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There are no fish genes in tomatoes

Our OSS Blog - Tue, 05/26/2015 - 06:44

During a public lecture on genetic modification I described an experiment that involved enriching soybeans with the amino acid methionine. Soybeans are widely used to raise animals but are low in this essential amino acid often necessitating the use of methionine supplements. Brazil nuts produce a protein that is particularly rich in methionine so the idea was to isolate and clone the gene that codes for the production of the methionine-rich protein and insert it into the genome of the soybean.

This raised an obvious concern. Although the modified soybeans were to be used mostly for poultry, the possibility that they could somehow end up in human food had to be considered. What if a person allergic to Brazil nuts happened to consume these soybeans, possibly triggering a life threatening reaction? Testing of blood drawn from people allergic to Brazil nuts revealed that the antibodies they had produced in response to ingesting Brazil nut proteins also latched on to proteins in the engineered soybeans, indicating the potential for an allergic reaction. As a result the research was abandoned and the modified soybeans were never produced.

The first comment after my talk picked up on the allergen issue. “If genetically modified foods were properly labeled, I could still eat tomatoes,” was the angry remark. I was puzzled by this, but the gentleman went on to clarify. “I have a fish allergy,” he said, “and I have no way of knowing which tomatoes have been modified with fish genes, so I just don’t eat any tomato products.” He need not have worried. There are no fish genes in tomatoes, and if there were, the tomatoes would have to be so labeled according to existing regulations. What we have here is fear generated by misinformation.

The Arctic flounder lives happily in the ice cold waters of the Arctic Ocean, its blood prevented from freezing by an “antifreeze protein.” Since tomato growers live under the threat of a sudden freeze destroying their crop, researchers wondered about the possibility of inserting the flounder gene that codes for the antifreeze protein into the genome of the tomato. Preliminary experiments showed that in plants this protein was not effective in preventing ice crystal formation and the project was dropped. But on the Internet, no story ever dies. The “fish genes in tomatoes” myth lives on, often illustrated with syringes plunged into tomatoes, or drawings of tomatoes shaped like fish. Had the technology proved promising, it would have required extensive testing of the specific fish protein used to determine if it was involved in producing an allergic reaction.

Such testing is not required when novel conventionally produced foods are introduced into the market place. Kiwis are an interesting example. Allergy to the fruit did not exist in North America until some thirty years ago for the simple reason that kiwis were not eaten. With the expansion of global marketing kiwis are now found in every supermarket and correspondingly, allergies have increased. Introducing a novel fruit, like the kiwi, introduces hundreds of novel proteins, many with allergenic potential. On the other hand, genetic modification commonly introduces only one specific protein, meaning a reduced chance of an allergic reaction. This suggests that as far as allergies go, it is more important to focus on new foods, not on genetically modified ones. As people eat a wider variety of foods they will develop a wider variety of allergies, but this problem doesn’t get nearly as much attention as the potential reaction to a single protein in genetically modified food.

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Does Hydroquinone Have a Dark Side?

Our OSS Blog - Tue, 05/26/2015 - 06:41

They were once mistakenly thought to be caused by a disease of the liver, so they are called “liver spots.” Actually these skin blemishes are caused by a buildup of the skin pigment melanin and are associated with aging and long-term exposure to ultraviolet light. Technically referred to as “Lentigo senilis,” these hyperpigmented spots usually just present a cosmetic problem unless they develop irregular borders and undergo a colour change, in which case they need to be evaluated by a physician. People bothered by such “senile freckles” can look to hydroquinone for help.

When applied as an ingredient in a skin cream, this chemical inhibits the activity of tyrosinase, an enzyme that is necessary for the formation of melanin. This brings up three questions. How well does hydroquinone work, what concentration is needed, and what risks, if any, does its use present? Hydroquinone does work, and its efficacy, as is to be expected, is dose related. Need a minimum of 1% in a cream to see any result, and really significant effects kick in at 4%. In the U.S., hydroquinone is available in over the counter products at concentrations up to 2%, anything more than that requires a prescription. In Europe and in Canada all hydroquinone products require a prescription. Why the difference?

Different regulatory agencies arrive at decisions in different ways. In this case, Europe and Canada look at worst case scenarios while the U.S. evaluates hydroquinone based on its actual use in cosmetics. Rat feeding studies have suggested that hydroquinone may be carcinogenic, although this is contentious. In humans, in rare cases, accidental ingestion of photographic developer fluid containing hydroquinone has resulted in toxic reactions, but in a controlled trial with human volunteers, ingestion of 300-500 mgs daily for months produced no observable effects. As far as topical application goes, no systemic reaction has ever been noted, and no link to skin cancer has ever been found. But there is a chance of skin irritation, especially if sun protection is not used after application, as well as a rarely seen blue discoloration known as “ochronosis.” With higher concentrations there is the possibility of losing too much pigment resulting in white spots. It is mainly for the latter reasons, and some concern that hydroquinone has not been studied with enough rigour, that Canada and Europe are concerned about over-the-counter availability.

But aside from hydroquinone products that have been adulterated with mercury compounds, which has happened in Africa, no significant problems with 2% solutions have cropped up. Hydroquinone also occurs in nature, found in the bearberry, madder and mulberry plants, extracts of which are touted as “natural skin lightening agents.” These do work, but whatever issues arise with hydroquinone apply to these preparations as well. The fact that the hydroquinone comes from a natural source is irrelevant. Basically, 2% hydroquinone preparations, no matter what the source, can reduce age spots effectively and the alarm sounded by some activist organizations about such products is not backed up by evidence.

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VegeGreens products’ unfounded claims hide behind great marketing

Our OSS Blog - Thu, 05/21/2015 - 07:08

I opened the door to pick up my morning Gazette and found a package with an anonymous note. “Can you please discuss in a column whether this is good to take?” Inside was a bottle of “VegeGreens.” Although I had not previously encountered this specific product, I have looked into other such concentrated powders that claim to deliver the nutritional benefits of fruits, vegetables and grains, eliminating the need to track the recommended daily servings of these foods.

VegeGreens contains components from just about every vegetable, fruit, grain, oil and herb for which health claims have been made in the pages of health food magazines or on various websites. Consider, for example, oat bran powder. There actually is some evidence that beta-glucan found in oat bran can reduce cholesterol, but you need about 3000 mg a day. How much does a serving of VegeGreens contain? Thirty mgs! An inconsequential amount. The label on the bottle features a banner “blueberry medley,” an obvious attempt to capitalize on research showing the benefits of blueberry consumption. How many blueberries have made it into this wondrous powder? Not even one! The total amount of blueberry concentrate is 50 mg. How about resveratrol, the supposed healthy ingredient in red wine? That’s in here as well, to the extent of 2.5 mg. Any potential benefit requires hundreds of milligrams. And so it goes. The amount of green tea extract is not even equivalent to one sip of tea, and the amount of ginkgo biloba is 20 mgs, which is less than one tenth of the dose used in studies that have claimed to improve memory.

While each component of VegeGreens is present in doses that are much smaller than those used in studies, most of which are less than compelling in any case, there is still the possibility that this curious blend of some sixty ingredients provides a benefit. Is there any evidence provided? All we are told is that the company “takes the holistic approach of selecting and testing every ingredient to ensure they are in balance with each other and with your body.” Really? Where are the studies to show such balance, whatever that means?

We are also comforted with the info that this supplement is professionally formulated and “energetically tested.” The professional involved seems to be a naturopath whose claim to fame is that he is a recognized authority in the field of “auriculotherapy” and “therapeutic drainage.” Auriculotherapy is based on the idea that the ear is a microsystem of the entire body and that stimulation of certain points on its outer portion can treat disease. Needless to say, there is absolutely no scientific evidence for this. Therapeutic drainage “is the process of detoxifying the body by opening the elimination channels in the excretory organs and releasing toxic accumulations.” This is achieved by administering homeopathic remedies, which by definition are so dilute as to essentially contain nothing. So much for the “professional design.” How about energetically tested? Perhaps that refers to the energy that has gone into marketing.

Now, for some of the direct claims made on behalf of VegeGreens. “Restores a healthy pH.” Our blood is a buffer system that automatically controls pH. “Detoxifies the body.” Really? What toxins are removed and how were these identified? “Renews mental clarity.” Studies please! “Promotes clear, healthy skin.” How about some before and after pictures? “Balances blood sugar.” Blood sugar is easy to measure. Where is the data to show that this product balances it? “Strengthens the immune system.” What does that mean? The immune system is very complex and involves organs, white blood cells, antibodies, enzymes, complement proteins, interferon and lymphokines. Which of these has been shown to be affected by VegeGreens? If any such studies exist, they are certainly not referenced. Instead we get the usual anecdotal accounts. "VegeGreens are amazing! I feel so energized and clear-headed when taking it," one satisfied customer opines. And a sports trainer chimes in with "trust me, I have tried every vitamin company out there and this one makes the purest and most researched supplements available.” Not exactly the scientific method, is it?

I don’t think there is any harm in VegeGreens or any of the numerous similar products out there. They may even provide some benefits for people who have a low fruit and vegetable intake. But we don’t know because there are no studies. There are just unsubstantiated claims made by promoters who have a homeopathic knowledge of nutrition. I would have been happier to find a basket of fruits and vegetables on my doorstep.

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But it’s natural…

Our OSS Blog - Thu, 05/21/2015 - 07:05

The first British settlement in North America was established in 1607 and was named Jamestown, after King James I.  It was a little tobacco growing colony located on the east coast, in the region which was eventually to become the state of Virginia.  One of the constant debates among the settlers was whether or not to expand the colony.  There was great profit to be had in tobacco growing, especially since labor was cheap; the settlers of Jamestown had brought the first African slaves to North America.  On the other hand, the settlement was surrounded by unfriendly natives who, of course, opposed expansion. Nathaniel Bacon, a member of the Governor's Council, was one of the greatest advocates of expansion.  In 1676 he took the law into his own hands and organized an expedition against the Indians.  Governor William Berkley, fearing a large scale war, denounced these activities and sent his soldiers to quell what history has recorded as the "Bacon Rebellion."  The soldiers began to mobilize for the expected battle which never took place. Camped out in a field, the soldiers cooked up a stew which they flavored with what they thought was an edible plant.  A most remarkable picture began to unfold minutes after they had downed the food.  All thoughts of battle disappeared as soldiers began to run around laughing, giggling, yelling at each other with slurred speech.  The delirium continued for eleven days.  The Governor's army had been defeated not by Bacon's men, but by atropine,a naturally occurring chemical  found in a lowly weed, known to this day as Jamestown weed, or in a corrupted form, jimsonweed.

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You Asked: Can the much advertised Lipozene lead to weight loss?

