The Gluten-Free Diet – When It’s Not a Fad

8 Jun

Written By: Emily Farrell


Gluten Free

Picture courtesy of Emily Farrell


The gluten-free diet (GFD) has quickly become one of the most popular self-implemented diets in North America, leading to a proportionate increase in the gluten-free food industry (Reilly, 2016). A GFD is defined as a diet devoid of all food products containing gluten, namely, gluten-containing cereals – rye, barley, wheat, and triticale – gluten-containing food additives and foods contaminated with products containing gluten. Many people believe that a GFD is a healthy lifestyle choice, with perceived health benefits of eating gluten-free.

The general population’s recent devotion to a GFD has caused a perception among individuals that the GFD is nothing but a “fad diet”. The GFD, however, is considered a clinical nutrition therapy for several conditions relating to gluten sensitivity (Pietzak, 2012). Celiac disease, a genetic immune-mediated disorder causing the body’s immune system to attack normal tissue in response to gluten, requires individuals to follow a strict lifelong GFD. It occurs in 0.5-1% of the population, and the diagnosis is increasing in prevalence due to the growing awareness within the scientific community (Pietzak, 2012). Individuals with celiac disease have an increased risk of gastrointestinal cancers and, if gluten makes its way into their diet it can significantly increase their risk of nutritional deficiencies due to malabsorption (Pietzak, 2012). Other gluten-related conditions include, but are not limited to, wheat allergy, gluten ataxia, dermatitis herpetiformis – celiac disease of the skin – and non-celiac gluten sensitivity (El-Chammas and Danner, 2011). Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is a condition where individuals negatively react to gluten-containing products, in the absence of celiac disease. It is, however, recently hypothesized that individuals with non-celiac gluten sensitivity are reacting to a specific component in wheat other than gluten, and, as such, these individuals still benefit from a GFD as it eliminates wheat entirely (Escudero-Hernández et al., 2016).

Despite the various clinical conditions, it seems that many individuals in the general population are following a GFD due to reasons unknown to them, potentially wanting to join the “fad”. A large proportion of individuals believe that gluten-free products are healthier than their gluten-containing counterparts, viewing them as “healthier options”. The gluten-free food industry is increasing exponentially and is now almost a billion dollar business. This is not due to the increasing awareness of gluten-related sensitivities, but instead due to the increasing popularity of the GFD as a “fad diet” (Reilly, 2016). A survey conducted in 2015 involving more than 1500 American adults observed that the most common reason for consuming gluten-free products was for “no reason” (35% of individuals) (The Hartman Group I, 2015). This response was followed by “a healthier option” (26%), “digestive health” (19%), and “weight loss” (13%), with the least common reason being “I have a gluten sensitivity” (8%) (The Hartman Group I, 2015). Therefore, the question is, does the general population actually benefit from following a GFD?

That is a question some researchers have sought to answer. A literature review conducted in 2016 evaluated the nutritional quality of the GFD focusing on nutritional deficiencies and over-consumption of unhealthy food components (Vici et al., 2016). A GFD is often devoid of vital vitamins and minerals including vitamin B12, vitamin D, folate, calcium, zinc, magnesium, and iron (Vici et al., 2016). Moreover, a GFD is often low in dietary fiber which is important for gastrointestinal health and for the prevention of diabetes and cancer (Vici et al., 2016). Gluten-free products often contain a greater fat content than their gluten-containing counterparts and this can lead to higher consumption of lipids, including saturated fats (Vici et al., 2016). The nutritional inadequacies experienced while following a GFD may be attributed to the poor nutritional quality of gluten-free products and the avoidance of foods naturally rich in nutrients, such as whole grains. Therefore, individuals who are not required to follow a GFD often do not benefit from eating gluten-free.

While the general population may not benefit from a GFD, many individuals do. In fact, they need a GFD to maintain a reasonable level of health and quality of life. However, because this diet is now stigmatized as a “fad” diet, individuals requesting that their food is prepared “gluten-free” now experience a diminished presence of care. This introduces health hazards to individuals who must strictly follow a GFD. It is now often assumed that individuals are following a GFD due to the “fad” and limited caution may be used in preparing meals to ensure zero contamination.

It remains to be seen how long the GFD fad will remain. Nonetheless, for those who choose to eat gluten-free, regardless if they are following a GFD due to necessity or personal preference, should do so following the guidance of a registered dietitian to ensure that they are getting adequate nutrition.


