Sunday, December 21, 2014

Local honey may actually help control allergies

Question: What’s your thought on using local honey to help with spring allergies? I’ve found that since taking a tablespoon daily, my allergies have been much better.

Answer: It seems that the anecdotal evidence that consuming honey made by bees local to where one lives reduces seasonal allergies is much stronger than the sparse amount of formal research done to date. The rationale behind ingesting a tablespoon of locally produced honey daily is that it contains pollen from flowering plants endemic to your area. The bees become covered in pollen from whatever is in bloom, and this is transferred to their honey. Some believe that such exposure to the local allergens is like an oral form of allergy desensitization.

There have only been two randomized studies using a placebo group to test this hypothesis. The first study, conducted in 2002 by the University of Connecticut Health Center on only 36 allergy sufferers, found that honey did not show a measurable reduction in allergy symptoms compared against a placebo. A second study conducted in 2011 on just 44 people allergic to birch pollen found that the local honey did relieve symptoms compared to the placebo group.

My advice would be that if the locally produced honey helps with your allergy symptoms, keep using it. For most people, it’s safe enough to give it a try. My only caution would be in diabetic patients and those with the severest of allergies who might be at risk for a serious life-threatening allergic reaction to the honey.

Question: I recently heard that Starbucks strawberry Frappuccinos use a red food coloring made from dried, crushed-up bugs. Are there any other foods that routinely contain bugs?

Answer: For many years, we’ve been consuming the natural red food dye made from the dried, finely ground remains of the South American scale insect Dactylopius coccus. While the finely ground powder does not impart any flavor to the many foods to which it is added, the idea of consuming desiccated bug powder is unappealing to many. These bugs are tiny: to make one pound of cochineal extract, 70,000 insects are required. Its presence is disguised under coloring-ingredient names such as cochineal extract or carmine extract.

Cochineal extract recently received national attention when it was discovered that Starbucks switched to cochineal as a move away from artificial coloring. While safe for the vast majority of people, there have been rare cases of allergic reaction to cochineal extract. Cochineal and carmine extracts are not vegan, nor are they kosher. As an alternative to cochineal dye, beets are another source of red dye.

The FDA does indeed permit limited quantities of insect body parts, rodent hairs, and other icky things in our foods. The agency says that a certain amount of contamination is unavoidable in commercial food processing. It further states that it is economically impractical to grow, harvest or process raw products that are totally free of nonhazardous, naturally occurring unavoidable defects. The FDA sets limits for naturally occurring contaminants that are unaesthetic but in most cases not hazards to public health.

Dr. Mitchell Hecht is a physician specializing in internal medicine. Send questions to him at: “Ask Dr. H,” Box 767787, Atlanta, Ga. 30076. Due to the large volume of mail received, personal replies are not possible.

Mitchell Hecht Medical Columnist
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