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“The cook is the pharmacologist of the future”

“The cook is the pharmacologist of the future”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

Wishful thinking

Imagine you, a researcher, are given a bag of money, unlimited time and personnel. What research would you do? Professor Aalt Bast wants to show that the dividing line between medicines, nutrition and poison are no longer current.

Ask Aalt Bast in an e-mail about his dream research, and his fantasy practically runs amuck. It's supposed to, he says, imagination is crucial in science. “We actually test that in prospective students during their entrance interviews for University College in Venlo. With more or less the same question: what research would you like to do most? That is when you see some of them wonder, ‘what a strange question’. But I can tell you: if they don't have an answer that is not a plus. As a scientist, you should see opportunities, a problem, something you want to tackle.”

Bast gives a warning beforehand, he is not dreaming of a small experiment but of something big and compelling. He wants to tear down the fences between medicines, nutrition and poison. “At the moment, they are three different worlds with their own legislation, professions and supervisors. But the overlapping area of the three is becoming greater.”

Food often serves as a replacement for medicines these days. The cook is the pharmacologist of the future, says Bast. “Take, for example, diabetes patients who no longer need to take any medication once they start eating healthier food, with more vegetables and fruit. Or a tomato extract that keeps blood vessels flexible, which is good for circulation. The fibres in barley and oats that keep the cholesterol in check. I could go on and on.”

We are also discovering an increasing number of vegetable substances that appear to enhance the effectiveness of medicines. “Many people, for example, are insensitive to anti-inflammatory agents, such as corticosteroids used against asthma and rheumatism. But if you add vegetable colouring agents to them, the medicine often does work. The effect is spectacular; it is a godsend for many patients. But it puts the legislator in a tricky position, because of the old fences between medicine and non-medicine. The same applies to therapeutic herbs such as valerian or ginseng. Are they medicines or not?”

The fences between poison and medicine are also far from evident. “If you administer poison in small quantities, it can strengthen the body's defence system. We refer to that as hormesis, which actually has nothing to do with homoeopathy. Ten years ago, as a scientist you were vilified if you even mentioned hormesis, today there are registered medicines against MS that work on the same principle.”

Hormesis would play a major role in his dream research. How quickly would the poison stop working? Would you have to kick-start the defence mechanism time and again? Could that also be achieved with natural substances? “I also want to know what exactly happens at the cell level and what the health effects are. Also, how can you determine those effects.”

Bast hopes that our view of poison will change and that we react less hysterically. Because it has been proven that 99.99 per cent of the poisons that we ingest are of a natural origin. “The poisons that humans add through pesticides constitute 0.01 per cent. So there is absolutely no need for us to be worried. It is healthier to eat an apple that has been sprayed with pesticides than not eat an apple at all. Our food is safer than ever before.”

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