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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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A cranky homeopath

Our OSS Blog - Wed, 03/18/2015 - 00:01

The Toronto Star published a letter from a physician in BC who was critical of my attacks on homeopathy. Below is his letter as well as my response.

Published on Mon Mar 16 2015 Re: Scientists skeptical of study on ADHD care, March 6

As a medical doctor, I use homeopathy on a daily basis to fill in gaps or improve on the conventional therapies I also use in family practice. There is no doubt that homeopathy works – even in children and in skeptical patients that are willing to give it a try (particularly if they have tried everything else without benefit); sometime even in patients’ pets. Sure, good interaction and placebo play a role, just as in any therapeutic encounter, but that does not explain the results I observe.When a group of “top” scientists declare that there is no evidence to support homeopathy, you cannot but wonder at their agenda. In fact, there have been several meta-analyses and governmental assessments that show homeopathy is effective (BMJ 1991, Lancet 1997, Eur J. Clin Pharmacology 2000, Swiss Federal Office for Public Health 2006).

There are numerous positive trials, many of fair to high quality. Medical doctors around the world have accepted homeopathy based on sound evidence and the personal experience that confirms it. In Belgium, for example, 4000 doctors prescribe homeopathic medicines routinely. Homeopathy is inexpensive, convenient, integrates well with conventional medicine, and patient satisfaction and safety are excellent. It is included in the national health schemes of Great Britain, France, Switzerland, Brazil, Mexico, India and many other countries. The recent discovery of nanoparticles in homeopathic ultra-dilutions has undermined the “implausibility argument” or “I can’t understand how it works, therefore it can’t work.” This type of flat-earth thinking is not helpful in promoting better healthcare and has no place in medical practice or research.

The main reason pseudo-scientists become quack-busters and criticize therapies such as homeopathy is fear. Perceived as a threat to their world-view, they use the labels “unscientific” or “implausible” to defend themselves against the barbarians at the gate. It is not really an issue of evidence or science. It’s a subconscious defense mechanism that cannot be overcome, even if the research is piled up to the ceiling. It may be disguised as defending the public, but as Shakespeare says: “The lady doth protest too much.” The potential benefits of homeopathy demand research such as Dr. Heather Boon’s ADHD study at University of Toronto, and we should not let fixed thinkers get in the way of progress in medicine. In fact, the criticism here should be levelled at McGill University for permitting its Office for Science and Society to exist and Dr. Joe Schwarcz to continue to “interpret science for the public.” Dr. Stephen Malthouse, past president, Canadian Complementary Medical Association, Denman Island, B.C.

MY RESPONSE Dr. Stephen Malthouse’s ungracious letter requires a response. “There is no doubt that homeopathy works,” he maintains. That may be his opinion but not that of the vast majority of the scientific community. That point was effectively driven home last week by a report from Australia’ s National Health and Medical Research Council that concluded “there is no good quality evidence to support the claim that homeopathy is effective in treating health conditions.” It was the most damning analysis of homeopathy ever compiled.

Dr. Malthouse trots out the tired old refrain that a discovery of some anomalous property of water undermines the argument that homeopathy is implausible. Nobody has ever maintained that homeopathy is implausible because water cannot have anomalous properties. That is a straw man argument if there ever were one. Homeopathy is implausible because it is based on the precept of ghostly images supposedly imparted to water by sequential dilutions and succusions having a healing effect.

Dr. Malthouse goes on to suggest that “it is not really an issue of evidence or science.” It most assuredly is. The science of homeopathy is non-existent, just like the molecules it is supposedly based upon. And the evidence is in for anyone who cares to look at the 225 well-designed studies that formed the basis of the Australian report. As far as Dr. Malthouse’s boorish remark that the McGill Office for Science and Society should not exist, his letter is a shining example of why there is a continuing need to interpret science for the public in an evidence-based fashion, which is exactly why the Office was established.

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The Food Babe doesn’t take well to criticism

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 03/15/2015 - 23:10

Our pal the Food Babe seems to have a very thin skin. She responded on her website to the article about her in the New York Times in which I was quoted along with a number of her other critics. It is true that I said she gets on talk shows because she is pleasant to look at. Isn't that a compliment? She says that is "sexist." And this is from a woman who calls herself "The Food Babe." Is she serious?

