Food & Agriculture Health

2023 January Health Update

Pollen from a variety of common plants: sunflower (Helianthus annuus, small spiky sphericals, colorized pink), morning glory (Ipomoea purpurea, big sphericals with hexagonal cavities, colorized mint green), hollyhock (Sildalcea malviflora, big spiky sphericals, colorized yellow), lily (Lilium auratum, bean shaped, colorized dark green), primrose (Oenothera fruticosa, tripod shaped, colorized red) and castor bean (Ricinus communis, small smooth sphericals, colorized light green). The image is magnified some x500, so the bean shaped grain in the bottom left corner is about 50 μm long. Image in the public domain courtesy of Dartmouth Electron Microscope Facility, Dartmouth College.

Lowest pollen counts occur between 4:00 a.m. and noon

If you are allergic to pollen, you’ve probably wondered if certain times of day are better than others for going outside during pollen season. A new study presented at the 2022 American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) Annual Scientific Meeting in Louisville, KY suggests that early morning hours are better than later in the afternoon for dodging pollen. “People who have pollen allergies can generally benefit from knowing at what times of day pollen counts are highest,” says allergist Stanley Fineman, MD, ACAAI member and lead author of the study. “If you are someone who enjoys outdoor activities, you need to be aware of when pollen counts are lowest, and what times are best for you to be outside. Weather apps and websites are a good way to monitor pollen levels in your area.”

CU Boulder Professor Jill Litt checks on a plant at a community garden in Denver, Colorado. Credit: Glenn Asakawa/CU Boulder.

Study shows gardening may help reduce cancer risk, boost mental health

Get more exercise. Eat right. Make new friends. As we compile our lists of resolutions aimed at improving physical and mental health in 2023, new CU Boulder research suggests one addition could have a powerful impact: Gardening. The first-ever, randomized, controlled trial of community gardening found that those who started gardening ate more fiber and got more physical activity—two known ways to reduce risk of cancer and chronic diseases. They also saw their levels of stress and anxiety significantly decrease. The findings were published in The Lancet Planetary Health. “These findings provide concrete evidence that community gardening could play an important role in preventing cancer, chronic diseases and mental health disorders,” said senior author Jill Litt, a professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at CU Boulder.

Honey bee pollinating a melon blossom. Photo: Dan Wyns. From Michigan State University Extension service.

How Does a Shortage of Pollinators Impact Food Supply & Human Health?

A recent study in Environmental Health Perspectives sought to answer this question. Animal pollination supports the production of healthy fruits and vegetables that provide key nutrients and protect against noncommunicable disease. The shortage of insect and animal (e.g., bats, birds) pollinators means that some crops don’t pollinated and thus don’t produce food. The researchers aimed to model the impacts on current global human health from insufficient pollination via diet. Segmenting data by climate grow zone, they estimated current yield gaps for animal-pollinated foods and estimated the proportion of the gap attributable to insufficient pollinators based on existing research. They then simulated closing the “pollinator yield gaps” by eliminating the portion of total yield gaps attributable to insufficient pollination. Next, they used an agriculture–economic model to estimate the impacts of closing the pollinator yield gap on food production, interregional trade, and consumption. Finally, they used a comparative risk assessment to estimate the related changes in dietary risks and mortality by country and globally. They also estimated the lost economic value of crop production for three diverse case-study countries: Honduras, Nepal, and Nigeria. Globally, they calculated that 3%–5% of fruit, vegetable, and nut production is lost due to inadequate pollination, leading to over 400,000 excess deaths annually from lost healthy food consumption and associated diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers. The impacts were unevenly distributed. Lower-income countries lost more food, whereas impacts on food consumption and mortality attributable to insufficient pollination were greater in middle- and high-income countries with higher rates of noncommunicable disease. In the three case-study countries, they calculated the economic value of crop production to be 12%–31% lower than if pollinators were abundant. (See also: Loss of pollinators causing more than 400,000 early deaths a year: study)

Image in public domain. Photo by Dave Clubb on Unsplash.

Green environments in residential areas may impact the composition of sugar molecules in breastmilk

Living in a greener environment has an impact on the composition of mother’s breastmilk, which in turn may affect the infant’s health. The paper is published in the journal Scientific Reports. The research, conducted at the Departments of Biology and Public Health at University of Turku, examined the association between the residential green environment and the individual oligosaccharide profile in the mother’s breastmilk. Oligosaccharides are sugar molecules that are the most common component in breastmilk after lactose and fat. So far, approximately 200 oligosaccharides have been discovered and they form a very versatile group of different kinds of complex structures. The oligosaccharides in breastmilk can protect the infant from harmful microbes and reduce the risk of developing allergies and diseases. The oligosaccharides are also closely connected to the immune system and gut microbiota which also have an impact the infant’s health. “This could indicate that increased everyday contacts with nature could be beneficial for breastfeeding mothers and their children […]. The results imply that breastfeeding could have a mediating role between residential green environments and health in infancy,” says Lahdenperä. She continues, “The results highlight the importance of understanding the biological pathways that can impact health and lead to the development of different diseases starting from infancy.”

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