Thursday 10 February 2011

Drugs in our food

"Opium fürs Volk" ("Opium for the people") by Udo Pollmer was a really interesting book showing how many different drugs and psychogenic substances are in our food. There are of course a lot of substances in plants which the plant needs to be healthy and which are also healthy for us, like vitamins and nutrients. But there is a whole other set of substances which plants or mushrooms use to fight enemies, or substances which incidentally interact with molecules in our body. And this second category is what this book is about.

Everyone is aware of things that are clearly toxic, like deadly nightshade or a toadstool. But the point is that as soon as things are not so toxic anymore we start to like them - as drugs. One prime example is the toadstool "fly agaric". It is most probably what sent Alice to Wonderland. It may also be what caused the ecstasy in the Dionysus cult. It was probably a major ingredient in Asterix' magic potion, causing the frenzy "Berserkerwut". And for some reason in Austria we give each other little red mushrooms with white spots for the New Year, to bring you luck - next to the more common four leaved clover leaves.

Another question this book helps to answer is what is so special about chocolate. Why doesn't just mixing fat and sugar do it? The answer is at least seven different kinds of substances, coming from cocoa, the production process and being built in our body. Here I want to focus on salsolinol.

A major effect of this molecule is as a monoamine oxidase inhibitor. This means that monoamine neurotransmitters, e.g. serotonin and dopamin, are not broken down. But they are transported to our brain and make us feel good. Salsolinol is also what explains the popularity of bananas. It is found in particular in the brown spots - maybe that is the reason why banana cake is usually made from really brown bananas. Aside from the psychotropic substances in hops, salsolinol (formed in the body) may even be another reason for the popularity of beer.

Maybe I will write about some more things in another post. Cola, why is it so much more popular than the other drinks containing sugar, caffeine and artificial coloring? Tomatos - "Paradeiser" (paradise fruit) in Austria and apparently also in the Czech republic, "Pomodoro" (gold apple) in Italian. Spices - why are the so much wanted, in particular Safran. Food processing - what is the deal with Aged 18 Whiskey, Balsamico Vinegar, barbecueing, ...

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