Our OSS Blog - Tue, 05/12/2015 - 08:00

The "active" ingredient in Lipozene is glucomannan, a form of dietary fiber that is extracted from the root of the konjac plant. Fiber, by definition, is any type of food component that cannot be digested and consequently makes its way to the large intestine or colon, where bacteria may break it down into smaller compounds. Most of these, along with intact fiber, are excreted. Glucomannan is made of glucose and mannose molecules joined together in long chains, but unlike digestible carbohydrates like starch, it is resistant to breakdown by our salivary or pancreatic enzymes.

As the indigestible glucomannan sits in the stomach or small bowel before passing on to the colon, it absorbs a great deal of water. This bulky mélange of water and fiber makes for a feeling of fullness and curbs the appetite. There have actually been a few short term studies indicating more efficient weight loss on a low calorie diet when it was combined with about 4 grams of glucomannan per day. Marketers take such studies and inflate them with hype about easy weight loss. They promise weight loss without the need to diet or exercise. Of course this is a promise that cannot be fulfilled, which is the reason that an American company called Obesity Research Institute was taken to task by the Federal Trade Commission and was made to return 1.5 million dollars to customers who had been victimized by unsubstantiated claims. Two physicians who appeared as “expert endorsers” on infomercials produced by the company were also reprimanded. Seems that money can blur scientific vision.

This is not to say that glucomannan in combination with a low calorie diet and exercise cannot aid in weight loss. It can. But it is not a long term answer to the problem of weight control. This fiber does, however, provide some other possible benefits. It slows the absorption of other carbohydrates into the bloodstream and provides better control of blood glucose. Glucomannan also interferes with cholesterol uptake, so it can lead to lower blood cholesterol. For those in need, it can also be an effective laxative. And if you pop a couple of glucomannan pills before grocery shopping you will feel more full and buy less!

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You Asked: Is it true that some baloney is made with ground-up earthworms?

Our OSS Blog - Tue, 05/05/2015 - 03:52

Absolutely not. But here is the question I got: "A friend told me that that ground up earthworms are being used as fillers in many meat products like wieners and bologna. The name on the package is sodium erythorbate. I've checked packages at stores here and have found only one brand without this ingredient. My little boy loves hot dogs and I hate to think how many I've fed him over the past several years with earthworms in them."

Hard to know how such silly stories arise. Maybe it is the similar sounds of “erythorbate” and “earthworm bait.” Sodium erythorbate is just a form of Vitamin C and is used as a preservative. It also prevents the formation of potentially carcinogenic nitrosamines is meats processed with nitrite.

Erythorbate is a perfectly safe substance and has absolutely nothing to do with earthworms. It makes a lot more sense to minimize hot dog and baloney consumption because of their high fat and salt content than because they contain sodium erythorbate. There is more baloney in the sodium erythorbate story than there is sodium erythorbate in the baloney.

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Leave the donkey milk to donkeys

Our OSS Blog - Tue, 05/05/2015 - 03:49

Cleopatra supposedly took a daily bath in milk supplied by a herd of some 700 lactating donkeys. How she hit upon this idea isn’t known, but the legendary beauty may have been familiar Hippocrates’ recommendation that donkey milk was an effective treatment for fever, liver problems, joint pain and poisoning. If it was good for the inside, maybe it was good for the outside as well! Since donkeys don’t produce much milk, lots of lactating females are needed to fill a bathtub.

Should you contemplate following in Cleopatra’s footsteps and plunking yourself in a leisurely bath of donkey milk, you would need the riches of an Egyptian queen. Donkey milk goes for about forty dollars a liter! And you’ll have to travel quite a distance to find it. Specialty shops in Cyprus sell it for its supposed health benefits with scant evidence. A researcher at the Cyprus University of Technology did follow people who drank donkey milk for months and found they reported improvement with asthma, coughs, eczema and psoriasis. Not exactly a clinical trial, but interesting, given that of any mammal, donkey milk is the closest in composition to human milk which is known to help build an infant’s immune system. Like humans, and unlike cows, donkeys have only one stomach and don’t rely on as large a variety of bacteria to digest their food as do cows with their complex four-stomach fermentation process. Initial studies also point to more active anti-bacterial agents in donkey milk.

Such bits of anecdotal evidence often excite marketers who are on the lookout for a product that can be promoted as the newest miracle elixir. They got unexpected support from of all people, Pope Francis, who revealed that he was fed donkey milk as a baby. Still, donkey milk itself is not likely to take off due to its cost, but donkey milk products may get a boost. Cosmetics that contain the milk and soaps made from the fat in the milk are available. And they have their fans with people claiming that beard itchiness and eczema on hands clear up with the use of donkey milk soap.

While taking baths in donkey milk is far-fetched, in Australia, “bath milk” can be purchased, usually in health food stores. It is actually raw cow’s milk and isn’t really intended to be used for bathing. Rather this seems to be an attempt to get around the ban of selling unpasteurized milk. Raw milk enthusiasts claim that pasteurization destroys nutrients in milk, leads to lactose intolerance, allergic reactions and destruction of beneficial bacteria. They furnish anecdotes about raw milk miraculously clearing up asthma, eczema and tooth decay. Interestingly enough, a study that followed almost a thousand infants in Europe found a roughly 30% reduced incidence of colds, respiratory tract and ear infections associated with drinking raw milk. The researchers conclude that “if the health hazards of raw milk could be overcome, the public health impact of minimally processed but pathogen-free milk might be enormous, given the high prevalence of respiratory infections in the first year of life.” That “but,” though is a big one. Milk needs to be heated to 72 degrees C for 15 seconds to destroy pathogens such as Salmonella, Listeria, and E. coli O157:H7.

