Flim-Flam Friday: Chlorella

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Chlorella

Last week I glimpsed a Facebook ad for “nature’s perfect superfood”, Chlorella, a freshwater green algae that grows naturally in certain parts of Asia.
Every single time I hear the term “superfood”, this happens:

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There are two reasons for that.
1. Sure, certain foods are nutrient-dense, but foods slapped with the prefix “super” usually turn out to be plain old food, neither  more nor less healthful than other foods in the same category. For instance, acai berries were hailed as a superfood and an anti-aging aid due to their high levels of antioxidants, but researchers have pointed out the berries contain about the same amount of antioxidants as other (far less expensive) fruits like blueberries and grapes. (1) Thanks to the trendiness of acai products, rural Brazilians who rely upon the berries as a staple food find their stomachs grumbling. (2)
2. You probably don’t need dietary supplements if you are healthy and have a varied, nutrient-rich diet. Certain foods or supplements might be beneficial when you have a deficiency, but if you don’t have a deficiency, you will get little to no benefit from them. (3)

Superfood

Looks even sillier than it sounds.


What does Chlorella supposedly do?

An incredibly broad range of claims has been made about the health benefits of Chlorella. In addition to being hailed as a nutrient-dense superfood (example), a detoxifying agent, and an energy booster, one Japanese study suggests it can:

– reduce body-fat percentage
– alleviate Type 2 diabetes by reducing blood-glucose levels
– help reduce cholesterol (4)

Many, many scientifically unsupported claims are being made about Chlorella. It can supposedly aid digestion by stimulating the growth of probiotic bacteria, treat ulcers, alleviate depression, increase “liver energy”, prevent or even cure cancer, and “boost immunity” (which would be a bad thing, if your immunity is normal).

Does it work?

As a food source? Yes (see “The Bottom Line” at the end of this post). As a cure-all pill, diet aid, or detoxifying agent? Probably not.
The problem with the bulk of the recent research involving Chlorella is that the results have not yet been replicated. When the Telegraph breathlessly tells you Chlorella can “reduce body-fat percentage”, they’re not telling you that this was found in just one study. (4)

At one time, Dr. Joseph Mercola claimed Chlorella could “fight cancer”. As absolutely zero evidence supports this, and federal law prohibits supplement suppliers from making health-related claims for their products, the FDA ordered Mercola to stop making that claim (and several others) on his website. So then he switched to saying Chlorella could eliminate your risk of getting cancer. The FDA ordered him to stop saying that, as well. Has this prevented Mercola from making extravagant claims about the curative properties of Chlorella? Nope. These days, he declares it can “prevent or ease” everything from stress to liver cancer. (5)

A lot of woo has attached itself to Chlorella over the years. Erich Von Däniken of “ancient astronauts” fame proposed in his 1980 book Signs of the Gods that maybe the Ark of the Covenant was a miniature nuclear reactor and manna machine. According to this theory, the “ark machine” absorbed and stored dew, to which green algae (Chlorella) was added, and poof! Delicious manna came out of the machine. It would have been radioactive as hell, but meh. Logic is for the unimaginative.
Not that Von Däniken was being particularly imaginative; he borrowed the entire “alien manna machine” concept from an April Fool’s article in New Scientist, which later became a book.

moses_speaks

“We have reached the Promised Land!
Sadly, you all have cancer.”

One health blogger says she’s taking Chlorella to “detox heavy metals” that supposedly remain in her body from chemotherapy she received some time ago. This is not a sound decision. First of all, heavy metals can be eliminated from the body only if treatment is administered immediately after exposure. Secondly, nothing in Chlorella has been shown to remove metals from the body. Thirdly, there is only one heavy metal involved with chemo (platinum, found in the chemo drugs Carboplatin and cisplatin). The platinum from both drugs generally remains in cells for up to 180 days. (6) Even if Chlorella could bind heavy metals, it would be incapable of removing them from the tissues and bloodstream without  the aid of chelation. (5)

