Misconceptions About Food Nutrients, Toxic Plant Compounds, and Nutrition Information Versus Alternative Medicine

Posted on 06 Jul 2011 03:20

In my post Homeopathy Is Not a Drug and Other Babbles I had quite a rant, albeit a very informative one, about some idiotic things a NaturalHealth.com article said about homeopathy and about homeopathy quackery in general. If you read that you will be more in flow with what is to follow. Cuz I'm not done!

Much of that post concerned chemicals. The food faddist or the homeopathic zealot, when he hears the word chemical, cries "POISON!" Yet, chemicals are what our food is made of and the term toxic chemical, taken by itself, is meaningless.

In my response to a reader of Jamie Hale's article Organic Food: The Real Story I had quite a lot to say about the idea of toxins and probably, as usual, too much to say. But I wanted to make myself perfectly clear. The reader tried to draw some vague distinction between "natural toxins" and "toxins developed in the last 100 years":

"There is one very important point that must be considered when speaking of ANY toxins, whether natural toxins we can expect to find in organic foods or "synthetic" toxins.

But before I bring up that point I'd like to talk about the word toxin itself. It's always a good idea to define our terms. Colloquially, we use the word toxin to describe any bad chemical that gets into your body and interacts with the body's cells in a negative way, causing damage. A poison could be thought of as a very bad toxin that does a great deal of damage very quickly or kills you outright very quickly. So lets assume by the word toxin we mean chemicals that cause slow damage.

Most people are probably not aware that in biology a toxin is a bit more specific. That is, they are damaging chemicals or poisons that are produced IN NATURE BY BIOLOGICAL MEANS.

In reality, a poison is a substance that has the potential to cause harm to the body. This does not mean that it will cause harm at any dose. The same goes for a toxin. Bee venom is a toxin and yet it would take a whole lot of stings to cause death by the action of the venom alone.

Even in the case of insecticides like DDT, which the article mentioned, we are still talking about organic chemicals. DDT for instance, is an organochloride. So even though we talk about these things being synthesized or isolated they are still produced via chemical reactions involving organic compounds that…happen in nature. We just ramp it up and produce chemicals in large quantities that only happen very rarely "by themselves". There are many examples of these types of toxins.

The biological toxins that plants produce to defend themselves or for whatever reason and the organic pollutants that we "produce" and then introduce into the environment artificially…they are all NATURAL."

So, what is an example of a natural chemical found in plants that we are all familiar with? Salicylic acid is a very good example. A chemical called salicin is found in abundance in the willow tree. This chemical is used to make salycylic acid, which we all know as aspirin. 1 It is an analgesic, good for pain. It is good to fight inflammation, as a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID). It can reduce fevers, as an antipyretic. It is a prophylactic measure against heart attack and stroke for those at risk. It is the active ingredient in many anti-acne skin-care products and an antiseptic in some toothpastes. It's a pretty useful chemical. When I was growing up, baby aspirin was a pretty regular thing for aches, pains, and headaches. That was before we were aware of how toxic aspirin is to children.

In children, aspirin is associated with Reye's syndrome. It is a condition of acute encephalopathy and fatty change in the viscera. Although the syndrome has been recognized since 1963, it took a while for it to be associated with aspirin. In 1980, 556 children with Reye's syndrome were reported. Since 1987, when aspirin was identified as a culprit, very few cases have been identified. 2

If you take enough salicylic acid, it will be toxic to you as well. As I painstakingly pointed out in the first post linked here, it is all about the dose. As I also pointed out, anything, if you were able to consume enough of it, could become a poison. This was recognized as long as 500 years ago by a guy by the unwieldy name of Theophrastus Phillipus Auroleus Bombastus von Hohenheim, aka Paracelsus, who said: "Alle Dinge sind Gift und nichts ist ohne Gift; allein die Dosis macht, dass ein Ding kein Gift ist." Yes, we have Latin in this blog1 That means, basically, that everything is a poison and nothing is a poison and only the dose makes a thing a poison or a remedy. Or, like I said earlier, the word toxin, taken by itself, is meaningless. Today, we usually sum that quote up as "The dose makes the poison." Although it is not an infallible maxim, it is generally accurate. Tell that to homeopathic zealot, a "natural food" snake oil artist, or other assorted crank and he may want to kill you for it, just as Paracelsus's enemies were rumored to have done to him! In case you never heard of him, well, there's a bust of him in Hogwart's Castle and I am pretty sure you can get him in a package of chocolate frogs.3


Enlarged and Fatty Liver from
child who died of Reye's Syndrome.