A tragic case highlighting the importance of pasteurization occurred in Australia last year with five children falling ill and one dying after drinking raw milk that had been sold as “bath milk.” Such products are sold there in containers similar to regular milk and are often placed near regular milk in stores. Even though, as required by law, the label states that the milk is not for human consumption, it is clear that people who buy bath milk are not using it to fill their bathtubs. To remedy the situation, Australia has now passed a law stipulating that “bath milk” must either be pasteurized or be treated with a bittering agent that makes it unsuitable for drinking.

The law is predictably opposed by raw milk advocates who say that “you are allowed to smoke cigarettes and eat junk foods but you are not allowed to drink raw milk.” They say there should be a freedom of choice. Canada offers no such freedom, all sales of raw milk are banned. In the U.S., milk sales are under state jurisdiction and some, like California, allow retail sales. Supposedly raw milk there comes

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The Death of Smallpox

Our OSS Blog - Tue, 05/05/2015 - 03:46

Edward Jenner, an English country doctor is usually credited with introducing the idea of vaccination because of his landmark publication in 1798 in which he described inoculating 23 people with pus from smallpox postules. Normally they would have been expected to come down with the disease. But none did!  Why? Because Jenner had previously exposed them to a disease that was well-known among milkmaids, known as cowpox. Somehow this exposure conferred immunity to the far more serious smallpox.

Actually, Jenner did not come up with the idea of vaccination. That honor should really go to some unidentified Turkish whiz in the 16th century. But if we must connect a name with the discovery, how about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of Britain's ambassador to Turkey in the 16th century. It was the gentle lady’s habit to put on disguises and roam the streets of Constantinople. During one of these incognito capers she came upon an old woman who had a reputation for protecting children against smallpox. Her technique must have seemed absurd. She would scratch a vein in a child’s arm and introduce some liquid from a smallpox postule. The story that Lady Montagu heard was that these children might get mildly ill, but never got smallpox!

This apparently bizarre approach did seem to make sense. It was well known at the time that someone who survived smallpox, would never get the disease again. So why not give the disease to the young and healthy who had the best chance of recovery? Lady Montagu, upon her return to England, suggested that the practice of inoculating children in this fashion should be introduced but was roundly condemned for proposing such a preposterous idea. How dare anyone suggest that the youth of the nation should be purposely made ill? The Church also put in its two bits. God’s laws must not be interfered with! Seemingly only a layman, Robert Sutton, showed any real vision, perhaps prompted by the chance to cash in on the discovery. He opened a vaccination center in Essex and inoculated more than 17,000 people with smallpox extract only five of whom died.

In 1774, farmer Benjamin Jesty followed in Sutton’s footsteps. He had noted that milkmaids sometimes came down with a disease that resulted in postules on their body. These looked to him to be very similar to smallpox postules, and using a darning needle, he inoculated his wife and two sons with pus he had withdrawn from a victim. Then sometime later, he exposed them to smallpox and found they were unaffected. Edward Jenner heard about this story and it sparked his interest because he himself had been inoculated with smallpox when he was a boy. Now, for the next twenty years Jenner observed milkmaids who had come down with cowpox and found that they never contracted smallpox. So finally in 1776 he inoculated eight year old James Phipps with cowpox and then exposed him to smallpox. The boy did not get the disease. This prompted further trials and resulted in the publication of Jenner’s paper in 1798. By 1801 about 100,000 people in Britain had been vaccinated.  Jenner was knighted and got a prize of ten thousand pounds. The term vaccination?  Of course it comes from the Latin word for cow!  Now you know why.

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Rounding up the science about Roundup

Our OSS Blog - Sat, 05/02/2015 - 02:10
    *Click here to view the video

You Asked: Why is Jerusalem artichoke thought to be healthy?

Our OSS Blog - Wed, 04/29/2015 - 06:04

"But in my judgement, which way soever they be drest and eaten they stir up and cause a filthie loathsome stinking winde with the bodie, thereby causing the belly to be much pained and tormented, and are more fit for swine than for men." So spoke John Goodyear, a British farmer back in the early 1600s. He was describing the Jerusalem artichoke which had been introduced into Europe by Samuel de Champlain who in turn learned about the vegetable from the Indians. This fascinating tuber is not an artichoke and has nothing to do with Jerusalem. The plant is actually a member of the sunflower family and is sometimes called sunchoke. But it seems that to Champlain it tasted like an artichoke and the term stuck. Why Jerusalem? When the plants were first brought back to Italy from America they were called "girasole" for "turning to the sun." Somehow this got corrupted to Jerusalem.

Goodyear was right about the fact that Jerusalem artichoke can produce a lot of wind. But he was certainly wrong to suggest that it was more fit for swine than for men. We are actually learning more and more about how healthy this unusual vegetable may be. And its health properties are connected to its wind producing potential. Jerusalem artichokes are very rich in a type of fiber called inulin. By definition, fiber is the indigestible part of a plant food, it cannot be broken down in the small intestine in the way starches, proteins and fat are broken down. So it marches on to the colon where there are plenty of bacteria that can use fiber as food.

Our colon is inhabited by about 500 species of bacteria! Some bacteria are particularly adept at digesting inulin. These are the bifidobacteria, which are generally classified as "good bacteria" because they keep disease causing bacteria in check. They thrive on inulin, which is good. But when they digest this form of fiber, they produce a lot of gas, which may not be so good. But along with the gas they also produce short chain fatty acids which have anti-cancer potential. That's good. Furthermore a healthy bifido population is conducive to controlling both constipation and diarrhea. These bacteria even increase calcium absorption and there is preliminary evidence that inulin lowers triglycerides in the blood. In Europe and Japan, Jerusalem artichoke flour is commonly added to foods to improve their health potential. So why not give it a try? You can slice the tubers into a salad, stir fry them or shred them and put them in a salad. And you don't have to go to Jerusalem to get them.

