An alternative to the Kyoto Protocol? Photo: Breville USA / Flickr
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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.

Photo: Getty
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2017 is the year we realise we've been doing the Internet wrong

Networks can distribute power or they can centralise it.

A couple of years ago I visited Manchester tech start up Reason Digital. They were developing an app to help keep sex workers safe. The nature of sex work means workers are often vulnerable to crime, crimes which can be particularly difficult to solve because witnesses are reluctant to come forward and crime scenes often public and subject to interference.

Reason Digital thought if they could alert sex workers of relevant incidents in their vicinity – harassment, a foiled attack – that would help sex workers protect themselves.

So, of course, they created an app which tracked the location and habits of all sex workers in Manchester in a central database and sent out alerts based on where they were and what they were doing, right?

Did they hell.

They knew a real-time centralised, location database would immediately be a target for the very people they wanted to help protect sex workers from. Moreover, they wanted their app to empower sex workers, to put them in control. And they knew that sex workers would be reluctant to hand over any part of their hard fought privacy.

So the Reason Digital app kept the location and other data on the sex workers’ smart phone and let it decide which alerts were relevant and what information to share.

That is the kind of distributed, autonomous app putting people in control we just don’t see on the Net.  No, all the apps that improve our lives – from Facebook to Uber to match.com – cull the intelligence and data from the user and stick it in the vaults of a company or, occasionally, a government.

Thankfully, the majority of us are nowhere near as vulnerable as the majority of sex workers – to physical crime at least.

But we are increasingly vulnerable to cybercrime, a vulnerability which will increase exponentially once everything is connected to the Internet of Things.

And we are vulnerable to the exploitation of our data, whether through data mining or algorithmic determinism. Google’s search engine can be “gamed” by extremists, used to strengthen hatred and spread stereotypes. I have also been told one major dating site optimises it matchmaking algorithm for short term relationships – it means more return business. And Uber have admitted it knows you’re likely to pay more for a ride if your battery is low – which it also knows. Our data is what drives services and profits on the Net - but we’re unable to reap the rewards of the value we create.

That’s why 2017 will be the year we realise we got the Net wrong.

Not the underlying internet, designed by the public and third sectors in the seventies to be as distributed and autonomous as possible.

Or even the World Wide Web, invented in the nineties by the public and private sectors, again without central control.

But the apps developed in the last couple of decades to use the infrastructure of the internet to deliver services.

Networks can distribute power – like the electricity power grid –  or they can centralise it – like old boys networks.

Increasingly, I fear the Net is doing the latter.  And for three main reasons.

Firstly, a technical legacy of the early internet: in the days of slow broadband and unreliable devices it made sense to transmit as little as possible and control your user experience by centralising it. That problem is by and large history, but the centralisation remains.

Secondly these apps were mainly developed by a small group of privileged people – white, male, relatively well-off engineers. That’s why, for example, the biggest campaign of the early  internet pioneers was against porn filtering. Yes, for many years the most inspirational internet civil rights struggle was for rich western men to have absolutely untrammelled access to porn. So often I was the only woman at the conference table as this issue was raised again and again, thinking ‘is this really the biggest issue the tech community faces’?

But there is a seam of libertarianism in technology which sees it as above and beyond the state in general and regulation in particular. Even as a replacement for it. Who needs a public sector if you have dual core processing?  When tech was the poor relation in the global economy that could be interesting and disruptive. Now tech is the global economy, it is self-serving.

And thirdly these apps were developed in a time of neoliberal consensus. The state was beaten and bowed, shrunk to its role of uprooting barriers and getting out of the way of the brilliant, innovative, invisible hand of the private sector.  When I was at Ofcom in the 2000s we strove valiantly, day and night, to avoid any regulation of the internet, even where that included consumer rights and fairer power distribution.

As a consequence now the Net is distributing power but to the wrong people.

  • It’s not empowering the poor and dispossessed but the rich and self-possessed.
  • It’s not empowering sex workers in Manchester but criminal cartels in China.
  • It’s not empowering the  cabbie in Coventry but the $62Billion Uber everywhere.
  • It’s not empowering the plucky little startup in rural Hexhamshire but the global enterprise headquartered in Bermuda.
  • It’s not empowering the Nigerian market woman with a yam to sell but the Wall Street stockbroker with your data to market.
  • It’s not empowering the Iranian dissident but the Russian state.

That’s a betrayal of the power and original purpose of the net: for greater human empowerment.

To be sure some of that is happening. The Arab Spring, for example  Campaigns for the tampon tax and Black Lives Matter are enhanced by the web. Apps such as Pol.is and MassLBP look to make 

digital democracy work. Institutes like Newcastle’s Digital Civics Institute are working at systems to enable real democratic collaboration. Groups and enterprises such as Medical Confidential, MySociety, Cap Collectif and Delib try to deliver control back to the citizen consumer. European research project d-cent has helped develop tools that can make deliberative democracy work.

But against that we have the rapacious data centralisation of big companies and, at times, the state.

What we need is a government that is capable of leading and inspiring the tech sector to empower citizens and consumers. Ignoring the libertarian technocrats who say it’s for them to determine how tech power is distributed and remembering that the white heat of technology should be at the service of the people, not the other way round.  This government has neither the capacity nor the will to take on that mission. As part of our review of industrial strategy, Labour will be examining ways in which tech can be empowered to deliver the economy we want, and people empowered to make the best use of it.

Tech and politics are the twin drivers of progress, and I’m lucky enough to have worked in both. If there is one thing we have seen it is that as people become richer they have fewer children, more education and a greater sense of privacy and autonomy.  2017 is the year to start giving back to the people the data and control they should never have lost.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.