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Nutrition & Lifestyle

Ancient Tree Earns New Reputation as Modern Superfood

By Kristen Schepker

baobab treeFor centuries, indigenous African peoples have recognized the vast medicinal and cultural value of the ancient Baobab tree. Widely utilized as a both traditional food crop and a source of medicine, shelter, and clothing, little was known of the prehistoric plant outside its native continent -- until recently.

Within the last few years, an increasing awareness of the Baobab tree’s healing benefits has spread among health-conscious consumers and natural food manufacturers across the globe. Its growing notoriety as a nutritional powerhouse has bolstered its status as one of the health food industry’s latest superfood stars.

With origins in the arid savannahs of sub-Saharan Africa, the Baobab (Adansonia) has since spread throughout parts of Asia, India, and Australia. A monumental deciduous tree with a shallow root system, Baobabs typically grow as solitary individuals. They can reach a staggering 100 feet in height, and a single Baobab can live for hundreds of years, with some still-living trees estimated to be over 1,000 years old.

 

BaobabFruitOften called the “upside-down tree,” Baobabs store water in their trunks during the rainy season and can swell up to a diameter of around 30 feet. This method of water collection and storage allows the tree to produce large, nutrient-rich fruits in drier months. Baobab fruit grows in an ovoid pod about 6-8 inches long -- sometimes referred to as “monkey’s bread” -- and contains black seeds embedded in a chalky white pulp.

Also described as the “tree of life,” virtually every part of the Baobab is used by people in Africa. Its seeds, leaves, roots, flowers, fruit pulp, and bark are all edible and are prepared for use as food as well as medicine. Rope and cloth can be made from its bark, and Baobabs are sought out as a source of water and also protective sanctuary by both humans and animals alike.

Baobab’s Nutritional Benefits

Numerous health benefits have been attributed to Baobab consumption, including immune system support, blood sugar regulation, increased overall metabolism, improved skin health, and reversal of the visible effects of aging.

A growing body of scientific research illuminates Baobab’s significant nutritional properties and validates at leas some of the traditional claims. Often described as a natural multivitamin, Baobab fruit is high in vitamin C, calcium, phosphorus, and potassium. One study reports that its pulp contains 50% more calcium than spinach and three times the vitamin C of an orange (Thiyagarajan, et al. Res J Pharm Phyto. 2015; 7(1): 57-60).

 

Researchers have argued that owing to its nutrient content, particularly its high levels of vitamin C and total sugar, Baobab fruit has “potential to improve nutrition for millions of people” (Parkouda, et al. Agrofor Sys. 2012; 85(3): 455-463).

The seeds of the Baobab fruit are notably nutritious as well. They’re high in lysine, thiamine, calcium, and iron and contain significant levels of phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, sodium, and manganese (Rahul, et al. As Pac J Trop Biomed. 2015; 5(1): 79-84).

Another study reports that the oil found in Baobab seeds contains about 1-2 mg/g of linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid required by the body for growth and development. Its authors suggest that the seeds’ high mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acid content may help lower cholesterol levels, making Baobab seed oil “a good option for preparing healthier foods” (Donkor et al. Food Nut Sci. 2014; 5(4): 328-333).

Baobab has also been noted for its antioxidant activity. A study on the fruit pulp of six different African Baobab species concluded that its antioxidant capacity is "higher than many widely consumed fruits and vegetables” (Ibrahima, et al. Afr J Ag Res. 2013; 8(47): 6046-6054).

A rich source of fiber, Baobab fruit may help to control serum cholesterol levels, reduce other risk factors for cardiovascular disease, and suppress appetite and caloric intake (Magaia et al. SpringerPlus. 2013; 2(1): 88).

Additional research indicates that various parts of the Baobab possess a range of antimicrobial, antiviral, antiparasitic, antidiarrheal, anti-inflammatory properties. A study on the antiviral capacity of Baobab leaf, pulp, and seed extracts found that the influenza virus is highly susceptible to all three, with the leaf extract displaying the most potent anti-influenza activity (Selvarani & Hudson. J Med Plant Res. 2009; 3:(8): 576-582).

Another study found that powdered Baobab stem bark demonstrated antibacterial activity against clinical isolates of Escherichia coli, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Proteus mirabilis and Staphylococcus specie (Yusha’u, et al. Int J Biomed & Health Sci. 2010; 6(3): 129-135).

Widely used as an antimalarial remedy, a mash containing dried Baobab bark is prepared throughout Africa, India, Sri Lanka, and the West Indies to treat malarial fever (Kaboré, et al. Af J Food Sci. 2011; 5(16): 833-844). Researchers have also demonstrated the significant anti-sickling activity of Baobab bark, which, investigators argue, “[justifies] use of this plant by traditional healers in Congolese traditional medicine in the management of sickle cell disease” (Mpiana, et al. Int Blood Res & Rev. 2014; 2(5): 198-212).

Baobab as Superfood

Noting the Baobab’s many remarkable health benefits, several natural food companies have introduced new specialty product lines featuring the ancient plant. Today, the most commonly marketed form of Baobab is a powder made from the dried pulp of its fruit.

Like the tree itself, Baobab powder has a variety of uses. Naturally sweet, it makes a healthy alternative to refined sugars. It can be sprinkled on yogurt, mixed into drinks, added to salad dressings, blended into smoothies, and used in baking as a raising agent.

Aduna, a natural food company striving to “create demand for under-utilised natural products from small-scale producers in Africa,” has spearheaded efforts to promote Baobab’s reputation as a superfood. On its website, the company boasts that in “the last two years, we have taken Baobab from almost complete obscurity to being one of the best-selling superfoods in the UK.” Aduna’s primary products are energy bars and a powdered Baobab mix.

Another young health and wellness company and Baobab fruit powder retailer called Kaibae works in partnership with Ghanaian community members to sustainably harvest wild Baobab fruit. Founder Luc Maes, ND, DC, and director of the Maes Center for Natural Health Care in Santa Barbara, CA, explains that Kaibae provides local employment and educational opportunities in Bawku, the district in Northern Ghana from which its fruit is sourced.

 

"We intentionally sought out a community that needs economic development," Maes explains. "We found an ingredient that's full of health benefits that grows naturally and abundantly, and that people there can harvest sustainably. In that way we're making a difference. The idea is to create a means through which people can better their lives without damaging the area."

Atacora, an Olympia, Washington-based, fair-trade company is also marketing Baobab products harvested and processed by a women’s economic development collective in Benin, West Africa. Atacora is also introducing the US market to Fonio--a healthy, low-glycemic, naturally gluten-free grain that is a staple across West Africa.

Companies like Aduna and Kaibae are helping to spread knowledge of the extraordinary Baobab far beyond its African roots. As research continues to shed light on its many healing benefits, Baobab products will likely appear on a growing number of natural grocery store shelves.

Got Fractures? Milk Raises Risk

By Kristen Schepker, Assistant Editor

From a young age, Americans are taught that milk is an essential component of a healthy, well-rounded diet. But new research on the long-term health effects of drinking dairy questions some age-old assumptions about milk’s protective benefits.

SpillMilkA study published last fall in the British Medical Journal found a positive association between high milk intake and increased fracture incidence among women, contradicting the common understanding that dairy consumption reduces the risk of osteoporotic fractures. The study also revealed a correlation between significant milk consumption and higher mortality among both men and women.

Conducted by researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden, the study examined milk intake in two large cohorts of Swedes across three counties. One cohort included 61,433 women between the ages of 39-74 years at baseline; the second included 45,339 men aged 45-79 years at baseline. Both groups completed food frequency questionnaires regarding their average consumption of common foods, including milk, fermented milk, yogurt, and cheese (Michaëlsson et al. Brit Med J. 2014; 349 (7981)).

Within the female cohort, the researchers found that during a mean follow up of 20.1 years, 15,541 women had died and 17,252 had experienced a fracture, 4,259 of which were hip fractures. In the male cohort, a mean follow up of 11.2 years revealed 10,112 deaths and 5,066 fractures, with 1,166 hip fracture cases.

Women who drank three or more glasses of milk per day were found to die at nearly twice the rate of those who drank less than one glass a day, with an adjusted mortality hazard ratio of 1.93 (95% confidence interval 1.80 to 2.06).

The authors also concluded that higher milk consumption did not appear to reduce fracture risk either among women or men.

Increased Oxidative Stress

 

Significantly, they observed an additional positive association between high milk intake and increased levels of oxidative stress and inflammatory biomarkers. In subsamples of two additional cohorts, one male and the other female, both urine 8-iso-PGF2α, a biomarker of oxidative stress, and serum interleukin 6, an inflammatory biomarker, increased with milk consumption.

They attribute this finding to the presence of the monosaccharide sugar D-galactose in dairy products. Milk is the primary dietary source of galactose, and consuming it either by injection or in the diet, the study notes, is an “established animal model of aging by induction of oxidative stress and inflammation.”

Pros & Cons

The Swedish study is just one recent example of the conflicting data on milk’s purported health benefits.

Milk is praised for its broad nutrient profile, which includes protein, carbohydrates, and - in some milk types - fat. It’s also a convenient source of many essential vitamins and minerals, including phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and vitamin D.

Adequate calcium and vitamin D intake play key roles in bone growth and strength throughout all stages of development. Some researchers have argued that a focus on bone disease prevention should begin prenatally, promoting the maintenance of healthy calcium and vitamin D levels during early childhood in order to “maximize peak bone mass and to prevent osteoporosis-related bone disease in adulthood” (Sopher et al. Cur Op Endo, Diab & Ob. 2015; 22(1): 35-40).

While a significant body of research supports the notion that milk helps to promote bone growth and prevent osteoporotic fractures, it’s also been shown that fracture rates among the elderly are significantly higher in countries with high calcium intake and high mean bone mineral density (BMD) than in countries with lower calcium intake and a low mean BMD (Klompmaker, TR. Med Hyp. 2005; 65(3): 552-558).

In the US, the USDA recommends consuming two to three cups of dairy products per day, depending on one’s age.

Milk and other dairy items have become many Americans’ go-to source of calcium. From ubiquitous school cafeteria milk cartons to the FDA’s former food pyramid and newer My Plate nutrition models, children and adults alike learn that milk is a necessary component of a well-balanced diet.

But what’s often left out of the dominant conversation about milk is the fact that it’s simply not good for everyone.

 

At birth, most people can readily digest lactose, the primary carbohydrate found in milk and an important source of nutrition during infancy. However, in most mammals, including humans,the natural production of lactase - the enzyme responsible for lactose digestion - decreases after weaning.

 

A Rare Trait

 

Some humans do continue to produce lactase into adulthood, a trait known as lactase persistence. But we haven’t always possessed the ability to digest lactose as adults; rather, it’s an adaptation we've developed in response to our ongoing consumption of non-human milk beyond infancy (Gerbault et al. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2011; 366(1566): 863–877).

Lactase persistence is a relatively rare trait. An estimated 75% of the world’s population eventually loses the ability to digest milk sugar and becomes lactose intolerant at some point in life (Mattar et al. Clin Exp Gast. 2012; 5: 113–121). Rates of lactose intolerance are even higher in countries with minimal milk intake.

Notably, humans are the only species that routinely consumes milk produced by other animals. This curious fact, alongside the striking number of lactose intolerant adults, raises important questions about why we eat and drink so much dairy.

Calcium intake is certainly one motivating factor. But a long list of non-dairy calcium-rich foods reveals many other sources of this essential nutrient. Among them are green peas, chickpeas, quinoa, sesame seeds, oranges and fortified orange juice, and soybeans and other soy products such as tofu. Additionally, leafy green vegetables like kale, spinach, and collard, mustard, and beet greens are high in calcium. One cup of raw kale contains approximately 90 mg of calcium; a 3.5 cup of kale salad exceeds the amount of calcium - 300 mg - found in one cup of milk.

If dairy is required to achieve adequate nutrition, some food items may offer better choices than others. The Swedish milk study found that a high intake of fermented milk products - such as yogurt and soured milk and cheese - was actually associated with lower rates of bone fracture and mortality.

Beyond dietary considerations, many forms of exercise and healthy activity are known to support healthy bone growth and fracture prevention. Those at risk of osteoporosis should have their bone mineral density tested regularly and take efforts to reduce the risk of falls in the home. Physical activity, especially weight-bearing exercise, also helps to build and strengthen bones. Additionally, exposure to naural sunlight promotes vitamin D production and calcium absorption.

Drinking milk does not appear to be the most healthful approach to osteoporosis prevention.

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10 Cokes a Day Equals 20+ Pounds in a Month

By Kristen Schepker, Assistant Editor

In a quest reminiscent of Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 film Super Size Me, a Los Angeles resident set out to raise awareness about sugar consumption by drinking 10 cans of Coca Cola daily for 30 days. The result is not pretty.

Are Oats Really Gluten-Free?

By Cara Lynch, Contributing Writer

As gluten awareness has grown in recent years, so has the controversy over one common grain: oats.

Naturally Gluten-Free, Sorghum Packs a Powerful Nutritional Punch

By Kristen Schepker | Assistant Editor

Every day, an estimated 100 million people consume sorghum worldwide. Most of them are not in the United States.

But that could change very soon, as Americans begin to discover sorghum's tremendous potential to support both human and environmental health.

Making Sense of Natural Non-Nutritive Sweeteners

By Contributing Writer - Vol. 15, No. 2. Summer, 2014

The following article is an excerpt from, Supplementing Dietary Nutrients—A Guide for Healthcare Professionals, a new book by Thomas G. Guilliams, PhD.

Coconut Oil: From Food to Medicine and Back

By Kristen Schepker | Contributing Writer - Vol. 15, No. 2. Summer, 2014

For thousands of years, indigenous peoples in tropical regions have recognized the vast nutritional and medicinal value of the coconut palm. Referred to as the "tree of life" among tropical cultures, virtually all parts of the coconut palm have found use in traditional foods and medicines.

An Ancient Grain Eases A Modern Ailment

By Janet Gulland, Contributing Writer

Data from a randomized cross-over trial indicate that Khorasan wheat, an ancient Near Eastern grain better known by its commercial name, Kamut, appears to be a much better option than conventional wheat for people with irritable bowel syndrome.

Heart-Healthy Beverages: Think Before You Drink!

By Erik Goldman | Contributing Writer - Vol. 15, No. 1. Spring, 2014

When it comes to cardiovascular disease risk, what someone drinks can be as important as what he or she eats. But too often, clinicians overlook the beverage factor when making nutritional recommendations, says Steven Masley, MD, director of the Masley Optimal Health Center in St. Petersburg, FL, and author of the new book, "The 30-Day Heart Tune-Up (Hachette)."

Clearing the Air? The Benefits & Risks Of Electronic Cigarettes

By Kristen Schepker - Vol. 15, No. 1. Spring, 2014

In recent years, there has been an explosion in the popularity of electronic cigarettes. Marketed as a trendy alternative to traditional tobacco products, electronic cigarettes--known as e-cigs--are often touted as a safer, healthier habit.

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