Yes I am on the editorial board of ACCN, the magazine of the Canadian Chemical Society and in fact write a regular column for the magazine. Vani thinks that the Society is some sort of industrial lobby. It is nothing of the sort. It is the academic voice of Canadian chemistry. Just another example of her being totally out of touch with how the scientific world functions. Her comment that I never met a chemical I didn't like is so silly that it is unworthy of a rebuttal. I never called her "that stupid woman," in public, but she has said many things that could invite such a comment. Here is a winner: "There is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever." As far as funding from the Council of Biotechnology Information goes, twelve years ago we did receive support for student interns, none of whose work had anything to do with biotechnology. Funny that a funding issue should be brought up by someone who profits greatly from items she pushes.

Yes, I did bring to students' attention the fact that Vani blocks anyone from her Facebook page who asks about her credentials. They found this such an affront to science that they checked it out themselves and ended up being blocked. Isn't it ridiculous that someone whose knowledge about chemistry goes no further than advising people that if they can't pronounce it, they shouldn't be eating it, ends up being interviewed by USA Today about the difference between sugar and high fructose corn syrup?

It is also true that I have questioned her mental abilities. How could I not when she wrote a piece about believing that the properties of water were affected by a label on the bottle that had either loving or hateful words written on it. Let me also mention that on numerous occasions I invited her to be a guest on my radio show to air her views and she refused. I stand by my opinion of her. She is a possibly well-meaning, scientifically illiterate publicity hound who bullies companies to conform to her mostly ignorant demands. As far as being addicted goes, the only thing I'm addicted to is proper evidence-based science. And the Food Babe most assuredly does not fall into that category.

Unfortunately I can’t put these comments on her Facebook page from where I have been banned. Neither can I put them on her website where comments have been closed. It seems the Babe can dish it out but can’t take it.

 NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/15/style/taking-on-the-food-industry-one-blog-post-at-a-time.html Food Babe: http://foodbabe.com/2015/03/15/response-to-ny-times/ Read more

VegeGreens products’ unfounded claims hide behind great marketing

Our OSS Blog - Tue, 03/10/2015 - 00:29

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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When is enough, enough?

Our OSS Blog - Thu, 03/05/2015 - 20:38

On the “The Current,” the CBC’s national morning show, Dr. Heather Boon, Dean of Pharmacy at the University of Toronto, and I had a chance to express our views on the proposed study she is organizing to investigate the homeopathic treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in conjunction with the Riverdale Homeopathic clinic. This was stimulated by a letter I had written to Dr. Boon, co-signed by some ninety physicians and scientists, asking what was to be gained by such a study and expressing surprise that someone with training in pharmacy would attach any credibility to the bizarre concept of homeopathy.

Dr. Boon got the ball rolling by stating very clearly that she does not believe that homeopathy has any scientific basis, and that the goal of the study was to explore why people believe in homeopathy and to try and understand the complex interaction between homeopath and subject. I was glad to hear her say that she does not believe in the mythical behaviour of non-existent molecules, but when I looked at the details of the study as registered, the number one purpose stated is “to determine if there are any specific effects of homeopathic medicines in the treatment of ADHD.” Also, in a previous paper in which she discusses at length the homeopathic studies recorded in the scientific literature, she opines that “physical experiments have demonstrated a variety of possible mechanisms for the transmission and preservation of therapeutic properties in highly diluted solutions.” While some experiments have shown that water has some anomalous properties, no experiment I know of has shown the transmission of any sort of therapeutic effect.

The purpose of scientific research is to advance our state of knowledge, hopefully with spinoffs that will benefit the public. But funding for scientific research is not unlimited, indeed it is becoming harder and harder to come by. So decisions have to be made on the allocation of both money and effort. Factors that need to be taken into account include previous studies of the subject as well as scientific plausibility. For example, there would be no point in studying pendants that claim to neutralize electromagnetic radiation because this makes no sense according to principles of physics. Ditto for jars that claim to magnetize water in order to turn it into a healing solution, or for hollow wax candles that claim to remove ear wax, freeing up (nonexistent) energy channels in the body. That brings us to studying the effect of absent molecules, namely homeopathy. This two hundred year old practice has been put through the mill numerous times. Literally hundreds of studies have examined the possibility that solutions diluted to the extent that they contain no remnant of the original solute can still retain some sort of memory and deliver therapeutic benefits. How such memory, should it exist, has anything to do with healing disease is never addressed.

