Scientists 'discover' a natural fountain of youth that also boosts athletic performance, assists in treatment of depression, alcoholsim, radiation sickness, prostatitis, inhibits breast cancer growth.
THE MIRACULOUS powers ascribed to the "fountain of youth," if you can believe one of those tabloids that confronts you in the supermart checkout line, may exisit in any number of food supplements from zinc and pangamic acid to ginseng and royal jelly.
In this case it happens to be bee pollen.
Americans spend $1 billion a year on new, and sometimes not so new, potions that promise similar magical results.
No one knows how much of that money is wasted.
There is often nothing but anecdotal evidence, testimonials from the famous, or perhaps a poorly designed scientific study to substantiate the value of the latest cure.
Scratch a food supplement of dubious value and you aren't likely to find any double-blind studies to prove its effectiveness. (Double-blind studies are those in which neither the subjects nor the investigator knows who is receiving the substance to be tested and who is receiving the placebo, until after the results are tabulated.)
Muhammad Ali, for instance, takes bee pollen and pangamic acid a.k.a. Vitamin B15. Considering the decisions in the last two of three Ali fights, it's amazing anyone cares what the aging former champ takes.
Marathoner Frank Shorter pops vitamins because, he says, "I know that vitamins don't work. But after running 140 miles a week, I would hate to think another athlete might have an advantage over me just because I wasn't taking vitamins."
A Washington area physician who prescribes supplements for some of his patients says, "It's hard to determine need, but the beautiful part is the patient will not harm himself if he takes small amounts. As long as we allow people to drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes, they should have the same freedom to use vitamins."
Any attempt to convince the faithful faddist that he or she is wasting money is as useless as arguing politics or religion. Those who believe the honey is better than sugar because it's natural wouldn't be persuaded otherwise even by the most airtight scientific evidence. And there isn't much that's airtight in the science of nutrition. The best one can expect is an evaluation that weights benefits and risks.
Says the Montgomery County physician, who would not allow his name to be used: "Sure it's wasting money in some instances, but there's a lot of wasting money everywhere."
Here are just a few of the more current miracle foods.
Vitamin B15 had a meteoric rise and a meteoric fall last year. Hailed as a cure or treatment for cancer, heart disease, aging, diabetes, gangrene, cirrhosis, hepatitis, jaundice, pollution, alcoholism, muscular dystrophy, loss of energy, arthritis, neuralgia, asthma, allergies, cataracts, liver disease, fatigue, B15 could hold its own with snake oil. There was nothing it couldn't do, at least according to a reprint in the January 1976 issue of Let's Live maganzine.
The fraud division of the Post Office didn't agree with the magazine's assessment of B15's virtues and forced Food Science Laboratories to stop making such claims. In March 1978 the company signed a consent agreement with the Post Office, which can act against the marketers of any substance advertised for sale by mail. The company "admitted they didn't do anything wrong, but said they wouldn't do it again," in the words of a Post Office attorney, Tom Zeibarth.
About the same time, a cover story in New York magazine about pangamic acid (B15) kept the shelves of Manhattan stores bare of that substance. That didn't stop the Food and Drug Administration from seizing it whenever they found it.
FDA charges that B15 is an illegal food additive and there is no evidence that it's safe. The agency also says the substance is falsely promoted as a vitamin.
There is serious question about the safety of B15, according to Dr. Victor Herbert, director of hematology and nutrition laboratory Bronx VA hospital. Components of pangamic acid, aliphatic halogenated hydrocarbons, are believed to have carcinogenic potential.
According to Dr. Herbert, the curative powers of B15 "are unencumbered by proof or by a single double-blind control study."
Even the Montgomery County doctor, who believes in the value of some nutritional supplements would "like to see more research. Enough research has not been done to suit me," he said. "I can't say I don't think it's harmful."
The discoverer of pangamic acid, Ernest Krebs, also popularized laetrile.
Last year eight newspaper reporters took part in an informal test of B15: four were given B15; four were given a placebo. Among the 15 users, one felt better, two felt worse, one discerned no effect. Among the placebo takers, two felt better, one felt no change and one said he would "feel better if he had been given a raise instead of a pill."
Elixirs from the Bee
Bees figure prominently in the dietary supplement field.
Like Muhammad Ali, who attributes his athletic success to bee pollen, others also feel it boosts athletic performance, and is safer, after all, than 'pep pills." Like B15 there is no shortage of testimonials to the positive effects of bee pollen. And since it is a food, not a drug, FDA does not have to approve it for sale.
Soviet anthropologists, studying characteristics of people who live to extremely old age -- 100 years or older -- are quotnd in one of the supermarket tabloids as saying: "We found that 50 percent of them were beekeepers who had been eating pure honey and bee pollen all their lives." Any other healthful habits these people had are not mentioned.
