September 24, 2008

It’s in the Water

By WINDER, Virginia

This article was written by a contributor. It is not to be reproduced without permission from the Taranaki Daily News and charges may be incurred.


A FAILED quest to make a healthy beer has led a former winemaker to water. But not just any water. Auckland woman Dee Babich has invented Sero2, a sparkling mineral water from Whakatane with a twist. The twist is an essential amino acid, called L-tryptophan, derived from fermented yeast, which has been added to the carbonated water. It's this that gives Sero2 its name. You see L-tryptophan, a word that will trip off your tongue by the end of this story, is a precursor to a neurotransmitter called serotonin. This is the brain chemical that holds the key to feeling good. We'll get to know serotonin, too.

Back to Babich and beer.

About seven years ago, she tried to develop an all-natural "healthy lager". Her aim was to invent a beer that could restore brain cells, stop people from being hungry after drinking and also give them a good night's sleep. "Unfortunately, one of the main ingredients, L-tryptophan, an amino acid, was very unstable, and during the 'mash' phase, most of it was destroyed," says Babich, who hails from the well-known Henderson Valley vineyard.

"Being a curious and determined person, and not wanting to give up - from the beer experience, I thought it would be a very interesting and challenging, albeit a very radical idea, to develop a 'nutraceutical' water using L-tryptophan." Nutraceutical refers to extracts of foods claimed to have a medicinal effect on human health. Babich was helped in those early efforts by Palmerston North food scientist Bob Keane. He was the person who introduced her to L- tryptophan, one of eight essential amino acids that the body can't make itself. Instead, it needs to be ingested through food or drink, and then only a small percentage is converted into the calming chemical serotonin.

Let's have a look at the name behind the drink. People lacking serotonin can suffer a whole heap of problems, including depression, anxiety, poor concentration, fatigue, low libido, cravings for carbohydrates and sugar-laden foods, insomnia or waking early, typically 4am, and stress.

Obesity and food disorders, like bulimia nervosa and anorexia, may follow. Extremely low levels of serotonin are related to obsessive- compulsive disorders that lead people to start counting things, become preoccupied with germs and disease and develop rituals. People can also feel worthless, like they are a burden on everyone around them and this can lead to suicidal thoughts. And it is, literally, all in their head.

Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that sends positive messages to the brain, telling us we are satiated and satisfied, calm and content, relaxed and refreshed. It regulates appetite and, when converted to another brain chemical called melatonin, helps us sleep. To do all of this, we need that all-important ingredient, L- tryptophan.

Babich, or Madam Einstein as the job title on her business card says, hopes Sero2 will help people boost their levels.

"It's a very important amino acid. I really wanted to make it available to the general public in a very safe and benign form."

But the company hasn't run clinical trials of the product, mainly because they are too expensive. Instead, the company tested its product on friends, acquaintances and people in need of help with addictions or weight problems. "The first couple of hundred boxes that we made commercially we used as ad hoc trials so that we felt comfortable with the efficacy out on the market, even though tryptophan is very well researched and well- documented."

Babich has a friend whose daughter got hooked on P and had been in rehab for six months. She gave them two or three boxes to trial. The young woman started exercising, eating healthy food and drinking Sero2, and the results have been dramatic. "I can't say it's Sero2 for sure, but her mother says the first decent conversation she's had with her daughter was after taking this for about a month."

Another friend's son had been drinking too much alcohol and smoking cannabis, which had left him unmotivated and unable to get out of bed in the morning. In desperation, she got him on to Sero2, giving him a bottle in the morning and another in the afternoon. The young man is now doing well. The drink may also be able to help people with weight problems. "We are not saying that it's a meal replacement, but it can help you avoid those carb cravings.

"Our whole philosophy behind it is Sero2 helps you to be good if you're trying to have a healthy diet, and until you get your tryptophan levels or serotonin levels in balance, this is a way you can do it."

The 63-year-old says that Sero2 will not give people a "high" that will get them laughing and dancing. "It's just a very gentle top- up and the beauty of using tryptophan is, if the body doesn't need it, you will excrete it." But people already on antidepressants need to read the label on Sero2, which says they should check with their medical practitioner before drinking it (see Freaky Fact No 4).

Babich is passionate about getting her product out there to improve people's lives. She's had a family member with mental illness and faced her own trials.

"It would be really neat to share with other people what has helped me. L-tryptophan has certainly helped me in some of the challenges I've faced and with controlling weight. I think I make more rational decisions because when you become emotional about things, you can't reasonably come to correct conclusions."

One of those rational decisions is to take Sero2 to the world.

"Research shows that the category of functional waters is the fastest growing of all water categories, with 27% growth in the last two years."

Global estimates indicate $US32 billion ($NZ45 billion) total sales for functional waters by 2010. "We want our share of that."

* Sero2 is now in New World supermarkets in Auckland, and should be in Taranaki Foodstuffs supermarkets (New World, Pak 'N Save and Four Square) within three weeks.

(c) 2008 Daily News; New Plymouth, New Zealand. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.