Swine Flu Stew
Can your food choices help make you more healthy?
Vietnamese pho is next to godliness. Fresh noodles, steaming amber beef broth, and herbs. The soup's spices enhance and concentrate the flavor of beef. There's magic in pho. But is there medicine in it, too?
Pho contains star anise. Star anise contains shikimic acid, the active ingredient in Tamiflu, one of only two antiviral drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treating swine flu (H1N1) and avian flu (H5N1). During the 2005 avian flu scare, star anise supplies were nearly depleted and wholesale prices of the spice jumped a reported 40 percent. Earlier this year, China Daily reported that prices for star anise were on the rise again because of fears about swine flu.
A shortage of flu vaccines and Tamiflu this year has also led to a variety of health claims for products, which may or may not help, like swine-flu-fighting shampoo. The FDA recently released a long list of products with fraudulent flu-fighting claims, which included vitamins, enzymes, and herbal remedies.
Considering Tamiflu's origins, it's surprising that there haven't been more claims of medicinal properties for foods, and that there's no food on the FDA's list. So far, the only statement about star anise's purported benefits in warding off swine flu came from one Chinese health official, who said that Chinese Five Spice, which includes star anise, would "certainly be a good treatment for the flu," and suggested people use it with pork dishes.
It's amazing that the world relies on an eight-pointed fruit, grown on evergreen shrubs chiefly in southern China, for fighting the flu. The tree is difficult to grow and fruits only after about six years. While the 2005 avian flu scare spurred research into alternative ways of producing shikimic acid (Tamiflu's manufacturer, Roche, obtains some of the drug from a fermentation and extraction process using a genetically engineered E. coli bacteria), the cheapest method of production is still from star anise.
But before you run out to the Asian grocery for a bag of star anise or start slurping buckets of pho, remember: Creating lab-quality Tamiflu involves a number of unstable, potentially explosive chemicals. And a spokesperson for Roche told The New York Times that it takes 13 grams of star anise to produce 1.3 grams of shikimic acid, the amount required to treat one person. If you ate enough pho to get that much star anise at lunch, you would run the risk of water intoxication.
We've come to think of food and medicine as two separate categories. And sure, medicines are refined-and sometimes created from scratch-in the lab. But, while a bowl of pho might not inoculate you against swine flu, it can only help. Absinthe has been known to contain the star anise. Italian sambuca was originally an extract of the medicinal elderberry (the shrub's Latin name is Sambucus). During the last scare, Korean scientists claimed that kim chi might ward off bird flu. Sure, there's always snake oil on the market, but food and medicine are often made from the same stuff. And moreover, it's always worth considering the placebo effect-believing in food, like pho, might help cure your ills.