The Bottom Line

So, Chlorella manna and Chlorella “metal detox” are bunk. But is Chlorella a superfood? In the ’50s and ’60s, scientists thought it could be. After WWII, the Baby Boom led governments around the world to study Chlorella in the hope it could be used to feed the masses cheaply and efficiently in the event of food shortages. NASA studied it with a view to feeding it to astronauts, and perhaps growing it on space stations. But processing Chlorella for consumption turned out to be too costly and time-consuming for either purpose, and it was relegated to the dietary supplement shelves of health food stores. It is an excellent food source. In its dried form, Chlorella is 45% protein, 20% carbohydrate, 20% fat, 5% fibre, and 10% vitamins and minerals. It contains nine essential amino acids. (7)
But according to an article on Chlorella at WebMD, the quality of the Chlorella found in supplements can vary wildly. The Chlorella in some products may contain only 7% protein, for instance.
To become a supplement, Chlorella is dried , crushed to a powder, and converted to small emerald tablets, which are vaguely reminiscent of Soylent Green. If the cell walls remain intact – and there are indications that this is the case with some Chlorella supplements – the Chlorella will be of no benefit to humans.
The recommended daily dosage for one of the most popular brands of Chlorella tablet is 15 tablets per day, at about $34US per 300 tablets. Perhaps this makes sense if you don’t have access to fresh, inexpensive greens like kale, but for the average consumer this is a pretty penny to spend on what are essentially veggie pills. A diet with sufficient carbs, protein, and vitamins will not require Chlorella.


Sources:

1. – Kuskoski EM, Asuero AG, Morales MT, Fett R, et al. “Wild fruits and pulps of frozen fruits: antioxidant activity, polyphenols and anthocyanins”. Cienc Rural 36 (July/August 2006)
– Seeram NP, Aviram M, Zhang Y, et al. “Comparison of antioxidant potency of commonly consumed polyphenol-rich beverages in the United States”. Journal of Agriculutral Food Chemicals 56 (February 2008). (abstract)
2.‘Superfood’ Promoted on Oprah’s Site Robs Amazon Poor of Staple” by Adriana Brasileiro, Bloomberg, May 14/09
3. Brown University’s page on nutrition supplements
4. T Mizoguchi, I Takehara, T Masuzawa. “Nutrigenomic studies of effects of Chlorella on subjects with high-risk factors for lifestyle-related disease“. Journal of Medicinal Food 11:3 (Sept. 2008)
5.Dr. Oz Revisited” by David Gorski, Science Based Medicine blog, Feb. 7/12.
6. Elke EM Brouwers, Alwin DR Huitema, Jos H Beijnen, Jan HM Schellens. “Long-term platinum retention after treatment with cisplatin and oxaliplatin“. Clinical Pharmacology 2008, 8:7.
7. Belasco, Warren. “Algae Burgers for a Hungry World? The Rise and Fall of Chlorella Cuisine”. Technology and Culture 38:3 (July 1997). Available from Jstor.

Flim-Flam Friday: A** Coffee

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I first heard about coffee enemas from “Gus“, a raging conspiranoid who wanted to screen The Beautiful Truth, a documentary about the German quack physician Max Gerson, in my city. You wouldn’t think a film with both “truth” and “beautiful” in the title would involve squirting coffee up your butt, but Gus was adamant that Gerson had found the cure for cancer; the Gerson-Sauerbrach-Hermannsdorfer diet combined with regular coffee enemas.  (1)

Gerson first used ass coffee back in the ’30s, so it’s nothing new. However, today’s health faddists have rediscovered and resurrected hundreds of worthless therapies from yesteryear, and caffeine enemas fall into that group. An episode of the TLC show My Strange Addiction featured a Florida couple who administer ass coffee to themselves with the zeal of religious converts, up to four times a day.

What do coffee enemas supposedly do?

Gerson declared that caffeine enemas purged toxins from the liver by stimulating bile production, alleviating cancer and a host of other diseases.
There is no evidence that coffee increases bile production, and no one has ever explained just what these toxins are. Therefore, it is impossible to verify that ass coffee can remove those theoretical toxins. One might as well say that ass coffee flushes gremlins out of the lower intestine. (1)
Other uses of ass coffee are: treatment for constipation, pain relief, energy boosts, and weight loss.

