Moo-sing on milk: A2 Milk Explained

Got Milk?

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How did you start your day this morning? Did you have a bowl of your favourite cereal or weetbix with milk? Apparently, the average person consumes roughly 6,178 litres of milk in their lifetime, about half the volume of an Olympic size swimming pool!

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Being a dairy addict (and a geek), every time I walk into the supermarket to get my milk, I get quite excited at the plethora of options on offer. The selection is truly diabolical, from the basic full cream, light and trim to ‘super’ variants of the latter, not to mention the organic range.

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Recently, there has been a new addition to the dairy aisle of the supermarket, the ‘A2 milk’.

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The companies that produce A2 milk claim that it is “milk as nature intended” and “milk that is better for you”.

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Obviously my inner skeptic perked up! so I did a little digging and I must say, the issue is worth thinking about. Here’s what I found.

The protein perplexity : A bit of background 

(Heads up! Science incoming)

Proteins are essentially the molecules that make up life; all tissues in the body are made up of these complex three-dimensional structural protein molecules. Proteins are in turn made up of strings of smaller molecules called amino acids, which each have unique chemical properties such as size, charge and chemical reactivity, which affect the way proteins interact in the body.

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The amino acids are strung together like beads on a necklace to make proteins. The sequence of these amino acid ‘beads’, is determined by genes encoded in DNA. Genes are essentially codes made up of four chemical molecules called nucleotides which are arranged in different sequences to code for different information (like alphabets arranged differently to make different words).

You can think of genes as the ‘instructions’ to make proteins, if these instructions change, the protein’s amino acid sequence will (in most cases) change also. And this in turn, will affect the structure of the protein and hence it’s function.

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There are various types of proteins. About 95% of cow’s milk is made up of two types of protein: caseins and whey proteins Beta-caseins are the second most-abundant protein in cows’ milk. Based on the sequence of amino acids in the protein, Beta-caseins found in cow’s milk can be further divided into 12 variants.

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Two of these Beta-casein variants are especially relevant for our purposes: A1 and A2. A1 and A2 can be identified, because they both have a different specific amino acid located at position 67 in the peptide (protein) chain. Different cows naturally produce milk with variations in the amino acid at this position in the Beta-casein protein molecule. This occurs due to a naturally occurring variation in the genetic ‘instructions’. In A1 (normal milk-contains a mixture of A1 and A2) the amino acid Histidine at position 67 in the sequence, is substituted by another amino acid called Proline in A2 milk.

The point at issue: What does A2 milk offer?

Whether a particular cow produces A2 or A1 is significant because certain amino acids influence the breakdown of food. When A1 protein (normal milk) is broken down in the body, due to the presence of the Histidine amino acid, a protein fragment called ‘beta-casomorphin-7’ is created.  Beta-casomorphin-7 (BCM7) is thought to lead to a number of human ailments (see below). It has, for example, been linked to Type 1 Diabetes, heart disease, Sudden Infant death Syndrome and Autism.

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While the link between beta-casomorphin-7 and these diseases is still controversial, it has been suggested that people with a susceptibility to certain diseases should avoid milk that lacks the Histidine amino acid in casein (A1 or normal Milk).

In A2 milk the troublesome amino acid Histidine in the protein is replaced by a different amino acid called Proline, and is hence broken down by the body differently with no beta-casomorphin-7 being produced (negating related harmful effects).

Interestingly, human breast-milk and most other species have the A2 variant of Beta-casein!

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A point of contention

Producers of A2 milk claim that this is “milk as nature intended”. This is not entirely accurate, since nature does not intend to do anything. Nature, works with spontaneous changes as raw material. This gives the impression that normal milk is somehow “un-natural”, which is unfair. Bovine milk originally only contained A2 beta casein. The mutation seems to have occurred spontaneously (this happens, more often than you think… such is nature) in European cow breeds (which could explain the increased prevalence of health ailments linked to dairy in Europe compared to Asia). Cows in other parts of the world such as Asia still produce the A2 version of Beta-casein in their milk. The point is both types of milk are found in nature, we are not paying homage to ‘nature’ by consuming A2 milk.

