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Neu5Gc: Cause Of Atherosclerosis?

Ron Put

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This is from the latest Found My Fitness email:

We've just posted a brand-new article about Neu5Gc – a nine carbon sugar molecule that's the subject of controversy among lots of folks in the nutrition community, especially as it pertains to concerns about red meat consumption and the development of atherosclerosis.

You can read the new article on Neu5Gc here.

Neu5Gc, short for N-glycolylneuraminic acid, is a sialic acid that's produced by most mammals – but not humans.

Oddly, trace amounts of the compound show up in human urine, suggesting that we get it from the foods we eat, especially red meat, eggs, and milk. 

The problem may lie in the fact that Neu5Gc is very similar in structure to Neu5Ac, a sialic acid produced in the human body. 

The body's biochemical pathways treat Neu5Gc as if it were native. But the body's immune system, it is thought, says, "not so fast." It recognizes Neu5Gc as foreign and produces antibodies to it

The upshot is that foods that contain Neu5Gc – animal products – might provoke an immune response. 

 This immune response may trigger inflammation, potentially providing a unique dietary link between consumption of animal products and chronic disease. 

An odd quirk of dietary Neu5Gc is that it tends to accumulate preferentially in the linings of blood vessels or hollow organs – and even some types of cancer

Herein lies the controversy. 

Some studies suggest that the body’s immune response to Neu5Gc is the missing link between animal product consumption and increased risk for diseases such as atherosclerosis and cancer. 

Cell culture and rodent studies have shown that Neu5gc promotes inflammation, which can drive the pathogenesis of diseases like atherosclerosis and cancer. In fact, long-term exposure to Neu5Gc (approximately 21 months) produced a fivefold increase in the incidence of cancers in mice

Hold on. The data from the cell culture and rodent studies are interesting. But translating these findings to humans presents a few challenges. 

Humans and rodents are vastly dissimilar organisms, especially when it comes to Neu5Gc metabolism.

Unlike mice, we absorb very little of it from our diets, and we eliminate it pretty quickly

But there are issues with the study designs used to assess the effects of Neu5Gc, too, that make it hard to translate the data to humans. 

It's true: Some studies show links between eating animal products and an increased risk of atherosclerosis and cancer. 

But others have shown that this risk is largely mediated by other lifestyle factors – such as smoking, heavy alcohol consumption, physical inactivity, or being overweight or obese. 

While consuming very large quantities of red meat might not be optimal for health, avoiding the iron-rich food altogether could raise other health concerns. 

 For example, women who avoid red meat are at risk for developing anemia, which can have far-reaching effects, especially if they are pregnant, because iron is critical for fetal brain development. 

The bottom line is that the jury's still out when it comes to Neu5Gc's effects on human health. 

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