Plausibility is an important consideration because it prevents us from wasting scarce resources on projects that do not have a reasonable chance of producing a useful outcome. The basic tenet of homeopathy, that the potency of a substance is increased by dilution, in other words, the “less is more” phenomenon, flies in the face of what is known about the mechanism of drug action, and more specifically is incompatible with chemistry’s “law of mass action” that relates the rate of a chemical reaction to the masses of the reacting substances. If the mass of a reactant is essentially zero, as it is in a homeopathic solution, its rate of reaction with any substance in the body would also be zero. Dr. Boon has commented that conventional medications are designed based on plausibility and that the research often does not produce the desired results. I think the suggestion is that therefore we should not dismiss theories based on implausibility. While it is true that scientific plausibility does not guarantee success, implausibility, such as exemplified by the “principles” of homeopathy, virtually guarantees failure.

When confronted with the weakness of their arguments, homeopaths attempt to cloak themselves in the respectability of science by searching out references in the literature that deal with the anomalies of water. Indeed, there are some mysteries about just how water molecules associate with each other, and some interesting data about patterns that they can form. But these arrangements last only picoseconds and in no way have anything to do with justifying homeopathy. Sometimes homeopaths try to buttress their claims by lassoing the concept of hormesis, the notion that some substances at very low concentration have a greater effect than at larger concentrations. This is not pertinent because the concentrations at which hormesis is observed are far, far greater than that found in any homeopathic solution. Homeopaths also like to fling about sciency words like “nano,” “quantum” and “clathrate” as they grope to rationalize the irrational.

So it is really no surprise that the vast majority of proper, randomized, controlled, double-blind trials have concluded that the effects of homeopathy can be explained by the placebo response, without any need to invoke ghostly imprints of solute molecules. Homeopaths do not accept this conclusion and counter by pointing to the few studies that show a positive effect, no matter how marginal, as well as to the numerous anecdotal accounts of patient satisfaction. But studies of homeopathy show a huge publication bias, meaning that only positive findings, likely due to chance, get published. Less than 5% of studies in alternative journals show a negative effect while mainstream medical journals feature negative results with regularity.When challenged about the lack of evidence for their arguments, unfortunately some homeopaths tend to resort to name calling and denigrating comments about conventional medicine. They also call for more research on questions that have been repeatedly answered.

Should a university answer the call for more studies? This now takes us back to the original question we posed to Dr. Boon. Obviously she feels there is something to be gained from exploring why people believe in homeopathy and whether any benefit, should there be one, can be attributed to the interaction between the subject and the homeopath. Our view is that this issue has been thoroughly investigated, and given the scientifically irrational tenets of homeopathy, little can be gained from yet another study. Dr. Boon’s reasoning that her study will put homeopathy to the test and “will search out the truth” and perhaps “provide the best evidence yet that homeopathy doesn’t work,” is less than compelling. After the plethora of studies already carried out that have failed to resolve the issue in the eyes of believers in homeopathy, this one will? Not a chance. Doing the same experiments over and over again, hoping for a different result, is not the hallmark of good science. Admittedly, Dr. Boon’s study is well designed, but if a study isn’t worth doing, it isn’t worth doing well.

There is also a potential downside to such a study. And that is the implicit legitimization of homeopathy as a consequence of a prestigious university and a highly reputable investigator being involved. That is especially bothersome when the clinic where the study will be carried out offers a number of questionable practices including homeopathic “nosodes” as alternatives to vaccination, ear candling, cupping and cranial sacral therapy.