A poisoned chalice? Health Issues with milk (A1)

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  • Epidemiological evidence shows increased rates of Type-1 diabetes and heart disease in countries where A1 milk is consumed in large quantities. Animal studies have been able to show a “cause and effect relationship” with A1 Beta-casein consumption and oxidized LDL cholesterol and a consequent increase in arterial plaques (think heart attacks).
  • In babies, BCM7 has been prime suspect for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). The tight junctions between cells in the intestine are not completely formed until after 12 months of age. Casomorphins (products of casein metabolism) have been found in the brainstems of children who died of SIDS. It may be that some children have genetically determined lower levels of the enzymes that breakdown BCM7 and are more at risk. Children who suffer from apnoea a condition where breathing is arrested for short periods of time) show higher blood levels of BCM7. Interestingly, bovine BCM7 is also found in the blood of infants only on breast-milk, suggesting that BCM7 from mum’s diet may be passed on through breast-milk.
  • Autism is a much contested health issue lately. Studies show that BCM7 can cross the blood brain barrier and may aggravate autistic behaviour (increase symptoms in autistic children, NOT cause Autism). Autistic children often suffer from digestive complaints, and it may be that a ‘leaky gut’ leads to increased absorption of BCM7.
  • Another major issue with dairy is milk intolerance (not to be confused with an allergy, which is an immune response). Milk intolerance is caused by the inability to digest lactose, which is still found in A2 milk. Nonetheless, consumers have reported an increased ability tolerate A2 milk. This could be because of the absence of BCM7 which specifically causes intolerance in some people.  BCM7 also functions to slow down the passage of food in the gut, allowing more time for lactose fermentation, which leads to the production of gas. In A2 milk, the absence of BCM7 leads to decreased lactose fermentation and due to quicker passage in the gut.
  • Milk allergies are caused by the body mounting an immune response specific milk proteins. Allergies associated with BCM7 can cause eczema and asthma. BCM7 also stimulates the production of proteins that make mucus (think snot or chesty cough) sticky. So A2 milk consumption may relieve these symptoms.The composition of normal milk and A2 milk is similar except for the beta-casein molecule, so A2 milk may still not be suitable for those who are allergic to other milk proteins, so it is best to seek medical advice in situations where allergy is an issue.

Who is at risk?

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If you love dairy, there’s no need to panic. This could actually be a good thing. Here’s why…

The health concerns of A1 milk are thought to stem from the intestinal absorption of BCM7. A2 milk may be a better alternative for those more likely to absorb excess BCM7 due to a damaged gut. People who suffer from stomach ulcers, Crohn’s Disease, Coeliacs’s Disease may do well to stick to A2 milk. Additionally, people at risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disorders may also benefit from switching to A2 milk.

Milk mechanics: How is A2 Milk made?

A2 milk is produced from cows that naturally produce milk with the A2 version of beta-casein. These cows naturally have genetic instructions that code for milk casein proteins with a different amino acid at the specified position. According to A2 Corporation (a major A2 milk supplier), sires carrying the desired genetic variation can be identified through a simple DNA test performed on cow tail hairs (no invasive testing). Cows carrying the gene are then bred to create offspring that produce milk with the desired qualities, owing to the right composition of…

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Importantly, there is no genetic engineering involved in the production of A2 milk! (How about that, hippies ;)?). There is no introduction of foreign genes from other species and no tampering with the natural genetic code of the cows. In fact, this method of breeding animals with desired properties has been performed by humans since Neolithic times…only we called it “farming”or “husbandry”.

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There has been some contention about the validity of suggested health benefits pertaining to A2 milk (see references). Although more studies are required to establish a direct cause and effect relationship, current evidence shows that A2 milk does not pose any risk to human health not already associated with A1 milk and may in fact offer many benefits.

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There is a general misconception that advances in genetics cannot be applied to food production without interfering with nature or creating a ‘Franken-food’. Selection for naturally occurring genetic variation is an ancient concept. Only now, we have advanced technologies to enhance the efficiency of this process, especially with a view to upgrading the nutritional value of consumed foods.

Regardless of the controversy surrounding the benefits of A2 milk consumption, this is a classic example of implementing genomic technologies to improve animal breeding refining food production and benefitting human health.

That’s it for today folks! Thanks for reading!

References

Woodford, K. (2009). Devil in the Milk: Illness, Health and the Politics of A1 and A2 Milk. Chelsea Green Publishing.

Ho, S., Woodford, K., Kukuljan, S., & Pal, S. (2014). Comparative effects of A1 versus A2 beta-casein on gastrointestinal measures: a blinded randomised cross-over pilot study. European journal of clinical nutrition, 68(9), 994-1000.