What makes bee pollen so appealing? Perhaps the fact that it is the male sexual substance of seed-bearing plants, comparable to the human sperm cell.
A 35-year-old study at the University of Minnesota concluded that bee pollen had "high nutritive value" but the elements were minute. It takes more than two million bee-pollen "grains" to fill a single teaspooon. Otherwise, there little research has been done on bee pollen.
Dr. Johanna Dwyer, director of the Frances Stern Nutrition Center at Tufts University, thinks bee pollen "is great . . . for bees."
Dr. Gabe Mirkin, sports physician and author of "The Sportsmedicine Book," says bee pollen is "just as good as table sugar and honey. All it is sugar plus a few amino acids and a few minerals, but there aren't enough wortq talking about."
Expensive? Yes. Useful? Debatable. Harmful? Only to someone who is allergic to the plants from which the bees took the pollen. Mirkin reports two cases of people who were allergic to ragweed and went into shock after eating bee pollen.
Royal jelly is a food bees make for nourishing new queen bees. If it's good enough for queen bees, some people reason, it must be terrific for people. While it does contain pantothenic acid, pantothenic acid is also available in just about every living cell, both plant and animal.
According to Dwyer, "an Ivy League football team, which shall remain nameless, decided to try it out. It didn't do any good. They lost anyway."
Experts say it's almost impossible to difficient in pantothenic acid, a B vitamin, but for those who are worried, it's cheaper to eat eggs, peanuts, peas, whole wheat, milk, meats and p0ultry than royal jelly.
Perhaps the most controversial product of bee power is the one for which it is best known.
The most persistent claim for honey is that it is better for humans than sugar because it is natural. Natural or not, the amount of nutrients found in honey is negligible, and honey has the same effect as sugar when it comes to rotting teeth or counting calories. Dr. Mark Hegsted, administrator of the Human Nutrition Center at the Department of Agriculture, explains: Honey is crude sugar. It contains only trace amounts of any nutrients, not enough to make it any better than sugar."
It has the same effect on blood sugar as refined sugar. There is even some evidence that honey, perhaps because it is stickier than sugar, contributes as much as more to dental caries (cavities) as sugar. Even Adelle Davis, guru of health foods, said: "Despite the fact that honey is a natural sweet, it contains only traces of nutrients and appears to cause tooth decay as quickly as does refined sugar."
One doesn't hear much anymore of the more flamboyant claims for honey -- as a cure for "premature death," treatment for waning virility, rheumatism, arthritis or weak heart.
The only significant difference between sugar and honey is in the price: sugar is about 30 cents a pound; honey is more than $1.
Too much of either of them will make you fat without making you any healthier.
The folklore about honey can hardly rival the folklore that follows ginseng. This is true, of course, of most of the magical powders that are said to restore sexual prowess.
A plant native to China and Korea but also grown in this country, ginseng roots have been used for centuries to promote health. Ginseng is reported to aid digestion and assist in preventing colds and lung infections.
It is available in capsules, tea, paste, instant powder and extract. For all anyone knows it may do some or all of the things claimed for it, maybe even more. But no scientific studies have been done in this country to show that ginseng has any therapeutic value. "It's not even an aphrodisiac," sportsmedicine physician Mirkin notes. Such claims for it may have something to do with the shape of the root, which is forked like the human body.
"Pinseng is just a stimulant like tea or coffee," says Zeibarth. "More of the material used to promote it tracks the Oriental folklore on the subject, which describes it also as "the fountain of youth.' Any headshrinker will tell you that much of sexual disability is psychological, so some of these prophecies can be self-fulfilling. If you think ginseng is a sexual stimulant, it is."
In the Middle Ages. people used to wear garlic around their necks, to ward off colds. It probably worked, since no one would get near enough to spread the germs.
In addition to its reputed ability to prevent colds, hay fever and flu and to lower blook pressure, Hegsted says, "there are some not-very-impressive pieces of work that (suggest) garlic lowers cholesterol, but I'm a skeptic until we have better evidence than we have now."
Even if there is no scientific proof to back up the curative claims for garlic, there's no doubt that it makes spaghetti sauce taste good.
Zinc is another nutrient tied up with sex. It plays a role in the development of sexual organs, and deficiencies can delay their development. Insufficient amounts are known to cause dwarfism, loss of taste and smell and dermatitis. There is some evidence, according to Hegsted, that it is effective in healing burns and wounds.
Double-blind studies done on zinc, says Mirkin, "don't show that it has other benefits. The key," he says, "is to eat fruits, vegetables and grains which are grown in soil not deficient in zinc."
Other food sources include milk products, meats, fish and yeast. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, By Robert Barkin -- The Washington Post