CSUN professor’s book debunks common myths about ‘natural’ ingredients

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CSUN chemistry professor Gagik Melikyan has authored a new book hoping to dispel the common misconceptions that products labeled “natural” are inherently benign and exposure to antioxidants, supplements and cosmetics cannot harm the body, despite the lack of scientific evidence to support these claims.

“I wanted to create a product that would save lives,” Melikyan said.  “I thought I needed to share this knowledge so people would not continue to hurt themselves unknowingly.”

The book, “Guilty Until Proven Innocent: Antioxidants, Foods, Supplements, and Cosmetics,” tackles particular trends in healthy living, including green tea and resveratrol, the compound found in red wine that is often touted for its promotion of youthfulness.

Melikyan said inspiration for the book came from two factors: he noticed that his chemistry students were unaware of how exposure to supplements and cosmetics could affect their health; and how advertisements were misleading the public to place false hope in poorly researched products.

“I saw the relevance of this topic to my students,” he said.

Melikyan said while the promoted ingredients in these products show positive activity in test tubes, that reaction does not necessarily translate to the body, where they can interact with numerous enzymes converting them into carcinogenic derivatives.

“Thirty years ago, cancer was a disease of the elderly, now it affects people of all ages,” Melikyan said.

While scientists are uncertain how long a person must be exposed to these compounds before developing an adverse reaction, they are not ruling out their connection to the disease.

“Someone can consume a great amount of resveratrol or green tea and be fine, while another can drink the same amount and develop cancer,” he said.  “It depends on a person’s family history and genetic make-up, but we cannot hope that all make-up is perfect.”

Melikyan said there is a trend of utilizing unfounded assumptions to draw conclusions of the health benefits of certain products.

“For example, Vitamin E, a phenolic compound, is very cleverly designed and can only protect the body,” he said.  “Due to this beneficial nature, all phenolic compounds have been assumed to function in this way.”

These assumptions are dangerous, said Melikyan, since non-naturally occurring phenolic compounds are known to undergo changes inside the human body that form cancer-causing agents.

Lotions intended for daily use also contain ingredients worth re-examining, he added.

Parabens, anti-microbial preservatives which mimic female hormones, can appear multiple times in any given product.

“Although these hormones are natural, they can still be dangerous,” he said.  “An increase in estrogen can cause breast and cervical cancer in women and the development of female characteristics in men.”

Melikyan said it is the equivalent of putting a person on hormone therapy without telling them first, since skin is the most porous organ in the human body and absorbs most, if not all, of the products applied to it.

Melikyan said this lack of information and contradiction between claims and fact permeate the food business as it is not as well-regulated as the drug industry.

“The FDA has failed us as gatekeepers,” Melikyan said. “When we are presented with a drug, the population demands answers.  But if it is labeled as a food product or dietary supplement, our guards are down and we’re ready to consume without any explanations.”

Melikyan said the current method of choosing food, that is, based on look and taste, has nothing to with science and is ineffective.

He said that with modern advances in scientific technology, this is no longer understandable or acceptable.

While it is unrealistic to look up every component and its reaction in the body, Melikyan said the FDA must do a better job of protecting the population through research, education and choosing ethical products.

“Modern science is capable of testing every structure that enters the body, and this is the only way to protect consumers,” he said.

Jocelin Olmos, 18, freshman chemistry major, said she makes a concerted effort to know what she chooses to put into and on her body.

Olmos said she reads about alternative products and how their ingredients may affect her skin, hair and overall health.

“I try to choose healthier products,” she said.

Other students said they chose their beauty products based on price.

Negar Asiaban, 20, a junior psychology major, said she only uses make-up when she goes out with friends and chooses products that are most compatible with her budget.

Junior illustration major Joevin Ha, 20, said he also chooses his hair products based on price.

“I don’t really understand what is being used, so I’ve never been too curious to research the ingredients,” he said.

Melikyan said he wrote his book to combat this intimidation among the non-scientific population.

During his 30-year tenure at CSUN, Melikyan has researched the intersection of several areas, including radical organic, radical organometallic, transition metal, computational and medical chemistries.

Melikyan said hundreds of students flooded him with questions and personal stories about which products are safest for use, that during his research for the book.

“Education is key, on a personal level and a collective level,” he said.  “Consumer protection groups must put more pressure on manufacturers and federal agencies to protect the public by drawing information from science.”

Melikyan said that this knowledge is vital when faced with an aisle of products containing unrecognizable ingredients.

“It is harder to take advantage of someone who is educated,” he said.


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