After 200 years of often acrimonious battles between homeopaths and their critics, the only conclusion arrived at with confidence is that no study will resolve the differences. It is time to say enough is enough and dedicate funds to projects that have a better chance of a favourable outcome. Homeopaths will have to accept that the majority of the scientific community will not be swayed by the notion of nonexistent molecules producing a therapeutic effect, and we in turn have to accept that no matter what we do, homeopathy will be kept alive by a blend of bizarre ideology, a potent placebo response, scientific illiteracy, and the popular myth that anyone who opposes homeopathy is in the pocket of Big Pharma.

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Hot Dog!

Our OSS Blog - Sat, 02/28/2015 - 22:05

Otto von Bismarck, the celebrated German statesman once remarked that the two things you don't want to see made are sausages and the law. Judging by some of the Parliamentary behaviour I've seen, he was right about the law. But sausages are another story. We can actually learn a lot of science from seeing them made. For thousands of years people have been stuffing ground meat along with various spices and other ingredients into casings. Homer sang of sausages in the Odyssey, written around 850 BC. The Romans traditionally made sausages from ground pork and pine nuts for the celebration of Lupercalia, a feast of eating, drinking and wenching. These sausages became so intricately connected to debauchery that Constantine, the first Christian Emperor, actually banned them. Sausage bootlegging became a profitable enterprise.

By the Middle Ages, hundreds of varieties of sausages had been developed. Many of these, like Bologna, were named after the city where they were developed. But the variety that plays the greatest role in our lives originated in the German city of Frankfurt. The frankfurter was made with cured meat and was cooked by smoke. Legend has it that the frankfurter was introduced into North America by Anton Ludwig Feuchtwanger, A Bavarian peddler who had emigrated to America. In 1904 he set up a booth at the St. Louis World's Fair and sold frankfurters as snacks. Since these sausages were greasy and hot, he loaned his customers white gloves with which to hold them. So many people absconded with the gloves that he needed another solution. His brother-in-law, a baker, came up with one. Why not put the frankfurter in a bun? Why not indeed! The new product was an instant success. Everyone wanted to try the new fangled hot "Dachshund sausages," as the franks were now called because of their resemblence to these lengthy canines. Soon the name was abbreviated to "hot dog," and a North American staple was born. There were some growing pains. In 1913, the Chamber of Commerce banned hot dogs from Coney Island in New York because of persistent rumours that they were made from dog meat. The ban was rescinded in 1916 when Nathan Handwerker guaranteed that he would make a quality product. He delivered, and Nathan's, the Mecca of hot dog emporium's was born.

Let’s face it, we know that hot dogs are not health food. Babe Ruth can testify to that. He once ate a dozen hot dogs during a ball game. And he was playing! All right, so they had to rush him to the hospital afterwards to pump out his stomach. But the Babe was not one for moderation. A Brooklyn psychiatrist who analyzed the personality differences between hamburger and hot dog eaters would not be surprised by the babe’s antics. Hamburger enthusiasts, he said, were steady, reliable and predictable. Hot dog lovers, on the other hand, were found to be romantics with a flair for adventure. After all, doesn't it take someone with a bit of a cavalier attitude to enjoy the mysterious ingredients in a wiener? Oh well, once in a while anyone can have a cavalier attitude!

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Stay Away From Old Goats

Our OSS Blog - Sat, 02/28/2015 - 22:01

Think of a ghastly smell. Skunk? Halitosis? BO? Outhouse? Rotting fish? Rancid butter? Dog flatus? Decomposing flesh? All devastating. But let’s not forget the penetrating fragrance of a billy goat. Especially a wet one. That will horrify any nose. Unless that billy goat, or buck in more scientific terms, happens to be castrated. Along with the loss of manhood comes the loss of smell. Actually “smell” doesn’t do the aroma justice. “Reek” is a better description of the unforgettable stench. And if you handle one of these animals you will learn what “unforgettable” means. The piercing odour sticks to clothes and skin and is very tough to eliminate. You don’t want to be wearing clothes you are fond of when you have an encounter of the male goat kind. And gloves are definitely the order of the day.