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Gordie Howe’s “Miracle Therapy”

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 04/19/2015 - 06:28

After the 86-year-old hockey legend suffered disabling strokes last fall, his family took him to a clinic in Mexico where he underwent experimental stem cell treatment. The procedure involved injecting neural stem cells derived from donated brain tissue into Howe's spinal cord as well as intravenous injections of bone-marrow derived stem cells. According to the people around him, the results were nothing short of a miracle. His son, Marty Howe, said that his father was able to walk again, that his speech was improving, and that he had regained some weight.

Stem cells are undifferentiated cells capable of renewing themselves though cell division and, under specific conditions, can be induced to become specialized. For example, in the case of a stroke, stem cells can be coaxed into becoming brain cells to replace those that were destroyed.

Stem cell therapy is one of the most exciting avenues of research with potential to treat conditions ranging from cancer and diabetes to baldness. Unfortunately, aside from certain diseases of the blood and immune system, so far the promise of stem cell treatment has not been realized. That, however, has not deterred companies from promoting stem cell therapy as some sort of miracle cure. The procedure is not available in Canada or the United States, but people travel to places like Mexico, China and Poland in the hope of being cured, a practice now described as “ Stem Cell Tourism”. In the case of Gordie Howe, the treatment was promoted by a biopharmaceutical company called Stemedica Cell Technologies, Inc. and offered at a clinic in Tijuana. Normally, this type of treatment costs $20,000; yet it was offered to Howe free of charge, most probably to popularize the treatment and attract those desperate enough to try an unproven clinical therapy.

While we cannot determine how much Gordie Howe has improved as a result of his stem cell treatment, we wish him all the best.

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Shark attack

Our OSS Blog - Wed, 04/15/2015 - 00:46

There's blood in the water....and the sharks are circling. Myself included. Finally the scientific community is waking up to the outrageous nonsense upon which Vani Hari, the "Food Babe," has built an empire. The critical articles, prompted to a large extent by SciBabe's (Yvette d'Entremont) excellent piece in the "Gawker" which has so far had an amazing 4.5 million views, are now flooding newspapers, magazines and the Internet. Today I was having a conversation about the mansion that ignorance built, and I mentioned to a friend that I bet I could open Ms. Hari's book at any page and find some absurdity. I was challenged to prove it.

So I asked him to open the book at any page. He did. Page 149. I struck gold with the second paragraph. "Did you know that Wendy's chili contains silicon dioxide (found in sand) or that McDonald's apple pie contains L-cysteine (derived from poultry feathers)? Are you aware that Jack in the Box puts cellulose (the same ingredient that is in sawdust) in many of its cheeses, sauces and shakes? Or that Wendy's puts dimethylpolysiloxane (used in Silly Putty) in its Natural-Cut fries?"

Wow. What a treasure trove of nonsense in such few words. Silicon dioxide is commonly added to chili powder in tiny amounts as an anti-caking agent. It is commonly added to salt as well. There isn't even a hint of toxicity here. You could eat sand by the spoonful. It would not be a gourmet meal but it would not wreak havoc with your health. L-cysteine is an amino acid that we consume routinely every time we eat protein. In the pie, it improves the texture of the dough. The fact that it may be derived from feathers is irrelevant. Any protein can be broken down into its amino acid components,

Once L-cysteine is purified, whether it came from feathers, hair, nail clippings or unicorn horn is immaterial. As far as cellulose goes, well we eat it every time we eat fruits or vegetables. It is a building block of all plant matter and is a component of dietary fiber. Fiber absorbs water, which adds bulk to stool and helps prevent constipation. With her vegetable laden diet, Ms. Hari consumes plenty of cellulose. Unfortunately it doesn't prevent mental constipation.

Then there is the Silly Putty silliness. Dimethylpolysiloxane is added in tiny amounts to the frying oil to prevent foaming. It is so non-toxic that it is used in far greater doses as a medicine to prevent excessive flatulation. The fact that it is also in Silly Putty is neither here nor there. We don't shy away from eating starch just because it can be used to lubricate condoms or make glue. Silly Putty is a great toy, and is totally safe. It has to be. Children have been known to make a meal of it. Amazingly, in spite of much effort, nobody has found a really practical use for Silly Putty. Until now. Maybe it can be used to stop the tsunami of nonsense that gushes from scientifically illiterate mouths.

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Kicking at the soapbox

Our OSS Blog - Tue, 04/14/2015 - 07:24
The Madness Of The Food Babe – Is It Time To Stand Up To Bullying Quacks?

The Food Babe is full of….chemicals!