El-Chammas, K., and Danner, E. (2011). Gluten-free diet in nonceliac disease. Nutrition In Clinical Practice, 26(3): 294-299.

Escudero-Hernández, C., Peña, A.S., and Bernardo, D. (2016). Immunogenetic pathogenesis of celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Current Gastroenterology Reports, 18(7): 1-11.

Pietzak, M. (2012). Celiac disease, wheat allergy, and gluten sensitivity. Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition, 36(supplement 1): 68S-75S.

Reilly, N. (2016). The gluten-free diet: recognizing fact, fiction, and fad. The Journal of Pediatrics, 175: 206-210.

The Hartman Group I. “The Hartman Group’s Health & Wellness 2015 and Organic & Natural 2014 reports.” Accessed February 2017.

Vici, G., Belli, L., Biondi, M., and Polzonetti, V. (2016). Gluten free diet and nutrient deficiencies: A review. Clinical Nutrition, 35(6): 1236-1241.

Is Vitamin D the Anti-Cancer Vitamin?

30 Apr

By Elizabeth Miler

Elizabeth Miller-Sun Photo

Photo Courtesy of Elizabeth Miller

According to current research, Vitamin D may play a role in reducing cancer risk and mortality. Biologically sourced from sunlight’s Ultraviolet B rays, Vitamin D has notoriously been recommended by health experts for its role in bone health. As ultraviolet rays from the sun are known to be a leading cause of skin cancer, other sources of Vitamin D from fortified foods and supplements are often favored for prevention of osteoporosis. More recently, epidemiological and clinical research has demonstrated that sufficient levels of Vitamin D (from the diet, sun or a supplement) may also be associated with decreased risk of some forms of cancer.

As many theories in science often begin, the association between Vitamin D and cancer was first discovered as a population-based geographical trend back in 1980.  Researchers at John Hopkins University observed variances in colorectal cancer incidence that correlated with geographical location throughout the United States (Garland and Garland, 1980). Regions with increased sunlight exposure like New Mexico and Arizona had lower colorectal cancer rates than cooler, less sunny climates such as New York and New Hampshire. This observation motivated further research to identify an association between Ultraviolet-B light and other types of cancer, and strikingly, increased sunlight was associated with lower rates of 15 other cancers (Grant and Garland, 2006). Multiple meta-analyses have demonstrated an association of higher Vitamin D levels and increased survival rates of patients with colorectal, hematological and breast cancer (Mohr et al., 2015; Malmi et al., 2014; Vaughan-Shaw et al., 2017). Patients with the highest blood levels of the biologically active form of Vitamin D, known as 25-hydroxyvitamin D, had the lowest risk of cancer mortality (Wang et al., 2014; Vaughan-Shaw et al., 2017).

Despite these interesting findings, these observational studies can only provide circumstantial evidence of the correlation between Vitamin D and cancer risk, and cannot confirm a cause and effect relationship. For example, perhaps these positive associations of decreased cancer risk and mortality with sunlight exposure can be explained by other factors, such as increased exercise outdoors during warmer weather, or increased fruit and vegetable consumption. In order to truly identify if Vitamin D levels have an effect on cancer incidence and mortality, randomized controlled trials in humans need to be conducted involving the supplementation of Vitamin D.

To date, only a few clinical trials have demonstrated a reduction in cancer risk with supplementation of Vitamin D. A 2014 meta-analysis examined four randomized controlled trials involving Vitamin D supplementation with doses of 400-1100 IU/day, for duration of 2-7 years (Keum and Giovannucci, 2014). The results of this meta-analysis did not observe any significant effects on overall cancer incidence, yet did see a consistent 12% reduction in overall cancer mortality in all four studies (Keum and Giovannucci, 2014). The authors stated that the positive results in overall cancer mortality could have been related to Vitamin D’s role in altering specific cancer processes such as metastasis, apoptosis, and cell proliferation. These mechanisms concur with other observations from cell culture and animal based models, demonstrating the anti-cancer role of Vitamin D (Moukayed and Grant, 2017). It is still unclear if Vitamin D only has anti-carcinogenic effects in populations with cancer or if it can also prevent it in healthy individuals. Further research is required to understand the complex relationship between the sunshine vitamin and cancer prevention, but the evidence seems promising.

