Two in One: A New Dietary Copper Study and the Importance of Checking Your Sources | Vol. 3 / No. 31.3

Photo: Mike Jennings, CC BY 2.0

Today’s post is about a new study on copper, and about the results of trying to look into how much is too much on wikipedia. Read on!

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Copper: it’s in your wires, in your pipes, and also in your body. And the reporting of a new study over at phys.org tells us that we might not have enough in the latter. A new study out of UC Berkeley links copper levels in the bodies of mice to their ability to burn fat. The researchers found that copper binds to an enzyme that would otherwise limit the breakdown of fat, a process they liken to “putting a brake on a brake,” and so therefore higher concentrations of copper in fatty tissue leads to it being “burned” more rapidly.

Now, before you go out and buy copper cookware, I feel compelled to mention that you probably shouldn’t use any of the “unlined” variety, at least not for acidic foods. While they do warn their readers “against ingesting copper supplements as a result of these study results [because] too much copper can lead to imbalances with other essential minerals, including zinc,” they should probably also mention that if you for some reason have unlined copper cookware (it’s almost always lined with tin, nickel, or stainless steel) you should probably get something else for your everyday cooking.

Copper isn’t like iron. Just cooking with cast iron pots and pans can raise iron intake to the point of curbing anemia. It’s usually a good thing (though even with iron, the dose makes the poison). But copper leaches into acidic foods very easily, and can result in some pretty unpleasant side effects, which is why the FDA says it shouldn’t come into contact with any food with a pH of 6 or below, and why we really only use unlined copper cookware for very specific (non-acidic) foods.

So there’s that.

But as I was researching this, I stumbled across something bizarre. On the wikipedia entry for copper toxicity, I read the following lines:

Nutritionally, there is a distinct difference between organic and inorganic copper, according to whether the copper ion is bound to an organic ligand. Organic copper, like that found in food, is a beneficial micronutrient needed for good health. Inorganic metallic copper, like that found in electrical wire, plumbing pipes, brass fittings, redox water filters, sheet metal, cooking utensils, jewelry and pennies, is a neurotoxic heavy metal linked to physical and psychiatric symptoms on par with mercury and lead.

I thought to myself “now hold on, why doesn’t the phys.org article mention organic vs. inorganic copper?” well, I’ll be a good internet citizen and pass this information on to my readers.

But try as I might, I couldn’t find any reliable evidence for the claim that dietary copper can be meaningfully split into organic and inorganic in that way. The links provided at the end of the paragraph were to, well, let’s charitably call them dubious sources.

First up was “metabolichealing.com,” which claims that there is a “copper toxicity epidemic;” next, “drwilson.com,” which lists “homosexuality” as a “copper-related symptom;” then a company called Analytical Research Labs which claims to be “an Authority on Nutrition and the Science of Balancing Body Chemistry Through Hair Tissue Mineral Analysis!;” and finally a worldcat link to a book on “balancing body chemistry” as a way of curing mental illness. This, as you might have guessed, set off some red flags in my mind.

Now, organic and inorganic copper are a thing — it’s just a matter of what the copper is chemically bonded to already. But it’s probably telling that the only links given for the first sentence are to two articles on marine biology, and the one source for specifically “organic” copper as a beneficial nutrient is to “nutritionalbalancing.org“.

And the organic=healthy / inorganic=toxic divide that the paragraph claims? It just doesn’t appear to be real.

This one study on pigs found that organic copper was more easily used as a micronutrient in certain diets, probably because the presence of other substances in the feed might’ve bound the copper up into less bioavailable forms, but nothing I can find suggests that there’s some kind of simple dichotomy between organic and inorganic copper. When it comes to diet, it looks like it’s just another case of the dose making the poison.

If you know better, drop me a line, but until that time, I’m going to take this particular wikipedia journey as an lesson in always checking what those citations are actually citing as evidence.

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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.

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