The health effects of “superfoods” have been touted for nearly 30 years, starting with a cookbook of the same name that appeared in bookshops in the early 1990s.
The book by Michael Van Straten, an alternative medicine practitioner, singled out fruit and vegetables, whole grains and nuts as “four-star superfoods” that build up the body to resist stress, disease and infection.
Since then the term has been used to describe any food that has disease-fighting qualities especially those like blueberries which contain antioxidants thought to fight free radicals that make us ill and age.
Last summer the Harvard Medical School published a list of “10 superfoods” that support a healthy diet: berries, high in fiber and antioxidants; fish whose omega-3 acids help prevent heart disease; dark leafy greens which are a good source of Vitamin A, C and calcium; nuts especially hazelnuts, almonds and pecans, another source of protein, plus monounsaturated fats, thought to reduce the risk of heart disease; olive oil, a good source of vitamin E, polyphenols, and monounsaturated fatty acids; whole grains, yogurt, cruciferous vegetables (eg. broccoli, cauliflower, turnips), beans and tomatoes.
Missing from that list – which coming from Harvard should be fairly trustworthy – is asparagus. A distant cousin of the onion, asparagus originated in the eastern Mediterranean and has been eaten for over 2,000 years. The Greeks apparently consumed the spiral-tipped vegetable as an aphrodisiac; the ancient Greek doctor Hippocrates reportedly used it to treat diarrohea and pain in the urethra. Louis XIV of France was fond of asparagus and during the 17th century it was only grown for the nobility. Today green asparagus is available in North America and China, while the white variety is cultivated mostly in Europe.
Asparagus has at least five health benefits that are mostly unknown to the population at-large; asparagus has never been marketed as a “superfood”. One cup of the green veg is packed with just 40 calories, 4 grams of protein, 4 grams of fiber and 404 milligrams of potassium. The latter is good for high blood pressure along with a compound in asparagus called asparaptine.
There is some scientific evidence to support the latter. According to the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies, which promotes “optimal nutrition through science-based education, advocacy and research,” there are publications going back as far as 1981 detailing how asparagus protects against several types of cancer (breast, liver, stomach and skin) cancer in rats. Research using human cancer cells showed that asparagus has anti-cancer effects on colon, kidney, liver, breast and bladder cancer cells.
On the other hand, the American Cancer Institute debunks the health effects of asparagus which it says “was spread on the Internet and via email” based on a “doctor’s” (presumably the quotes are due to the doctor not being an MD) 1979 journal article.
The ACI says no such article was ever published in peer-reviewed research and warns that “cancer cure” or “miracle food” claims could prevent patients from pursuing more effective treatments. Fair enough.
But at Ahead of the Herd, we always follow the money, and doing so in this case leaves the strong suspicion that cancer institutes and those companies that make products that are meant to treat cancer might arouse some skepticism, too.
Without claiming that asparagus or any other unconventional cancer treatment is friend or foe, these are the facts as outlined in a New York Times article entitled ‘Feeding the Cancer Machine’:
“How much of the money we spend on unnecessary or futile cancer treatment might be put to better use searching for real advances?” asks the author, Shannon Brownlee, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a think tank.
Good question. We’ve been trying to cure cancer for decades without any significant breakthroughs. And it seems to be getting more frequent. At the beginning of the 20th century one in 20 got cancer; now it’s one in three.
I would never come out and say that asparagus, or any food, is the cure for cancer. To do so would invite every Internet troll out there to set up camp on my site. But there’s enough evidence for me to decide that eating asparagus has significant health benefits, one of which may be increasing the body’s resistance to cancer.
It also makes sense that natural foods, the bounty of the earth, would help the body to fight off disease. Native peoples were collecting plants for medicinal purposes before Europeans stepped on the continent. Chinese medicine has lasted thousands of years with millions of practitioners worldwide. It is quite conceivable that the cure for cancer isn’t a drug, but something that comes from nature.
Richard (Rick) Mills
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