As we await the results of more randomized controlled trials, we should not discount the importance of Vitamin D in the diet, as this vitamin is essential to bone health. For those not lucky enough to live close to the equator, it is recommended that individuals deficient in Vitamin D fortify their diet with a supplement, or consume fortified foods such as dairy and nut milks. Health Canada recommends that individuals aged 1-70 consume 600 IU of Vitamin D per day, which can easily be reached with either fortified foods, a supplement, or sitting in the sun for about 15 minutes (Health Canada, 2012). Luckily we are finally reaching the end to the dreary dark days of winter, so next time you see the sun shining, go outside and reap the benefits from the ball of life in the sky.


Garland, C. F., & Garland, F. C. (1980). Do sunlight and vitamin D reduce the likelihood of colon cancer? International Journal of Epidemiology, 9(3), 227-231. doi:10.1093/ije/9.3.227

Giovannucci, E., Liu, Y., Rimm, E. B., Hollis, B. W., Fuchs, C. S., Stampfer, M. J., & Willett, W. C. (2006). Prospective study of predictors of vitamin D status and cancer incidence and mortality in men. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 98(7), 451–459. Retrieved from:

Grant, W. B., & Garland, C. F. (2006). The association of solar ultraviolet B (UVB) with reducing risk of cancer: multifactorial ecologic analysis of geographic variation in age-adjusted cancer mortality rates. Anticancer Research, 26, 2687-2700. Retrieved from:

Health Canada (2012). Vitamin D and calcium updated dietary reference intakes. Retrieved from:

Keum, N., & Giovannucci, E. (2014). Vitamin D supplements and cancer incidence and mortality: a meta-analysis. British Journal of Cancer, 2014(111), 976-980. doi: 10.1038/bjc.2014.294

Maalmi, H., Ordóñez-Mena, J. M., Schöttker, B., & Brenner, H. (2014). Serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels and survival in colorectal and breast cancer patients: Systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. European Journal of Cancer, 50(8), 1510-1521. doi:10.1016/j.ejca.2014.02.006

Mohr, S. B., Gorham, E. D., Kim, J., Hofflich, H., Cuomo, R., E., & Garland, C., F. (2015). Could vitamin D sufficiency improve the survival of colorectal cancer patients? Journal of Steroid Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, 148(2015), 239-244. doi: 10.1016/j.jsbmb.2014.12.010

Moukayed, M., & Grant, W. B. (2017). The roles of UVB and vitamin D in reducing risk of cancer incidence and mortality: A review of the epidemiology, clinical trials, and mechanisms. Reviews in Endocrine and Metabolic Disorders, 1-16. doi:10.1007/s11154-017-9415-2

Vaughan-Shaw, P. G., O’Sullivan, F., Farrington, S. M., Theodoratou, E., Campbell, H., Dunlop, M. G., & Zgaga, L. (2017). The impact of vitamin D pathway genetic variation and circulating 25-hydroxyvitamin D on cancer outcome: systematic review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Cancer, 116, 1092–1110. doi:10.1038/bjc.2017.44

Wang, B., Jing, Z., Li, C., Xu, S., & Wang, Y. (2014). Blood 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels and overall mortality in patients with colorectal cancer: A dose–response meta-analysis. European Journal of Cancer, 50(12), 2173-2175. doi:10.1016/j.ejca.2014.05.004



Soy Isoflavones: Is age of exposure affecting your breast cancer risk?

23 Jan

By Emily Farrell


Edamame – Immature soybeans which are steamed or boiled. Image courtesy of Emily Farrell. 

Does increasing your level of soy consumption decrease your risk of breast cancer? Are the hormone levels in your body playing a role? Is the hormonal impact of soy responsible for increasing or decreasing your risk of breast cancer? The existing inconsistencies surrounding soy intake and breast cancer risk may soon be clarified by an exciting hypothesis that the age at which soy consumption begins may play a role (Messina, 2016).

Soy isoflavones are phytochemicals that naturally exist in soybeans (Messina, 2016). Better known as phytoestrogens, they can bind to estrogen receptors in the body and induce estrogenic or anti-estrogenic effects (Messina, 2016). Isoflavones are much less potent activators of the estrogen receptor than estrogen itself, and when they are present in the body in higher amounts than estrogen (typically following the consumption of soy), they can exert an overall anti-estrogenic effect (Messina, 2016). These anti-estrogenic properties of soy isoflavones are thought to contribute toward a reduction in breast cancer risk. So why are there still inconsistencies in the data surrounding this relationship? According to an exciting hypothesis, the age at which soy consumption begins may be the culprit!