Truswell, A. S. (2005). The A2 milk case: a critical review. European journal of clinical nutrition, 59(5), 623-631.

Woodford, K. B. (2006). A critique of Truswell’s A2 milk review. European journal of clinical nutrition, 60(3), 437-439.

Bell, S. J., Grochoski, G. T., & Clarke, A. J. (2006). Health implications of milk containing β-casein with the A2 genetic variant. Critical reviews in food science and nutrition, 46(1), 93-100.

Allison, A. J., & Clarke, A. J. (2006). Further research for consideration in/the A2 milk case/\’. European journal of clinical nutrition, 60(7), 921-924.

Sodhi, M., Mukesh, M., Kataria, R. S., Mishra, B. P., & Joshii, B. K. (2012). Milk proteins and human health: A1/A2 milk hypothesis. Indian J Endocrinol Metab, 16(5), 856.

http://a2milk.com

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Breaking new ground or led down the garden path?

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Is organic agriculture really a better way to grow?

What is Organic Farming?

Most people associate the word ‘organic’ with something like this.

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The reality is quite different.

The United States Department of Agriculture defines organic farming as the following:

“Organic agriculture produces products using methods that preserve the environment and avoid most synthetic materials, such as pesticides and antibiotics. USDA organic standards describe how farmers grow crops and raise livestock and which materials they may use”.

A little closer to home, in 2005 the International Federation for Organic Agriculture adopted the following definition in Adelaide, Australia.

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Regardless of whose definition you use, the principle behind organic agriculture is a strict approach to farming with a view to maintaining soil fertility and animal welfare while minimizing pollution by using natural methods. This ideology was first developed by Rudolf Steiner and Lady Eve Balfour in 1940 and is indeed a noble one.

In comparison, conventional agriculture aims to implement diverse technologies and optimal research to ensure food production is safe and efficient, offering high-yields and maintaining cost-effectiveness.

The crucial thing is the natural methods required of organic farming prohibit the use of soluble synthetic mineral fertilizers and any synthetic herbicides or pesticides. Naturally-derived pesticides and fertilizers can and are still used and this is where things get ominous.

The issue: What are we chewing on?

Without question, food that is grown ‘naturally’, in your backyard without the application of any toxic chemicals is good for you. However, agriculture is not a natural system, but a man-made one. Monoculture or the growth of a single crop in sweeping areas is not a natural occurrence in the wild, we have created this to sustain human civilization. In reality, it is not possible to produce the vast quantities of food that we require without giving the Earth a helping hand, organic farming or not. Organic food is definitely not bad for you, but we’re only part of the equation and the question is how good is organic agriculture for the planet?

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Prohibition of Pesticides: Should it bug you?

The reason pesticide use is an issue, is because, if not broken down quickly they persist in the soil and can adversely impact populations of insects and other endogenous life forms.

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Organic pesticides claim to be more environmentally unstable and hence easier to break down and there have been reports of slightly higher levels of insects in organic farms.

However, scientific advancement means pesticides are continually being refined and current synthetic pesticides are very unstable and only effect a transient decline on insect population, even on application of a full dose. In their defence, their higher efficiency means they have to be applied only once or twice during the crop cycle. In comparison, organic pesticides are applied frequently in the crop cycle since no clear regulatory rules exist. Also, studies have shown that the lower nitrogen and protein content in organic plants may reduce insect populations as shown by reduction of aphid colonization in organic farms.

More disconcerting is the fact that organic pesticides, are mistakenly conceived by the general public to be completely safe.

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Per contra, 60% of natural chemicals (as is the case for synthetic) have been documented to cause cancer in rats. Interestingly, Copper sulfate, used in organic farms to correct soil mineral deficiency and control fungus was banned in 2002, after it was found to persist in soil and cause liver damage to humans. Rotenone an organic insecticide with low selectivity (kills a range of insect species), has been linked with Parkinson’s disease. Bacillus thuringiensis is a soil bacterium used as a bio-insecticide in organic farms; the spores of this bacteria have been shown to cause lung infections in rats. Lastly, Pyrethoids are organic compounds which are neurotoxins used as insect repellants. Naturally derived pyrethoids are used in organic farms at higher doses than synthetic pyrethoids such as Bioresmethrin which are much more effective and equally degradable.