Our OSS Blog - Fri, 04/10/2015 - 22:45

Yes she is! Thousands and thousands of them. Let’s just do a little experiment. Take a drop of her blood, or of course anyone else’s, and subject it to chemical analysis. Here’s just a small sampling of the compounds detected. They all form naturally as a result of the numerous biochemical processes that are going on in our bodies all the time that constitute life. Acetone,1-butanol, pyridine, 1-methyl-cyclopentanol, cyclopentanone, octanal, lactic acid, 1,6-heptadien-4-ol, 6-methyl-5-hepten-2-one, ethyl (-)-lactate, nonanal, 1-octen-3-ol, acetic acid, decanal, 2,5-hexanedione, propanoic acid, butanoic acid, acetophenone, isovaleric acid, dodecanal, 3-hexen-2,5-diol, dimethylsulphone, phenol, benzothiazole, p-cresol, octanoic acid, 2,6,10,15,19,23-hexamethyl-2,6,10,14,18,22-tetracosahexaene (squalene), heptadecanoic acid, phenylalanine, aspartic acid, urea. There’s acetone, that’s the solvent used in nail polish remover. Acetophenone is an additive in cigarettes. N-butanol finds use in hydraulic brake fluids, degreasers and as a swelling agent in textiles. Octenol disrupts dopamine production and may be involved in Parkinson’s disease. Methanol is the basic ingredient in windshield washer fluid and can cause blindness. Squalene is used to formulate hemorrhoid creams. Propanoic acid is a common bread preservative and butanoic acid is the fragrance of rancid butter. Urea is a widely used fertilizer. Androstenol is found in boar saliva and is an attractant for female pigs. Phenol was first extracted from coal tar and is a component of paint strippers. It is also secreted by male elephants in heat and is found in the exudates of the castor sacs under the butt of the North American beaver. And we have often heard the Food Babe rail against “beaver butt” in ice cream. Skatole is known to cause pulmonary edema in goats and p-cresol attracts female mosquitoes. It has traditionally been extracted from one of the Food Babe’s favourite substances, coal tar, and is used to make another one of her loves, the preservative BHT. It is also a major component of pig odour. Good thing our pal doesn’t know all this. She might want to drain her blood.

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You Asked: How much salt is too much?

Our OSS Blog - Wed, 04/08/2015 - 08:14

Reducing sodium intake has been a nutritional mantra for decades. We have repeatedly been told that cutting back on salt lowers blood pressure which in turn lowers the risk of heart attacks and strokes. But these days it seems to be in vogue to question almost every type of dietary advice that has been dispensed by health authorities, including salt intake. Questioning current dogma of course isn’t a bad thing, after all, that is how science progresses. The truth is that often the evidence for recommendations is not as robust as it is made out to be and we have seen views change about the likes of saturated fats, eggs and sugar in our diet as new data emerge. Today, with studies being cranked out at a frantic pace it is possible to find “evidence” for almost any view that one holds, but conclusive evidence, particularly when it comes to diets, is elusive. When it comes to food, the gold standard, the randomized double-blind trial, is extremely difficult to design and carry out.

In the case of sodium, a meaningful trial would mean following groups of subjects for many years and noting the incidence of cardiovascular disease, with the only difference between groups being the amount of sodium in the diet. It is difficult enough to do this over the short term, but that actually has been done. The famous dietary approaches to fight hypertension (DASH) trial managed to test three different levels of sodium intake by providing subjects with all their meals. They consumed either 1500, 2300 or 3500 mg of sodium a day, with results showing a clear link between blood pressure and sodium intake. The 3500 mg level was chosen because it represents the amount of sodium that is consumed on the average by the population. This translates to about 9 grams of salt (sodium chloride), or one and a half teaspoons, most of which comes from processed foods.

The trial lasted only 16 weeks, too short to note a difference in disease patterns. As critics pointed out, demonstrating a decrease in blood pressure with reduced sodium is not the same as showing a decrease in the risk of a heart attack or stroke. But given that there is overwhelming evidence from population studies that high blood pressure is associated with cardiovascular disease, it is reasonable to recommend a cutback on salt. The question is by how much?

That question arises because some recent studies have suggested an increased risk of adverse health outcomes associated with sodium intake in the 1500 to 2300 mg a day range. This, however, may have nothing to do with sodium. It is possible that people with cardiovascular disease, who have been advised to dramatically reduce their salt intake, fall into this range and suffer problems because of the preexisting condition rather than their low sodium intake. In any case, for the general population, the 2300 mg target is reasonable. Debates about low sodium levels presenting a risk may have academic interest but have little practical value. The 1500 mg target is unattainable for most people, and given that our average intake is in the range of 3500 mg a day, emphasis has to be placed on reducing this rather than worrying about too little sodium.

Cutting back isn’t easy. Producers cater to our fondness for salt by adding it liberally to a wide array of foods. A bowl of cereal contains about 300 mg of sodium, a single hot dog can have 800, a slice of bread 230, a cup of cottage cheese 900, a couple of slices of processed cheese 700, and half a cup of commercial tomato sauce 600 mg. A slice of pizza can weigh in anywhere from 600 to 1500 mg of sodium per slice! Obviously it isn’t hard to surpass 2300 mg. So there really is no worry about consuming too little sodium, that isn’t happening in the real world. There is another reason we can dismiss the naysayers who claim that the evidence to support a low sodium diet is too weak. Cutting back on sodium means a decrease in processed food intake and an increase in fruits and vegetables. And there can be no argument against that.

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When protein is not protein

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 03/29/2015 - 21:43

You need protein to build muscle. We have all heard that, probably as early as elementary school. And it is true. Muscle is mostly made of protein and its source is protein in the diet. But the route is not direct. Proteins are complex molecules composed of hundreds to thousands of amino acids linked together. When consumed, these chains are broken down into smaller fragments called peptides as well as into individual amino acids. Once absorbed into the bloodstream these are reassembled into proteins that include not only the structural parts of muscles but also enzymes and some hormones such as insulin. Of the twenty amino acids found in the body’s proteins, nine have to be supplied by the diet, the others can be made from other food components. The big question about proteins is how much do we need? Consume too little and the body suffers, consume too much and the extra is converted to fat.