An animal study conducted in 2002 investigated the impact of soy isoflavones on breast cancer risk in female rats following exposure at different time points during the life cycle (Lamartiniere et al., 2002). The study concluded that, in order for soy isoflavones to have a protective effect, exposure must occur during mammary gland development, that is, exposure must occur before puberty (Lamartiniere et al., 2002). However, the most protective effect was observed when intake occurred both before puberty and during adulthood (Lamartiniere et al., 2002). More recently, a study performed in 2011 also found that soy isoflavones reduce breast cancer incidence following exposure before puberty in mice (de Assis et al., 2011).

What about human exposure to soy isoflavones before puberty? The Shanghai Women’s Health Study published in 2009, which involved greater than 70,000 Chinese women, investigated the association between breast cancer incidence and dietary soy intake during adolescence and adulthood (Lee et al., 2009). The study concluded that a high level of soy consumption (equating to approximately 50 mg of soy isoflavones/day) during adulthood was related to a reduced risk of breast cancer and adolescent soy consumption showed similar results (Lee et al., 2009). The most pronounced association, however, was observed in women who consumed consistently high levels of soy during both adolescence and adulthood (Lee et al., 2009). These results concur with animal data and provide evidence of a reduction in adult cancer relating to adolescent soy consumption (Lee et al., 2009). A follow up study using the same data from the Shanghai Women’s Health Study investigated the incidence of premenopausal breast cancer compared to postmenopausal breast cancer based on age of exposure (Baglia et al., 2016). In this case, it was found that high soy consumption during both adolescence and adulthood was related to a reduced risk of premenopausal breast cancer, while high soy consumption solely during adulthood related to reduced risk of postmenopausal breast cancer (Baglia et al., 2016). These findings support that hormonal status is a factor in the timing of exposure hypothesis.

Research is ongoing in this area to understand the underlying biological mechanisms by which soy intake can decrease breast cancer risk, to advance the knowledge surrounding soy intake and its association with breast cancer risk, and to possibly improve a breast cancer prognosis following a diagnosis (Messina, 2016).

If you’re looking to reduce your breast cancer risk and you’re already past your adolescent glory days, increasing your soy consumption now definitely won’t hurt! I know I’ll be adding some more soybeans into my diet.


Baglia, M.L., Zheng, W., Li, H., Yang, G., Gao, J., Gao Y-T., and Shu X-O. (2016). The association of soy food consumption with the risk of subtype of breast cancers defined by hormone receptor and HER2 status. International Journal of Cancer, 139: 742–748.

de Assis, S., Warri, A., Benitez, C., Helferich, W., and Hilakivi-Clarke, L. (2011). Protective effects of prepubertal genistein exposure on mammary tumorigenesis are dependent on BRCA1 expression. Cancer Prevention Research, 4(9): 1436–1448.

Lamartiniere, C. A., Cotroneo, M.S., Fritz, W.A., Wang, J., Mentor-Marcel, R., and Elgavish, A. (2002). Genistein chemoprevention: timing and mechanisms of action in murine mammary and prostate. The Journal of Nutrition, 132(3): 552S-558S.

Lee, S-A., Shu, X-O., Li, H., Yang, G., Cai, H., Wen, W., Ji, B-T., Gao, J., Gao, Y-T., and Zheng, W. (2009). Adolescent and adult soy food intake and breast cancer risk: results from the Shanghai Women’s Health Study. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 89(6): 1920-1926.

Messina, M. (2016). Soy and health update: Evaluation of the clinical and epidemiologic literature. Nutrients, 8(12).

To choose or not to choose… Cilantro?

2 Dec

By Laura Barnes


Image courtesy of Laura Barnes

The other night I went out to dinner with a group of friends. As we were choosing the main course, our unique food preferences were displayed through the various dishes we selected. I was surprised when my friend specifically requested for her dish to not include Cilantro. Subsequently, another friend asked for the same. As a self-professed cilantro lover, I was curious about their dislike of my beloved herb. This led to the question, why do some people love the herb, and others hate it?

Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) is also known as Chinese parsley and historically known as Coriander. Coriander has been found to have several potential health benefits, including antihyperglycemic, hypotensive, antihyperlipidemic, and antixodiant properties (Gupta, 2010).  References to the herb date back to 2000 B.C. originating in the Mediterranean and Middle East. The herb’s cultivation and use expanded across the globe and it became a staple in various cuisines, including in many European dishes (Leach, 2001).  However, by the end of the sixteenth century, Cilantro use was all but eliminated by European chefs. The reason? They found the smell of the herb resembled the particular scent of Cimex lectularius, aka bed bugs.  Really! Thus the repulsive reputation of the herb was developed (Leach, 2001). Fortunately for my taste buds and those of other Cilantro lovers, globalization has led to the re-introduction of Cilantro into many cuisines; including foods common in the current North American diet (Leach, 2001).

However, Cilantro still has the ability to elicit strong reactions. With chemical eradication, bed bugs are much less common in developed nations (Liu, 2015) and any associations with the herb surprise most people. There are people who have a particular distaste for Cilantro, claiming the taste resembles soap (Eriksson, 2012). In fact, this distinct fragrance, common to bed bugs, soap and cilantro is the result of particular molecules called aldehydes (McGee, 2010).  As odour dictates most of what we taste (Spence, 2015), the common theory is that it is the odour which drives the dislike of the herb (Eriksson, 2012). Very interestingly, not everyone carries the gene that codes for the ability to smell the aldehydes present in Cilantro (Eriksson et al., 2012) In one study, participants from East Asian and European-American backgrounds were specifically found to have a higher prevalence of dislike for Cilantro (Mauer and El-Sohem, 2012). Indeed, some of the dislike for the herb may be based on cultural norms, since it is theorized that how we perceive odours is a learned behaviour (Herz, 20016), beginning in infancy.

So, what about you? Are you a Cilantro lover? Has this debate caused heated debates around your kitchen table? If any lesson can be gleaned from the herb, it is that our taste preferences are a reflection of our own personal uniqueness and global diversity. Scientifically, no side is technically “right” or “wrong”. We are just – us – and I for one, would not have my friends any other way.


Eriksson, N., Wu, S., Do, C. B., Kiefer, A. K., Tung, J. Y., Mountain, J. L., . . . Francke, U.      (2012). A genetic variant near olfactory receptor genes influences cilantro preference.      Flavour, 1(22), 1-7.

Gupta, M. (2010). Pharmacological properties and traditional therapeutic uses of important indian  spices: A review. International Journal of Food Properties, 13(5), 1092-1116. Retrieved from:

Herz, R. (2006). I know what I like; Understanding odor preferences. In J. Drobnick (Ed.), The smell culture reader (pp. 190-203). Oxford.

Leach, H. (2001). Rehabilitating the “stinking herbe”: A case study of culinary prejudice. Gastronomica, 10-15.

Liu, F., & Liu, N. (2015). Human odorant reception in the common bed bug, Cimex lectularius. Scientific Reports, 5, 1-14.  Retrieved from:

Mauer, L., & El-Sohemy, A. (2012). Prevalence of cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) disliking among      different ethnocultural groups. Flavour, 1(8), 1-5.  McGee, H. (2010, April 13). Cilantro haters, it’s not your fault. New York Times, D1. Retrieved from :

Spence, C. (2015). Just how much of what we taste drives from the sense of smell? Flavour, 4(30), 1-10. Retrieved from:

Get hooked on omega-3 fats

31 Jul

Written by: Kaitlin Roke

What are omega-3 fats anyway? Why should I care about omega-3 fats? These are questions I have tried to answer countless times for both friends and colleagues! To answer these questions, we need to start with some general information about dietary fats.

There are 4 main types of dietary fat: saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and trans. These names might sound a bit strange, but they provide important clues about the different types of fats. Each of these names refers to the structure of the fat. Saturated tells us that each of the molecules are full, which makes them straight in structure. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated tells us about the number of double bonds, where mono means one and poly means more than one. Trans refers to the direction of the molecular bonds. The more double bonds in a fat, the more bent its structure. As it turns out, the more bent the fat structure, the more fluid the fats usually are at room temperature. This can be seen directly in the foods you eat. For example, butter is rich with saturated fats, while olive oil is rich with monounsaturated fats.

