Monday 14 November 2016

Can a garlic soup conquer colds and flu?

I was fascinated to see a post on Facebook relaying a claim that a soup made with 52 cloves of garlic can 'defeat colds, flu and even norovirus.' Leaving aside the possibility that this is because anyone consuming that much garlic will never get close enough to anyone else to catch anything, it seemed a claim that was worth putting under the Science for Life spotlight.

The claim is from a two-year-old article on a website called Complete Health and Happiness, which as a source, I admit, did rather get my dubiousness sensors tingling. However, I decided to take it at face value and see what the claim was based on.

The website gives as its source a 'recent and significant finding from Washington State University' and helpfully provides a link - but this takes the reader to another so-so looking site called PreventDisease. However, this at least appears to have a link to the research - but it turns out the link just goes to the home page of the respectable Journal of Microbial Chemotherapy. While I struggled to find the precise article, a search on Washington and garlic did throw up a number of papers such as this one which reports the impact of an active chemical from garlic on Scedosporium prolificans in vitro. Most of the work on garlic seems to be in vitro - effectively in a test tube - which makes it impossible to draw any conclusions from it for consuming garlic soup. Lots of substances destroy disease-causing microbes in a test tube (washing up liquid, for example), but that doesn't mean that they will help if you swallow them.

Other papers did cover experiments with mice and humans, though as yet these were very limited and not providing sufficient information to be practical. However, what all the papers have in common is that (like the antibiotics the original website refers to) they are dealing with bacteria. There is nothing whatever in them about viruses. And so, I'm afraid, that there is no evidence that this soup will defeat colds, flu and even norovirus.

Don't get me wrong - garlic is good for you and almost all of us could do to have more vegetables in our diet. But don't think that eating a soup will protect you from infection.

Thursday 22 September 2016

Sugary science

Sucrose - image from Wikipedia
It is well known that the cigarette companies were aware of the dangers of smoking long before the general public, yet spent large amounts of money on attempting to counter the science. Similarly, many of the oil companies have actively sponsored attacks on global warming. Now it appears there is a new bad guy on the block - the sugar industry.

It is only in the last few years that we have displaced some of our concern about fat in the diet to take on sugar as a dangerous substance to over-consume. And it's easy to assume that this awareness also took the sugar industry by surprise. But research undertaken by the University of California, San Francisco suggests that the US sugar giants were aware of the risks of sugar consumption as far back as the 1950s.

To make matters even worse, the paper tells us
Together with other recent analyses of sugar industry documents, our findings suggest the industry sponsored a research program in the 1960s and 1970s that successfully cast doubt about the hazards of sucrose while promoting fat as the dietary culprit in [coronary heart disease].
This is astounding if true. Not only was the risk from sugar played down, but it appears that the sugar industry used a distraction technique by overplaying the role of fat.

There's the possibility here of tobacco-style mass law suits. But what interests me more is whether or not US big business (Europeans do it as well, but not on the same scale) is still playing this kind of bait and switch game with our health. We know that the oil companies are still trying to play down climate change - but what about the food industry? Or pharmaceuticals?

I'm no enthusiast for conspiracy theories, but this kind of behaviour defies belief. Don't these people have children?

Sunday 5 June 2016

Is Manuka Honey great for the immune system?

We are constantly being bombarded with the latest celebrity fad, so I'm grateful to an email from Chelsea asking if Manuka honey is great for the immune system.

The quick answer - no.

This is a honey produced by bees exposed to pollen from the Manuka tree, mostly in New Zealand and Australia. It sold at incredibly high prices for honey - as much as £50 or more for a small jar.

Unfortunately, this is a classic case of assuming something that has a topical benefit - if you use it externally - will have a benefit if consumed. And as is usually the case, there is no link.

Honey in general has a mild anti-bacterial action (as do many substances - washing up liquid, for instance) - and there is reasonable evidence that Manuka honey is amongst the best at this. So applied appropriately to a wound (and I'm not recommending just slapping honey on), it can in principle have a positive effect (though there are many other, cheaper and more effective anti-bacterial agents).

