2010 Science News of the Year: Nutrition

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Fish oil packs a punch
Omega-3 fatty acids are turning up in plenty of promising reports, but some tests fail to show a benefit. Reported anti-inflammatory effects of the compound may help to shake out just how these nutrients boost health. High levels of omega-3s are found in fish oil from cold-water species and in walnut and flaxseed oils.

Scientists report that people with sepsis, a lethal inflammatory overreaction triggered by a blood infection, fare better if they get fish oil rather than soybean oil (SN: 2/13/10, p. 14). Other researchers find that ample omega-3 in the blood can protect the ends of chromosomes, helping cells live longer.

On the cancer front, fish oil and its anti-inflammatory cargo of omega-3s seem to guard against breast cancer (SN: 7/31/10, p. 13), while 14 other over-the-counter supplements fail to show a benefit. And lab research in mice induced to have prostate cancer finds that their tumors grow more slowly on a diet rich in walnut oil, which is high in omega-3s, compared with soy oil (SN: 4/24/10, p. 13; SN Online: 3/27/10).

In some studies, though, omega-3 benefits come up short. For example, people with heart arrhythmia may not be helped by fish oil (SN: 12/18/10, p. 15), and other reports cast doubt on a protective effect against dementia. The research continues.

Eating wrong The National Academies’ Institute of Medicine reports that “nearly the entire U.S. population consumes a diet that is not on par with recommendations” (SN Online: 9/29/10).

Breast milk takes on HIV Two research teams have developed tactics to protect babies of HIV-infected women by supplementing mom’s breast milk with virus-quashing bacteria (SN Online: 8/6/10).

New antioxidant benefits An antioxidant chemical in grapes, peanuts and wine can boost the action of insulin, which would benefit people with type 2 diabetes, two new studies suggest (SN Online: 6/23/10). Two more show how this molecule, resveratrol, might fight retinal and heart disease (SN Online: 6/28/10).

Take dairy to heart A Swedish study links high concentrations of dairy fats in the blood to a reduced risk of heart attacks (SN Online: 8/27/10).

Mercurial fish and rice U.S. studies offer guidance on how to tap the dietary benefits of fish without risking mercury poisoning. One suggestion: Focus on low-contamination species (SN: 5/22/10, p. 10). Researchers also discover that rice is the leading mercury source for many people in China (SN Online: 4/16/10).

Pucker no more Japanese scientists have engineered tomatoes to produce a natural taste-altering protein that makes sour foods seem oh-so-sweet (SN Online: 8/10/10).

Chili diets A study shows that an ingredient in peppers can rev up the metabolism of obese diners — a potential boon to weight loss — and another study identifies the molecular changes that fight fat (SN Online: 4/27/10; SN Online: 6/3/10).

Deficient in D Research continues to link a shortage of vitamin D with health risks. Lymphoma patients deficient in the “sunshine vitamin” do poorly compared with those who have plenty of it (SN: 1/2/10, p. 15), and children getting extra doses of vitamin D fend off the flu better than those getting placebos (SN Online: 3/16/10). The Institute of Medicine has tripled the dietary reference intake for vitamin D (SN: 1/1/11, p. 14) from 200 international units to 600 IU for people ages 1 to 50, and has also raised it for other age groups. But researchers say the new targets are still way too low to address widespread vitamin D deficiency.

Fattening after dark When it comes to limiting weight gain, timing of dining may be as important as what’s on the menu, animal data indicate (SN: 11/6/10, p. 10).

Healthy perks At least among aging rats, coffee can boost memory and signaling essential to motor coordination (SN Online: 7/22/10).

Seaweed superpowers Gut microbes found in Japanese people can break down a compound in seaweed. The ability may come from a gene picked up from marine microbes hitchhiking through the intestines (SN: 5/8/10, p. 13).