Omega-3 fats are an example of polyunsaturated fats. However, there is a difference between omega-3 fats from plant sources (named alpha-linolenic acid or ALA) and marine sources (named eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA, and docosahexaenoic acid or DHA). ALA is commonly found in certain vegetable oils, walnuts, flaxseeds and soy products, while EPA and DHA can be found in fatty fish (like salmon) and seafood, as well as some fortified products like certain brands of milk and eggs [1].

The reason why we should care about omega-3 fats (specifically EPA and DHA) is because there have been numerous studies highlighting their beneficial health effects [2,3]. These health effects range from improving heart health (in other words, reducing risk of heart disease) [4], brain health (higher IQ score, better memory and mood) [5], as well as whole body health including reduced inflammation [5] and triglyceride levels [7]. This is a pretty long list! Omega-3 EPA and DHA fats seem to be miracle nutrients.

After knowing all of the health benefits, it seems obvious that everyone should try to get more EPA and DHA in their diet. But, do we? Actually, as a population, Canadians consume little to none of these omega-3 fats in our typical diet [8]. One reason is because these types of fats are found mainly in fish and seafood, which many people don’t choose as favourite foods. This could also be partly because there aren’t many quick and easy-to-eat seafood options, in a time where convenient meals are increasingly prevalent.

The Dietitians of Canada [1] have put together a great list of food sources high in omega-3 EPA and DHA fats. For example, one suggestion would be to try having salmon for dinner one night this week. As we are in the summer months, fish on the barbeque can be delicious and easy. Are you going to a pot luck or backyard party? Bring a dip with tuna! If you sneak in some fish with your cheese dip, you are getting a delicious (and nutritious) appetizer, see recipe suggestions below!



  1. Dietitians of Canada
  2. Cleland, L.G.; James, M.J.; Proudman, S.M., Fish oil: What the prescriber needs to know. Arthritis Research and Therapy 2006, 8, 202.
  3. Harris, W.S., Fish oil supplementation: Evidence for health benefits. Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine 2004, 71, 208-221.
  4. Kris-Etherton, P.M.; Harris, W.S.; Appel, L.J., Fish consumption, fish oil, omega-3 fatty acids, and cardiovascular disease. Arteriosclerosis, thrombosis, and vascular biology 2003, 23, e20-e30.
  5. Morales, E.; Bustamante, M.; Gonzalez, J.R.; Guxens, M.; Torrent, M.; Mendez, M.; Garcia-Esteban, R.; Julvez, J.; Forns, J.; Vrijheid, M., Genetic variants of the fads gene cluster and elovl gene family, colostrums lc-pufa levels, breastfeeding, and child cognition. PloS one 2011, 6, e17181.
  6. Wall, R.; Ross, R.P.; Fitzgerald, G.F.; Stanton, C., Fatty acids from fish: The anti‐inflammatory potential of long‐chain omega‐3 fatty acids. Nutrition reviews 2010, 68, 280-289.
  7. Laidlaw, M.; Holub, B.J., Effects of supplementation with fish oil–derived n− 3 fatty acids and γ-linolenic acid on circulating plasma lipids and fatty acid profiles in women. The American journal of clinical nutrition 2003, 77, 37-42.
  8. Health Canada

Strawberries: Taste the Benefits!

15 Jun

Written by: Emily van Niekerk

Photo provided by: Emily van Niekerk

Image courtesy of Emily van Niekerk


There’s nothing like a fresh, juicy red strawberry on a hot day to really get you in the mood for summer. With strawberry season blossoming in Ontario, what better way to celebrate the delicious berry than to learn a little more about it?

Interestingly, the red flesh of the strawberry we all know and love isn’t the actual fruit of the plant. Strawberries are unique in that the tasty, juicy part is only a receptacle for the small, dry, black specks known as achenes that we commonly identify as “seeds” – these are the botanical fruit (Liston, Cronn, and Ashman, 2014). Since they don’t actually have seeds, strawberries reproduce through runners, which are extensions of the root that grow along the ground and form new plants (Rickson and Fisher, 2000).

