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Food for thought Jan. 6, 2008
Provided by: Sun Media
Written by: MARILYN LINTON
 
Why an apple a day really does keep the doctor away

Dr. Joe Schwarcz loves wiener schnitzel. The Hungarian breaded veal dish, fried in butter until golden brown, makes his mouth water today just as it did when his aunt made schnitzel for the family more than 40 years ago. The trouble is, between then and now, science has interfered: "My enjoyment is now tainted by nutritional concerns," says Schwarcz, an expert on nutrition and the applications of chemistry to everyday life.

Nutritional concerns (who doesn't have them?) are also the focus of Schwarcz's latest book, An Apple a Day. In it, the director of McGill University's Office for Science and Society addresses some of the myths, misconceptions and truths about the foods we eat.

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From apples to fish to olive oil and milk, Schwarcz examines the results of studies that claim benefit or harm. He investigates artificial sweeteners, food fortification, trans-fats and hormones in meat and weighs the results of small and large, famous and infamous studies -- all the while asking, "where is the evidence?" that backs up something's claim of providing benefit or doing harm.

HORMONES IN MEAT

I was intrigued by his chapter on hormones in meat. It's a topic that has resulted in not only paranoia but also an explosion of natural/organic butcher shops. Schwarcz begins by giving us the backstory of DES, a synthesized compound that mimics estrogen and was used, way back as far as the 1950's, to bulk up poultry and meat. He takes us through the DES ban in 1979 and the 80's investigation of it by top European scientists. Despite the lack of harm found, political pressure resulted in a ban on synthetic growth promoters. People want to believe that hormones in meat cause great harm, yet when it comes to hormones, an ordinary egg contains 45 times more estrogen than a quarter pounder.

There's a great story about how scientists stumbled on the importance of Vitamin D (surely today's most hopeful vitamin.) During the industrial revolution, Brits developed rickets (a softening of bones that made people bow-legged.) In looking for a cure, a British scientist added cod liver oil to the diet given to a pack of dogs who had rickets. The rickets vanished, though it took the scientist awhile to realize it was the Vitamin D in the cod liver oil that made the difference. Today, as a result of Vitamin D fortified milk, rickets have vanished and D is a vitamin superstar.

I made a note of Schwarcz's wonder foods. They include apples (there is evidence that apple's polyphenols protect against cancer and heart disease), pizza (one impressive Italian study showed that heart attack victims who ate lots of pizza were less likely to have a second attack), blueberries (the compound responsible for their colour is a powerful antioxidant), flax (even Hippocrates recommended it for fibre), salmon (rich in Omega-3 fats, it's less likely to be contaminated with mercury than other common fish and it protects against cancer, heart disease strokes, diabetes and maybe even memory loss (Alzheimer's).

GOOD BACTERIA

Jerusalem artichokes (a plant, also called a sunchoke), is a prebiotic that encourages the growth of good bacteria that multiply and crowd out bad bacteria in the colon.

Some facts surprise: For instance, fish oil's greatest benefit probably lies in its ability to prevent irregular heartbeats, not boost good cholesterol.

Apples contain the good (Vitamin C and polyphenols) with the bad (cyanide and formaldehyde.) About 70% of the world lacks an ability to produce lactase, an enzyme that protects the tummy from irritation when drinking milk.) Drinking tomato juice on long flights can protect against dangerous blood clots.

Schwarcz will also irritate those of us who can't accept that certain things are harmless -- like the risk from pesticides (too low to worry about, he says) or plastics used in the microwave (they are as safe as plastic water bottles.)

The fact is, food information is overwhelming and it's possible to support virtually any point of view. Best to formulate your own opinion based on reputable studies, he says. And don't worry so much. Schwarcz still loves wiener schnitzel -- but now he fries it in olive oil instead of butter.

MORE COLUMNS BY MARILYN LINTON

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