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Study finds broccoli-sprout juice helps the body flush carcinogens (but don't call it a "detox")

New study suggests broccoli-sprout beverages help the body detoxify airborne pollutants, though it's not quite a "detox".

It’s hard to avoid health fads. It took Google just ten minutes since I read this study in Cancer Research Prevention to begin bombarding me with adverts. ‘7lbs in 7 days Juice Diets‎’ and ‘Coreflush colon cleanses’ are just some of the regimes proclaiming salvation from ill health, but nothing gets pushed as much as the detox. According to The Internet, the detox diet might as well have descended from Heaven as it's so effective at solving everything from bad breath to erectile dysfunction.

This latest obsession with internal body cleansing has flourished over the last couple of decades. The diet industry, of which detox plays an important role, is rapidly expanding. It’s already worth tens of billions of dollars, despite coming under severe criticism from leading scientists. Author and blogger Dr. Ben Goldacre – famous for calling out examples of ‘bad science’ – once described detox as “meaningless, symbolic, gimmicky short-lived health gestures with a built-in expiry date”. Yet this doesn’t stop the media touting every new superfood or miracle-diet as a panacea for all our ills. News outlets pounce at the first sign of a study purporting to have identified a medical breakthrough, often misrepresenting the author’s original findings in order to grab flashy headlines. (Take a quick look at the A-Z of things the Daily Mail thinks will cause and cure cancer – broccoli has 14 entries).

The trick is not to get carried away by the hype. Look at this latest study. Researchers in the US and China have found broccoli-sprout juice appears to "remove" airborne pollutants from the body, but this isn't a "detox". Unlike the fleeting 'cleanse-your-body-in-5 days' type programmes (which unsurprisingly peak after the Christmas holidays), this research looked at the effects of longer-term consumption of broccoli-sprout juice on removing three specific carcinogens.

In the randomised-study of 291 participants from a highly polluted township in rural China, the team analysed daily urine samples from two groups: the first group was given a daily drink of broccoli-sprout juice, but the others were given a placebo beverage. The multi-institutional collaboration included researchers from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Qidong Liver Cancer Institute. The team were looking at how the levels of three carcinogens – benzene, acrolein, and crotonaldehyde – changed in participants’ urine over the three-month period.

The substances involved have been linked to increased risk of cardiopulmonary disease, arguably the second biggest killer in China. As the township in the study is located in the heavily-polluted Yangtze River Delta region (a tiny area of eastern China responsible for a monstrous 15 per cent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions) there is a huge need to combat the dangers of air pollution.

Did the concoction work? On the face of it, yes. The authors found that juice-drinkers excreted more pollutants than the control group. In particular, they noted:

Rapid and sustained, statistically significant (p ≤ 0.01) increases in the levels of excretion of the glutathione-derived conjugates of benzene (61 per cent), acrolein (23 per cent), but not crotonaldehyde were found in those receiving broccoli sprout beverage compared with placebo.”

So far so good. Juice-drinkers weed out larger quantities of two of the three substances under consideration - but this still doesn’t mean broccoli-sprout juice “prevents against lung and heart disease”, as it might have you believe. 

The big question here – does drinking broccoli-sprout juice decrease your risk of disease by causing you to excrete higher levels of carcinogens? – needs lots more research. Without analysing numerous studies alongside one another (and taking sample size into account) you can’t really draw conclusions. A single study of 300 people is evidently not enough to justify claims of preventing lung cancer.

In an article published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, health-policy expert Dr John Ioannidis famously argued that a large amount of research is highly misleading. By comparing publications of “highly cited original clinical research studies” with subsequent papers where a larger sample size was used, he found a third of effectiveness claims to be either contradicted or highly exaggerated. Taking a single study to be gospel truth is foolish.

Let's go back to the broccoli. Research emerges linking this juice with enhanced excretion of pollutants; other studies have already linked those same pollutants to cancer. Extrapolating those statements to claim detoxing with broccoli-sprout juice will prevent disease is understandable, and perhaps even inevitable, but undeniably wrong. We mustn't connect dots to form patterns that aren't there.

This highlights a real problem with the supposed 'science' behind detoxing and other miracle-cures: subtly inviting us to form our own conclusions from the selective evidence they present, which, without comparative studies, is effectively meaningless. In detox diets this manifests itself by ignoring the body's own capabilities for disposing of toxins. Andrew Wadge, former Chief Scientist at the Food Standards Agency, expressed his scepticism that we need extra help cleansing out our insides:

There's a lot of nonsense talked about 'detoxing' and most people seem to forget that we are born with a built-in detox mechanism. It's called the liver. So my advice would be to ditch the detox diets and supplements and buy yourself something nice with the money you've saved.”

However, this doesn't mean we should automatically write off such supplements as useless. Given how few of us get our 5-a-day, you could argue that any initiatives promoting increased consumption of vegetables could only be a good thing. Co-author of the broccoli-juice paper Dr. Thomas Kensler tentatively suggested their findings could be used on a personal level, alongside state measures to improve quality of air.

This study points to a frugal, simple and safe means that can be taken by individuals to possibly reduce some of the long-term health risks associated with air pollution.

This while government leaders and policy makers define and implement more effective regulatory policies to improve air quality.”