The take home message is organic farming does use chemicals, just not synthetic ones. The safety of these chemicals is not any higher than chemicals used in conventional farming, by virtue of their being ‘naturally derived’.

In addition, non-usage of herbicides means organic farms implement mechanical weeding, this annhiliates nesting birds and invertebrates such as worms and insects, not to mention the use of fossil fuels and the resultant pollution. In comparison, conventional farming usually implements no-till weeding with single dosage application of herbicide which causes minimal damage to soil quality and is highly efficient.

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The major concern with pesticide use is carcinogenicity. It may be worth noting, that since synthetic pesticide use began in the 1930’s, overall cancer rates in humans have dropped by 15%, and the rate of stomach cancer in particular has more than halved. One of the contributing factors to this phenomenon could be higher crop-yields leading to abundance and consequently increased consumption of fruits and vegetables. Fungal-derived toxins in food are thought to be a major contributor to cancer. Fungicide use (not done in organic farming), could keep this in check. In fact, mycotoxins such as fumonisin and patulin are found in higher levels in organic consumables.

Ban on soluble minerals: What comes out must go in.

Crops extract minerals from the soil and these minerals must be replenished to maintain soil quality. Conventional farming achieves this by the addition of specific soluble minerals as determined by the needs of the soil and the crop cultivated, in addition to implementing crop rotation.

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Organic farming does not allow addition of soluble minerals but instead depends on the addition of manure. Manure improves soil quality, no doubt. However, the composition of manure and nutrient release is unpredictable. The breakdown of manure, a process which requires mechanical ploughing into the soil, releases major greenhouse gases. Furthermore, nutrient release from manure cannot be synchronized with the crop growth cycle and continues throughout the growing season. Moreover, leakage of nitrates into waterways is as likely with manure breakdown as with use of synthetic fertilizers in conventional farming. Lastly, there exists a risk of contamination of organic produce by faecal bacteria, and organic animals have been shown to have higher incubation of E.Coli in their guts.

Sustainability: Are we reaping what we sow?

In recent times, consumption of organic food has morphed into an issue of identity.

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Studies show that people who only consume organic food identify themselves as more spiritual, altruistic, benevolent and in tune with nature. However, in our obsession with creating an environment-friendly identity, awareness of key environmental issues have taken a back seat.

The test of sustainability for any agricultural system is the yield of product for effort. At present, organic agriculture yields 13% lower than conventional agriculture with the best organic practices. And when organic and conventional farming are comparable (similar terrain, same crop, and excluding other variables) the yield for organic farming can be upto 34% lower than conventional farming. So far, numerous studies have shown that organic food is not superior in either nutrition or taste compared to conventionally farmed food. Deforestation for agriculture is on the rise with 17 million hectares of rainforests destroyed annually. Animal husbandry and agriculture occupy 70% of the planetary freshwater consumption. It would be prudent to focus on maximizing yield and minimizing land use.

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The ideology of organic farming is excellent. Nonetheless, we live on a finite planet with diminishing resources and an exponentially increasing demand for food. My aim is not to vilify organic agriculture, rather it is to stress that neither organic nor conventional agriculture is superior to the other. The dichotomy is a false one and both systems have their pros and cons; ideally we could use aspects of both in an integrated farming system. It may be wise to celebrate pragmatism and flexibility instead of clinging onto an ideology to navigate our uncertain future in the best possible way.

That’s it for now folks, thanks for reading!

References

Baroni, L., Cenci, L., Tettamanti, M., & Berati, M. (2007). Evaluating the environmental impact of various dietary patterns combined with different food production systems. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 61(2), 279-286.

Trewavas, A. (2001). Urban myths of organic farming. Nature, 410(6827), 409-410.

Betarbet, R., Sherer, T. B., MacKenzie, G., Garcia-Osuna, M., Panov, A. V., & Greenamyre, J. T. (2000). Chronic systemic pesticide exposure reproduces features of Parkinson’s disease. Nature neuroscience, 3(12), 1301-1306.

Ames, B. N., Profet, M., & Gold, L. S. (1990). Dietary pesticides (99.99% all natural). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 87(19), 7777-7781.

Bertilsson, G. (1992). Environmental consequences of different farming systesm using good agricultural practices. In Proceedings-the Fertiliser Society.

Addiscott, T. M. (1995). Entropy and sustainability. European Journal of Soil Science, 46(2), 161-168.

