Bell Peppers to Help Ward Off Parkinson’s

Parkinson’s disease is a movement disorder striking 1 percent of our older population and is the 14th leading cause of death in the United States. While we don’t really know what causes it, we do know that people with a smoking history only appear to have about half the risk. Of course, “[s]moking is hugely damaging to health; any benefit derived from a reduction in risk of Parkinson’s disease is outweighed by the increased risks of cancer and cardiovascular disease,” as well as lung disease, but this shouldn’t stop us from “evaluating tobacco components for possible neuroprotective effects.”

Nicotine may fit the bill. If nicotine is the agent responsible for the neuroprotective effects, is there any way to get the benefit without the risks? That’s the topic of my video Peppers and Parkinson’s: The Benefits of Smoking Without the Risks?.

After all, where does nicotine come from? The tobacco plant. Any other plants have nicotine? Well, tobacco is a nightshade plant, so it’s in the same family as tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and peppers. And guess what? They all contain nicotine as well.

That’s why you can’t tell if someone’s a smoker just by looking for the presence of nicotine in their toenail clippings, because non-smokers grow out some nicotine into their nails, as well. Nicotine is in our daily diet—but how much? The amount we average in our diet is hundreds of times less than we get from a single cigarette. So, though we’ve known for more than 15 years that there’s nicotine in ketchup, it was dismissed as insignificant. We then learned that even just one or two puffs of a cigarette could saturate half of our brain’s nicotine receptors, so it doesn’t take much. Then, we discovered that just exposure to second-hand smoke may lower the risk of Parkinson’s, and there’s not much nicotine in that. In fact, one would only be exposed to about three micrograms of nicotine working in a smoky restaurant, but that’s on the same order as what one might get eating the food at a non-smoking restaurant. So, the contribution of dietary nicotine intake from simply eating some healthy vegetables may be significant.

Looking at nightshade consumption, in general, researchers may have found a lower risk compared to other vegetables, but different nightshades have different amounts of nicotine. They found none in eggplant, only a little in potatoes, some in tomatoes, but the most in bell peppers. When that was taken into account, a much stronger picture emerged. The researchers found that more peppers meant more protection. And, as we might expect, the effects of eating nicotine-containing foods were mainly evident in nonsmokers, as the nicotine from smoke would presumably blot out any dietary effect.

This could explain why protective associations have been found for Parkinson’s and the consumption of tomatoes, potatoes, and a tomato- and pepper-rich Mediterranean diet. Might nightshade vegetables also help with treating Parkinson’s? Well, results from trials of nicotine gum and patches have been patchy. Perhaps nicotine only helps prevent it in the first place, or could it be that it isn’t the nicotine at all, but, instead, is some other phytochemical in tobacco and the pepper family?

Researchers conclude that their findings will be need to be reproduced to help establish cause and effect before considering dietary interventions to prevent Parkinson’s disease, but when the dietary intervention is to eat more delicious, healthy dishes like stuffed peppers with tomato sauce, I don’t see the reason we have to wait.

Benefits of smoking? See the tobacco industry gloat in my video Is Something in Tobacco Protective Against Parkinson’s Disease?.

Bell peppers may actually be healthiest raw, as I discuss in Best Cooking Method.

What about tomato products? Choose whole, crushed, or diced tomatoes instead of tomato sauce, purée, or paste. Why? See Inhibiting Platelet Activation with Tomato Seeds for the answer.

You may be interested in my in-depth video series on the Mediterranean Diet:

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:

Knowingly and Secretly Deciding to Put the Buying Public at Risk

The processed food industries now use tactics similar to those used by cigarette companies to undermine public health interventions.

In 1954 the tobacco industry paid to publish the ‘Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers’ in hundreds of U.S. newspapers. It stated that the public’s health was the industry’s concern above all others and promised a variety of good-faith changes….The ‘Frank Statement’ was a charade, the first step in a concerted, half-century-long campaign to mislead Americans about the catastrophic effects of smoking and to avoid public policy that might damage sales.” As a result, millions of lives were lost during decades of lies and deceptive actions. In the hope that food industry’s history will be written differently, researchers spotlighted important lessons that can be learned from the tobacco experience.

 As I discuss in my video, Big Food Using the Tobacco Industry Playbook, the “processed food industries use tactics similar to those used by tobacco companies to undermine public health interventions. They do this by distorting research findings, co-opting policy makers and health professionals, and lobbying politicians and public officials.” In his book about his fight with the tobacco industry, former FDA commissioner David Kessler recounted similar strong-arm tactics used by the meat industry to try to squash nutrition regulations.

The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision allowing corporations to spend unlimited amounts on political ads during election campaigns could make things even worse by working against candidates who support public health positions.

 “Another similarity between tobacco and food companies is the introduction and heavy marketing of ‘safer’ or ‘healthier’ products. When cigarette sales dropped…[due] to health concerns, the industry introduced ‘safer’ [filtered] cigarettes that gave health-conscious smokers an alternative to quitting,” and sales shot back up. Ironically, the filters originally had asbestos in them.

Cigarette ads have proudly proclaimed that the brands they were promoting had “less nicotine, “less tar,” and even “reduced carcinogens”! And, how could anything be bad for you if it is “100% organic,” as another ad promoted?

Today, leaner pork or eggs with less cholesterol may be the food industry’s low-tar cigarettes. Indeed, food industry ads and the messages they tout can be head-scratchers. “A KFC ad campaign depicted an African American family in which the father was told by the mother that ‘KFC has 0 grams of trans fat now.’ The father, in the presence of children, shouts, ‘Yeah baby! Whoooo!!’ and then begins eating the fried chicken” by the bucketful.

What about cereal companies touting all of the whole grains in their Cocoa Puffs Brownie Crunch? Fruit Loops “now provides fiber” was the message emblazoned on its packaging.

A U.S. District Judge overseeing a tobacco industry case put it well: “‘All too often in the choice between the physical health of consumers and the financial well-being of business, concealment is chosen over disclosure, sales over safety, and money over morality. Who are these persons who knowingly and secretly decide to put the buying public at risk solely for the purpose of making profits, and who believe that illness and death of consumers is an apparent cost of their own prosperity?’ Above all, the experience of tobacco shows how powerful profits can be as a motivator, even at the cost of millions of lives and unspeakable suffering.”

I know some people don’t like my “political” videos and wish I’d stick to the science, but it’s impossible to understand the disconnect between the balance of evidence and dietary recommendations without understanding the impact of commercial influence. See, for example, these videos:

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: