As I was driving home last evening, I saw Rudolph run across the road. He didn’t have his nose on – that is, it wasn’t shining bright red. I guess he just lights that up when he’s guiding the sleigh through the fog. Or is there more to it than that? As a dietitian and nutritionist, I can’t help but wonder how he does it. What is the source of Rudolph’s red nose?
About twenty years ago, research was heating up on beta carotene as a potential anti-cancer agent in foods. The research ultimately did not pan out because it was discovered that beta carotene is only one of many carotenoid substances in foods. It was found that people consuming diets rich in carotenoids from fruits and vegetables are healthier with lower mortality from a number of chronic illnesses. However a recent meta-analysis of 68 reliable antioxidant supplementation experiments involving a total of 232,606 individuals concluded that additional beta carotene from supplements is unlikely to be beneficial and may actually be harmful. Perhaps the problem with supplements is that all of the active elements are not available as they are in foods. Which of the 600 carotenoids is the active agent or do they all work in concert to improve our health? In foods we get all of the beneficial elements in the proper proportion. There is no risk associated with foods containing beta carotene – only supplements.
But during this time of beta carotene research, a new theory emerged. What if Rudolph’s red nose is somehow connected to beta carotene consumption? Beta carotene is a red-orange pigment found in deep colored fruits and vegetables like carrots, pumpkins, sweet potatoes and dark greens like collards. Our bodies use beta carotene to make vitamin A, an essential nutrient for humans and reindeer. If we eat a lot of beta carotene containing foods we might experience the harmless condition of carotenodermia, a conspicuous orange skin coloring due to deposition of the carotenoid in the outer layer of the skin. Could this be the missing link in understanding Rudolph’s red nose? It is at least plausible if somewhat circumstantial that Rudolph could be eating a lot of greens leading up to the big night. And as we all know the fall and winter is prime season for kale, collards, mustard and turnip greens.
A recent researcher who wishes to remain anonymous has advanced the theory that one of Rudolph’s favorite foods is pasta with pesto sauce and that this might account for his red nose. Given that the main ingredient in pesto is fresh basil leaves (a source of beta carotene), it is not a stretch to believe that reindeer would like it. But do reindeer eat pasta? I’m sure the Italians would affirm a hardy “yes” to this question! But empirical science demands proof and I can find no documented evidence that reindeer eat pasta.
We all remember past theories that proved to be false. Like for example, the “inflammation theory” stating that Rudolph simply suffered from a runny nose. But if this were the case, would Santa have asked him to go out in the cold? Of course not! And to have this same condition every year on exactly the same night? This theory simply does not fit the facts. There has to be a good explanation of how that reindeer radiates.
And I happen to believe that beta carotene is as good an explanation as any. So this year as you are celebrating the warmth of this cheerful season, gather the children round and explore the possibilities of explaining Rudolph’s red nose. You might even get some of those cherubs to eat carrots if you tell them about beta carotene. From the family of Memorial Health System, we wish you the warmest holiday greetings.
Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist and Director of Clinical Nutrition and the HC Polk Education Center at Memorial Health System in Lufkin. The Polk Center provides individual and group education on diabetes, heart disease and stroke; monthly classes on healthy cooking; and monthly support groups in Lufkin and Livingston. In cooperation with Sodexo Food Service and the City of Lufkin, the Polk Center produces the nationally viewed TV series Memorial Cooking Innovations where dietitian Tim Scallon teams up with Chef Manuel Marini to demonstrate how healthy eating can taste great. The show can be seen on cable in 46 cities and on the Memorial web site at http://www.memorialhealth.org. Call 639-7585 for more information.