I’m annoyed. Yes, annoyed. Why? Because at least 100 or more media outlets around the world have touted “Suguki” – better known as pickled turnip – as a flu remedy, when it is no such thing. Think of this as an urban myth gone viral.
Let’s start with the facts and then move into the dark realm of stark speculation. The source of this story comes from a mouse study conducted by a company that pickles turnips. Their name is Kagome, Ltd., and they are based in Japan. They are, by their own account, pioneers in the Japanese tomato business and offer an impressive array of tomato products – including ketchup and juice. They also pickle turnips, a traditional Japanese food called Suguki. From what I can glean, they are very big in agriculture, and are multi-national. They seem to be very sophisticated.
According to statements issued by spokespeople at Kagome, Suguki contains friendly bacteria called Lactobacillus brevis KB290. This bacterium, they say, may help to stop the flu virus. After all, it helped to stop the virus in some mice.
According to studies found in the U.S. National Library of Medicine, Lactobacillus brevis KB290 is a beneficial probiotic that shows benefit in improving gut health and enhancing immune function. That’s good, and it is consistent with what a great many other friendly bacteria do in the human body. This strain also may prove beneficial in certain cases of raw fish poisoning caused by a very unfriendly bacterium known as Vibrio parahaemolyticus, but so far the only work on this has been performed with cells in a lab. So wait and see on that one, and don’t let up on hygienic kitchen procedures.
In one published human clinical study, Lactobacillus brevis KB290 consumption led to some improvement in cases of irritable bowel syndrome. In the study, participants who were given capsules of the bacteria fared better than those who had been given a placebo. If other studies continue to show benefit, these bacteria may be one of several useful remedies against this pernicious intestinal problem. That’s definitely a plus.
Now we come to the big flu news that has swept the media. A Kagome-conducted mouse study, published in the November 6 issue of Letters in Applied Microbiology, has caused this frenzy, thanks mostly to a well executed PR campaign. In the study, 60 mice were divided into three groups. One group was exposed to the H1N1 flu, one group was not exposed to the flu, and one group was given the flu virus and also given the bacteria Lactobacillus brevis KB290. The conclusion? Mice given the bacteria were less likely to catch the flu.
One problem I have with this is that it’s a mouse study and not an especially stunning study at that. Mice are not humans, and the flu virus mutates constantly. So what do we know about the flu protective properties of these bacteria in pickled turnip? Not much.
Even worse, several published stories have suggested that Lactobacillus brevis KB290 may protect us humans (without any science at all to support this) against numerous viral infections, including potentially fatal bird flu. Really? One claim repeated in several stories is that the scientists who conducted the study “think that there could be protection….against the deadly H7N9 flu,” recently found in China. This all sounds very promising, but there is no evidence at all to support this lavish idea. In fact, this is potentially deadly speculation.
Undeterred by the lack of any evidence that Lactobacillus brevis KB290 has anti-flu properties in people, articles have gushed with headlines that jubilantly trumpet “how to prevent flu” and “a new superfood to fight the flu,” and on and on, all of them proclaiming Suguki as the second coming. Even worse, when perusing various articles, it’s apparent that most have simply grabbed information from the Kagome Limited website and have culled language from other published stories without doing any real digging into the topic.
As an advocate for safe, effective natural remedies, I’m always happy to spread the word about a good cure from nature. But flu is serious and often fatal, and thousands of people die each year from the flu virus. It’s just plain irresponsible to blare that Suguki, also known as pickled turnip, is a flu buster when there is no evidence to support the claim.
I’ve personally eaten plenty of pickled turnip at sushi restaurants, and I like it very much. But until there is solid, human clinical evidence, published in a peer-reviewed medical journal, showing that Lactobacillus brevis KB290 actually fights flu in humans, don’t give it a second thought. As a food and for enhancing digestion, pickled turnip may be just the thing. But as a flu cure? Forget it.