Salicylic acid is found in varying quantities in all fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices. It plays an important role in how plants protect themselves from pathogenic infection. 4 According to Hayat, et al., it is a phenolic derivative plant hormone that is distributed in a wide variety of plant species. It is involved in plant growth, thermogenesis, flower induction, uptake of ions, ethylene biosynthesis2, stomatal movement, reversal of ABA effect on leaf abscission, enhancement of chlorophyll and carotenoid pigments, photosynthetic rate, and more. 6

Plants make salicylic acid, in particular after exposure to a pathogen, and use it as a key regulator of SAR and expression of defense genes. In fact, as early as the 1930's a phenomenon called systemic acquired resistance (SAR) has been known whereby spraying salicylic acid on plant crops "snaps them to attention and puts their defenses on high-alert against future attacks." 7 Clearly this chemical is a bit important to plants, as are a great many other chemicals that plants produce. Lots of these chemicals could be harmful in large enough doses. And many of them could be helpful at the right dose as well.

So we understand that the plant foods we eat contain chemicals that could be toxic. But rarely does a plant food contain enough of any one chemical to be toxic. The plants that do contain such large amounts…we do not eat. For instance, we do not eat willow, we use it as a medicine. Willow then is a "herbal" rather than a food plant. Even though it contains some of the same nutrients as the plants we do eat (which may also be called herbs sometimes but let's avoid that semantic quagmire). Certain plant nutrients, therefore, when functioning in large doses as a drug can be considered pharmacologic agents. Single plants that we eat rarely, if at all, contain a large enough dose of such pharmacologic agents to have an impact on disease treatment or even prevention that falls beyond the physiologic functions of the specific nutrients.

Salicylic acid (SA) has no important nutritional role for humans. In fact, it interferes with the transport and excretion of certain nutrients, such as folate, thiamin, vitamins C and K. 8 Obviously it has a other effects. As became apparent in the earlier post, there is an interesting dose-dependent paradox involved. One medicinal use of the chemical is as an antipyretic (fever reducer). At low doses it is an effective agent for this. As I stated earlier it is highly toxic at large enough doses. In fact, one of it's effects at high doses is the opposite of it's fever reducing effect at low doses. It raises body temperature to dangerous levels, called hyperpyrexia.

There is evidence that suggests that consumption of fruit and vegetables has a protective role in the development of chronic degenerative diseases such as cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cancer. We know that aspirin therapy, with SA being the major metabolite, is used as a prophylactic in those at risk for heart attack and stroke. There is some evidence that chronic low-dose aspirin therapy may be a helpful preventative against cholorectal cancer, as well. Is it reasonable to ask, therefore, whether the SA in fruits and vegetables plays a role in the protective nature of these foods? Could it be that chronic consumption of these foods means that we take in very low does of SA but enough to raise circulating levels to the point where it contributes to this protection, similar to how aspirin therapy does? Yes. This is a reasonable question that has in fact been asked. 4

However, it is important to know the difference between what science asks and what we should take as food being medicine. If you've wondered what the point of this expansive essay on SA is, you've now encountered it. See, while there are many nutritional reasons to eat lots of fruit and vegetables, a reasonable one is not so you can get your salicylic acid! If SA plays a part in the protective nature of FV consumption, no scientist would tell you to abandon the aspirin therapy that your doctor prescribed for you. FV consumption would simply be seen as a potentially helpful adjunct to that therapy. And of course there are a great many other interesting chemicals that may be important such as ellagic acid and other phenolic phytochemicals. Right now there are still as many questions as answer about these compounds. There is some evidence of endogenous synthesis of salicylic acid in human beings from benzoic acid, for instance, but it is still unclear as to what role it plays in the body.9