Fortunately, strawberries aren’t just pretty: they’re full of phytochemicals, especially phenolic compounds, which give them antioxidant properties (Hannum et al., 2004). Antioxidant rich foods like fruits and vegetables have been shown to lower the risk of developing many chronic diseases including cancer and cardiovascular disease (Meyers et al., 2003). In an in vitro study, strawberry extract was found to be 2.8 times more effective at killing human colon cancer cells than a control, and it was the second most effective berry after black raspberries (Seeram et al., 2006). In an 8 week long human intervention trial, a daily dose of 50 grams freeze-dried strawberry powder, which is the equivalent of 3 cups of fresh strawberries, was found to decrease markers of cardiovascular disease including total and LDL-cholesterol plasma levels in men and women with metabolic syndrome (Basu et al., 2010). Although consuming the dose used in this study would mean having 6 servings of fruit a day, which could be challenging, these results are still promising and will hopefully open doors for more research in this area.

The benefits of strawberries can extend past your health if you choose to buy local. You’ll be lowering your carbon footprint by cutting out transportation costs, thereby reducing the amount of preservatives and chemicals needed to keep the food fresh as it’s transported, and you’ll also be supporting the Canadian economy (Grubinger, 2010). If spending the day in the sun picking your own berries at one of Ontario’s strawberry farms isn’t for you, try buying fresh strawberries from your neighbourhood farmer’s market. You’ll directly support the farmer and it can be a great opportunity for a family activity. Another way to make the most of strawberry season is to choose Ontario strawberries at the grocery store, especially if finding time to go berry-picking between soccer practice and swimming lessons is a challenge.

For the do-it-yourselfers out there, strawberries are also an easy plant to grow at home. They can be planted in a garden that gets lots of sunlight in rows 3-4 feet apart or in planters. Planting should be done as soon as the ground thaws to allow the plant time to adjust and produce flowers which will become berries in mid June to late July. Some strawberry varieties including Everbearing and Day-Neutral can produce berries again in early fall.

Make the most of the warm weather this summer by getting some fresh air, exercise, and fresh-picked strawberries. The benefits to your health and local community, not to mention the delicious taste, will certainly make it worth your while!



Basu, A., Fu, D.X., Wilkinson, M., Simmons, B., Wu, M., Betts, N.M., Du, M., and Lyons, T.J. (2010, July). Strawberries decrease atherosclerotic markers in subjects with metabolic syndrome. Nutrition Research, 30(7), 462-469. Retrieved from:

Chen, T., Yen, F., Qian, J., Guo, M., Zhang, H., Tang, X., Chen, F., Stoner, G.D., and Wang, X. (2011). Randomized phase II trial of of lyophilized strawberries in patients with dysplastic precancerous lesions of the esophagus. Cancer Prevention Research, 5(41), 41-50. Retrieved from:

Grubinger, V. (2010, April). Ten reasons to buy local. Retrieved from:

Hannum, S.M. (2004). Potential impact of strawberries on human health: A review of the science. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 44(1), 1-17. Retrieved from:

Liston, A., Cronn, R., and Ashman, T.L. (2014). Fragaria: A genus with deep historical roots and ripe for evolutionary and ecological insights. American Journal of Botany, 101(10), 1686-1699. Retrieved from:

Meyers, K.J., Watkins, C.B., Pritts, M.P., and Liu, R.H. (2003). Antioxidant and antiproliferative activities of strawberries. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 5(23), 6887-6892. Retrieved from:

Rickson, C.L., and Fisher, P. (2000, August). Strawberries For Home Gardens. Retrieved from:

Seeram, N.P., Adams, L.S., Zhang, Y., Lee, R., Sand, D., Scheuller, and Heber, D. (2006). Blackberry, black raspberry, blueberry, cranberry, red raspberry, and strawberry extracts inhibit growth and stimulate apoptosis of human cancer cells in vitro. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 54(25), 9329-39. Retrieved from:

Black Rice – Superfood for any dish

16 Oct

Written by: Katarina Smolkova

Photo courtesy of: Katarina Smolkova

Photo courtesy of: Katarina Smolkova

Rice is one of the most commonly consumed foods and opting for healthier varieties may significantly improve your health. In fact, the consumption of brown versus white rice has been shown to decrease risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 16% (Sun et al., 2010). But what if there’s yet another variety with a comparable nutritional profile, and more health benefits?

Black rice, also known as purple rice because of its colour after cooking, is a largely unknown variety with a nutty flavour and slightly chewy texture (Yonan, 2014). For centuries it was called “forbidden rice” as it was reserved for the Chinese emperors due to its believed longevity attributes (Soleyman, 2010). As it turns out, this image laid the foundation for today’s nutritional research.