Since “wethers,” as males that have been deprived of their testes are known, produce no smell, it stands to reason that the aroma of an intact male has a connection to reproduction. That has actually been demonstrated. When exposed to the scent of a male goat, females will ovulate and become receptive to the advances of the buck. Determining the exact composition of the scent that activates the female is of interest to researchers because it may lead to a way of ensuring that females are in rut for breeding. This could be a more economical and a less invasive way of stimulating ovulation than hormone treatments now used by some breeders. Obviously, the first step in such research is to collect a sample of the scent. Although the identity of the brave scientist who first carried out the pioneering research has been lost to the pages of history, it is known that the scent is wafted out from glands on the billy’s head.

So how do you collect the fragrant compounds? You design a helmet equipped with a material that absorbs volatiles, extract these with a solvent, and subject the solution to analysis by gas chromatography and mass spectrometry. A gas chromatograph separates the components of a mixture and a mass spectrometer can identify the individual compounds. And there are lots! Dozens! Determining which are responsible for stimulating ovulation in the female is a challenge, one that was cleverly met by a group of Japanese researchers. By implanting electrodes in a specific area of the brain of female goats they managed to measure electrical signals associated with the firing of nerve cells that are involved in the release of the hormones that stimulate ovulation. Starting with mixtures of compounds, and then narrowing these down to fewer and fewer components, they eventually managed to determine that 4-ethyloctanal produced the strongest response. It now joins the array of compounds recognized as “pheromones,” namely chemicalssecreted by animals that influences the behavior or physiology of others of the same species. Interestingly, 4-ethyloctanal has a rather pleasant citrus-like odour.

While this compound has not been found in nature before, it has long been familiar to perfumers and artificial flavour manufacturers. A patent back in 2002 was filed for the use of 4-ethyloctanal as a fragrance chemical to enhance the bouquet of perfumes, toilet waters, colognes and other personal products, as well as for its use as a food additive to boost flavour. If 4-ethyloctanal isn’t responsible for the torturous stench of male goats, what is? The chromatographic analysis reveals a number of compounds in the family of carboxylic acids. These are widespread in nature, the simplest ones being formic acid found in ant venom and acetic acid, a dilute solution of which we know as vinegar.

“Simple” in this case refers to the number of carbon atoms in the acid’s molecular structure, with putridity increasing with the number of carbons. Propionic acid, which has three carbons, elicits the sensation of body odour, which is not surprising since it is produced by bacteria on the skin. Butyric acid is responsible for the characteristic smell of human vomit. It is also found in goat scent. As disturbing as it is, it pales in comparison with the stabbing odour of the six-carbon, caproic acid, appropriately deriving its name from “caper,” the Latin for goat. Even if you have never been near a goat, you may have encountered its dramatically unpleasant odour if you have ever sniffed the demposing seeds of the ginkgo biloba tree. Two other acids, caprylic and capric, also derive their names from “caper,” for good reason. They also contribute to the fragrance of male goats. Staying away from randy old goats is a good idea. Unless they have been deprived of their privates.

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Why Yet Another Study of Homeopathy?

Our OSS Blog - Mon, 02/23/2015 - 22:47

This post needs a bit of a background. A few weeks ago we noted that the Dean of Pharmacy at the University of Toronto was organizing a trial on using homeopathic preparations for the treatment of ADHD. A letter to the Dean asking how a Faculty of Pharmacy would get involved in studying something that is dismissed by the vast majority of the scientific community seemed appropriate. Eventually this letter was signed by more than ninety scientists and physicians and was sent off. There was no reply. In our view, not only is this a waste of funds, it adds an aura of respectability to a scientifically bankrupt notion. This is especially disturbing now in face of the measles outbreak since the private clinic where the study is to be carried out is a supporter of “nosodes,” the homeopathic “alternative” to vaccination. The original letter sent to Dr. Boon is reproduced below the following opinion piece that appeared in the Montreal Gazette.