Kirchmann, H., & Thorvaldsson, G. (2000). Challenging targets for future agriculture. European Journal of Agronomy, 12(3), 145-161.

Lovejoy, S. B. (1994). Are organic foods safer. Texas Botanical Garden Society Newsletter, Austin, TX, September. Available online: http://www. greensmiths. com/organicfoods. htm (assessed: October 9, 2004).

Magkos, F., Arvaniti, F., & Zampelas, A. (2003). Putting the safety of organic food into perspective. Nutrition Research Reviews, 16(02), 211-222.

Pacanoski, Z. (2009). The myth of organic agriculture. Plant Protect. Sci, 45(2), 39-48.

Hughner, R. S., McDonagh, P., Prothero, A., Shultz, C. J., & Stanton, J. (2007). Who are organic food consumers? A compilation and review of why people purchase organic food. Journal of consumer behaviour, 6(2-3), 94.

Seufert, V., Ramankutty, N., & Foley, J. A. (2012). Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture. Nature, 485(7397), 229-232.

Is going nuts a good idea?

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Let’s talk milk.

So a while ago, my partner and I were meeting a couple of friends for a Sunday brunch. Having literally just rolled out of bed and into a new trendy bio cafe (as you do), an order for a flat-white escaped my partner’s lips before his gorgeous bottom hit the chair. The waitress responded with an expression that looked like this.

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Clearly she wasn’t looking at his bottom. Instead, she furtively mumbled something about being at a “raw food” place and offered us coffee with nut-milk. One gulp of the stuff and I spent the next hour and a half dreaming of all things dairy that I could be consuming at that exact moment. Now I’m aware that one man’s meat, is another man’s poison, and I’m sure some of you love the stuff. I’m more interested in the dietary value of this increasingly popular beverage, hailed as a food from the gods, offering a plant-based alternative to dairy and it’s associated hypothesized evils. Besides, I like milk.

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The Oxford English Dictionary defines Milk as; ‘An opaque white fluid rich in fat and protein, secreted by female mammals for the nourishment of their young’. Nut-“milk” is essentially dehydrated powdered nuts dissolved in water, usually in a ratio of 1:3.

Milk can be likened to pond water, it’s basically a solution of proteins, vitamins and minerals that is meant to provide nourishment and sustenance to a growing organism. The composition of milk is optimized by nature, through years of evolution to provide for the needs of that particular species. Which means the closer the relationship between two species, the more nutrionally appropriate the milk from one species is to the other. To put it simply, humans resemble other mammals, such as the cow more than a vegetal life form such as , say a macadamia tree. Seeds, the category to which most nuts belong are a compact package of all nutrients, such as basic proteins, sugars and some minerals that are needed by a germinating plant. If you paid attention in high school biology, you would remember that plants give out roots and have evolved to derive nutrition from the soil as they grow. Most mammals cannot do this, and depend solely on maternal milk for nourishment during early growth. So a handful of nuts ground into a glass of water, cannot be nutrionally equivalent to a glass of mammalian milk.

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The recent vilification of dairy has seen an increase in documented cases of severe malnutrion in children fed a diet devoid of milk and it’s derivatives. It’s true that few children develop food allergies and are put on to an alternative diet, however it’s important that food allergies are not self-diagnosed and growing infants with allergies are directed to professional nutrional guidance. Most plant-based milks available in supermarkets are not a suitable protein source for children, even with nutrional fortification. Prolonged use of non-dairy milk can result in protein deficiency and inadequate weight gain and there has been documented evidence of height restriction in children not fed dairy.

The table below shows the significantly lower protein and calcium content in nut milk compared to cow’s milk.

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 Taken from Keller, M. D.,et. al (2012). Severe malnutrition resulting from use of rice milk in food elimination diets for atopic dermatitis. IMAJ-Israel Medical Association Journal, 14(1), 40.

But what about the adults you say? Why do adult humans need dairy when we’re no longer growing? Humans domesticated dairy cows more than 8000 years ago and since then our genomes have co-evolved as is evident by the persistence of the lactase enzyme in adult humans, compared to other species, which lose this enzyme in early life. We depend on dairy for many vital nutrients such as protein and most importantly calcium, to prevent osteoporosis, you know, to keep your bones looking hot.

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Not her.

