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Monday, February 7, 2011

Asparagus isn't magic



A friend of mine just forwarded me an e-mail that makes all sorts of amazing claims about asparagus. It starts out with this heart-warming tale:

My Mom had been taking the full-stalk canned style asparagus that she pureed and she took 4 tablespoons in the morning and 4 tablespoons later in the day. She did this for over a month. She is on chemo pills for Stage 3 lung cancer in the pleural area and her cancer count went from 386 down to 125 as of this past week. Her oncologist said that she does not need to see him for 3 months.
In other words, they want me to believe that simply adding a few tablespoonfuls of pureed, canned asparagus would provide miraculous benefits for a horrible, lethal illness. I'm not buying it. First, what's a "cancer count" for lung cancer? White blood cell counts are important in cancers that involve overproduction of white blood cells, but I don't know of any "cancer count" for lung cancer.

Second, what that e-mail is describing is a drug effect, not the effect of a radical change to a healthy diet. We know that asparagus can make your urine stink, but if it had the kind of power described in that e-mail, it would also have substantial side effects. A lot of people like the idea of "natural" and "herbal" drugs because they have the mistaken idea that such products can have benefits without side effects. However, the reason why so many "natural" and "herbal" products have so few side effects is that they don't have much of a beneficial effect either. It's almost a law of nature. Any substance that has the power to exert an effect on the body will produce a mixture of effects: some welcome, others unwelcome. The idea that a few tablespoonfuls of pureed asparagus could have such a powerful effect on the body without causing more problems than stinky urine is simply hard to believe.

Third, the e-mail went on to babble about the "histones" in asparagus, claiming that they have the ability to "normalize" cell growth. Histones are a protein that is found in all of the chromosomes of everything that keeps its chromosomes in a nucleus. That includes all green plants, from the simplest algae to the giant redwood, as well as all animals and fungi. Furthermore, the histones themselves have changed astonishingly little over the course of evolution. That's usually a clue that they do something vital, but it also means that there's nothing magical about asparagus. The fact that histones are a protein is another important clue that this e-mail is nonsense. If you take a protein by mouth, your digestive system normally breaks it back down into individual amino acids. Some bigger bits of protein might occasionally make it through to your bloodstream if there's something wrong with the lining of your intestine, which is why eating animal proteins can provoke autoimmune disorders. However, the efficiency of human digestion means that you normally don't get any benefit from protein drugs if you take them by mouth. That's why insulin has to be injected.

A switch from the standard American diet to a low-fat, plant-based diet that strongly emphasizes fruits and vegetables can provide health benefits that might seem magical to the average American. However, it achieves these benefits partly by removing the cause of most of our major causes of death and disability: the overload of fat and animal proteins. You can't get the same effects by adding an herbal supplement or a few tablespoonfuls of pureed, canned vegetable to a crappy diet.