Academic Freedom Comes With Academic Responsibility

Academic freedom is sacrosanct in universities. Researchers must be free to pursue their ideas, be they conventional or peculiar. But academic freedom also includes the freedom of others to question those ideas, and scholastic consideration dictates that those questions be addressed, especially when they are posed in a courteous letter signed by ninety scientists and physicians from around the world, including two Nobel Laureates. The letter in question was sent to Dr. Heather Boon, Dean of the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Toronto and focused on a study she was organizing to investigate the use of homeopathic preparations in the treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in children. Those of us who signed the letter, along with the vast majority of the scientific community, believe that numerous studies have concluded that the effects of homeopathy do not extend beyond a placebo response. The letter sought Dr. Boon’s views on why a Faculty of Pharmacy was organizing a trial that legitimizes homeopathy, a practice that has no scientific plausibility. Homeopathy is not an umbrella term for alternative modalities. It is a very specific practice that originated before the dawn of the scientific era when little was known about disease or chemistry. Samuel Hahnemann, a well-meaning German physician, concluded that a substance that causes symptoms in a healthy person cures those symptoms in a sick person if it is sufficiently diluted. His process involved thumping the solution into a leather pillow between dilutions, and finally using a drop to impregnate a sugar tablet that would then serve as a “homeopathic medicine,” the term deriving from the Latin for “similar” and “disease.” Hahnemann could not have realized at the time that the final solution did not contain a single molecule of the original substance. Today, homeopaths have to contend with chemical knowledge and have proposed that the curative effects are to be explained by the sequential dilutions leaving an imprint on the solution, although they appear to be at a loss to explain how such an image is transferred to a sugar pill or how a molecular ghost can have healing properties. Stymied by the implausibility of nonexistent molecules having therapeutic potential, homeopaths point to papers in the scientific literature demonstrating a larger than placebo effect, as well as to the millions around the world who use homeopathy with satisfaction. Neither of these is surprising. Toss a hundred coins into the air and count heads and tails. Maybe 45 heads, 55 tails. Maybe 48 tails 52 heads. But do this a hundred times, and one event may come out 30 heads and 70 tails. If this is the only one reported, the impression would be that the coins were not fairly weighted. So it is with studies of homeopathy. Just by chance alone, some results will indicate efficacy. That’s why we look at all the studies and come to the conclusion that we are looking at a placebo response, which of course is valuable and should not be dismissed. Indeed, couple the placebo response with the fact that homeopathic treatments are administered by caring people who spend a lot more time with patients than physicians can, and that they mostly target self-limiting conditions or diseases that have their ups and downs, and you have a formula for satisfaction. ADHD is a serious condition that merits serious research. Apparently the University of Toronto researchers carried out a pilot study involving homeopathy that seemed to indicate benefit. That study, however, was unblinded, devoid of randomization, had no control group and relied on a subjective outcome, making any data derived from it essentially meaningless. Even if we were to attach some importance to the claimed reduction of symptoms, the effect was about half of that seen with conventional medication, making the homeopathic treatment clearly inferior. Furthermore the proposed study would use individualized treatments for each subject as determined by a homeopathic consultation, so at best the results would be ambiguous in terms of making any recommendation. The study is actually to be carried out at the Riverdale Homeopathic Clinic, a private institution that also offers ear candling, cranial sacral therapy and “nosodes,” which are homeopathic versions of vaccines. No public funding is involved; support comes from a foundation dedicated to alternative medicine. Nevertheless, one wonders why with various nutritional and biofeedback treatments with significant potential for helping with ADHD needing exploration, a scientifically insolvent notion is being pursued. One also wonders why a Dean of Pharmacy at a major Canadian Institution did not take the time to respond directly to repeated requests for her comments on a contrary opinion expressed by a large number of notable scientists and physicians.

