Sunday, August 16, 2009

Natural Chemicals

My training is in chemistry. Because of that, I tend to see the world as an array of chemicals, from the the cotton in my clothes to the gasoline in my car. But a comment on last week's post reminded me that in recent decades we have been trained to see chemicals in two different classifications--natural and man-made. We have been taught that natural things are by definition good and man-made things may very well be bad and could hurt us in the long run. For those of us who are interested in healthy eating, the distinctions have particular significance. In the world of low-carbing, are natural foods the safest foods? Not necessarily.

One of the natural foods we have been discussing lately is fructose. It's found in high-fructose corn syrup, of course, but it is also found in fruits and honey. Regardless of where it's found, fructose is fructose. The molecule stays the same. And the molecule fructose, when eaten in large quantities, is able to produce a fatty liver, protein glycation, and even gout.

Another natural food is potatoes. Potatoes are not recommended on low-carb diets, but some of us can't keep away from the french fries and chips. Potatoes are in the nightshade family of vegetables and contain the glycoalkaloids solanine and chaconine. These chemicals are acetyl cholinesterase inhibitors and are used to protect the potato from attack by fungus and insects. Unfortunately, they also have a negative effect on some people. They can produce joint pain and symptoms of digestive inflammation, and even mental confusion in a few cases. Cooking destroys some but not all of the glycoalkaloids in potatoes.

Whole wheat is beloved of those who promote a natural lifestyle. Wheat contains proteins called lectins, which act as a primitive immune system for a plant. When wheat is eaten by bacteria, insects, rodents or humans, the ingested lectins are able to bind to cell walls and membranes and cause the clumping of cells, as well as inappropriate cell division and hormone reactions. These effects can cause inflammation and damage to the lining of the small intestine, as well as possible autoimmune reactions if the lectins are absorbed into the circulation. Cooking or baking is able to break down some lectins but not all of them. It is interesting to note that early agriculturalists knew how to decrease lectin content by sprouting and fermenting the wheat they harvested.

Corn oil is another all-natural product that is used both in cooking and in the manufacture of margarine. Corn oil is high in total polyunsaturated fatty acids as well as omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids. A recent study in Sweden has shown an association between omega-6 fatty acid intake and breast cancer. A 2006 study showed that the addition of omega-6 fatty acids to prostate tumor cells doubled their growth rate in culture. Another study showed a similar result in a strain of mice that was bred to be susceptible to prostate cancer.

What does all of this mean? Is anything safe to eat? Probably not, but there are obvious risks to fasting indefinitely.

What these examples imply is that a description of "natural" is not a guarantee of safety. Not only that, it wouldn't matter if the foods described above were grown in an organic way on local farms or in the conventional way on huge industrial farms. The natural chemicals (fructose, glycoalkaloids, lectins, omega-6 fatty acids) would be there whether or not organic farming methods were followed.

Fortunately for us, experience has shown that humans are well able to tolerate small amounts of toxic substances. However, for those who are interested in following a maximally healthy lifestyle, each food needs to be considered on its own. Animals defend themselves with horns and hooves. Plants defend themselves with chemicals. Some of these chemicals are beneficial, but some are not, and it pays to be aware of the differences.


Amber said...

Morning! Another great post!

I remember reading once that some food ad additives were counted as natural if extracted and purified. But if that same food additive was manufactured it could not be called natural. The problem was the extracted/natural one had impurities (that the manufactured one did not) and this particular one had something nasty in like cyanide or something on those lines. So, now they know that you get a banana taste from a single chemical is it better to extract that or make it? The natural one is also more expensive, even though its all the same thing.

After all these centuries of people storing meats via salting you would think they are safe? Now the World Cancer Research fund is trying to get kids to stop eating them! I wonder if something new has been added to these products in the last few years or its something else???

Stargazey said...

Thanks, Amber! It seems that practically every food has something dangerous about it. From the picture in that article, the experts think it's okay to eat giant pieces of fruit, whole wheat bread, and foods packaged in plastic. It would be nice if somebody gave us an idea of the relative risks involved in eating various food items rather than just pronouncing some "good" and others "bad" according to the latest fads going around in the governmental agencies.

Stargazey said...

By the way, I should mention that this post is in no way a slam at Chris, who was the commenter in the previous post! He just set me thinking about some things that have been floating around in my brain for quite some time. He is an excellent blogger and his site is well worth putting on your favorites or bookmarks list.

Anonymous said...

i wish you had those emailing thingys set up so i could email this to my account. lots of people i know need to read this!

Anonymous said...

I am sending thi comment to the blog author,

I just came across you blog over the weekend. Unfortunally I just found out I have type2 diabetes, or pre-diabetes.

your blog is so far the best I have seen on the web. With so much information.

