contains about 50% rebaudioside A; its various glycoside molecules are separated via crystallization techniques, typically using ethanol or methanol as solvent. This allows the manufacturer to isolate pure rebaudioside A.

Stevia extracts have several unique properties such as long shelf-life, high temperature tolerance, it's non-fermentative and contains near zero calories. Stevia extracts, like rebaudioside A are found to be 300 times sweeter than sucrose (table sugar) and it is this which is much sought after. Many have found stevia to have a bitter aftertaste; this may be attributed to the presence of sesquiterpene lactones, essential oils, tannins and flavonoids but stevioside and rebaudioside A also contribute to this. Of all the steviol glycosides, it is rebaudioside A that is the sweetest and most stable, and it is less bitter than stevioside.

Other important constituents:
  • sterols
  • antioxidants (triterpenes, flavonoids, tannins)
  • polyphenols
  • chlorogenic acid
  • minerals
  • vitamins
Safety and commercial use in the food industry
It is very difficult to get hold of the raw, unprocessed version of stevia - it is usually sold in a powdered or liquid extract form. Safety studies therefore have to include these versions rather than focussing on the whole plant. Various reports in animals and humans indicate that the safety of stevia is not yet determined. Although stevia has been used without any problems for many years in its native Paraguay and in other countries for a lesser time, health and safety issues have been receiving considerable attention in the past 20 years. There has been much media attention in the US, including claims and counterclaims before the FDA. Many of these claims relate to its potential competitive market position in relation to aspartame.

Global use and legislation
Stevia products including rebaudioside A have been approved for use in the US since 2008 as nutritional supplements and as purified extracts  when it was granted GRAS status ie. Generally Recognised As Safe. Interestingly however, whole leaf or crude stevia extracts do not have approval to be used as food additives. This is because in the US, health supplements do not need to prove that they are safe (unbelievable!) but food additives do. This decision was essentially based on toxicology reports which demonstrated genotoxicity and mutagenicity (ie. can cause genetic mutations) from stevia extracts. However, lab studies use doses that are extremely high and in reality, stevia is not consumed at these extremely high doses. Many critics argue that this sends out a contradictory message and have been campaigning for stevia to be added to the food additive list.  In Europe, it's a different picture - the European Food Standards Agency (EFSA) approved stevia and its extracts as food additives in 2011. It has been authorised for widespread introduction. Japan banned artificial sweeteners about 40 years ago and have been using the processed form of stevia since then. Stevia (in its whole form or as extracts) have been approved by various countries across the world.

Medicinal benefits and health risks
The medicinal benefits of stevia in the modern world is yet to be determined. However, much can be gleaned from traditional practices and the conditions being considered. Current research has evaluated stevia's effects on obesity and hypertension. Other studies have shown that there is negligible effect on blood glucose, and may even enhance glucose tolerance. However, for diabetics and others on a low-carbohydrate diet, stevia is a very useful alternative to sugar. Additionally, stevia possesses anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties therefore it can be safely used in herbal medicines, tonics for diabetic patients and also in daily use as mouthwashes and toothpastes. Stevia leaf tea also offers excellent relief for an upset stomach.

The Japanese have performed over 40,000 clinical trials on stevia and found it to be safe although there is no reliable data which determines safe doses. Stevia is generally well tolerated and is safe to use in pregnancy. It is also safe for diabetics and no allergic reactions seem to exist for it. However, those with allergies to plants in the Asteraceae family (and this includes ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigolds, daisies, sunflowers etc..) are advised not to use it. As with most things, individuals react differently to the same product.

A question of taste?
Stevia in its raw form, although incredibly sweet, has a very subtle liquorice taste to it. A sign of an excellent stevia product is one that is free of this liquorice essence and still not bitter (many call this an aftertaste).  Given that the whole form of the leaf is incredibly difficult to get hold of, it is perfectly legal to grow stevia plant yourself (well in the UK at least!). The leaves can either be eaten whole, dried then added to food or boiled, cooled and strained (filtered) to control the level of sweetening that is required. The latter method may be preferable in some situations such as in diabetics and those wanting to reduce their craving for sweet foods  as well as fatty foods in a measured, gradual way.

