What About Canned Fruit?

Food cans used to be soldered with lead compounds—so much so that people living off of canned food may have died from lead poisoning. Thankfully, this is no longer a problem in the United States. Lead contamination was one of the first priorities of the Food and Drug Administration back in 1906, before it was even called the FDA. Newspapers now have online archives going back a century so we can read about landmark historical events like “FDA Proposes Lead-Soldered Cans Be Banned” from way back yonder in…1993. So even though it was a priority in 1906, the ban didn’t actually go into effect until 1995. Evidently it was complicated because lead solder was “grandfathered” in as a “prior-sanctioned” substance.

Now that the lead is gone, though, are canned foods healthy? It depends primarily on what’s in the can. If it’s SPAM or another processed meat product, for instance, I’d probably pass.

What about canned fruit? We know fruits and vegetables in general may help protect us from dying of cardiovascular disease, and, when it comes to preventing strokes, fruit may be even more protective. But whether food processing affects this association was unknown, as I discuss in my video Is Canned Fruit as Healthy? One study found that unprocessed produce, mostly apples and oranges, appeared superior to processed produce. But that study focused mainly orange and apple juice. It’s no surprise whole fruit is better than fruit juice.

What about whole fruit when it is in a can? Dietary guidelines encourage eating all fruit whether it’s fresh, frozen, or canned, but few studies have examined the health benefits of canned fruit…until now. Canned fruit did not seem to enable people to live longer. In fact, moving from fresh or dried fruit to canned fruit might even shorten one’s life. Therefore, perhaps dietary guidelines should stress fresh, frozen, and dried fruit rather than canned.

Why the difference? While there’s no longer lead in cans these days, there is bisphenol A (BPA), the plastics chemical used in the lining of most cans. BPA can leach into the food and might counterbalance some of the fruits’ benefits. Recently, for example, blood levels of this chemical were associated with thickening of the artery linings going up to the brains of young adults. Canned fruit is often packed in syrup, as well, and all that added sugar and the canning process itself may diminish some nutrients, potentially wiping out 20 to 40 percent of the phenolic phytonutrients and about half of the vitamin C.

Maybe one of the reasons citrus appears particularly protective against stroke is its vitamin C content. It appears the more vitamin C in our diet and in our bloodstream, the lower the risk of stroke. And the way to get vitamin C into the bloodstream is to eat a lot of healthy foods, like citrus and tropical fruits, broccoli, and bell peppers. “Therefore, the observed effect of vitamin C on stroke reduction may simply be a proxy for specific foods (eg, fruits and vegetables) that causally lower stroke” risk. How could the researchers tell? Instead of food, they gave people vitamin C pills to see if they worked—and they didn’t.

This might be because citrus fruit have all sorts of other compounds associated with lower stroke risk, proving that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. You can’t capture Mother Nature in a pill. It’s like the apocryphal beta-carotene story. Dozens of studies showed that people who ate more beta-carotene-rich foods, like greens and sweet potatoes, and therefore had more beta-carotene circulating in their system, had lower cancer risk. What about beta-carotene supplements instead of whole foods? Researchers tried giving beta-carotene pills to people. Not only did they not work, they may have even caused more cancer. I assumed the National Cancer Institute researcher who did this study would conclude the obvious: produce, not pills. But, no. Instead, the researcher questioned whether he should have tried lower dose pills, alpha-carotene pills, pills with other phytochemicals, or maybe multiple combinations. After all, he said, “[i]t is likely that neither the public nor the scientific community will be satisfied with recommendations concerned solely with foods…”

Check out my other videos on the can-lining chemical BPA, including:

Is fresh fruit really that healthy? See:

Is it possible to get too much of a good thing? See How Much Fruit Is Too Much?.

Now that there’s no more lead in the cans, are there any other ways we’re exposed to the toxic heavy metal? I did a whole series on lead, which you can watch. See also:

I close with yet another screed against reductionism. For more on that, see my videos Why Is Nutrition So Commercialized? and Reductionism and the Deficiency Mentality.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Health Benefits of Citrus Zest

New data demonstrating a DNA protective agent present in at least some fruits and vegetables found that the agent was heat sensitive and determined it was not vitamin C. This was confirmed in a study that tried vitamin C directly and found no effect on DNA protection or repair of DNA strand breaks.

If not vitamin C, what could the DNA protective agent be? The carotenoid beta-cryptoxanthin, found primarily in citrus, seems to be at least one candidate, as I discuss in my video Citrus Peels and Cancer: Zest for Life? If you expose cells to a mutagenic chemical, you can cause physical breaks in the strands of DNA. However, in less than an hour, our DNA repair enzymes can weld most of our DNA back together. What happens if we add some of that citrus phytonutrient? We can effectively double the speed at which DNA is repaired. But, this was determined in a petri dish. What about in a person?

In one study, subjects drank a glass of orange juice and their blood was drawn two hours later. The DNA damage induced with an oxidizing chemical dropped, whereas if they had just had something like orange Kool-Aid instead of orange juice, it didn’t help.

So, do people who eat more fruit walk around with less DNA damage? Yes, particularly women. Does this actually translate into lower cancer rates? It appears so: Citrus alone is associated with a 10 percent reduction in odds of breast cancer.

Given to newly diagnosed breast cancer patients, citrus phytonutrients were found to concentrate in breast tissue, though many complained of “citrus burps” due to the concentrated extract they were given. So, researchers evaluated topical application as an alternative dosing strategy, recruiting women to apply orange-flavored massage oil to their breasts daily. This request was met with excellent compliance, but it didn’t work. We actually have to eat, not wear, our food. 

