The Rainbow Connection

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Karen Wagner, MS, RD

Karen Wagner, MS, RD

I love news stories about "super foods". Even if these stories can sometimes be confusing, I welcome almost any opportunity to talk about healthy foods! Super foods often get their designation in the media because they contain some newly discovered chemical, often called a phytochemical that may be helpful in preventing heart disease, diabetes or cancer. In recent years broccoli, blueberries, pomegranates, red grapes, garlic, walnuts and even chocolate have earned "super food" designation. However, the list of foods that contain phytochemicals is quite extensive and to me, almost anything that comes from a plant can be seen as a "super food". It seems that when scientists look at almost any plant food, from the rather mundane apples, oranges, nuts and beans to exotic spices and berries they find some phytochemical that fights inflammation, or that can help
our immune systems destroy cancer cells. Often they find many phytochemicals and have to pick out just one to study. This process can lead to confusion too, as the phytochemicals associated with certain "super foods" appear as supplements that sometimes claim to have the health benefits hyped up in the news stories, while in reality the research is much less straightforward.

As an example, I recently attended a conference put on by the American Institute for Cancer Research (www.aicr.org), and one of the many fascinating speakers at the conference was Dr Pezzuto, who was one of the authors of an exciting study about a phytochemical called resveratrol. Resevratrol is just one of the phytochemicals in red grapes and red wine that is being studied for its effects on variety of conditions from Alzheimer’s disease to cancer. However, one of his points at this latest talk was that resveratrol was only one of 1628 phytochemicals that have currently been identified in red grapes. One-thousand-six-hundred and twenty eight, just in red grapes! Reseveratrol is exciting, but what about the other 1627 phytochemicals? Does resveratrol work better when combined with some of these other phytochemicals? Do our bodies process the resveratrol
differently when all of these compounds are combined? These were questions that Dr. Pezzuto himself acknowledged that we may never know for sure and one of the reasons that, at the moment, we don’t have enough evidence for recommending resveratrol supplements.

Our current methods of researching phytochemicals have often relied on picking out one compound from hundreds or even thousands that have been found in a particular plant, and then we study that one compound in isolation. We study it in cell cultures, we study it in animals. After years of this we begin to study it in people. However, even before the initial results are published, supplement makers have introduced these products onto shelves, which leaves doctors, nurses, and dietitians in a bit of a quandary. We may be familiar with the studies that have been done in laboratories, but we just don’t know for sure how supplements will interact with medications, or how large doses of isolated phytochemicals will affect people.

At this point, I do not know for sure whether or not I or you or anyone else should take a resveratrol supplement, but I’m happy to tell you to eat plant foods that contain resveratrol. Besides red wine and grapes 70 other plant foods have been identified that contain resveratrol, including many berries, plums, peanuts, and pine nuts. Plus when you eat these foods you increase your consumption of the thousands of other phytochemicals that are in those foods. The best way to take phytochemicals appears to be in their "original packaging", that is fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans and whole grains.

So, even though the media stories about super foods can miss the underlying nuances of research and can cause confusion, I still welcome the opportunity to think and talk about "super foods" and why including these foods in our diet can be helpful. I just embrace a much wider definition of what can constitute a super food. Almost all plants foods, especially ones that are minimally processed such as fresh or frozen fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and nuts have health benefits. In addition to that, these foods are delicious!

For recipes and more ideas for increasing plant foods in your diet, please visit www.aicr.org.

Please note that I am not recommending drinking lots of red wine. Please talk with your doctor or other health care professional about appropriate amounts of alcohol consumption, including red wine.


2 Responses to “The Rainbow Connection”

  • Inna B.

    Thank you, Karen, for sharing your experience and your knowledge with us. it seems like fresh fruits and vegetables are more and more appreciated not only to keep up with healthy living, but fighting serious diseases, including cancer. I can’t wait to see more of your stories about what sort of nutrients (proteins, special minerals, etc.) and their ratio with each other recommended for patients diagnosed with cancer and undergoing treatment, or in between treatments. Thank you again.