I started reading you original welcome post and slowly moving from there and reading all the comments as well.

one question I have, There are some basic understanding I dont understand with my glucose numbers. Is there a site or something that I can give my numbers and that person or site can help me plan my diet accordingally.

so far, for last 9 weeks i eat about 15-20 carbs a day, only protein. I am not losing much weight and sugar is still too high.

thanks again your site is really great and very very imformative, also you have a great way of writing your info easy to read and easy to understand.

thanks for spending all that time for all uf us!!

Anne H said...

Another great post - interesting subject matter!

water said...

You may find the Bernstein Diabetes Forum helpful. Folks there generally eat 6-12-12, ie ^ grams of carb for breakfast, 12 for lunch and 12 for dinner.

Stargazey said...

Rachel421--The e-mail thingy is now there. I set this blog up a year ago and must not have realized what it was for. Thanks for the reminder!

Stargazey said...

Alwaysdieting, Water beat me to it. Dr. Bernstein is probably the best low-carb diabetes specialist out there. Water gave the link to his website. Look around there and you will find lots to keep you busy. Dr. Bernstein is a type 1 diabetic with a fascinating story to tell. He's very down-to-earth and he's very interested in helping people with diabetes.

You can also check his book out at the library, Dr. Bernstein's Diabetes Solution. If you like it, go ahead and buy it. It is filled with valuable information.

Amber said...

Alwaysdieting: you say 'so far, for last 9 weeks i eat about 15-20 carbs a day, only protein. I am not losing much weight and sugar is still too high.' Does that mean your eating only carbs and protein?? Have you tried fitday or something like that to get a good set of stats for what your eating? The Dr B stuff is good. On some of the low carb forums there are type II forums. Sometimes its worth chatting to people who have been there.

Stargazey: On the BBC's radio 4 service ( they have a show called more or less. You should check it out! Its about the maths behind the stats. They love pulling apart dodgy stats like I am sure the ham survey will have.

Maybe if ham/processed meat didn't have nitrates in they would be ok? Maybe they were eating a white bread ham sandwich? Maybe the ok people had a ham salad? We have salted meat for hundreds of years surely? Most people would have had to live off salted meats, fish and veg (not mentioned?) during the Winter previously. So surely its something we have done recently, like how bread now is quick risen making it poorer quality. I cannot see why a staple of food for hundreds of years is now suddenly going to start cutting down swaths of society with cancer.

Stargazey said...

so far, for last 9 weeks i eat about 15-20 carbs a day, only protein.

I'm not sure what you mean by that, Alwaysdieting. Low-carbing means low carbohydrates, moderate protein, and about 60-70% of our calories coming from fat. The nutrition experts have trained us to become fat-phobic, but as you get used to the idea of low-carbing, you'll recognize that saturated and monounsaturated fats are your friends. In Westernized countries, most people use carbohydrates for the energy to run their bodies. While that works, it comes with insulin spikes that eventually take a heavy toll on their health. Low-carbers use healthy fats to provide the calories they need for basal metabolism plus the activities of daily life. Healthy fats provide the energy needed to run our bodies throughout the day, and they are able to do it without any insulin spikes at all.

Doing low-carb is a little more complicated than just eating low-carb foods. Along with Dr. Bernstein's book, you might want to look at Protein Power by Mike and Mary Dan Eades and Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution by Robert Atkins. These people are all M.D.'s and they provide practical explanations for how to make low-carbing work in everyday life.

Stargazey said...

I wonder if something new has been added to these products in the last few years or its something else???
I cannot see why a staple of food for hundreds of years is now suddenly going to start cutting down swaths of society with cancer.

I agree, Amber. This sounds a little suspicious.

The World Cancer Research Fund said, "In the UK, scientists estimate about 3,700 bowel cancer cases could be prevented if everyone ate less than 70g of processed meat a week..."

I'm just guessing, but it looks like someone did a population study and found a correlation between incidence of bowel cancer and intake of processed meats. There may be a causal relationship involved, or it may mean that people who eat processed meats do (or don't do) something else that tends to promote bowel cancer.

Another thing to consider is that we're looking at incidence of bowel cancer, not deaths from bowel cancer. Bowel cancer is not rapidly fatal, and people who have it, often live to die of something else. Until the scientists come up with a more convincing cause-and-effect relationship, I'd be tempted to continue to enjoy my bacon. Mmm...bacon.

Stargazey said...


I have deleted your latest comment. It appears that you have taken no notice of the responses made to your initial comment here.

This site is intended to provide insight about the scientific basis for the low-carb lifestyle. It cannot help people monitor their progress with type 2 diabetes or provide counseling. Please ask your physician to direct you to healthcare professionals who can provide these services. We wish you the best.