ORIGINAL LETTER

Dear Dr. Boon

The following originates from the McGill University Office for Science and Society and has been signed by scientists and physicians from the international community. We are all devoted advocates of academic freedom and support the right of researchers to pursue any field of study they feel has merit. But we also feel that it is fair to ask colleagues questions about how a particular study they are engaged in may contribute to the bank of scientific knowledge. It should be emphatically stated that those who have added their name to this letter, including two Nobel Laureates, in no way wish to interfere with your research. Everyone is just interested in your response to the concerns expressed here. Those concerns deal with the trial we understand you are organizing to investigate a homeopathic approach to the treatment of ADHD. First, let us point out that the McGill Office for Science and Society accepts no funds from any vested interest; our only allegiance is to the scientific method and to evidence-based science. It makes no difference to us whether any substance, including homeopathic products, is regulated or not, as long as the decision is arrived at through proper scientific evaluation rather than emotion, "they say" or pressure from vested interests. Along with the majority of scientists, we find the notion of nonexistent molecules having a physiological effect through leaving some ghostly impression in water that is then transferable to a sugar pill simply untenable. Even if some sort of "memory" effect prevailed, there is no reasonable explanation for how it could affect biology. Furthermore, after all the sequential dilutions and succussions, the original impurities in the solvent would be more extensively present in the final solution than any component from the original homeopathic source. After evaluating the scientific literature, including a comparison of 110 homeopathic studies with 110 conventional studies for a number of disorders and outcomes, the most likely conclusion is that any benefit attributed to homeopathy can be ascribed to a placebo response. Generally, scientists look askance at homeopathy, but don't bother much with it because they consider it to be harmless folly. Unfortunately, this is not the case when homeopaths recommend "nosodes" as alternatives to vaccination, or attack the use of antibiotics for infections, or offer unproven treatments for ADHD. The reason for this extensive email is to solicit your rationale, given your training as a pharmacist, for the study you are carrying out. Is the motivation a concern that parents are wasting money and possibly sacrificing effective treatment by resorting to homeopathy for ADHD, and that the study may clarify the situation? Or is there a belief that there may be some factor other than a placebo response involved? In that case, what mechanism may be operative? You allude to the results of a pilot study that warranted this further research. That study, however, was unblinded, devoid of randomization, had no control group and relied on a subjective outcome, making any data derived from it highly questionable. You also note that the reduction of symptoms found in the pilot study was about half of that seen with conventional medication, making the homeopathic treatment clearly inferior. Basically, as you have gathered, we are curious about why, given the need to investigate natural therapies that may actually have a potential for benefit, and faced with a scarcity in funding, a Department of Pharmacy is interested in investigating a subject that has been addressed extensively in the literature and has been found wanting both in evidence and plausibility. There is also a concern that just the mounting of such a study by a highly reputable researcher at a top notch university will be used by homeopaths to justify diverse aspects of their practice, including steering patients away from evidence-based treatments. Looking forward to your comments, Read more

Lead – A stain on chocolate?

Our OSS Blog - Sat, 02/14/2015 - 07:53

Lead is nasty. Since the body has a tough time eliminating it, exposure to very small amounts can cause poisoning over the long term. Diagnosis of lead poisoning is challenging because of the variety of symptoms it can produce. Vomiting, constipation, abdominal pains, headaches, mood disorders, high blood pressure, tingling sensations and fatigue can all be the result of lead poisoning, but of course these symptoms can also have other causes. Then there are the truly worrisome issues like developmental problems, learning difficulties and eventual loss of mental faculties. Lead poisoning is most worrisome in children under the age of six when the nervous system is still forming.

Exposure to lead-based paint in old buildings is a big problem, and lead paint still crops up in some imported toys that kids may put in their mouths. There is also the problem of lead in water in areas where old lead pipes are still in use. Since our body has no requirement for lead, every effort should be made to avoid ingesting lead compounds, but total avoidance is impossible since lead occurs naturally in the soil and gets incorporated into anything that grows in the soil. And that includes cacao trees and therefore chocolate. Yes there is lead in chocolate and that has raised the ire of some activist groups who claim this represents a risk especially to children. And what better time to get publicity for a warning about chocolate than Valentine’s Day. So a California watchdog group called “As You Sow” has trotted out its annual chocolate scare.

So, how much should we worry about eating chocolate? Let’s play with numbers a little. Total avoidance of lead is impossible, but the World Health Organization has determined that a tolerable daily intake for children is 3.6 micrograms per kg per day. This means that even if this amount is consumed every day, no problems are foreseen. A 20 kg child can therefore consume 72 micrograms of lead a day. Dark chocolate has the most lead with 0.07 micrograms per gram. That means 50 grams, a pretty good chunk of chocolate, will contain 3.5 micrograms of lead. Milk chocolate has less, but cocoa powder has more, at 0.25 micrograms per gram, but a serving of cocoa would only be about 7 grams which yields 1.75 micrograms of lead. Far from the daily tolerable limit of 72!