Why not just take carotenoid supplements to boost our DNA repair? Because it doesn’t work. Although dietary supplements did not provoke any alteration in DNA repair, dietary supplementation with carrots did. This suggests that “the whole food may be important in modulating DNA repair processes…”

Though orange juice consumption was found protective against childhood leukemia, it was not found protective against skin cancer. “However, the most striking feature was the protection purported by citrus peel consumption” . Just drinking orange juice may increase the risk of the most serious type of skin cancer. Daily consumption was associated with a 60 percent increase in risk. So, again, better to stick with the whole fruit. We can eat citrus extra-whole by zesting some of the peel into our dishes.

Now you know why my favorite citrus fruit is kumquat—because you can eat the peel and all!

For other foods that may keep our DNA intact, see my Which Fruits and Vegetables Boost DNA Repair? video. Kiwifruit (Kiwifruit and DNA Repair), broccoli (DNA Protection from Broccoli), and spices (Spicing Up DNA Protection) may also fit the bill.

Interested in learning more about citrus? Check out:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

In Late Pregnancy Moderate the Intake of Powerful Anti-inflammatory Foods

The right side of the heart pumps deoxygenated blood from the body to the lungs, where it can fill up with oxygen, and then the left side of the heart pumps oxygen-rich blood from the lungs to the rest of the body. So, blood travels from the body to the right side of the heart to the lungs to the left side of the heart and back to the body.

But what happens in the womb? Fetuses’ lungs don’t work because they’re filled with fluid. How does the heart bypass the lungs and spread the oxygen-rich blood coming in through the umbilical cord to the rest of the body? Before we’re born, we have an extra blood vessel—the ductus arteriosus—that directly connects the right side of the heart with the left side of the heart, bypassing the fluid-filled lungs. When the baby is born and takes a first breath, this blood vessel closes. In about 1 in 10,000 births, though, the blood vessel closes prematurely before the baby is born, necessitating an emergency C-section, as I discuss in my video Caution: Anti-inflammatory Foods in the Third Trimester.

Most cases for which there’s a known cause are thought to be related to taking anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin or ibuprofen. This is because the way the body keeps this blood vessel open is with a class of inflammatory compounds called prostaglandins. If you take an anti-inflammatory drug, you can undermine your body’s ability to keep it open, and it could constrict closed prematurely. That’s why most authorities recommend that these nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) be avoided in the third trimester. The likelihood that anything bad will happen is extremely remote, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Sometimes this premature constriction happens even when women are not taking drugs, so-called “idiopathic” cases, which is doctorspeak for “we have no idea what causes it.” If anti-inflammatory drugs can cause it, though, what about anti-inflammatory foods? A few years ago, in my video Chamomile Tea May Not Be Safe During Pregnancy, I profiled two incidents apparently caused by pregnant women drinking chamomile tea. One of which reversed in that the ductus opened right back up once the tea was stopped, but, in the other case, the other baby had to come right out. Since then, there have been other case reports of this occurring––for example, when a woman had been drinking a few ounces of an acai berry drink every day and when another woman had been drinking prune juice and a violet vegetable juice containing a blend of fruits and veggies. Pregnant women should, therefore, take special care when consuming lots of these powerful anti-inflammatory berry nutrients.

What about berries themselves, green tea, and all the other wonderful anti-inflammatory foods and beverages out there? A group of researchers in Brazil compared ultrasounds of the hearts of third-trimester babies whose moms ate a lot of these anti-inflammatory foods with those whose moms ate less, and they could tell a difference. The speed of blood through the ductus in the moms consuming the anti-inflammatory diet was higher, suggesting it was narrower, just like when you pinch the opening of a hose closed and can make water shoot out faster. Also, the right sides of the hearts of the babies whose moms were consuming the anti-inflammatory diet were larger than their left sides, suggesting some blood backup, again an indicator of a tighter ductus. The researchers suggested changes in late pregnancy diets may be warranted, but critics replied that the differences they noted might not have any clinical relevance, meaning it may not matter if the vessel is a little more open or closed. We don’t want to alarm women because many of these anti-inflammatory foods may be beneficial––such as cranberries, for example, which may be useful in preventing urinary tract infections, which can be a risk factor for premature birth. Consuming cranberries is attractive from a public health and cost standpoint if it can prevent some premature births.

Before cutting down on a healthy food such as cranberries, we’d want some stronger evidence that they’re potentially harmful. What about confounding factors? For example, women who ate lots of anti-inflammatory foods might have had other characteristics that could affect fetal blood flow. What we needed was an interventional trial in which pregnant women change their diets and see what happens, but we didn’t have such studies… until now.

A study has shown that cutting back on anti-inflammatory foods such as tea, coffee, dark chocolate, grapes, and citrus for a few weeks during the third trimester did indeed seem to open up the ductus during normal pregnancies. In women whose fetuses had abnormally constricted vessels, a few weeks of eliminating polyphenol-rich foods reversed the ductal constriction in 96% of cases. Importantly, researchers didn’t follow these babies after birth to see if it made any difference. That complete closure only happens in 1 in 10,000 births; we’re not sure what effects relative levels of constriction may have, so it’s too early to be instituting a ban on dark chocolate for pregnant women.

At this stage, what we’re left with is a note of caution. During the rest of your life, I recommend eating healthy foods such as berries and cocoa powder, but from about 28 weeks until birth, pregnant women may want to cut back until we know more.

In Chamomile Tea May Not Be Safe During Pregnancy, I profile those two case reports I mentioned above. As I noted in Anti-inflammatory Antioxidants, highly antioxidant foods are, in general, highly anti-inflammatory foods.

For comparisons between the strength of anti-inflammatory foods and drugs, see Watermelon for Sore Muscle Relief, Anti-inflammatory Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, and Which Spices Fight Inflammation?

The videos provide more information about healthy (and unhealthy) diets in pregnancy:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: