The Most Expensive Streusel Topping You’ll Ever Find

Cross-posted from Laura’s new blog, Dietitian at Home.


NOW for MothersI came across this product a few weeks ago in my grocery store’s pharmacy section. It was located right beside the prenatal vitamins I was about to pick out. It wasn’t until I saw the price that I really paid attention to it: $29.99 for a 276g bag. It also comes with a long list of purported benefits. I decided to scrutinize each claim made to see if it really is worth the small fortune they’re asking.

Based on the ingredients list, I saw nothing out of the ordinary, just some naturalist claims and the implication that organic is automatically healthier:

The ‘Healing Mix’ is USDA certified. It is completely Natural and Organic. There are no additives, preservatives, coloring or chemicals added. The ‘Healing Mix’ ingredients are : Organic Flax, Organic Oats, Organic Almonds, Organic Honey, Organic Cinnamon, Organic Wheat, Organic Butter, Organic Walnuts, Organic Pistachios, Organic Brown Sugar, Organic Raisins, Organic Pine Nuts, and Organic Melon Seeds.

Sounds like some sort of sweet, buttery streusel topping.

I looked at some online reviews and found one glaring red flag: every review I could find was fully funded by the company and the reviewers were basically reading the list of claims right off the package.

Sigh. Well, time for an ACTUAL, unbiased review of the products claims.

Emotional wellness: 300 mg DHA per mother’s needs, will improve cognitive wellness.

There is no specific RDA (recommended dietary allowance) DHA. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States recommends 200mg DHA daily. People can meet this recommendation through two servings of fatty fish each week (good examples are salmon, mackerel, trout, and arctic char). Futhermore, none of the ingredients listed contain any DHA (it is typically found in animal foods); at best the nuts and flax provide some alpha-linolenic acid, a precursor to DHA, which is poorly converted to DHA in the human body.

Cognitive wellness: adequate glycogen stores, 3:1 carb: protein ratio; helps to regain mental clarity.

Keeping up energy levels can be difficult as a parent. New and lactating mothers often need up to an additional 500 calories each day. Most women can easily get these calories from 3-4 additional servings from the basic food groups. Eating a balanced diet with good quality protein will help you feel satisfied and make your energy last longer. A low carbohydrate diet can cause fatigue, low mood, and poor focus. The overall proportions of protein and carbohydrates in the diet may be important for optimal replenishment of glycogen stores, however it is not necessary that a particular food have the 3:1 ratio described.

Physical wellness: nutrients for physical recovery, vitamin C for healing, 600 mg recommended dose for new mothers.

Adequate vitamin C is important for health, tissue healing and repair. The RDA for vitamin C during lactation is 120mg/day, there is no basis for the 600 mg/day claim. The biggest problem with this claim is that, after careful inspection of the product’s nutrition facts table shows that each tablespoon (about ½  a scoop) provides 0% daily value of vitamin C. If you’re looking to increase your vitamin C intake, NOW for Mothers is a poor choice.

Baby wellness: babies need adequate fat and calcium, each scoop has 1000mg Ca++ and 9 g fat.

There are two issues with this claim. First, the nutritional composition of breastmilk is very constant, almost regardless of maternal intake. This is to ensure that feast or famine, infants will get the nutrients they need to grow and develop. If the mother’s diet is deficient in a nutrient, her body will draw on its own stores to maintain breast milk consistency. Additional calcium or fat in the mother’s diet will not increase the fat or calcium content of her milk. Second, according to the nutrition facts table, each tablespoon provides 4% DV of calcium, which translates roughly to 40 mg. The manufacturer suggests taking 2-3 scoops daily, meaning at most you’ll receive 240 mg calcium from the product, not the 1000mg they claim.

Long-term claims:

Stimulates energy flow: Like Chi? There is no evidence or scientific rationale of an “energy flow” in the human body. This statement is essentially meaningless.

Stabilizes blood sugar levels for sustained energy: Plausible, depending on the person’s diet as a whole. See below.

Assists in reducing congestion and phlegm in the body: Wha?… Are they talking about phlegm, one of the four humours of medieval medicine? If that’s the case, enough of a reason to write off this product right there. As for congestion, the most common causes for this include allergies, viri (like the common cold), and in this target population, pregnancy.

Aids in flushing toxins from the system: Without listing any specific toxins, this claim becomes completely meaningless. It is implausible that one food mixture could “flush” ALL toxins, and highly unlikely that it could remove ANY. Remember, the human body has an incredibly powerful toxin removal system through the kidneys and liver; unless damaged, these organs do not need any supplements or special foods to help them do their work.