Recent times have seen a conspicuous glorification of low fat, low-calorie nutrition. High-fat dairy consumption has been implicated in obesity, and many cardio-vascular and metabolic diseases. However, what is generally not discussed is the inconsistency in studies investigating a connection between high-fat dairy and cardiovascular disease. There are many studies that show no association and sometimes even an inverse relationship between high-fat dairy consumption and metabolic health.

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Dairy fat has often been labelled the ‘bad guy,’ being energy rich and a source of cholesterol. Arguably what is often not mentioned is that in most studies, dietary cholesterol does not appear to elevate the risk of cardiovascular disease in humans. Furthermore, 11 out of 16 studies showed the subjects who regularly consumed high-fat dairy were actually leaner and less prone to weight gain than those who consumed less dairy. The mechanism behind this phenomenon is yet to be deciphered, however it has been suggested that the feeling of “fullness” brought on by protein consumption may play a role. Furthermore, dairy fat is a complex concoction of many fatty acids such as linoleic acid, butyric acid and others that have implicated health benefits, including reduction of inflammation and improvement of mitochondrial function.

I have nothing against plant-based foods, and if you love the taste of nut-milk, by all means drink it by the gallon. However, I am concerned by plant-based foods masquerading as a nutritionally equivalent substitute of an established animal-derived component of the essential human diet.

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More importantly, there is the cost to the environment to consider. A single almond takes 1.1 gallons of water to produce, which does not bode well as far as ecological issues go. The world’s almond industry which is predominantly based in California requires 1.4 million bee colonies for pollination, and a large portion of bees are killed annually due to pesticide exposure. We live on a finite planet with diminishing resources. We face the looming challenge of having to provide sustainable and efficient nutrion to an expected population of 10 billion by the turn of the century. So the humble nut, which to it’s credit is good for our hearts, does not look like the best candidate for the job. It’s time we looked at science, nutrition and advancement in efficacy, and trust that our own biological evolution, technological innovation and farming practises (that have gotten us to this point in history) are not out to get us.

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That’s it for today folks. Thanks for reading!

References.

Beja-Pereira, A., Luikart, G., England, P. R., Bradley, D. G., Jann, O. C., Bertorelle, G., … & Erhardt, G. (2003). Gene-culture coevolution between cattle milk protein genes and human lactase genes. Nature genetics, 35(4), 311-313.

Hayes, B. J., Chamberlain, A. J., Maceachern, S., Savin, K., McPartlan, H., MacLeod, I., … & Goddard, M. E. (2009). A genome map of divergent artificial selection between Bos taurus dairy cattle and Bos taurus beef cattle. Animal genetics, 40(2), 176-184.

Berger, J., Bravay, G., & Berger, M. (1997). U.S. Patent No. 5,656,321. Washington, DC: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Kratz, M., Baars, T., & Guyenet, S. (2013). The relationship between high-fat dairy consumption and obesity, cardiovascular, and metabolic disease. European journal of nutrition, 52(1), 1-24.

Keller, M. D., Shuker, M., Heimall, I., & Cianferoni, A. (2012). Severe malnutrition resulting from use of rice milk in food elimination diets for atopic dermatitis. IMAJ-Israel Medical Association Journal, 14(1), 40.

Carvalho, N. F., Kenney, R. D., Carrington, P. H., & Hall, D. E. (2001). Severe nutritional deficiencies in toddlers resulting from health food milk alternatives. Pediatrics, 107(4), e46-e46.

Collier, R. J., & Bauman, D. E. (2014). Update on human health concerns of recombinant bovine somatotropin use in dairy cows. Journal of animal science, 92(4), 1800-1807.

A coffee a day to keep disease at bay?

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You spit out a half-formed expletive as you bury your head into the pillow, desperately pleading with an invisible force for an extra ten minutes of sleep but you know you cannot ignore the bleating for much longer. So you plunge an arm out into the chilly air and switch the alarm off, whimpering as you brace yourself and swing your legs out from under the covers to go on autopilot, running through the mechanical motions to get ready for another day.

What usually follows this rather depressing routine? Well, if you’re like me, by the time you’re awake enough to form coherent thoughts that don’t involve diving back under the covers, you’re gagging for a magical elixir that somehow makes everything more bearable…A hot steaming cup of coffee.

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Coffee is the second most consumed beverage in the world after water, and generates a whopping $10 billion USD in world-wide trade. Now, debating the potential of all consumed sustenance to corrupt human health is all the rage these days, with everyone from reality tv stars to sports celebrities all taking it upon themselves to give out dietary advice. So I thought it might be fun discuss from a scientific perspective, what really makes up a concoction of coffee and how it influences the human body.

The coffee plant belongs to the family: Rubiaceae and genera: Coffea (Yes I’m talking nerdy to you). It is a woody perennial tree with over 70 different species. The two most common ones are Coffee arabica (Arabica coffee) which consumers prefer and Coffee canephora (Robusta coffee) which has higher caffeine levels and inferior taste. The beans from this plant are picked, dried (by a farmer in a place far, far away), roasted, ground and brewed ( probaby locally, by your favourite barista) to produce a potion, known to it’s dedicated consumers as coffee.

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Coffee, contains hundreds of biologically active compounds, with names that as chemical names go, are unpronounceable. So if you’re one of those “if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it” kind of people, at this point, I should inform you, that if you’re a coffee consumer, you break this rule every morning. Actually, we all break this rule everyday because all consumables have chemical names, even the most organic wholesome apple you can procure is made up of chemicals with unpronounceable names, because nature is the most ingenious, sagacious chemist of them all…but anyway I digress.

Coffee, by which I mean the extract from the coffee bean, sans milk and sugar (and vodka…depending on the time of day) is made up of phenolic polymers, polysaccharides, chlorogenic acids, minerals, organic acids and lipids. But this is not a chemistry lesson, so I’ll stick to discussing the most interesting compounds found in coffee :

  • Caffeine (1,3,7-trimethyl xanthine): See what I mean about the pronounciation?
  • Theophylline (1,3-dimethyl xanthine) : The chemical nomenclature actually refers to the chemical structure of the molecule, it’s not random.
  • Theobromine (3,7-dimethyl xanthine): This one is also found in chocolate and is what makes chocolates poisonous to dogs, because they can’t metabolize it safely
  • Cholrogenic acids which form quinides, when coffee is roasted.

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Caffeine, Theophylline and Theobromine are all central nervous system stimulants, key to coffee being such a popular psychoactive drug. Caffeine and Theophylline are also bronchodilators, which help relax the smooth muscle in our airways and are used to treat asthma. Caffeine and Theophyline also stimulate lipolysis or the breakdown of fat (you heard me boys and girls!).

Caffeine and Theophyline bring about their effects by reducing a small compound known as cyclic Adenosine monophosphate (cAMP) a small messenger inside cells that plays a role in many biological processes. The stimulant properties of caffeine are due to the reduction of a substance called Adenosine in the brain. Adenosine is a small molecule that functions as a general inhibitor of neuronal activity, receptors for adenosine are found in many parts of the brain and when adenosine levels are reduced, there is stimulation of the release of neurotransmitters such as glutamate, dopamine and acetylcholine (neuroscience is fun y’all).

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This little bit of information may be the clue to understanding many of the suggested benefits of coffee consumption in literature. For instance, Parkinson’s disease is characterised by a marked decrease in dopamine levels in the brain, and as mentioned above, caffeine stimulates dopamine secretion. Trigenolline another compound has been shown to promote regeneration and repair of neurons and improve memory (pre-exam cram must-have) and is being investigated for therapeutic roles in Alzheimers’ Disease.

One of the many gifts of technological advancement is the ability to live a sedentary lifestyle, hypnotized by a box with moving pixels for hours at a time while ploughing through processed foods, with little nutritive value (cue high fructose corn syrup)…but I’m not here to to talk diet plans, we’ll leave that for another time, my point is the epidemic prevalence of metabolic disorders.

An estimated 1.5 million deaths worldwide were directly caused by diabetes in 2012 according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Type 2 diabetes is characterised by a resistance to insulin, a hormone that regulates uptake of sugar from the bloodstream, into cells. Again the influence of coffee on Type 2 diabetes has been widely researched. Chlorogenic acids found in coffee have been shown to inhibit an enzyme in the liver that plays a role in increasing blood glucose levels. In fact, drinking 200ml of coffee is rapidly absorbed with the appearance of 5-caffeoylquinic(the most abundant chlorogenic acid) at more than 300% of baseline levels in the bloodstream within 20 minutes of consumption. When roasted, chlorogenic acid in coffee forms compounds called quinides, which have been experimentally shown to enhance insulin action in rats. Research has shown that consumption of six cups per day of coffee over 20 years prevents the development of glucose intolerance, and the anti-oxidant effects of certain coffee compounds may help guard against diabetes.

