All posts by Manasa Kotamraju

Do Probiotics Promote Health?

Should you take a daily probiotic supplement? | MD Anderson Cancer Center

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Probiotics have increased in popularity in the past few years. According to a survey by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, about 4 million US adults (1.6% of the population) used a probiotic or prebiotic supplement in the past 30 days1. From grocery store aisles devoted to probiotics to social media influencers, there are claims for probiotics, including improvement of everything from constipation to obesity to depression. What is the evidence that probiotics promote health?

Probiotics are gut microorganisms that are helpful in digesting food, producing vitamins, and fighting harmful pathogens. Probiotics are found in naturally fermented foods like yogurt, cheese, and kombucha.  The products we are addressing consist of similar bacteria, commercially manufactured and distributed. 

There is experimental evidence that probiotics can alleviate symptoms of Inflammatory Bowel Syndrome (IBS).  People taking a probiotic with the bacteria Bifidobacterium bifidum MIMBb75 experienced less discomfort, bloating, urgency, and digestive disorder compared to those who took a placebo2.

The evidence that probiotic use is helpful for restoring healthy gut flora after a course of antibiotics includes genetic sequencing of stool samples demonstrating increased diversity of gut bacteria and fewer antibiotic-resistant bacteria3.

There is some evidence of a connection between the gut microbiome and the brain. In one study, people with IBS taking the probiotic Bifidobacterium longum NCC3001 had fewer symptoms of depression relative to people taking a placebo4.  They also had reduced brain activity on fMRI in response to negative stimuli. More experimental evidence is needed to confirm these relationships. 

There are case reports of sepsis or fungemia from bacteria5 or yeast6 in probiotics in people with immune system deficiencies. However, the potential for harm is low, and no serious adverse events were reported in clinical trials. The most common side effect for the average healthy person is temporary bloating and constipation, which typically subsides after a few weeks of use7.

Think twice before consuming a probiotic pill. A healthy diet including natural sources of gut flora is probably just as good as any pill or drink. We need more experimental evidence before we can be certain of the relative potential benefits and harms of probiotics, natural or in pill form, for various illnesses.  



Is Organic Food Really Healthier?

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Organic and non-GMO foods make up an increasing proportion of food sales each year. One possible reason for this growth might be the perception that organic food is healthier. But is that really the case?

The term “organic” refers to the way agricultural products are grown. It includes not using synthetic fertilizers to add nutrients to the soil, synthetic pesticides for pest control, genetic engineering to improve disease resistance and increase yield, or antibiotics/growth hormones. Any product that is organic has a USDA label. Organic food is usually more expensive because the physical means of managing pests and weeds without pesticides or fertilizers can be more time-consuming and associated with  a lower yield. 

“Natural” is another term often associated with healthier, safer foods. However, it’s important to know that  “Organic” and “natural” are interchangeable. Natural products don’t have preservatives or artificial flavors, but can still be produced with fertilizers and non-organic means. 

Organic products aren’t more nutritious than non-organic ones. There isn’t concrete research to conclude that organic food consumption leads to health benefits. However, pesticides common in agriculture such as phorate may potentially overstimulate the nervous system causing nausea, dizziness, and confusion. Other classes of pesticides like triazenes may be linked to endocrine-disrupting effects and reproductive toxicity.  However, the health risks of these pesticides from food alone do not exceed the EPA’s level of concern. The effects of exposure to a combination of such pesticides is uncertain and requires more research. 

Given the lack of evidence on the long term effects of eating foods not produced according to organic standards, and the knowledge that organic food can be expensive, it makes sense to weigh the potential benefits. Wash fresh fruits and vegetables under running water to remove dirt, bacteria, and traces of chemicals. You can also peel fruits and vegetables (although this may also remove some nutrients). Buy produce in season if possible because this is more likely to be fresh, with less use of preservative chemicals. In addition, not all produce is created equally; avocados, cantaloupe, pineapple, broccoli, cabbage and corn have low levels of pesticides. In contrast, strawberries, spinach, grapes, apples, tomatoes, peppers and celery have high levels of pesticide residues. 

People consider organic food when they have concerns about the uncertain effects of chemicals and they are willing to spend more. When purchasing produce for yourself and your family, make sure to understand what’s known and unknown so that you can make the best choice for you!

Is Imitation, Plant-Based Meat Healthier Than Animal Meat?

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An increasing number of people in America and around the world are transitioning to plant-based diets, such as vegetarianism or veganism, for ethical, environmental, or health reasons. To make this transition easier, brands like BeyondMeat, Impossible Foods, and MorningStar Farms manufacture foods that mimic the taste and texture of meat, chicken, and fish using plants. These are referred to as imitation plant-based meats. While some people might consider imitation meat a more ethical and environmental option, are they healthier than traditional animal meat? 

The most common ingredients in plant-based imitation meat include soy, tofu, pea protein, coconut oil, seitan, beans, lentils, and potato starch. Imitation meat, poultry, and fish tends to have lower amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol, which are associated with conditions like Type 2 diabetes mellitus and heart disease. For example, a 4 oz patty of ground beef has 12 g of saturated fat and 95 mg of cholesterol whereas a plant-based burger of the same weight has 5 g and 0 mg respectively. Both meat and imitation meat have a comparable amount of protein and calories. Imitation meat also has a higher percentage of daily fiber (15% vs 0% in beef), which supports gut health. 

On the other hand, imitation meat tends to have higher sodium levels, which is associated with high blood pressure. With the variety of imitation meats in the market, there is also variation in the levels of nutrients like zinc and vitamin B12 since they need to be fortified. Because each company fortifies imitation meat differently, the nutritional content can vary. Additionally, plant-based burgers usually contain phytic acid, a natural substance found in plant seeds that impairs the absorption of iron, zinc, and calcium and may promote mineral deficiencies. 

If your motivation for adopting a plant-based diet is health, consider opting for more nutrient-dense and less processed foods such as beans, legumes, grains, nuts, and whole vegetables instead. Jackfruit and tofu are also healthy options. Make sure to take a look at the product Nutrition Facts and see which product aligns with your needs. For example, if you have high blood pressure, you may consider consuming imitation meat in moderation or looking for a product with less sodium. Consult your doctor or nutritionist for personalized dietary recommendations!