Certainly it is true that some nutrients, even vitamins, can have physiologic effects beyond their functional role in the body. High dose niacin (nicotinic acid), for instance is used as a cholesterol lowering agent. Using niacin this way is no longer using it for nutrition. We do not "use" or "take" nutrients, after all. Using niacin this way is using it as a drug. The doses go well beyond the amount of the vitamin needed for biological functions. The amounts used for cholesterol lowering, in fact, must far exceed the requirements of nutrition and the recommended daily amounts. This comes with clear-cut dangers and such therapy must be monitored. Yet, I can assure you that you will find many "nutrition experts" to tell you that some supplementary Niacin in your diet is "all you need to lower your cholesterol." We must be aware that a nutrient to be used as a pharmocologic agent is no longer being used as a mere dietary supplement!5

Conduct a search such as "salicylic acid in human nutrition" and you will doubtless get many "nutrition" articles telling you about all the SA in fruits and vegetables and hinting that this will have some effect on your health that makes it worth your while to eat those fruits and vegetables. A "medicinal" affect will be implied. Here we get to the gist. There is a difference between information about nutrition and information about alternative medicine, or mainstream medicine. If a certain food chemical featured in a "nutrition" article is not an actual nutrient, then you are not looking at a nutrition article. Most likely, unless you are reading a good scientific journal, you are looking at an alternative medicine article.

The problem is that, at present, most nutrition information is, in fact, actually alternative medicine information. Chemicals like SA are the fodder for these articles. This is dangerous and irresponsible, to say the least. A person who replaced his aspirin therapy with large amounts of fruit and vegetables because some silly article suggested to him that it's the same difference could be putting themselves at grave risk. The act of trying to cure disease by a careful manipulation of the foods we eat is NOT nutrition. It is fallacy, at best, and as Shwartz and Swhartz point out in "An apple a day: the myths, misconceptions, and truths about the foods we eat," we must view it with skepticism.

On the cover of that book is the picture of an apple that is labeled with some of the apples constituents. Among these are vitamin C, water, sugar, polyphenols, acetone, and formaldehyde. The book goes on to explain that one apple contains over 300 different compounds. Are we getting the idea here?


Clearly, trying to cure a disease by close manipulation of thousands of compounds, of which even the lowly apple has 300, is a bit silly. Yet a healthy diet can certainly play a role in preventing disease. However, we must go on what we know and consider the net diet, not individual compounds whose properties are just now beginning to be unraveled. Most of the quack nutrition articles I have been mentioning tend to focus on one or two "superfoods" which are miracles of prevention by virtue of one antioxidant or another. Most of these articles tend to ignore the fact that a hundred other fruits or vegetables rather than the one they focused on could have contained much higher levels of anti-oxidants. As I've pointed out in the past, picking the best food is not such a clear cut proposition.

1. Keville, Kathi, and Jeffrey Laign. Complete Book of Herbs: Using Herbs to Enrich Your Garden, Home and Health. Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1997. Print.
2. Sherlock, Sheila, and James Dooley. "Chp. 26: The Liver in Infancy and Childhood." Diseases of the Liver and Biliary System. Malden, MA: Blackwell Science, 2002. 465. Print.
3. Shibamoto, Takayuki, and Leonard F. Bjeldanes. "Chp. 1: Principles of Toxicology." Introduction to Food Toxicology. Amsterdam: Academic/Elsevier, 2009. 3. Print
4. Spadafranca, A., S. Bertoli, G. Fiorillo, G. Testolin, and A. Battezzati. "Circulating Salicylic Acid Is Related to Fruit and Vegetable Consumption in Healthy Subjects." British Journal of Nutrition 98.04 (2007).
5. Shils, Maurice E. "Chp. 1: Defining the Essentiality of Nutrients." Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1999. Print.
6. Hayat, S. Salicylic Acid a Plant Hormone. Dordrecht: Springer, 2007. Print.
7. "Helping Plants Defend Themselves." ARS : Home. Web. 05 July 2011. <http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/ar/archive/dec03/plant1203.htm>.
8. Dashman, Theodore, Deborah E. Blocker, and Nora Baker. Laboratory Manual for Human Nutrition. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic, 1996. Print.
9. Paterson, John R., Gwendoline Baxter, Jacob S. Dreyer, John M. Halket, Robert Flynn, and James R. Lawrence. "Salicylic Acid Sans Aspirin in Animals and Man: Persistence in Fasting and Biosynthesis from Benzoic Acid." Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 56.24 (2008): 11648-1652.

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This page created 06 Jul 2011 03:20
Last updated 18 Jul 2016 18:38

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