Archives for 2011

Alkaline water

Alkaline water

For the past few years I have been getting consistent inquiries about what is figuratively called “alkaline ionized water”, also known as “electrolyzed reduced water” and “structured water”. Distributed under a variety of different brands, this type of water is purported to contain a number of health benefits. The water is made by an electrolysis unit (see patent here), which has a port into which either salt (NaCl) or calcium glycerophosphate can be added. Adding these materials to the unit increases the amount of dissolved ions in the water, and enhances its electrical conductivity. Running a current through the water allows it to be split into an acid and a base, the base being the alkaline water. If nothing is added to the water, the alkaline water will have a greater concentration of minerals naturally found in the water, which could include contaminant metals such as arsenic, copper, iron and lead (and a reason why filtered water is typically used in these units).  Using table salt (NaCl) with purified water creates an alkaline water rich in sodium, which in chemical terms is called sodium hypochlorite, i.e. household bleach. If calcium glycerophosphate is used, the alkaline water will contain calcium. The patent claims that magnesium can also be obtained in the alkaline water, but this is only possible if some kind of magnesium salt is added to the water, or comes from the unit itself (anode/cathode?). These devices typically allow the user to adjust the pH and raise or lower it as desired. These units typically sell for thousands of dollars, despite the fact that they operate on a very simple principle that has been employed in chemistry since the 1800s. Of course companies can price their units for whatever they think the market can bear, but in my estimation there is no way an electrolysis unit should cost several thousand dollars. When I consider the technology and materials involved, the most these units should cost is maybe a few hundred dollars.

Which brings us to the claims. Enthusiastic supporters of alkaline ionized water claim a number of health benefits from the regular consumption of this product. Part of their enthusiasm for the product is surely related however to the fact that this unit bought and sold as part of a multi-level marketing (MLM) scheme. With alkaline ionized water water there is always a sales push, and this makes me immediately suspicious. Nonetheless, supporters enthusiastically reference scientific articles (see here for examples), but after reviewing these articles I wasn’t impressed. At best, this research is very preliminary, involving test tubes and rats, measuring parameters that aren’t all that important or convincing. For a real scientist there is no “wow” factor here. In many cases the science isn’t even from scientific journals, but are “quotations” from supposed “experts” without any way to verify the source or analyze the data. It all becomes a little suspicious.

The reasoning behind drinking alkaline water is the claim that our bodies are too acidic, a claim often promoted by practitioners in my industry, but has no basis in any kind of science. Don’t get me wrong – I have a lot of room for non-scientific sounding claims. For example, I practice Ayurvedic medicine, which is the oldest continuously practiced system of medicine on earth. It uses a system of logic that is entirely different from Western medicine, but yet has a long empirical tradition that can be validated by medical testing. This is entirely different from using scientific terms such as “acid” and “alkaline”, and then not understanding what they mean. For example, the body is neither acid nor alkaline – some tissues are naturally more acidic, such as the stomach, whereas others are more alkaline, such as the oral cavity. The blood is slightly alkaline at a pH of between 7.35 and 7.45, and the body will go to great extremes to maintain this balance. Some diseases such as gout, or ketoacidosis of diabetes, are marked by a decrease in blood pH, but generally the blood maintains its delicate pH through a number of mechanisms involving a complex array of regulatory systems involving the liver, lungs, kidneys, thyroid, muscle, bone, etc. etc. But chief among the ways to NOT alkalize your blood is by drinking alkaline water. Can you imagine the impact on your blood if you could alter its pH simply by eating anything acid or alkaline?  Do people go into acidosis when they drink lemonade or put some vinegar dressing on their salad?  No! Although you might think that by drinking alkaline water you are making your blood more alkaline, in fact all that is happening is that your body secretes enough acid to neutralize the pH of the water. Thus it seems very unlikely that alkaline water can make the blood more “alkaline”.

The last set of claims with regard to alkaline water comes from Ray Kurzweil, in part, from a book he co-wrote called Fantastic Voyage, wherein he claims that alkaline water is necessary for good health. On another website, an interview purportedly with Ray Kurzweil is transcribed, wherein Mr. Kurzweil makes a claim that alkaline water has a high oxidation reduction potential (ORP). This means, according to Kurzweil, that alkaline ionized water has a profound ability to scavenge free-radicals. But there is no evidence that the high negative ORP of alkaline water is maintained once it is absorbed. It’s just a thesis with no evidence to back it up. Mr. Kurzweil also claims that these units produce something called “structured water”, but doesn’t provide much evidence of this or how it impacts your body. In fact, this is an entirely new area of research with still much to be learned. One of the leaders in this field is Dr. Gerald Pollack, professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington. Dr. Pollack indeed has some very revolutionary things to say about water and its structure, and his lecture is worth listening to. But I have seen nothing in Dr. Pollack’s work that validates the specific claims of the pro-alkaline water crowd, and his research is only referred to very tangentially to bolster their arguments.

If there is any benefit to alkaline water, it could be that alkaline water might contain more minerals, i.e. ions, but this depends on the minerals already in or added to the water. Adding minerals often deficient in the Western diet such as magnesium could be helpful, but this could just as easily throw off the delicate mineral balance of the body. I review this issue and the issue of water quality generally in my new book Food As Medicine: The Theory and Practice of Food. If you want to get to the bottom of the issue, and how to guarantee the best source of water for you and your family, please buy a copy of my book. I believe the solution lies in simple, cost-effective measures, not suspect counter-top appliances that cost thousands of dollars.