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Another major killer in both the developed and developing nations is coronary heart disease (think heart-attacks). Anti-oxidants found in coffee may reduce inflammation, reducing dysfunction of endothelial cells lining blood vessels, preventing heart-attacks and strokes. Caffeine has been shown to reduce calcification (deposition of calcium leading to hardening) of coronary arteries in women.

There is also debate on the effects of coffee on cancer. Coffee consumption has been shown to decrease the risk of developing certain cancers, such as ovarian, endometrial, pancreas, pharyngeal and colorectal cancer, the most common cancer in the western world. The lipid (scientific name for fat) fraction of coffee contains two interesting compounds cafestol and kahweol which have been shown in the laboratory to safeguard against malignant cells by modulating de-toxifying enzymes. The effects of these lipids on serum cholesterol levels is under investigation, but there is no evidence that these lipids are oxidized in the human body, which suggest that any negative effects may be negligible at best.

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There are always two sides to a coin however, so before you make a bee-line to your nearest café, I should mention some of the risks associated with coffee consumption (no such thing as free lunch y’all). Consumption of more than 8 cups of coffee a day (water is your friend people!) may cause anomalies in cardiac rhythm due to the action of caffeine on muscle cells. There is also some research that exists, linking coffee to increased rates of certain cancers, however further investigation in relation to gender correlation, smoking and other risk factors is mandated. Caffeine has been shown to interact with xenobiotics or compounds synthesized to mimic naturally occurring biological compounds in the body such as hormones. Caffeine has been linked to decreased effectiveness of the contraceptive pill (yikes!) and certain drugs such as anti-epileptics. The psychostimulant effects of coffee can cause addiction and associated withdrawal symptoms such as headaches and muscle fatigue on cessation of consumption.

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So, what’s the deal with this beverage that has reached an almost revered status, worshipped equally by the humble student living on a precarious budget and the CEO of multibillion dollar company? Is it good for you? Is it bad for you? Well, the verdict is out, coffee in moderation does appear to have scientifically proven benefits to the human body, but as reported in literature, there are also some negative effects, and these warrant further investigation.

So make up your own minds by further investigating literature, perhaps at your local café while sipping on a cappuccino (in moderation!).

References.

Fredholm, B. (1985). On the Mechanism of Action of Theophylline and Caffeine. Acta Medica Scandinavica, 217(2), 149-153.

Butt, M., & Sultan, M. (2011). Coffee and its Consumption: Benefits and Risks. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 51(4), 363-373.

Shearer, J., Farah, A., De Paulis, T., Bracy, D., Pencek, R., Graham, T., & Wasserman, D. (2003). Quinides of roasted coffee enhance insulin action in conscious rats. The Journal of Nutrition, 133(11), 3529-32.

Sinha, R., Cross, A., Daniel, C., Graubard, B., Wu, J., Hollenbeck, A., . . . Freedman, N. (2012). Caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee and tea intakes and risk of colorectal cancer in a large prospective study. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 96(2), 374-81.

F Farinati, R Cardin, & M Piciocchi. (2013). Coffee, chronic diseases and cancer. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 67(8), 898.

Hello world!

So this is it. It’s finally happening. After contemplating starting a science blog for eons, I’ve finally built up enough frustration with the mass science phobia out there in the big wide world to start putting pen to paper on things I am passionate about which is all things science related.

I’m probably way behind on getting on the blog bandwagon… but I’m on it now, yay! This is mostly for my own pleasure, since I take therapeutic pleasure in writing and get a general feeling of euphoria when talking about science. But while engaging in this hobby, I hope to be able to de-mystify some science to the general public and maybe even inspire people to do their own exploration of scientific literature, because there is a wealth of knowledge out there that is never accessed by the general public, and really knowledge is not useful unless it can be translated into wisdom, and this requires exploration, discovery and curiosity.

I am a science graduate and did my undergraduate Bachelor of Science degree in molecular genetics and I followed this up with a year of post-graduate level research honours study into the genetics of developmental disorders. I commenced on a PhD in genetics, but had to withdraw from it due to personal issues. I do hope to return to my PhD one day, but until then, I’ll have to keep content with researching existing literature and writing articles with a little science thrown in.

I’d love to hear about any ideas for topics that you’d like me to write about. Happy reading!