- shin suzuki
- BBC News Brazil, Sao Paulo
Garlic is good for your health.
It’s a phrase that has been said for hundreds of years and you’ve probably heard it before. However, the science’s understanding of the health benefits of garlic is much more recent. To do this, it was necessary to decipher its chemical composition.
The allicin compound, for example, inhibits the proliferation of cells that spread colon cancer and is also responsible for the flavor of freshly grated garlic. Luteolin, on the other hand, has properties that help prevent cancer and heart disease, according to some studies.
In every food we eat, there are tens of thousands of other biochemical structures whose characteristics and potential must be explored.
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We are used to hearing about proteins, sugar, fats, calories, vitamins, but about 99% of what we eat is practically unknown.
The vastness to be explored in all nutritional factors has been compared to the “dark matter” of the universe, the invisible and little known substance that permeates space and accounts for 80% of all matter in the cosmos.
The term was linked to the food context in late 2019, in an article published in the scientific journal Nature by scientists Albert-László Barabási, Giulia Menichetti and Joseph Loscalzo of Harvard and northeastern US universities.
At the time, the survey cited 26,625 food items listed in the largest database of its kind in the world, Canada’s FooDB.
Today that number is 70,926 and the list grows with each discovery. But the three scientists’ work now includes libraries other than FooDB, and their record now exceeds the astronomical figure of 135,000 nutritional components.
Only a small fraction (up from 150 in 2019) of this total has already established information such as chemical concentration and effects.
Study scientist and co-author Giulia Menichetti told BBC News Brazil that the new findings will provide insight into how the interaction between chemical compounds in food and proteins occurs in the human body.
It promises more effective treatments and prevention programs for diseases such as cancer.
And with a much larger catalog of nutritional information, “it will also be possible to help public health agencies simulate diet replacement scenarios,” he says.
The researchers point out that the use of artificial intelligence – and more specifically machine learning, which allows machines to learn patterns from historical data and create new models for human or automated analysis – will be essential for deciphering nutritional ‘dark matter’. .
A team from Imperial College London, for example, is working to “dig up” and discover anticancer molecules or other elements that act against neurodegenerative, cardiovascular and viral diseases.
An artificial intelligence model included 8,000 food molecules such as grapes, tea, oranges and carrots. This resulted in 100 candidate molecules with anticancer potential.
Another artificial intelligence project, PhyteByte of the United States Department of Agriculture, also scans food databases to try to predict how these compounds will react in the human body.
The case of garlic meat
The challenge of understanding what exactly a healthy diet is goes beyond a better understanding of nutritional compounds: it also lies in the complex chemical chain of our organism, in the influence of enzymes, in metabolism and in the processes of the intestinal microbiota.
Imagine a person eating garlic-flavored meat.
Red meat molecules go through a metabolic process in the gut and a conversion in the liver that releases a substance called trimethylamine N-oxide or TMAO into the body.
Scientists have found that heart disease patients are four times more likely to die from any cause if they have high levels of TMAO in their blood.
If meat is eaten with garlic, the allicin in the seasoning can block the production of an old form of TMAO, TMA.
Since the problem is solved at the source, the level of TMAO remains lower in the blood.
But eating meat with garlic is no guarantee against heart attacks. It is also necessary to take into account the temperature conditions of the preparation and, in the case of highly industrialized products, the influence of the toxins added in the production, storage and packaging processes.
And as the Imperial College London study points out, there are particularities of each individual’s organism and way of life.
This myriad of factors can explain the doubts raised by the scientific community and the general public about food research: studies that say, for example, that “the egg is good for health” one day, and others that conclude the following week that it is the daily consumption can lead to the risk of shortening a person’s life.
“This idea of identifying a certain food associated with a certain disease is an almost impossible mission,” says Carlos Augusto Monteiro, professor at the School of Public Health at the University of São Paulo and coordinator of the Center for Epidemiological Research in Nutrition and Health ( NUPENS / USP).
One of the current lines of research in nutrition science is therefore to identify eating habits that promote or harm health.
“Now we are interested in studying eating habits, because they influence the development of a disease. In a relationship between diet and disease it is very difficult to isolate a specific element. People do not choose foods one by one, it is a block,” says Monteiro.
“In a feijoada, for example, you eat beans, meat, fat from the preparation, garlic, onion. You can’t separate one thing from another.”
The USP professor is conducting a large study that aims to support 200,000 people in Brazil for a minimum period of 10 years. Your eating habits will be analyzed in association with the risk of developing chronic non-communicable diseases (diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, obesity and various types of cancer).
Another similar survey, conducted among 100,000 participants between 2009 and 2017 by the University of Paris, and with input from the USP, demonstrated the relationship between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and diseases affecting a large group of people.
“We identified, about ten years ago, a characteristic of the food model that is largely based on a far from natural pattern, a pattern in which the person practically consumes only foods so transformed that they can no longer distinguish their original element”.
For Andrea Pereira, an oncology nutritionist at the Israeli Albert Einstein Hospital and author of the recently published book “Balanced Diet – The Best Anti-Cancer Diet”, “science knows that vegetables, legumes and fruits have many antioxidant factors, with resulting in greater protection of the organism and improvement of the immune system “.
He explains that “every day cells divide the wrong way, but not everyone gets cancer. Because the immune system protects you. But a compromised immune system will not work and this is associated with an improper diet, with low fruit consumption. “.
According to Pereira, “modern life leads us to consume foods that are more caloric and low in fiber”. Fiber takes longer to chew. In a matter of minutes, people eat in front of the computer, in front of the television, ultra-processed foods that are high in calories and high in fat. “
“Les fibers stimulent le tube digestif, avec une moindre absorption des graisses. Si vos intestins ne fonctionnent pas bien, vous avez plus local inflamation, ce qui augmente le risque de cancer dans le tractus gastro-intestinal”, explique-t- they.
As Michael Bronstein, of the Imperial College London team that uses artificial intelligence to establish the relationship between nutritional ‘dark matter’ and possible treatments for disease, recalls, “diet may be the single most important factor in modifying the risk of develop cancer.
This is what encourages us to take a closer look at what we eat. “
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