It stands to reason that body size matters as well as level of activity. Muscle builders require more protein than couch potatoes. As a rough guide, people need at least half a gram per pound of body weight, recreational athletes need 0.7 grams and serious athletes about 0.9 grams per pound of body weight. Let’s take as an example a 170 pound male who works out quite regularly. His protein intake should be in the ballpark of 120 grams. That’s achievable by diet. A chicken breast has about 60 grams of protein, a hamburger 30, about the same as a serving of salmon, a couple of eggs 12, and two slices of cheese 15. Now, if someone is into serious body building, the needs can go up to 150-160 grams of protein a day. At this point adding some tofu with about 50 grams of protein per 100 grams might be in order. Or, there is always the possibility of using a protein supplement.

Protein supplements are big business, raking in about seven billion dollars a year world wide. They are sourced from milk or soy with a scoop generally containing about 40 grams of protein. But therein lies a problem. And it is a big enough issue to have resulted in law suits against the protein manufacturers. That’s because that protein powder may not be all protein thanks to something called “protein spiking” which involves using cheaper individual amino acids rather than proteins. For example, glycine, taurine and leucine are available at about one fifth the cost of proteins.

Now here is the scoop. A chemical analysis for proteins doesn’t really analyze for proteins but rather for nitrogen content. Since all proteins contain nitrogen, the amount of protein can be calculated from a nitrogen analysis. But the analysis does not distinguish between amino acids linked together in a chain, as in proteins, or individual acids all of which also contain nitrogen. In some cases a supposed 40 gram serving of protein may only deliver 20 grams, the rest being individual amino acids. What that means is that the ratio of amino acids in the supplement is not ideal for supplying what the body needs to build protein. While there is a degree of dishonest marketing here, there is no serious health consequence. Most people who supplement with protein powders, even if these are not everything they are made out to be, are probably taking in more protein than their body can possibly use.

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You Asked: Is there really a “dirty secret” about almonds?

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 03/29/2015 - 21:37

Anytime you see an article that starts off with the heading “The Truth About….,” it’s a pretty safe bet that you will not get the truth. And so it is with an article circulating about almonds. “The Truth About Almonds: Almost No One Knows This Dirty Secret.” What is the “dirty secret?” That the almonds are treated with the fumigant propylene oxide to prevent contamination by salmonella bacteria. Salmonella infection is not pleasant to say the least. But people mostly associate it with contaminated eggs, not almonds. Where do the bacteria come from? Mostly fecal matter. Easy to see how eggs can be contaminated as they are laid. But almonds? Birds and insects can spread the bacterium after contacting fecal matter, but exposure may also be indirect through contaminated irrigation water. Salmonella bacteria can survive a long time even in dry conditions and dry heat treatment is not very effective at killing them. But fumigation with propylene oxide is. The nuts are placed in a chamber with liquid propylene oxide and the pressure is then reduced to allow quick evaporation of the liquid. The vapour destroys bacteria very effectively, preventing the possibility of food poisoning. There is no secret here. And nothing dirty is going on.

So what is the alarm all about? That propylene oxide is an animal carcinogen. That does not mean it is known to cause cancer in humans. And even if a substance is a human carcinogen, dosage still matters. While “carcinogen” is a frightening term, all it means is that the substance is capable of causing cancer in some animal at some dose. But there is a threshold effect. In rats no cancer can be found at any dose less than nine milligrams per kilogram of body weight, which has been established as the No Observed Adverse Effect Level (NOAEL). In other words at that dosage there is absolutely no problem detected.

Canada does not grow almonds so there has not been an application to allow the use of propylene oxide. This is not the same as it having been banned, as some alarmists claim. However, since Canada does import almonds that may have been treated with the chemical, the Pest Management Regulatory Agency has looked at the animal data and concluded that the maximum permissible residue is 300 parts per million. That is way below the NOAEL. And how much are almond eaters actually exposed to? The only way to know is to test for residues. That’s why the Canadian Food Inspection Agency tested over a thousand samples of spices, herbs, cocoa powder and nuts, including almonds. Guess what they found? No residue at all! So there is no reason to be concerned about propylene oxide in almonds because it isn’t there. And that is the truth.

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Want to keep Alzheimer’s disease at bay? Who wouldn’t? So let’s surf the web! Keep in mind that almost every study encountered is riddled with “ifs” and “maybes.”

Our OSS Blog - Tue, 03/24/2015 - 07:10

Sticking to the Mediterranean diet – low in meat and dairy products, high in fruits, vegetables, legumes, cereals and fish – would seem to be a good start. A study of close to 500 seniors with mild cognitive impairment showed a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s with adherence to the Mediterranean diet. Eating fish is an important feature, with studies showing that people with higher blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids tend to have larger brain volumes in old age. It seems fish oil protects the brain’s hippocampus region, the area where shrinkage is associated with dementia.

But watch how you cook your meals. Grilling, frying or broiling produces “advanced glycation end products,” which have been linked to inflammation, insulin resistance and Alzheimer’s disease. And watch that sugar intake. A study of some 900 subjects with no cognitive problems found that within four years, 200 began to show mild cognitive impairment. Those with the highest sugar intake were 1.5 times more likely to have memory problems than those with the lowest intake. Diets containing walnuts as well as strawberry or blueberry extracts were found to reverse several parameters of brain aging, as well as age-related motor and cognitive deficits. As long as you are an aging rat.

Might not be a bad idea to add a little Indian flavour to the diet in the form of turmeric, a common spice in curry. Curcumin, its major component, has been linked with slower cognitive decline and reduced amyloid beta plaques, one of the major causes of Alzheimer’s disease. Grape seed extract appears to have the same effect, at least in mice. People with Alzheimer’s tend to have lower vitamin D than those without the disease, and better cognitive test results have been linked with higher vitamin D levels. A supplement may be in order.