The obvious question is, why not drink your coffee? Gerson’s reasoning was that one cannot possibly consume his prescribed amount of coffee – one liter – in a single day (amateur), but the most frequently-cited reason for ass coffee is that the body absorbs more caffeine from coffee via the tissues of the colon than through oral ingestion. Also, ass coffee is speedier than drinking and bypasses the unpleasant side effects of indigestion, heartburn and continuous peeing. This is the same logic behind rectal shelving of DMT, the legendary vodka tampons, and other stuff you really shouldn’t try.

What’s the active ingredient?

Caffeine and/or cafestol palmitate. Coffee enema enthusiasts have imbued caffeine with mysterious detoxifying properties that it doesn’t actually have, and today’s proponents of the Gerson method claim that cafestol palmitate promotes the production of glutathione S-transferase. No research supports that claim, mostly because cafestol palmitate is active only in green, unroasted coffee beans.  (2,4)

Does it work?

It depends on how you define “work”. Do coffee enemas deliver caffeine to the bloodstream? Yes, in that sense they are effective (if inefficient, disgusting, and potentially dangerous). So increased energy is one short-term effect of ass coffee.
Does it cure cancer? Hell no. Any treatment for cancer, by necessity, has to kill cells and inhibit cell growth. Coffee does neither.
While ass coffee unquestionably does provide short-term relief of constipation, long-term enema application can actually make your colon lazier, ultimately making constipation worse.  (3)
Caffeine consumption does not promote weight loss. In fact, it can complicate dieting by making you hungrier than usual.
The bowel is actually quite efficient when it comes to cleansing. The intestinal lining sheds old epithelial cells naturally every few days, so hurrying that procedure along with colon cleanses of any sort is completely unnecessary. Colonic irrigation and enemas can even flush out beneficial bacteria that helps detoxify waste.

So what’s the problem?

As harmlessly weird as ass coffee may sound, it actually poses serious health risks. There have even been ass coffee fatalities. Here are a few of the potential hazards:

  • As with any bogus cancer treatment, there is the risk that cancer patients will choose the Gerson method over proven medical treatments.
  • There is such a thing as too much caffeine. A liter of filtered coffee (roughly 6 cups) can contain anywhere from 570 to 1200 mg of caffeine. Health Canada indicates the safest known upper limit for adult caffeine consumption is 400 mg of caffeine per day. The Florida couple who give themselves four coffee enemas a day? They’re ingesting up to 4800 mg of caffeine in a 16-hour period.
  • Any colon cleanse runs the risk of overexpanding the colon, causing it to perforate. This can lead to sepsis and any number of other infections.
  • Rectal burns and scarring (duh)
  • Removal of beneficial flora
  • Tissue inflammation (proctocolitis)  (2)
  • Dehydration, potentially fatal electrolyte imbalance and potassium imbalance (hypokalemia)  (4)

The Bottom Line:

Don’t squirt coffee, or any other beverage for that matter, up your butt.

please_knock_it_off

Sources:

1. National Cancer Institute, Gerson Therapy: General Information
2. Keum, B.; Jeen, Y. T.; Park, S. C.; Seo, Y. S.; Kim, Y. S.; Chun, H. J.; Um, S. H.; Kim, C. D. et al. (2010). “Proctocolitis Caused by Coffee Enemas“. The American Journal of Gastroenterology 105 (1): 229–230
3. American Cancer Society pages on colon therapy and Gerson therapy
4. Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center page on metabolic therapies

Flim-Flam Friday: Cherry Supplements

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cherries

For the past few years, one of the trendiest trends in the alternative-health universe has been dietary supplements made from sour (tart) cherries. They’re particularly popular with athletes and arthritis sufferers.

What does the product supposedly do?