On the subject of “raw” cacao…

On the subject of “raw” cacao…

One of the subjects folks seem to be interested in these days is raw cacao nibs. They can be found in health food stores often sold for very high prices, the packaging and marketing exuding with confident exclamations that raw cacao nibs are indeed theobroma – the ‘food of the gods’. And it is true: the name Theobroma is a Latin, scientific epithet meant to capture the traditional importance of cacao in Meso-American culture. Cacao was essentially a kind of currency for the Aztecs, Mayans and other Meso-American groups, as well as a sacred beverage and general health tonic. Like tea and coffee, the popularity of chocolate quickly spread throughout the West after the Spanish, Swiss and especially the Dutch got hold of it, mixing it with varying amounts of sugar and condensed milk that forms the more familiar form of chocolate we all know.

One of the key elements of today’s cacao marketing push is this idea that “raw” cacao nibs are supposed to be better for you.  Like many grains and legumes such as wheat and soy, cacao has polyphenols that are sometimes thought to be “good” for us, despite the fact that they are typically reduced when these foods are processed according to traditional methods of preparation including fermentation and roasting.  While it may be that a little bit of these polyphenols are good for us, in upcoming book, Food As Medicine: The Theory and Practice of Food, I describe how these and other antinutrient factors (ANFs) interfere with nutrient absorption by binding with minerals, as well as promote inflammation in the gut.   Fermenting cacao with naturally occurring microorganisms helps to break down these ANFs.

In the traditional processing of cacao, once the beans were fermented they were cleaned and laid out to dry. While many of the microorganisms involved in fermentation are harmless, the beans are often contaminated with fungi such as Aspergillus that produce cancer-causing mycotoxins. What I find fascinating is that traditional Meso-Americans somehow figured this out, and found that by roasting the cacao beans over a slow fire, they could improve the quality of chocolate, not only inhibiting microbial contamination, but by breaking down anti-nutrient factors that could otherwise impair health. Roasting cacao is much like roasting coffee – some like it more roasted, some like less – people will even drink it from a cat’s bum; but they never drink it green, even if it contains polyphenols… it has no flavor.

Which brings us to the current “raw cacao nib” thang that I hear sooo much about. For one thing, I really wonder if these products are actually raw, and just what “raw” is supposed to mean. To me, “raw” means unprocessed. Here, want a raw carrot? Yank it out of the ground and eat it. That’s raw.  You can wash it off and even peel it, and it’s still raw.  But in order to develop the nuanced flavors of chocolate cacao beans must undergo germination, and so they are not raw at all. They have been “cooked” by the sweaty heat of the microbes, and transformed into something else.  A truly “raw” cacao bean is white and plain and not at all inspiring – but fermented cacao beans, well, they’re like a fine cheese or wine, all of which rely on controlling fermentation to get the desired flavor. But remember: during the fermentation process the  beans become covered in a microbial “fuzz” that nobody wants to eat.  Would you want to eat beans covered in Aspergillus flavus spores?  Besides which, the roasting process is just another key step in creating that familiar chocolate flavor, just like green coffee beans taste nothing like roasted beans.  Suffice it to say, “raw” cacao nibs are very likely roasted, and therefore not raw at all.

So are raw cacao nibs really different from other sources of chocolate?  In short – no they are not. Rather, cacao nibs are the starting ingredient in  commercial chocolate manufacturing, before skinning and powdering the roasted bean, then cooking it down into a chocolate liquor that is cooled into unsweetened blocks of dark chocolate.   In other words, “raw” organic cacao nibs are the starting ingredient of your average certified organic chocolate bar at the natural food grocery store.   But when you look at the cost between the chocolate bar and the cacao nibs, the cacao nibs are actually more expensive.

Huh.  It’s like if I made apple juice, I might also sell you apples.  I might even get you to pay premium price for my good apples, because they are really tasty lemme tell you.  But if I started to charge more for my apples than my juice, you might start buying just the juice and not my apples.  You might even think I’m stupid, or maybe I just like to make juice.  You wouldn’t be fooled if I called my apples by another name – you would just laugh at me.   But when it comes to “raw cacao nibs,” it might be that someone is laughing at all of us; laughing maybe, all the way to the bank…

ADDENDUM: Some folks have pointed out that a few companies are claiming that their beans aren’t even roasted, not for any rational reason apart from satisfying the “raw vegan” niche. Instead of roasting, some companies use a commercial dehydrator, and this achieves a similar result to roasting, with regard to flavor. But if indeed this is the method utilized, the temperature is likely too low to sufficiently reduce the microbiological load from wild fermentation – remember, it’s not just a lactic acid ferment, like acidophilus! Personally, I would want to see a microbial assay before I would eat non-roasted cacao beans.

Cut BPA and pthalate levels in half!

Bisphenol-A (BPA) and pthalates are plasticizers commonly used in food packaging, storage and cooking materials.  There is increasing evidence that they act as endocrine disruptants, suspected of playing a role in breast cancer, prostate cancer, obesity, asthma, neurobehavioural issues, infertility, uterine fibroids and endometriosis.  A recent study published by Environmental Health Perspectives found that the body burden of BPA was cut by 60% and pthalates by half when participants in the study exclusively ate a fresh foods diet. Another reason to eschew packaged food and eat at home!