Certain Foods Can Cure Infections (In The Lab, That Is…) – Forbes

Posted: December 16, 2019 at 6:46 am

Foods in test tubes, studio shot.

A recent Forbes article discussed how minestrone soup could stave off growth of a particular type of malaria. No, this did not mean that we should forget about being excited about a potential new malaria vaccine or no longer take malaria pills when traveling to malaria-ridden regions. Nor did it mean that treating malaria would now become a gourmet endeavor for discerning palates. But the concept was interesting: a science teacher engaged students in an experiment, and found that compared to other soups (yes, soups), minestrone in particular had the strongest ability to prevent growth of the organism causing malaria. In a test tube, that is.

Other foods have also been found to reduce bacteria and stave off illness, but again, this has been in the laboratory, not necessarily in the gut, respiratory tract, urinary tract, or skin. Lets take garlic. Some like it, some dont. But using garlic in its pure form or as an extract has become increasingly popular, especially for those exploring alternative medicine options. Its potential uses have ranged far and wide, including treatment of chronic illnesses such as diabetes mellitus and heart disease, as well as infections ranging from bacteria, fungi, and cold viruses. The active antimicrobial component of garlic is allicin, which acts to inhibit enzyme activity necessary for bacterial growth and replication. While studies on garlics benefits have been extensive, and many both in and out of the laboratory have been positive, there continues to be need for longer term trials and placebo-controlled studies to assess its actions. The larger studies, to date, have been in the lab. Or perhaps in the kitchen. A study looking at the antibacterial effects of garlic on hamburger meat, specifically limiting growth of the bacteria staphylococcus aureus, demonstrated that adequate amounts of garlic extract added to hamburger meat kept these nasty bugs out for up to two months when refrigerated. If you like garlic-flavored hamburgers, then this is certainly a good way to go. Tasty, and staphylococcus-free!

Minced beef on a cutting board with spice on wooden background

Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, has also had its day in the limelight when it comes to various medicinal properties. Besides its potential benefit in reducing growth of cancerous tumors, it has also been investigated regarding properties including anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and anti-fungal effects. Many of the results regarding curcumins effects have remained in the laboratory, with clinical trials still pending. The most promising work in curcumins anti-bacterial effect has been in combating growth of helicobacter pylori, a bacterial pathogen which contributes to gastritis and gastric ulcers. But even in this setting, curcumin was found to be beneficial only when combined with existing medications to treat this disease.


Probably the most storied food to help rid us of viruses in real time, not just in lab time, has been chicken soup. Most of us who grew up with chicken soup to treat colds and coughs probably never thought about its contents being studied in a lab. Grandmas kitchen perhaps, but never in a pulmonary and critical care department in a major hospital. But almost two decades ago, a group at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha took the soup to the lab. What they found was that the components of the soup, including the vegetables as well as the chicken, were able to reduce the activity of neutrophils, a type of white blood cell which becomes active and proliferative during infections. The inhibition of this type of cell may help to reduce inflammation associated with respiratory illnesses. Even more interesting, there was a substantial difference on impacting neutrophils from brand to brand. Some brands were almost as effective as just plain tap water, and some reduced the neutrophil count by almost 100-fold.

Chicken noodle soup (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)

Dr. Paul Krogstad, Professor of Pediatric Infectious Disease at the Mattel Childrens Hospital UCLA and Professor of Molecular and Medical Pharmacology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, has seen his share of antibiotic overuse throughout his career, and finds many of these in vitro (meaning in the test tube, not in the person) studies interesting. He notes that there may, indeed, be many food components that show such effects on neutrophil activity or inhibition of bacterial growth, including curcumins and garlics effects on bacteria. But if I have malaria, I am going to take the World Health Organizations advice and take a medication, Krogstad states. While we are in the throes of the negative results of antibiotic resistant infections, Dr. Krogstad notes that they still have their place, but only when absolutely needed: I use no antimicrobials when not needed, and prefer carefully chosen ones for illness. As for the soup, its a healthy food, and it cant hurt.

As so many foods are carrying claims of cure-alls, or at least cure-somethings, most of the investigative work thus far has been in small studies, many of which were sponsored by the food manufacturers themselves. The larger studies have been in the laboratory, not in the human. While there certainly can be real benefit from many of these consumed components, for now, stick to whats tested, and keep the soup as a healthy bonus. After all, according to an infectious disease specialist, it cant hurt.

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Certain Foods Can Cure Infections (In The Lab, That Is...) - Forbes

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