Though Kensler might be over-estimating the benefits here, the price tag alone will probably put you off purchasing it. The juice – which weighs in at £16 a glass if you’re interested – may well end hitting supermarket shelves soon, but don’t hold your breath that it’ll save us from the dangers of air pollution. There are plenty of measure to solve that problem already.

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Forget “digital detoxes”. Spring clean your online life instead

Step one: remove the app on your phone which takes up the most time. 

In 2006, news broke that broke me. The British Heart Foundation unveiled a poster of a blonde girl guzzling a gallon of cooking oil. “What goes into crisps goes into you,” it read, as the charity declared that eating one packet of crisps a day equated to drinking five litres of oil a year.

I gave up crisps that Lent (an admirable act that was somewhat mitigated by devouring a six-pack of McCoy’s on Easter Sunday). Still, despite my continuing pack-a-day habit, the BHF’s statistic has never left me: 365 packets of salt and vinegar crisps are equal to five bottles of Filippo Berio. But other bad habits are harder to comprehend. Last week, I “liked” 36 things on Facebook, wrote ten tweets, and posted five Instagram pictures (two of which were selfies). What effect, if any, has this had on my mental and physical health? How much metaphorical cooking oil am I pouring into my body?

“You really don’t need to worry about the volume of your own social media interactions, based on the average digital user,” the founder of the digital detox specialists Time To Log Off, Tanya Goodin, told me. Goodin says that we “tap, click and swipe” our devices over 2,617 times a day and that the average person will post 25,000 selfies in their life.

Though these statistics seem shocking, what do they mean? What does swiping thousands of times a day do to our minds – or, for that matter, our thumbs? The experts are divided. In 2015, national newspapers spread stories suggesting that using an iPad would damage a toddler’s brain but the research didn’t mention the term “brain damage” once. In fact, as the Guardian pointed out in its debunking, studies produce mixed results: some say iPads help improve child literacy, others say they are distracting.

The studies about adults’ screentime are similarly hard to decipher. Heavy Facebook usage has been linked to depression but there isn’t any apparent cause and effect. Do depressed people use Facebook more, or does Facebook make us depressed? “Internet addiction disorder” (IAD) was a term originally coined as a hoax, but many now see it as a real and treatable problem. Yet it does not feature in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and experts still struggle to set diagnostic criteria for it. How much internet is too much?

These academic ambiguities haven’t stopped the idea of the “digital detox” taking off. Detoxers refrain from using any electronics for a period of time in the hope that this will improve their mental health and real-world relationships. At the time of writing, if you search for “digital detox” on Instagram, you’ll find 25,945 people talking about their personal attempts. There are pictures of bike rides, sunsets and children playing, each posted – apparently without irony – to extol the virtues of getting off social media and turning off your phone.

Digital detoxing is also big business. Goodin runs workshops, retreats and camps where no electronics are allowed and the daily schedule consists of yoga, walking, swimming and drinking smoothies. The next one, in Italy, costs from £870 per head for a week. A multitude of such camps exist, as well as books, websites and guides on how to detox by yourself. To connect, man, you have to disconnect, you know?

All of this has made me a digital detoxing cynic. I don’t believe I need to switch off my phone to “live” better, because I believe my phone itself contains life. On Reddit, I can speak to strangers living hundreds of thousands of miles away about their lives. On Twitter, I can keep up to date – in real time – with news and events. If I want to learn yoga or make a smoothie, where will I go to find my local gym or the correct strawberry-to-spinach ratio? Technology can even inspire us to “get out more”. Last summer, the gaming app Pokémon Go spurred people to walk 2,000 more steps a day, and I’m willing to bet that brunch sales figures have skyrocketed since the invention of Instagram.

Digital detoxing relies on the vague idea that tech is somehow toxic. Even without scientific studies to back this up, most of us know from our own, anecdotal evidence how spending too much time on our phones can make us feel. We get down if our latest status doesn’t have enough likes, or our eyes hurt after the sixth “EXTREME PIMPLE POPPING” YouTube video in a row. So, at core, digital detoxing isn’t “wrong”: it is merely misguided. Instead of trying to cut out all technology for a week, we should be curbing our existing habits; rather than a digital detox, we should have a digital spring clean.

Delete – or hide – anyone on your Facebook friends list that you wouldn’t talk to in real life. Remove your work email from your phone (or ask your boss for a separate work phone if you absolutely need access). Delete the app that takes up most of your time – be it Facebook, Twitter or YouTube – so that you are forced to get to it manually, through your browser, and therefore become instantly more aware of how many times a day you open it up. Tanya Goodin also advises me to use my phone less at night. Essentially: go mild turkey. If this is too much and you believe you are addicted to your smartphone or laptop, then, of course, you should seek help (speak to your doctor or call the Samaritans on 116 123).

But most of us just need to get smarter about our internet use. Even if scientists proved that technology was damaging our brains, a week-long detox wouldn’t be the cure. Rather, we should focus on our bad personal habits and try to curb them. Do you get into too many arguments online? Do you ignore your partner because you’re staring at a screen? Do you post opinions you regret because you don’t think them through first? These behaviours are problematic – the internet itself isn’t. To control our lives, we shouldn’t switch off: we should get more switched on.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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