Some people have simply developed an insatiable need for sweet foods and instead of altering the palate to modify their idea of what 'sweet' is, have resorted to sugar alternatives. Resetting the sweet sensors requires effort and perhaps an approach that people are too lazy to adopt. Many of the stevia products on the market are highly processed and contain other substances as the most abundant substance in stevia:
  • eg. erythritol - is a naturally occurring sugar that is sometimes found in fruit, but food manufacturers don’t actually use the natural version. Instead they start with genetically engineered corn and then go through a complex fermentation process to come up with chemically pure erythritol
  • eg. xylitol - is a sugar alcohol that is not fully digested. Although naturally-occurring in beets, mushrooms, oats, berries and corn, and commercially produced from birch trees, it is not known whether commercial stevia with this ingredient is from a natural source
  • eg. dextrose - is a sweetener that’s also derived from genetically engineered corn and has a long complicated manufacturing process, just like erythritol
  • eg. natural flavours - manufactured and not natural at all. This makes it difficult to stop eating or drinking because the flavours they have synthesized will trick your mind into wanting more
  • eg. agarve inulin - even certified organic stevia can have sneaky ingredients added which has more organic agave inulin than the stevia extract itself. Agave inulin is a highly processed fibre derivative from the blue agave plant, quite different to the healthier, pure agave syrup
  • eg. silica - used in the construction industry, this substance can irritate the gut

A commercial product widely
available in supermarkets. Made by
 Coco-Cola and Cargill
Whilst many of the reports of stevia is too good to be true, it does offer a suitable alternative to sugar that may have some benefit in certain groups of people eg. diabetics and those on carbohydrate-controlled diets. However, beware of the commercial options out there as many are highly processed and contain a host of other ingredients (many in greater quantity that stevioside or rebudioside A) and not all of them natural. Whole forms are difficult to get hold of but it is possible to grow your own if you are concerned about commercial products. Ultimately 2 factors will dictate our use: taste and cost (stevia products can be 2-3 times the price of ordinary sugar). There are other alternatives to consider such as:
  • raw sugar (not brown sugar!)
  • sugar cane (but this is not feasible unless you live in the fields where it is harvested!), or near a place that sells them
  • honey (one of the most natural sugars produced by bees and used for centuries)
  • jaggery (a traditional sugar consumed in Asia and Africa made from the products of both sugar cane and the date or coconut palm tree. Can be found in specialist stores in the UK
  • agave syrup or nectar (a natural product used widely in Mexico and S. America, it is made from the Agave spp and resembles honey although it is sweeter and less viscous
A natural sugar product made from
the Agave plant
A commercial stevia product made
by the PepsiCo and Whole Earth
Sweetener Company
Jaggery pieces - a natural sugar product made
from sugar cane, date palm and/or coconut palm

Probably the only stevia product
that is made from the whole leaf
Our desire for all things natural thinking it is safe can be a misconception, after all cyanide is natural but one wouldn't eat it! The need to reduce obesity levels should focus on the food industry and the dangerous chemicals in some of them that induces taste addictions particularly cravings for sweet and fatty foods. Equally, whilst there is criticism over long-term fat loss with stevia, it offers an alternative which may in the immediate term address the zero calorie approach whilst meeting taste considerations. There are different brands out there and one needs to carefully check the ingredients list before purchase. Sweetleaf is probably the only product that I would consider if I had to but personally, I would omit sugar if at all possible and limit the extent of my sweet foods in my diet allowing for occasional treats. Commercial development and availability of stevia is yet another response to a global epidemic and clever marketing that exploits the need for people to lose weight without the effort. Be careful of gimmicks because ultimately, it is only by changing your palate that will really be the most effective long-term remedy.
  1. There are many commercial websites providing information about stevia but this is not always objective or entirely reliable! A good scientific review (Goyal & Goyal, 2010) provides a comprehensive account for stevia. You can download it here: 
  2. A full toxicological review of rebaudioside A was conducted by Kobylewski & Eckhert for The University of California. You can download it here: 

Monday, 15 July 2013

The Latest Beauty Fad - Bee Venom

Just when I think I have heard it all before, along comes another craze that propels me into action, galvanising my research into it in order to verify or substantiate some of the more outrageous claims that are being made. I refer here to bee venom of course, the latest trend in anti-ageing beauty products and hailed as nature's answer to botox, little realising that botox is also a natural poison. Bee venom is now the latest magic ingredient to be added to skin creams, lip-plumping potions and sticky face masks all in the desperate desire to halt or reverse the signs of ageing. Endorsed by celebrities (young and old) further enhances its appeal to the masses who religiously follow these trends and who do not readily question the veracity or reliability of the marketing claims and the hype that usually surrounds anything associated with anti-ageing.
So let's examine what the fuss is all about and try and verify some of the claims that have been made to see if there is any proper evidence behind such claims that could justify the exorbitant cost of these elixirs of youth.....

Our relationship with bees
The humble honey bee with which humans
have enjoyed a long history and a long
and healthy relationship
There are many different varieties of bees, one of which is the honey bee with which humans have traditionally had a long and healthy relationship. Of course, I refer to our cultivation of honey (eg. acacia, manuka, clover, runny etc...), royal jelly and the various other products from it such as bee pollen and propolis, both valuable in medicine and health. The latest product to be 'cultivated' from the honey bee is its venom because of its purported reputation as an anti-ageing ingredient. We know that bees sting, the mechanism of which is located in its abdomen (as opposed to its proboscis) which is often a common misconception. Live stings (ie. a sting as a normal response to its defence against attack from another organism such as a human usually kills the bees because the entire sting apparatus is ejected along with the sting and embedded into the host). However, collection of the bee venom does not rely on this method (apart from the obvious risk!), and so smaller quantities of venom are ejected with each sting and the bee remains alive for a bit longer than its usual 'one sting and die' approach!

The uses and benefits of bee products
  • acacia honey - bees traditionally kept in hives close to acacia trees (Acacia spp) tend to collect nectar locally and the honey is  made from the acacia tree blossom nectar rather than from a mixture of plants/flowers. For this reason the product can be labelled specifically as acacia honey.
  • manuka honey - made in the same way as acacia except hives are kept close to the manuka tree (tea tree) Leptospermum scoparium. Slight variations in chemical composition to the acacia honey with manuka being popular as a health supplement as well as proprietary products.
  • clover honey - again, same as acacia and manuka, the honey is derived from nectar collected from the clover plant. More prevalent in the North America and Canada because of the greater expanse of grasslands available where clover tends to grow and limited availability in the UK and Europe due to loss of wild meadows as a result of increased urbanisation
  • honey - widely available in supermarkets and made from nectar sourced from many different plants/flowers. Much depends on taste and flavour of the honey which is dictated by the quality of the nectar and how well the plants are cultivated and cared for. Organic varieties are available but again, choice depends on your taste preferences. For health purposes, honey has a host of benefits ranging from being a digestive aid, good for cuts & open wounds (great antibacterial properties), great nutrient, good for inflammatory disorders and a great alternative to refined sugar. It is also added to a range of toiletries and beauty products for its cosmetic benefits
  • propolis - taken as supplements, propolis is a bee product made from the resinous exudate collected by bees from the leaf bud of certain trees (especially the poplar). It is modified by the bees' enzymes which use it as a structural component of their hives. It is rich in fats, amino acids, alcohol ethers and trace elements such as copper, iron, manganese and zinc. it is also high in vitamins (especially B vitamins, C, E and proto-vitamin A). It also possesses antibiotic properties and is good for mild pain relief. It is also effective in promoting regeneration of collagen, cartilage, bone and dental pulp
  • royal jelly - taken as supplements and as the term implies, this is a bee product that is made exclusively for the development of the queen bee. It therefore contains a host of nutrients including amino acids, vitamins (B group and C mainly) and metabolites. It is also antibacterial, an immune booster, a digestive aid and numerous other health benefits
  • bee pollen - taken as supplements in tablet form, bee pollen gathered by bees during their pollinating activities contains many nutrients including vitamins, proteins, fats, sugar, carbohydrate, growth hormones, co-enzymes and amino acids. People take it for various conditions but generally as a health aid and for allergic conditions. It has cosmetic uses when applied topically and for healing purposes
  • beeswax - beeswax is a product made from the honeycomb of bees. The 3 major beeswax products are yellow beeswax, white beeswax and beeswax absolute. Yellow beeswax s the crude product obtained from the honeycomb, white beeswax is the bleaches version of yellow beeswax and beeswax absolute is made by treating yellow beeswax with alcohol. Unsurprisingly, each have their particular uses from medicine to manufacturing, from food and beverages to the cosmetic & beauty industry.
The collection of bee venom

 A typical bee venom
collection frame
The collection and sale of honey and other bee products rely on bees being alive and in healthy numbers. There has long been a traditional and synergistic relationship between humans and bees which continues to this day not only in Europe (although it is in danger in the UK at present due to the dwindling population of bees) but also in many other parts of the world. Early collection methods of the 1960s involved surgical removal of the venom gland or squeezing each individual bee until a droplet could be collected from the tip of the sting. Mercifully, this barbaric process has been taken over by more ethical methods which allegedly exercise some sensitivity to the suffering of bees and keeping them alive. However, recent methods involve the use of an electric shock which is the trigger or irritant that initiates the reflex action in bees to sting. One of the designs uses a collection frame (literally a frame wired with electrodes and covered with a piece of glass). The frame is mounted in a bee hive and when the bees come into contact with it, they receive a 'mild' electric shock and sting the glass. The venom secreted onto the glass dries up to resemble a white powder (rather like salt) and it is scraped off, collected and purified (to remove debris such as pollen, dust, dirt etc....). It is worth noting that an enormous amount of stings are needed to collect a very small fragment of venom (to give some idea, it takes over 10,000 bee stings to collect just 1g of venom) and although the initial stings do not kill the bees, in time following many stings, the sacs empty and the bee eventually dies (prematurely in comparison to its lifespan). In New Zealand, the cost of bee venom far exceeds the current value of gold! It also needs to be stated that this method is not useful for African honey bees or the more defensive honey bees in other parts of the world.

Why do we collect bee venom?
Observations that bee keepers rarely developed or suffered from inflammatory disorders particularly the pain and debilitating effects of arthritis has been made for some time now. It was thought that repeated stinging from bees meant that there was something in their venom that was protecting bee keepers from developing inflammatory joints. On this basis, much research was conducted for which there is some evidence but no clinical proof that it prevents arthritis. This was just one of a myriad of conditions being investigated but much was based on the initial research into allergy to bee stings which was often fatal in some individuals. Extraction of bee venom and study of its chemical constituents formed the backbone of treatment approaches to this day which relies on desensitizing susceptible individuals to bee venom so that their bodies do not respond in such a catastrophic way (anaphylaxis) which led to severe allergic reaction and death from bee stings. There is however, no scientific evidence to prove the clinical benefits of bee venom in any medical literature to date and therefore allergy (on the whole) remains one of the trickiest areas within medicine where a cure or remedy remains so elusive. Nevertheless the practice of apitherapy (so named after the Latin name for bees: Apis mellifera) arose as a result of potential benefits from animal stings. Bees are not the only species to products stings or venoms; snakes, scorpion, ants and wasps are all being investigated and researched for medicinal use.

Mechanism of action
There is no clinical evidence of bee venom's anti-ageing effect but there is plenty of research  on it which has focussed on its effect in diseases such as cancer and arthritis. Studies of its use as a skincare treatment have been limited and there are no legitimate scientific studies of the purported benefits of bee venom either topically or intravenously (ie. by injection). Medical uses of bee venom (apitherapy) uses purified bee stings which is the only medically approved product (FDA/EMA approval with official NICE Guidelines in the UK issued with its administration). It is given intravenously and is only approved for desensitising people who are hypersensitive (allergic) to bee venom. In Eastern Europe and in many Asian countries (including Japan and China), bee venom is used in official medical treatments of a large variety of ailments for a considerable length of time.
Drug label for a typical IV dose
of bee venom
Bee venom contains a host of biologically active compounds including enzymes, proteins, peptides, amino acids, physiologically active amines, sugars, phospholipids and volatile compounds. Medical grade bee venom is purified whole extract (mixed with sterile saline solution, distilled water or certain oils) to make an injectable form. No quality control of the creams or injections have been conducted (except the pharmaceutically made ampoules) therefore it is very difficult to ascertain the exact dosage and components in these products. Tablet versions* have had the toxic component melittin removed from them but interestingly, it is this very ingredient that is thought to be the active ingredient in anti-ageing beauty creams. Melittin is a highly toxic compound, and along with other inflammatory mediators in venom (histamine and other biogenic amines), contributes to the pain, swelling and itching associated with bee stings. The basis of bee venom's anti-ageing effect when applied topically, is that it is thought to trick the body into thinking it has been stung therefore initiating the inflammatory response. The healing and repair mode that is part of this process involves skin regeneration with increased production of collagen and elastin (key components that make skin look youthful).Bee venom also contains apimin (a potent neurotoxin) which increases cortisol production by the adrenal glands. Cortisol is the body's own (endogenous) anti-inflammatory agent which further enhances skin restoration.

*oral tablets taken internally have limited use since many of the biologically active subbstances will be deactivated by the potent stomach acid. Letting the tablets dissolve under the tongue may release small quantities of the active ingredients directly into the blood supply but no scientific studies have been conducted on this to determine the value of this mode of administration.

Note: Hymenoptera - order of insects that have the capacity to sting (includes ants, wasps and bees)

Ethical considerations and environmental cost
Bees are excellent pollinators and we can all do our bit to preserve their population by encouraging growth of plants that they like such as jasmine, honeysuckle and a range of flowering plants with bright, colourful blooms and foliage. Bees in their natural environment collect nectar from a wide area from many different plants/flowers. Each batch of honey that they make therefore has a different flavour each time it is collected because of this. Many people prefer this type of honey because it is more natural and supports local wildlife, it is more ethical than large scale manufacture from one plant species/tree orchard. The recent decline in bee population in the UK and other parts of Western Europe has had a devastating impact on the local wildlife and there continues to be much debate about the exact cause of their dwindling numbers (virus, excessive use of pesticides, climate change, increased urbanisation leading to loss of natural habitats such as meadows.... to name but a few). Collecting bee venom does eventually kill them (just not immediately) and whilst there is an argument for its medical use, I cannot see a single reason why bees should be exploited for the sake of beauty and vanity. It's deplorable. Moreover, the long-term use, cumulative and side-effects of beauty creams with bee venom is not yet known and I personally, wouldn't touch it with a barge pole given my predisposition to allergy. There are many other factors such as genetics, lifestyle and environment all associated with ageing, which is after all an inevitable process. Prices of these bee venom creams vary enormously which begs the question as to its quality and dosage at the very least. Exploitation of honey bees may also in the long-term modify their behaviour and result in unintended behavioural patterns which may destroy their innate ability to collect nectar and make honey, which we have enjoyed for centuries.

There is very little credible data and information on the cosmetic uses of bee venom and with good reason; it is a toxic protein. There are some great journal articles but almost all of them only focus on its medical uses. One of which can be accessed here: gives a good historical account and a useful scientific summary of bee venom and its products.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

The Raw Food Debate - why bother cooking?

In the desperate search for the secret to longevity and good health, many have followed a radical approach to eating - namely to follow a raw food diet. Previously considered the lifestyle choice of the weird and wacky, new age hippies and those pursuing an 'alternative' existence, raw foodists as they have been popularly labelled, have generated much debate and discussion over their food choices. So what is the raw food diet and why does it cause so much controversy?

The raw food diet as the term implies, is one that involves eating only raw  food items that have not had any kind of processing, preservation, additives or cooking. Some follow it completely (therefore their diet is 100% raw food only) and others follow it partially (therefore eat some cooked food as a percentage of their diet). There are also those who consume partially cooked foods in a bid to preserve some of the nutrients but whether they would classify themselves as raw foodists is subject to debate. So why follow a raw food diet?

Well, the premise upon which raw foodists follow this diet is ostensibly because they believe that cooking destroys the important nutrients in food. Converts to raw food has gathered momentum largely due to a dedicated  movement by enthusiasts, endorsed by celebrities who promote the notion that cooking destroys about 50% of the nutrients in food. Crucially, cooking is thought to destroy all or most of the critical and essential enzymes rendering cooking a damaging process when it comes to nutrition. Raw food enthusiasts actively promote the idea that 'cooked foods are dead foods'. So let's examine these ideas and claims from a scientific perspective by reviewing the evidence for cooking and whether indeed we should all be bothering with cooking at all.

There is certainly some truth in the statement that cooking can destroy some important nutrients. But much depends on the type of food and the type of cooking process. Frying, barbequeing or overcooking is essentially disastrous for the body because it enables the formation of toxic compounds such as acrylamides from frying and carcinogenic compounds such as heterocyclic amines from charring. Cooking also destroys important nutrients. Equally, many water-soluble vitamins are fragile and heat-sensitive therefore cooking will destroy them; boiling things to an inch of their life is probably best avoided! Some plant enzymes function as phytochemical nutrients in the body and can also be lost through overcooking so there is some argument to the cooking theory. Boiling and steaming are the best methods for preserving most of the nutrients.

Certainly, there are numerous benefits of eating raw food, particularly raw fruits and vegetables. Not least of which many advocates have been cured of lifelong illnesses, remission from cancer and have improved their overall health status. Hard to argue with this! However there are limitations to the this diet, namely that some vegetables are simply indigestible and unpalatable to be eaten raw. The image of someone tucking into an uncooked potato is not something that is likely to catch on! Equally, some grains and pulses cannot be eaten raw, on the contrary, rather they may do more damage than good, leading to all sorts of digestive problems. Fruits are more likely to lend themselves to a raw food diet that vegetables but there are some exceptions: carrots, celery, peppers, tomatoes, beans, peas, nuts, seeds and salad leaves amongst others. However, this is nothing new, health practitioners have been advising of the enormous benefits of  fruits and vegetables as part of their professional remit as far as long as I can remember so why is this news? Many who switch to a raw food diet are more likely to be eating fruits and vegetables anyway, therefore the health benefits are plain to see. Some have ditched fast foods, processed foods and fried foods so the initial feel-good factor of raw food is simply one that can be attributed to a better quality diet. But do we really need to cook food?

Contrary to what raw foodists will have you believe, cooking is actually beneficial for the body. Not only does it provide vital nutrients by releasing some of the nutrients contained within cells (particularly from plant cells which have a tough cellulose cell wall that can only be broken down by heat), cooking will also destroy pathogens and toxins that are commonly found in our foods. Some meats can transmit parasites as humans are secondary (or final) hosts to their lifecycle therefore cooking food thoroughly is the only way (outside of relying on the body's natural defences and immune system) in which the parasitic lifecycle can be broken. Additionally, cooking also destroys some of the anti-nutrients that bind minerals in the gut and interfere with the utilisation of nutrients which ultimately increases absorption of these nutrients. The best method of cooking is really steaming and boiling for a number of reasons. Not only does this method prevent the formation of the toxic acrylamides that tend to form with frying and other methods, it will also break the cellulose cells walls of plant cells walls in vegetables and release important nutrients from them. A good way of optimising vegetable nutrients is to steam them first and them make a soup; this will also ensure that fewer of the body's enzymes are needed to break down the cellulose cell wall and increase absorption of compounds such as bioflavonoids, lycopene (a powerful antioxidant notably found in tomatoes) lutein and carotenoids (another antioxidant) compared to the raw version. Also, roasting nuts and baking of cereals does not reduce bioavailability or the absorption of protein, rather it increases it.

The Science and the Evidence
Recent studies provide further confirmation to existing data that cooking increases the absorption of certain nutrients and whilst it is true that water-soluble vitamins such as vitamin C, folate and B vitamins, as well as certain minerals are destroyed by cooking, much of this should be viewed with the nutrient content of the whole diet. For instance, vitamin C contributes less than 1% of the total antioxidant activity of fruits and vegetables so apples for example provide less vitamin C compared to antioxidant capacity that its other ingredients such as phenolic acids and flavonoids provide, both of which are made available through cooking. Direct comparisons of nutrient provision of raw vs cooked carrots reveal that only 3-4% of carotenoids are absorbed compared to 15-20% from cooked or mashed carrots. Crucially, absorption rates are much higher from cooked foods compared to supplements. In another study, comparison of raw broccoli vs steamed or frozen broccoli, it was shown that about 25% of the vitamin C and about 20% of selenium (an important mineral) is lost during cooking. However, the other 20 commonly measured nutrients show only an insignificant change. Therefore the claim by raw foodists that 50% of nutrients are lost through cooking is inaccurate - a closer estimate would be in the region of 10%. Cooking has been shown to significantly boost its antioxidant activity, despite a reduction in vitamin C. In a study which determined the ability of corn to quench free radicals was measured, cooked corn outperformed raw corn by 25-50%. Cooking corn releases compounds called ferulic acid, which provides anti-cancer health benefits. Ferulic acid, a unique phytochemical is found in very low concentrations in fruits and vegetables but is actually in very high concentrations in corn. Its bioavailability from corn can be increased substantially by 500-900% through cooking it.
The claim that important plant enzymes are destroyed by cooking is a myth since our very own stomach acid will denature these more effectively than any form of cooking. Further, our own digestive enzymes are powerful substances and perfectly capable of catalysing digestion, plant enzymes are not designed for this purpose in our bodies and therefore redundant in this regard.

Avoiding Nutritional Deficiencies
The biggest concern that many health practitioners have including me over a raw food diet is in the area of nutritional deficiencies. I am yet to meet someone who follows a 100% raw food diet who is glowing with health. Rather, many have sallow complexions, look undernourished to the point of  being emaciated and could be harbouring a number of dietary deficiencies that go unreported for many years in the belief (in almost a cult like manner) that raw is the best. The most committed raw foodists avoid dairy foods and if milk is consumed, it has to be unpasteurised, if eggs are consumed it must be raw. They avoid meat in any form and avoid cooked carbohydrates  such as pasta amongst other foods that leave them at high risk of nutritional deficiencies. For instance, eggs are a good source of biotin, a nutrient which contributes to healthy hair, skin and bones (amongst other benefits), however, raw eggs contain a protein called avidin, which binds and inactivates biotin. Cooking denatures avidin which renders it incapable of binding to the nutrient biotin therefore cooked eggs are in fact a good source of bioavailable biotin.  Additionally, unpasteurised milk can present significant risk because milk is contaminated with bacteria (from the cows, farmers, farm equipment etc...) and it makes a great growth medium therefore consuming unpasteurised milk (depending how fresh it is) can be like ingesting a dose of potential pathogens and it is incumbent upon the immune system and stomach acid to protect the body from this kind of invasion. There is a very good reason why pasteurisation really took off in the manner that it did!

To juice or not to juice?
Juicing also falls into the same category although less so in controversy as raw food. However, the process of juicing is still very much about preserving the nutrients in their raw form and liquidising food in a manner that is more palatable than if consumed in its whole form. It also adds much needed flavour (such as a sweetening effect) to certain foods especially vegetables that do not normally possess natural sweetness. Juicing is less controversial as it has a wider appeal and is not the staple diet of most people who consume it. However, from a nutritional point of view, the same argument exists as with raw food in that many of the nutrients in these ingredients, also pulped and juiced, may have nutrients that are still locked into their cells through the impermeable cell wall. Equally, juicing removed much of the important insoluble fibre content in skins of fruits and vegetables which are a valuable source of fibre and oligosaccharides (food source for our own gut flora).

Perhaps the debate should focus more about the quality of our food rather than whether a raw food diet is good for you or not. As humans, have a long history of being hunter-gatherers, a diets of seeds, berries, nuts, fruits and leaves should not be an alien concept. However, over time, we have learnt to make fire - and with that, cooking , particularly meat (of which we have a longer history than in growing, cultivating and eating crops such as potatoes). Again, I am of the view that a balance to these things is always the best approach. Therefore a certain % of one's diet should be raw; it's not entirely healthy to consume cooked foods all the time. Therefore a combination of raw and cooked is the way to go with this with a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, perhaps a juice drink once a day and a cooked meal in the evening being the best balance. This will ensure that there is nutritional balance, a certain bioavailability of important nutrients and optimisation of health due to an avoidance of toxins and pathogens from uncooked sources. Ultimately of course, individual constitutions will dictate progress and popularity of raw food as well as personalising one's dietary regimen which suits health needs, address illness, eliminate food intolerances and allergies as well as optimising health and well-being. Who can argue with that?

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