Saturday, February 6, 2010


The actor Roger Moore (my third favorite Bond) stated: “There are even surveys suggesting that eating foie gras can lead to Alzheimer’s, diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. In short, eating foie gras is a tasty way of getting terminally ill.”
I applaud his desire to get people to stop eating foie gras, which, if you are unfamiliar with it, is liver from either a duck or a goose that has been fattened ("foie gras" is French for "fat liver", foie = liver, gras = fat, think Mardi Gras = Fat Tuesday).  The thing is, the fattening is done by force feeding the animal, which is kinda cruel, and thus, I agree in spirit that getting people to stop buying and eating foie gras is a good idea.

However, the question here is whether or not there is any truth to what James Bond is saying?  Or, is he another celebrity quack like Jim Carey and Jennifer McCarthy?  I am sure his heart is in the right place, but he demonstrates how it is all too easy for marginal, preliminary results to be blown out of proportion once they hit the mainstream media.  Even ScienceDaily (a site I often link to from this blog) used a little bit of sensationalism by mentioning Alzheimer's in the title of their article on the subject (of course they did make sure to mention at the end of the article that there really was no demonstrated link to Alzheimer's, but then some people only read the headlines.)

The study cited in the ScienceDaily article showed two things: 1. some brands of commercially available foie gras contained an aberrant type of amyloid protein and 2. when these proteins were force fed to mice (Oh, the irony!), the mice got amyloidosis (amyloidosis is mostly a catchall term for when there are abnormal amyloid proteins aggregating in tissue, it can have many causes, from autoimmune to infectious, which is probably why you hear it mentioned on pretty much every episode of House).  Anyway, the study makes no mention of seeing any amyloid fibrils in the brains of these animals (which is where you typically see the protein in people with Alzheimer's), nor does it make any claims of the mice developing symptoms akin to Alzheimer's, diabetes, or rheumatoid arthritis.  No tests were performed, nor were claims made, about memory or learning deficits in the animals.  In fact, the only mention of Alzheimer's in the whole article is in the last sentence, where the authors recommend that people should take caution in deciding whether or not to consume foie gras, especially if they have any diseases that involve amyloid proteins (like rheumatoid arthritis, typeII diabetes or Alzheimer's).  Which is to say that the authors of the study make absolutely NO CLAIM that foie gras causes Alzheimer's.  They merely suggest that someone with Alzheimer's (or a family history of it) would be better safe than sorry to avoid foie gras until more research can be done.

As if that weren't enough, however, we don't even really know if amyloid proteins contribute to Alzheimer's disease in any meaningful way.  Abnormal amyloid proteins form tangled masses that are the defining characteristic of the brains of Alzheimer's patients.  However, the presence of these proteins may just as easily be a symptom as a cause.  For years, it has been hypothesized that the production of easily tangled amyloid proteins is a major cause of Alzheimer's disease.   However, after decades of research and attempts to treat the disease by targeting these proteins, little to no progress has been made, suggesting that in the case of Alzheimer's disease, the amyloid proteins may be more symptomatic than causative. (This isn't to say that no progress has been made, and many neuroscientists still ascribe to the amyloid hypothesis, but amyloid as a cause of Alzheimer's is still just a hypothesis and far from conclusive).

So what is the take home message?  Well, it may be possible that eating foie gras can cause organs in your body to accumulate amyloid fibrils, and it may even be that it could contribute to diseases like Alzheimer's.  However, at this point there is no evidence for that assumption.  That being said, I would still recommend not eating foie gras until it is determined one way or another how transmissable these amyloid proteins are in humans, and because I still think it is kinda cruel to stick a tube down ducks' throats and pour in food.  But then you're all adults, so decide for yourself what you want to do.

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