Under the “how it works” sections:

INTRODUCES:

Sustained Energy: Potentially true, depending on a person’s current diet. Whole foods and foods containing healthy fats and protein can help prevent blood sugar spikes and drops which can lead to low energy. If a person’s diet is already balanced and based on whole foods, she is unlikely to see significant benefit.

Balanced Hormones: See below.

Help in Lactation: Oatmeal is often claimed to increase milk supply, but there is no evidence to show this is the case. Again, if a woman’s caloric intake is too low, her milk supply may suffer, so the additional calories from this supplement may help improve the situation. To be clear, it is the additional calories, not this supplement, that would cause the benefit.

Better Brain Development for Baby: See above. Only if the mother and her diet are highly deficient in key nutrients.

Increase in Metabolism: Plausible, if your caloric intake is really low and you’re slipping into starvation mode. The additional calories may help get you burning calories instead of storing them.

Boost in Immunity: Nope. This article explains how to improve your immune system. NOW for mothers can be part of a healthy diet, but it is not the key ingredient that will keep the colds away.

  • Sidenote: if you have a child between 0-6 years old, good luck keeping illnesses away.

Stronger Bones: 2-3 scoops of the product provide about 25% of a lactating woman’s calcium needs. For women with historically low intake of calcium, this may help them meet their needs.

REMOVES

Toxins: Which “toxins”? How? I’m not putting in any more effort into discussing this until they make some specific claims.

Inflammation: Maybe…if your diet is really low in omega-3 fatty acids and really high in refined foods.

Phlegm: So does a cough, sneeze, and a Kleenex. See above.

Acidity: Actually, the body’s incredibly complex and sensitive homeostatic systems take care of that without any help.

Excess Estrogen: This claim likely comes from the findings that lignans (fat-soluble compounds that are metabolized into estrogen-like compounds) may have anti-carcinogenic effects due to binding to estrogen receptors in place of estrogen. This process does not change the body’s production of estrogen, as implied by this claim. As time passes after birth, and eventually once lactation ends, hormone levels will return to normal. If you have reason to believe they are not stabilizing, this product is unlikely to help. In this case, seek qualified medical advice.

Final verdict: There is no evidence that this exorbitantly priced streusel topping will accomplish any of the claims it sets out. Stick to regular granola, muesli, or oatmeal, eat flax seeds and nuts in small portions regularly, and save your money (the child will take up that extra cash soon enough). If you really love the flavour of this topping, make your own.

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The opposite of stumped: 9 unanswerable anti-vax questions answered

9 Questions That Stump Every Pro-Vaccine Advocate and Their Claims found its way onto the Facebook page for the Winnipeg Skeptics when a member’s friend posted it, along with the qualification “if you can give me a good, scientifically-backed answer to each of these questions, I will vaccinate my children.”

Oh, if it only were all so easy! The article claims:

I have never encountered one pro-vaccine advocate, whether medically or scientifically qualified, who could answer even 1 let alone all 9 of these questions.

Well, here’s one non-immunologist, non-virologist, unqualified physiology & medical student who had zero problem with finding scientific answers to any of their questions. Let’s dive right in, shall we?

1. Could you please provide one double-blind, placebo-controlled study that can prove the safety and effectiveness of vaccines?

Yes, although you can’t find any modern studies of old vaccines, because it’s unethical to deviate from the standard of care. However, there are tons of modern (i.e. internet searchable) literature on the subject. Honestly, go to Google Scholar and search “double blind placebo vaccine” I’ll start you off:
Prophylactic quadrivalent human papillomavirus (types 6, 11, 16, and 18) L1 virus-like particle vaccine in young women: a randomised double-blind placebo-controlled multicentre phase II efficacy trial

2. Could you please provide scientific evidence on ANY study which can confirm the long-term safety and effectiveness of vaccines?

Yes. Seriously, it took me 30 seconds to find this. Google Scholar is your friend.

3. Could you please provide scientific evidence which can prove that disease reduction in any part of the world, at any point in history was attributable to inoculation of populations?

4. Could you please explain how the safety and mechanism of vaccines in the human body are scientifically proven if their pharmacokinetics (the study of bodily absorption, distribution, metabolism and excretion of ingredients) are never examined or analyzed in any vaccine study?

You can’t study the pharmacokinetics of something which is not physically acting on the body—rather, vaccines are designed to be acted upon. I can’t answer this; not because of a conspiracy, but because this is an unanswerable question. It’s like asking, “Why haven’t they studied the mating habits of tennis shoes?”

5. Could you please provide scientific justification as to how injecting a human being with a confirmed neurotoxin is beneficial to human health and prevents disease?

