08 July, 2011
Sometimes people confuse two substances that have both had diet and health claims made about them. Cream of tartar, a baking ingredient, shares a name with a recently marketed fruit-based additive. Both have had benefits ascribed to them, plus claims that adding them to your diet will result in better health.
If you bake, you’re familiar with the little jars of white, powdery cream of tartar you find in supermarkets along with spices. This is a refined version of a remnant left over in casks after wine making, called argol, a crystallized form of the tartaric acid from the grapes used for the wine. The terms “tartaric acid” and “cream of tartar” are sometimes used interchangeably, but they are slightly different and have different purposes in cooking. Cream of tartar is a component in baking powder and helps give beaten egg whites frothier and bigger volume.
At least two folk remedies exist, claiming adding cream of tartar mixed with a liquid to your diet will cure bladder infections or help lower blood pressure in pregnant women. GrannyMed.com says that, supposedly, the acidity of the cream of tartar, plus that of the lemon or lime juice you mix it with -- you can also use water -- may make your urine less alkaline, killing any bacteria. Childbirth.org claims cream of tartar and lemon juice or water will lower blood pressure during pregnancy. Neither of these are proven remedies, though, and no studies back them up. See your doctor instead if you have a bladder infection or if you think your blood pressure is becoming high, especially if pregnant. That can indicate the start of preeclampsia, a life-threatening situation.
On the other hand, studies have shown a rich vitamin and mineral content in the fruit of the “cream of tartar” tree, which is another name for the baobab tree of Africa and western Australia. Baobab fruit is marketed -- as an additive in bars and drinks -- as a major source of nutrients. It is possible that someone proclaiming the wonders of cream of tartar in the diet has mixed up the baobab tree and the cream of tartar used in cooking.
A 2009 review in “Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition” confirmed that studies showed baobab products to be significant sources of vitamin C and calcium, with antioxidant effects. However, the review’s authors did call for more research, including on how storage affects the products. Unfortunately, some companies are pushing products as unproven cure-alls, sometimes in a questionable manner -- at least one advertisement for a supplement has references to baobab all around the description of a supplement, yet there’s no direct indication the supplement actually contains baobab.
Use caution when dealing with either version of cream of tartar. Drugs.com notes cream of tartar, synonyms potassium bitartrate and potassium acid tartrate, can have laxative and diuretic effects. The small amount used in baking powder or in other recipes is not an issue, but do not take it in larger amounts, and always see a doctor if dealing with infections or high blood pressure. Baobab has its own problems as well. The versions of baobab products sold in the United States are generally in supplemental or additive form, and thus vulnerable to exaggerated health claims from companies determined to push their products. Susan Smillie of “The Guardian” reports that there’s conflicting information over whether the species of baobab used in this additive form is endangered.
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