Black rice is superior to brown rice in terms of its protein, fibre and iron contents (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2004). In addition, it is also rich in anthocyanins (Zhang et al., 2010), type of antioxidants studied for their cardiovascular health implications (Wallace, 2010) and cancer combating properties (Faria et al., 2010). Anthocyanins are found in purple-black coloured fruits and vegetables and they are the key to the health benefits of this superfood (Park, Kim, & Chang, 2008). Recent research suggests that a spoonful of black rice bran contains more anthocyanin antioxidants than the same amount of blueberries (American Chemical Society, 2010).

The health potential of black rice in the cardiovascular, cancer, and diabetes research arenas is promising. For instance, black rice extract was shown to lower total and LDL cholesterol as well as some other plasma lipid parameters in rats fed high cholesterol diets typical of Western society (Zawistowski , Kopec, & Kitts, 2009). Similar studies in rabbits (Ling, Wang, & Ma, 2002) and mice (Xia, Ling, Ma, Kitts, & Zawistowski, 2003) found reduced progression of atherosclerotic plaques in animals supplemented with black rice. In addition to these heart health benefits, black rice was also shown in mice to suppress grafted human breast cancer tumor growth and angiogenesis, which would help prevent blood vessels from expanding and minimize cancer cells from spreading throughout the body (Hui et al., 2010). Moreover, diabetes-focused animal research showed an improvement in insulin sensitivity in rats fed a fructose diet with black rice (Guo et al., 2007) and the ongoing human clinical research into the glycemic index of black rice is expected to shed more light into whether black rice is able to impact blood sugar levels too (U.S. National Institutes of Health, 2013).

Surely more research is needed to support the health benefits of this superfood. Meanwhile, don’t miss out! You’ll find that black rice cooks for just about the same time as brown rice, i.e. about 30 min after you bring it to boil (Yonan, 2014) and can bring more flavour to your favourite dish. Be sure to also keep an eye out for black rice bran or extracts in breakfast cereals, cakes, cookies and beverages (Rosolen, 2014). Black rice is perfect for providing natural colouring to foods, from nice pink to dark purple and black hues. So here’s my market prediction: black rice may be the food of 2015. What do you think?


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Guo, H., Ling, W., Wang, Q., Liu, C., Hu, Y., Xia, M., … & Xia, X. (2007). Effect of anthocyanin-rich extract from black rice (Oryza sativa L. indica) on hyperlipidemia and insulin resistance in fructose-fed rats. Plant Foods for Human Nutrition, 62(1), 1-6.

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Hui, C., Bin, Y., Xiaoping, Y., Long, Y., Chunye, C., Mantian, M., & Wenhua, L. (2010). Anticancer activities of an anthocyanin-rich extract from black rice against breast cancer cells in vitro and in vivo. Nutrition and cancer, 62(8), 1128-1136.

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Ling, W. H., Wang, L. L., & Ma, J. (2002). Supplementation of the black rice outer layer fraction to rabbits decreases atherosclerotic plaque formation and increases antioxidant status. The Journal of nutrition, 132(1), 20-26.

Park, Y. S., Kim, S. J., & Chang, H. I. (2008). Isolation of anthocyanin from black rice (Heugjinjubyeo) and screening of its antioxidant activities. Korean Journal of Microbiology and Biotechnology, 36(1), 55-60.

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Xia, M., Ling, W. H., Ma, J., Kitts, D. D., & Zawistowski, J. (2003). Supplementation of diets with the black rice pigment fraction attenuates atherosclerotic plaque formation in apolipoprotein e deficient mice. The Journal of nutrition, 133(3), 744-751.

Yonan, J. (2014, April 2). Treat yourself like royalty with forbidden rice. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

Zawistowski, J., Kopec, A., & Kitts, D. D. (2009). Effects of a black rice extract (Oryza sativa L. indica) on cholesterol levels and plasma lipid parameters in Wistar Kyoto rats. Journal of Functional Foods, 1(1), 50-56.

Zhang, M. W., Zhang, R. F., Zhang, F. X., & Liu, R. H. (2010). Phenolic profiles and antioxidant activity of black rice bran of different commercially available varieties. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 58(13), 7580-7587.