When you eat it, though, it has no impact on your immune system. As discussed in Science for Life:
Your immune system is not a single part of your body but rather a vast network comprising physical barriers like your skin, white blood cells, various different organs and a whole range of complex chemicals with literally thousands of different roles. ‘Boosting’ it by simply eating something is a bit like hoping to redecorate your house by throwing a capsule of paint at the wall.
And in this case there is no evidence that the honey will be anything more than an incredibly expensive sweetener, adding unnecessary sugar to your diet. See the Cochrane report for details on use of honey in treating wounds.

Has it been proved that mobile phones (cellphones) cause cancer?

There has been a certain amount of panic in the news about data from a US National Toxicology Program study where rats were exposed to cellphone radiation and it has been claimed there was evidence of cancer being caused.

The quick answer is no, it hasn't been proved. There is no good evidence to say that mobile phones aren't safe. Keep using them!

There are far more studies suggesting no link at all - so immediately we have to take any findings with a pinch of salt. As is made clear in Science for Life, a single study is never enough to provide useful guidance as any study can be flawed, and it's important to take in the bigger picture. But also the actual findings of this study aren't as negative as the headlines suggest.

First, the study involved exposing rats (with much less brain shielding than humans) to 9 hours of phone radiation a day for the whole of their lives. That's a lot. No females developed any problems, but 3 per cent of the males developed brain cancer. However, experts have pointed out that the number of cancers was small enough to be a statistical occurrence. What's more, most rats were exposed to higher intensity radio waves than are allowed from a mobile phone - and stranger still, the rats that were exposed to the radio transmissions lived longer than a control group that wasn't exposed.

All this strongly indicates that there is nothing negative to be learned from this trial. See the NIH for details.

Thursday 24 March 2016

Acupuncture update

Science for Life has over two pages on acupuncture, concluding that it is primarily a placebo-based treatment with no other benefit, but with some evidence that it was effective in the treatment of lower back pain, a view that was, at the time, supported by a Cochrane review and the UK's NICE body, which authorises medical treatments.

However, the evidence has now been through a more thorough analysis, and NICE has changed its guidance to say that acupuncture should not be offered for that remaining area, lower back pain. It seems that the original NICE guidance was subject to a number of flaws and influenced by those with a reason to want acupuncture to be recognised by the NHS.

The weight of evidence now appears to be clear that the benefits of acupuncture, like many other alternative treatments, are solely those to be gained from the placebo effect. See this post by David Colquhoun for details of the problems with the earlier assessment and the new ruling.

Wednesday 2 March 2016

What is A2 milk?

In Science for Life, there's a chance to see the pros and cons of milk in terms of fat, sugar and calcium content. But some years ago there was a case made that a substance in milk called A1 beta casein could be a risk factor for diabetes and coronary heart disease. What made this interesting was that there was a variant of the protein, imaginatively called A2 beta casein, that didn't have the negative risk - and it was possible to produce milk that only had this variant of the protein, called 'A2 milk', which would be healthier for consumers.

Unfortunately, a detailed review by leading science journal Nature found that the diabetes study could not be duplicated with larger, better experiments, while the heart disease study was 'small, short, in an unsuitable animal model and had other design weaknesses' - which is pretty damning even before it fails to be backed up with better experiments. As is often the case with this kind of finding, all too often irresponsibly splashed across the newspapers, the original studies were too small, used bad statistics and simply don't tell us anything useful.

The Nature review calls the A1/A2 hypothesis 'ingenious' - and if it had been backed up it would have resulted in a major transformation of the milk industry. Unfortunately, however, the idea had no credible evidence to support it. Single, small trials are just not enough to do anything more than point out a direction for more in-depth work. In this case, the in-depth work - the stuff we need to listen to - showed that the A2 phenomenon to be unsupported.

Thanks to Professor Etienne van der Poel for bringing this to my attention.