People who drink three to five cups of coffee a day in their midlife years have a 65-per-cent lower chance of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease compared with those who drink little coffee. Green tea will do as well since its epigallocatechin-3-gallate content has been shown to prevent the buildup of beta-amyloid aggregates, at least in lab experiments. In non-smoking women, moderate alcohol consumption reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s. And consider fruit juices. People drinking them three or more times per week were 76 per cent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s than those who drank less than one serving per week. Pomegranate juice may be particularly beneficial.

Instead of thinking about what to eat or drink, perhaps we should think about infusing protective factors directly into our blood. Studies have shown that a transfusion of young mouse blood into older animals can improve cognition. Focus is on a protein in blood plasma called “growth differentiation factor 11 (GDF11)” that declines with age both in mice and in humans. Drinking young blood won’t do.

You want to make sure you breathe clean air. Women who live in areas with the worst quality air score perform more poorly on tests of memory and thinking than those who live in cleaner areas. On the other hand, there is a correlation between strict hygiene and sanitation methods as practiced in wealthy countries and the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease. The “hygiene hypothesis” is gaining traction when it comes to allergies and asthma, with the theory being that exposure to bacteria, viruses and worms early in life primes the development of a healthy immune system. Some researchers suggest that the deposition of proteins in the nervous system, one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s, is a result of an immune system gone astray.

And remember to brush your teeth. A study that looked at 100 sets of twins, one with Alzheimer’s and the other unaffected, found that the twin with dementia was four times more likely to have had mid-life gum disease. Playing chess, reading newspapers and engaging the brain in other tasks can significantly reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s in later life, as can physical exercise. Be conscientious. Subjects who enthusiastically agreed with statements such as: “I work hard to accomplish my goals,” “I strive for excellence in everything I do,” “I keep my belongings clean and neat” and “I’m pretty good about pacing myself so as to get things done on time,” were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.

Finally, I came across a paper I really liked. A brain scan study at the University of California concluded that surfing the web increases brain activity more than reading a book. What can I say? Maybe.

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Fear of Fries

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 03/22/2015 - 23:32

I've been repeatedly asked about the "dangers" of McDonald's fries. First a couple of disclaimers. I am not particularly fond of McDonald’s French fries, and I am a fan of Michael Pollan’s writings on food and nutrition, particularly his classic book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” in which he summarizes his 400 or so pages with the advice to “eat foods mainly of plant origin and don’t eat too much.” He is also a fan of home cooked meals, which is great, but sometimes his attacks on processed foods are overzealous.

In a widely circulated video Pollan blasts McDonald’s not for any nutritional shortcomings of its fries but for accepting only potatoes of a certain size and shape and shunning any with blemishes caused by aphids. That, Pollan suggests, forces farmers to use pesticides such as Monitor (methamidophos) which he deems to be particularly dangerous. Indeed he points out that this chemical “is so toxic that farmers who grow these potatoes in Idaho won’t venture outside and into their fields for five days after they spray.” He goes on to say that the potatoes have to be stored in giant sheds for six weeks so they have time to off gas all the chemicals in them. The video had quite an impact, triggering headlines like “watch this video and you will never eat McDonald’s French fries again.” The issue needs a closer look.

Yes, McDonald’s likes it’s potatoes to be of a certain size so that the fries are long and reach out in an appealing fashion from their container. It doesn’t mean that other potatoes are wasted. McDonald’s buys its fries from distributors who select the appropriate ones for the company and sell the others elsewhere. It is also true that McDonald’s does not want potatoes that are affected by “net necrosis,” a viral infection spread by aphids. Nobody wants to eat potatoes permeated with black streaks like a net. As far as farmers not wanting to go out into the fields, well, that is standard protocol after spraying with any pesticide. Intervals that have to be respected after spraying any pesticide are established by regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Pollan’s notion about storing the potatoes for sixty days to off gas toxins is pure nonsense. Potatoes are routinely stored in large atmosphere controlled sheds because they have to be available year round. In any case, crops are monitored for pesticide residues and all such found on potatoes are way below established tolerance levels. There may be reasons to stay away from McDonald’s fries, but not because of any highlighted in this unnecessarily alarmist video. The fat content, the high glycemic index, the amount of salt added and maybe some of the compounds formed during high temperature frying are reason enough to make fries an occasional treat. And as a final point, the pesticide being talked about, methamidophos, has not been used since 2009.

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You Asked: Should we worry about arsenic in wine?

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 03/22/2015 - 23:28

A story about arsenic-laced wine is panicking a lot of people. It’s all about a lawsuit brought against the producers of some wines claiming they contain unsafe amounts of arsenic. As far as I can tell, the lawsuit is an attempt at money grab by a company that performs analyses for substances such as arsenic in beverages. The idea seems to be to cash in on the public fear generated by the lawsuit. People will clamor for the testing of wines, a service the company provides. Any story about arsenic, the fabled "widow maker," is guaranteed to trigger publicity. Witness Dr. Oz's shows on arsenic in apple juice and wine.

According to the lawsuit, some cheaper wines contain up to five times as much arsenic as is allowed in tap water, which is 10 ppb. Anything that grows in soil will have some arsenic because arsenic compounds occur naturally. The 10 ppb limit in water has a large safety factor built in, but more importantly, people do not drink as much wine as water. And if they do, they need to worry about the alcohol content far more than about the arsenic content.

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