Lutein – Eye Candy or What?

September 22, 2015 in Antioxidants, fiber, Food and the Brain, Health Claims by Joyce Bunderson

On September 14, 2015 the Wall Street Journal published an article called: Eye Candy? Scientists Debate the Value of Lutein Supplements: A role in limiting a chronic eye disease. The article and the studies, upon which the article was based, were to my mind, like opening the proverbial can of worms. At a quick glance the article seemed to say something like: If you want to avoid macular degeneration, then (with a nod to supplement providers instead of leafy greens eaters) be sure to take a supplement of lutein. But as frequently happens, if we look a little deeper, we may find that the supplement mentality can lead to mistaken scientific interpretations and resulting medical advice.

The article jumps right into the fact that lutein is a plant antioxidant. Isn’t that nice? A plant, how simple is that? Green leafy vegetables top off the list of sources of lutein. So if you want to take advantage of the natural, really fantastic sources of lutein, you’re probably consuming leafy greens. I wonder how many people are regularly consuming leafy greens. Just sayin.’ I really don’t know. I guess I’m partially basing my doubt about American’s eating leafy greens on the number of times that I’ve offered beautiful Swiss chard from my garden and people say they’ve never had it. I say it’s like mild spinach and they say their family doesn’t eat spinach. Or I say something about the beet greens and they tell me they did not know they were edible. Yes, it’s just anecdotal evidence and not really scientific. So it’s a stretch to say that many people are not eating greens frequently. Hopefully, most are getting some leafy greens in those small iceberg salads served with dinner or lunch. Or maybe that leaf of iceberg included in their lunchtime burger. Unfortunately, this lettuce is a relatively poor source of the nutrients we’re talking about.

Shortly after the article got my attention onto lutein and greens, I realized that the scientists may be thinking that possibly lutein is involved in keeping our brains healthy as we age. How exciting is that? Not losing our sight or our thinking processes; some scientists believe that lutein will provide protection to the brain. Unfortunately, Emily Y. Chew who led the study cited in the WSJ, found no significant benefit for cognitive function. But others have. Dr Chew did not design her study to find this out.

So instead of trying to encourage the public to eat more leafy greens, we jump straight to growing marigolds and extracting the lutein and zeaxanthin (both carotenoids). This was definitely part of my can of worms problem. If you’re not flowing in dollar bills, and you want to have a low risk for the blindness of macular degeneration and maybe even Alzheimer’s, do you need to get lutein supplements from marigolds grown in the Netherlands and shipped across the ocean? Or can you eat ordinary foods?

Yet another worm escaped when I noticed that based upon the research the recommendation to take supplements of lutein and zeaxanthin is replacing taking beta carotene supplements, which has been linked to lung cancer in smokers and former smokers. All I can say is that yes, there was a link; but not to eating foods with beta-carotene. The ATBC Study conducted in Finland ended prematurely in 1993, after learning that giving supplements of beta carotene to smokers, actually increased cancer and death rates! The study was designed to show how much beta carotene would help smokers. Research has not been conducted to prove why the smokers who took the beta carotene supplement died sooner, but there is no proof that the beta carotene caused the increased death rate. When you take a supplement, the “more is better” philosophy frequently prevails. One possibility is that the body just flushes the extra beta carotene out. Unnoticed, it is quite possible that other carotenoids were being flushed out of the body as well as the beta carotene. Another possibility is that the body is flooded with beta carotene and the other carotenoids can’t do their job. There are over 600 carotenoids in this family of nutrients, including lutein and zeaxanthin! Moreover, even if the flush-out hypothesis is wrong, a beta carotene supplement does not contain all the other caretinoids, and the smoker’s diet may not either. How ironic that would be, if supplements push out the active carotenoids, or make it less likely that you will eat them, believing that the supplements are sufficient. Maybe science is starting to catch up with which carotenoids are necessary for different problems, and maybe not. In any case, it’s always a little risky to be relying on over-dosed supplements instead of eating a healthy diet. Consuming real foods keep the carotenoids more in balance. It’s difficult to get overdose damage from foods. I should write here, if you already have macular degeneration, then those supplements are likely considered your medication. I hope it helps. But whether or not you have it, my advice is to eat more greens and other highly nourishing foods, like seeds, nuts, avocado, squash, and peanuts.

Some scientists think that we should get about six to 10 milligrams a day of lutein. Regrettably, the estimated daily consumption is less than a milligram a day according to a large database of Americans published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in 2010 (Elizabeth J. Johnson).

Further adding to the problems in interpreting this supplement-oriented JAMA study, lutein and zeaxanthin were not the only nutrients in the supplements. Also supplemented were vitamin C, E and omega-3 fatty acids. Yes, more worms are escaping. Vitamin E supplements – alpha-tocopherol is one of the eight tocopherols identified. Although most of the other tocopherols are not converted to benefit in the same way as alpha tocopherol, the other tocopherols may provide us with health benefits in a way that is distinct from alpha-tocopherol. An interesting observation during pondering this exercise is that vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol) is found in the same food sources as lutein and zeaxanthin.

Of course, more research is needed; but why wait? My point is that none of us are having bad reactions to consuming a serving of dark leafy greens, even if we are smokers, the audience who suffered (for un-clarified reasons) from the beta carotene supplements. For example, in one half cup of cooked Swiss chard, there is 195 percent of lutein (just under two times what is needed - DRIs). Of course, that is only counting one nutrient. When we eat a vegetable like Swiss chard, there are hundreds of other phytonutrients (plant nutrients, including fiber, protein, carotenoids (well over 600), vitamin C, vitamin K (involved with keeping our bones healthy), and multiple minerals. So unless your doctor specifically tells you not to eat certain foods, spend your money and your time trying to find ways to fit into your regular meal plans those wonderful leafy greens, as well as nuts and seeds. And beware of research using supplements, because it has produced some serious confusion. And while the supplement business can be quite profitable, the advertizing, hype, and incomplete research it promotes can lead people to forget that the good earth provides a bounty of wonderful plants, filled with a host of nutrients that scientists cannot yet fully explain; either the health benefits they provide, their mechanism for doing it, or how they operate in combination with one another.