Food as Medicine

Stephen DeAngelis

February 14, 2008

Finding easy and inexpensive ways to provide prophylactic medications to people (especially children) in developing countries remains a goal for those involved with global health issues. Preventing diseases is much cheaper than treating them and prevention is certainly much better for the potential patient. Kraft Foods has announced that it is close to testing a food that will both prevent and treat intestinal worms [“New Food Formula: Tastes Fine, Kills Worms,” by Donald G. McNeil, Jr., New York Times, 5 February 2008].

“Kraft Foods, the conglomerate built on macaroni and cheese, is working on a new and unusual product line — food that is not only tasty, but kills intestinal worms. It is not intended for sale in the United States, but is aimed at rural Asia, Africa and Latin America, where worms leave millions of children lethargic, dangerously anemic and, sometimes, passing blood.”

Most people in the developed world have heard of tapeworms, but never experienced them. They are a nasty parasite. Adult tapeworms don’t need a digestive tract or a mouth because they absorb predigested food provided by the host. As a result, tapeworms steal vital nutrients, causing malnutrition. They can grow to immense sizes. The largest tapeworms have measured close to 60-feet long. As you might imagine, left untreated tapeworms can cause intestinal blockages, which can result in great pain and even death. As the article notes, symptoms vary widely, depending on the species causing the infestation. Symptoms may include upper abdominal discomfort, diarrhea, and loss of appetite. Most tapeworms enter humans through infected food, the same way they enter animals. That’s where Kraft’s innovative approach comes into play.

“The food is in the early development stage, and a spokeswoman said the company was not ready to say whether it would be a cheese, a pasta, a granola bar or something else. But it will incorporate deworming chemicals developed by TyraTech, a company in Melbourne, Fla., that makes safe pesticides. The pesticides, explained R. Douglas Armstrong, chief executive of TyraTech, are derived from plant oils. He would not name the plants, but compared the idea to the power of citronella to repel mosquitoes. The oils attach to three olfactory and central nervous system receptors found only in invertebrates. When overstimulated, Dr. Armstrong said, those receptors produce unstoppable cascades of impulses in the nervous systems of insects or worms, repelling or killing them. Dr. Armstrong compared it to ringing a doorbell so incessantly that it finally triggers a heart attack. Because vertebrates, including humans, lack these receptors, the oils are harmless to them.”

That sounds a bit far-fetched — irritating a worm to death; but the fact of the matter is that in trials on mice it seemed to work.

“Five days of treatment cleared them of dwarf tapeworms, TyraTech said. Tests on humans have not been done, so it is not clear what the prospective delicacies will taste like, said Sarah Delea, a spokeswoman for Kraft. Dr. Armstrong said that different blends would work and that taste could be removed, masked with food flavors or coated with microencapsulization, as is done with medicine.”

Like many discoveries, the powerful medicinal effects of the oil were discovered by accident.

“Essam Enan, a biochemist who is now the chief scientific officer for TyraTech, was formerly a cancer researcher studying the oils at the University of California, Davis, which is in the hot Sacramento Valley, when there was a power failure. ‘Pretty soon, the other labs in the building began to close down for the day,’ Dr. Armstrong said. ‘They had opened their windows. But there were too many flies and bugs, and it was too hot to close them. But there were no bugs in Essam’s lab,’ he continued. ‘Then he found some dead flies. That’s when he began to appreciate the potency.'”

Since no human trials have been conducted, there are some skeptics that the process will work.

“Dr. Frank O. Richards Jr., a parasitologist at the Carter Center in Atlanta, said he found the idea of a worm-killing food ‘interesting but not convincing yet.’ He would want to see proof, he said, that it worked on roundworms, which are metabolically different from tapeworms and much more common. And he would want proof that it killed worms, rather than just irritating them enough to make them migrate to other organs. ‘We’re always interested in new worm drugs, because there isn’t a lot of research into them,’ he said. ‘But a lot in this remains to be looked at.'”

For years, former President Jimmy Carter and those who work with him have been pursuing strategies to fight the debilitating health challenges caused by worms. To learn more, see my post Carter’s War on Worms, which I wrote nearly a year ago. All of us with iodized salt in our cupboards know that adding supplements to foods to prevent health problems is not new (see my post on Iodine and Intelligence). McNeil points out that using food to prevent health problems is not new to Kraft either.

“The Tang drink it sells in Asia and Latin America has extra vitamins. And the Eden brand cheese it sells in the Philippines is fortified with iodine. Iodine deficiency is the leading preventable cause of mental retardation, and it also leads to stunting and goiters.”

The fact that another natural substance has been identified with potential medicinal value reminds us how important it is to protect the environment. In yesterday’s post, I noted that artemisinin, a Chinese drug made from wormwood, is being used to fight malaria at reasonable cost. Effective drugs that can be administered effectively are critical to improving global health and putting developing populations on a firmer foundation for development. Since we all have to eat, combining food and medicine remains a promising course of action — and Kraft hopes a profitable one as well.