Neurotoxins are a matter of dosage, just like radiation, and all interventions are a risk-benefit ratio. You accept the risk of getting a chest x-ray if you might have pneumonia because the dose is very low, and you won’t have it done repeatedly. Also, for something to be a neurotoxin and have effects on the brain, it must be able to pass the blood-brain barrier. This is very, very difficult and chemists spend their entire lives trying to design something that will get across. Just because something can be toxic doesn’t mean it is, just because something has risk doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, and just because something has theoretical potential to do harm doesn’t mean that it will do harm.

‎6. Can you provide a risk/benefit profile on how the benefits of injecting a known neurotoxin exceeds its risks to human health for the intended goal of preventing disease?

See the above study on measles vaccines saving hundreds of thousands of lives. Any risk of “injecting a known neurotoxin” (Which one? At what dose? Neurotoxic to who? Correlation or causative?) is unequivocally lower than the very real and potentially lethal risk of an outbreak in an unvaccinated community or one with a low uptake.

7. Could you please provide scientific justification on how bypassing the respiratory tract (or mucous membrane) is advantageous and how directly injecting viruses into the bloodstream enhances immune functioning and prevents future infections?

Different parts of your body have different types of antibodies associated with them. In the mucous membranes of your body, like the GI tract and the respiratory tract, white blood cells at the membrane produce IgA antibodies on exposure to a pathogen. In the blood stream, you have direct access to the memory cells which produce IgGs: the more robust antibodies that provide lifetime immunity against a particular pathogen. Those memory cells will stay in your lymph nodes, ready to produce an onslaught of deadly (to the pathogen) IgGs whenever the body recognizes it again. IgAs are incapable of this, and many respiratory pathogens are defeated after exposure by the body’s initial defences, before an specific set of antibodies can ever be manufactured.

8. Could you please provide scientific justification on how a vaccine would prevent viruses from mutating?

Viruses mutate as they replicate, but fortunately, by definition, viruses require the machinery of living organisms to do so. To do this, viruses must enter the cells and hijack their function to produce more viruses. If the body is prepared to identify the pathogen, it can respond immediately to the pathogen in a matter of hours instead of days. Given that viruses can replicate at phenomenal rates, the faster the body responds, the less replication will happen, the less likely a beneficial (to the virus) mutation will occur. Furthermore, even if a mutation does happen, if individuals around the infected patient are all immunized, the mutation will not be carried on. The nice thing about adaptive (post-exposure) immunity is that it identifies a bunch of different parts of the pathogen as foreign, so even if little bits of it change, one antibody might be useless but all of the others will still work!

9. Could you please provide scientific justification as to how a vaccination can target a virus in an infected individual who does not have the exact viral configuration or strain the vaccine was developed for?

Although I sort of just addressed this, it’s a matter of phylogeny. If you look at human beings (obviously far more complicated than viruses, but work with me) almost all of our diversity and mutation is contained in a fraction of a fraction of a percentage of our DNA. This is because we all come from a common ancestor and we have been building off of that base DNA ever since, so we have more in common than not. Viruses work the same way. Each type of virus has certain defining characteristics, defining proteins that make it work. For retroviruses, this is something like reverse transcriptase, which allows the HIV to copy itself into our DNA and hide. So, if the vaccine causes you to develop an antibody against a particular protein, say one on the surface of a influenza virus, it’s going to make antibodies against little chunks of it, and the odds of a related virus having mutated all of those little chunks beyond the wiggle-room there is in these sorts of processes is pretty low.

Think of pathogens like fugitives and antibodies like really zoomed in “wanted” photos that the body has put up in the Post Office. The fugitive tries to hide by dying their hair, so maybe that photo of their hair is useless. And maybe they’ve changed their shirt, so throw out that photo too. But that hand is still a hand, and that mouth looks like the right mouth even though it’s got a moustache now. The fugitive is spotted—the white blood cells are primed to look for that mouth and that hand—and the pathogen is “arrested”.

That’s not to say that an imperfect match is going to lead to the best result. If you can put all those little snapshots together and get the whole thing, you’re even better off, just like a perfect match is going to trigger a wide variety of antibodies to be produced and the response will be more robust, but immunization with a closely related virus is going to provide some protection.

So no, Random Internet Website that hasn’t even bothered to try and learn about the immune system (I cannot reiterate enough that I am not an immunology expert and all of this information is freely available via appropriate internet search): none of these are stumpable questions. If someone is confused by your questions, it’s because they don’t make sense or because they are so unbelievably broad as to be useless.

Asking questions is good, and should be encouraged! You should know these things before you vaccinate your kids! However, critical thinking can teach you to ask better questions. For example: What sort of evidence is there for the 25 year safety and efficacy of the Canadian childhood MMR vaccine in a healthy Canadian population? This a specific, quantifiable, discrete question to which discrete answers can be obtained. These are the sort of questions that scientists ask—and the ones that drive the clinical trials you’re asking for.