Cherry supplements supposedly work as anti-inflammatories, helping to relieve joint pain and muscle soreness without the side effects of ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and other over-the-counter remedies. Some are marketed as effective treatments for gout. A few companies take it a step farther by claiming their cherry supplements are diet aids or can lower cholesterol. Both claims lack strong evidence. A single rat study ties cherry juice to weight loss (1), and one study found a 26% cholesterol decrease in mice fed cherry powder (2)
One company’s advertisement touts two studies by Winona State University’s Dr. Farnsworth Gary Kastello, which found that two cherry products reduced muscle soreness after exercise…if taken for sixteen days prior to exercising. The problem with these results is that the studies were not double-blind, controlled studies; the participants took only the cherry supplements and were aware that these products were the focus of the study. Furthermore, the results have not appeared in any peer-reviewed publication. Buh-bye, scientific validity.

taking-pills

“Gonna be a rough workout tonight…better hop in the ol’ Tardis and pop a shitload of cherry pills for half a month.”

There are a few studies indicating that runners who drink cherry juice exhibit reduced isometric stress, oxidative stress, inflammation, pain and strength loss, but the number of participants in each study is so incredibly small (14-54) that the results are really not helpful. (3)
The only other evidence of cherry-supplement efficacy is anecdotal. Company websites and Facebook pages overflow with glowing testimonials from customers, like this one: “Since taking your cherry supplements, … I cured myself. I believe prayer, diet, and your cherry supplements have put my body back on a healthy track.”

What’s the active ingredient?

In sour cherries, the anti-inflammatory component is cyanidin, a kind of anthocyanidin.
Many companies also tout the antioxidants in their cherry-based products, though that isn’t necessarily as awesome as we might think it is.

Does it work as advertised?

While it’s true that sour cherries have anti-inflammatory properties (as shown by numerous legit studies conducted in the past 10 years), the big question is: Do cherry supplements offer the same benefits as the fruit? The answer is

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To date, no comparison studies have been conducted. Generally speaking, though, actual food is usually a more efficient source of nutrients than supplements derived from that food (in some cases, the processing of food to create supplements can even compromise or destroy the active ingredient). (4)

Pac-Man

FACTOID: Cherries enable you to see and devour ghosts

The FDA has sent warning letters to numerous producers of cherry products (drinks, tablets, etc.). There’s nothing wrong with any of these products. The problem is in the labeling. Once you begin to claim curative powers for your food products, you’re automatically selling a drug – and the FDA has yet to approve any cherry-based product as a drug. It’s one thing to sell cherry juice, and quite another to say your cherry juice is an effective treatment for arthritis.

cherry cuddler with gooseberry

FACTOID: Snorting a Cherry Cuddler doll cures herpes.

So what’s the problem?

There is simply no reason to accept, at this point, that any of the bottled cherry products are superior to the real thing. There is no scientific evidence that cherry supplements offer the same potential benefits as plain old sour cherries, and the price of a bottle of cherry juice or cherry pills is considerably higher than a bag of fresh sour cherries, even if they’re out of season. Example: One company offers 60 dried tart cherry capsules for $18.95. Fresh tart cherries rarely exceed $1/lb (US), and 20 of these cherries can have the same effect as a tablet of ibuprofen or aspirin. (4)
So if you’re buying into the supplement hype based on testimonials and a handful of dodgy studies, you might just be a

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(cherry-flavoured, of course)

Thanks to Renee @ The Skeptic Project for directing me to most of the info in this post!

Sources:

1. Seymour EM, Lewis, SK, Urcuyo-Llanes, DE, Kirakosyan A, Kaufman PB, Bolling SF. (2009) Regular Tart Cherry Intake Alters Abdominal Adiposity, Adipose Gene Transcription and Inflammation in Obesity-Prone Rats Fed a High Fat Diet. J Med Food 12(5):935-42.
2. Seymour EM, Kondoleon MG, Huang MG, Kirakosyan A, Kaufman PB, Bolling SF. FASEB Journal. 2011.
3. – Howatson G et al. Influence of tart cherry juice on indices of recovery following marathon running. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 12 2010, vol./is. 20/6(843-52), 0905-7188;1600-0838
– Connolly D et al. Efficacy of a tart cherry juice blend in preventing the symptoms of muscle damage. Br J Sports Med 2006; 40: 679-683
4.Basics on Sour Cherries” by Karen Ravn (Los Angeles Times. July 14, 2012)