Of course lead is found in other foods as well. Berries contain as much as chocolate, and one normally eats a greater weight of berries than of chocolate. A glass of canned apple juice would have more lead than a serving of chocolate. Liver contains thousands of times more, but warnings about liver do not make the headlines. Even when the lead in all food consumed is totaled, it is unlikely that a child would exceed the 72 micrograms. Nevertheless, lead intake should be minimized as much as possible. And with chocolate, improved processing can reduce levels because studies have shown that the lead content of the finished product is greater than that found to occur naturally in the beans. The lead likely comes from machinery and air drying in places like Nigeria where leaded gasoline is still used. The bottom line here is that if you are eating enough chocolate to have to worry about lead, you are eating way too much chocolate. Happy Valentine’s Day.

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FOLLOW DR. KO: What You Never Knew About Canadian Doctors Outside Canada

From Our Contributors - Mon, 02/09/2015 - 18:18

Imagine me, a single thirty year-old living in the bustling city of New York, out at a bar on a Saturday night. “What do you do for a living?” – someone inevitably always asks.

Sometimes, for fun, I make up stories. I tell people that I specialize in cleaning elephant poo at the Bronx Zoo or something ludicrous like that. It is so much more interesting than just saying, “I’m a doctor.”

But when I do say that I am a doctor, people’s reaction is usually “Oh wow.” They think that I must live in luxury on the Upper East Side, drive a Mercedes-Benz or some other fancy vehicle, and travel to exotic lands every couple of months. They picture a doctor, noble and heroic, who goes to work every day and saves lives. Countless lives. They would imagine me shouting out a patient’s blood pressure, cutting them open, performing chest compressions, while pearls of sweat drip down my face, the sweat of hard work, of responsibility, of grandeur. Then the patient lives, wakes up, and thanks me with hugs and tears.

Well, all that is flattering, but none of it is true. Read more

Academic Freedom

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 02/08/2015 - 05:56

Academic freedom is sacrocent in institutions of higher learning. According to standards adopted by Canadian universities, academic freedom includes the right to freely communicate knowledge and the results of research. To do this, faculty must be free to take intellectual risks and tackle controversial subjects in their teaching, research and scholarship. The views expressed by faculty must be based on solid research, data and evidence.Thus, academic freedom must be based on reasoned discourse, rigorous extensive research and scholarship, and peer review.”

Clearly, academic freedom does not mean that professors have the right to teach anything that strikes their fancy, and they certainly do not have the right to confuse facts with opinion and demand that students recite these opinions on tests lest they be penalized. Yet this is exactly what seems to be happening in a course called “Physical Determinants of Health” at Queens, one of Canada’s most prestigious universities.

The course is taught by a professor whose background is in sports sociology which hardly equips one to deal with the intricacies of vaccination, electromagnetic radiation, prescription drugs, toxic wastes, personal care items, artificial sweeteners and genetically modified organisms. All of these, according to Professor Melody Torcolacci contribute to our “toxic load,” whatever that may mean. As is clearly evident from student reports and her classroom slides, she strays far and wide from facts and exhibits a stunning ignorance of epidemiology, immunology and toxicology. She may once have been a nationally ranked shot putter, but that doesn’t qualify her for taking shots at vaccination.

Professor Torcolacci has a clear distrust of vaccines that she attempts to infuse into her students. Her scientific shortfall is demonstrated in one of the first slides with which she accosts the students in her lecture titled “Vaccines: Good or Bad.” Guess what conclusion she want them to come away with? “No scientific evidence exists showing vaccines are NOT contributing to increased incidence of chronic illness and disability in children,” her slide flagrantly declares. What an absurd statement this is. Science can never prove a negative. Could anyone ever prove that aliens do not kidnap people? Or that Professor Torcolacci is actually not an alien? Of course not. I think, however, we can prove that she is alien to science. Her comments that pregnant women should not be vaccinated against the flu goes against the documented evidence of a positive benefit-risk ratio.

Professors are free to express their opinions, but they are not free to make up facts. And when you teach students that vaccines are connected to AIDS and autism, you are making up facts. When you teach students that colloidal silver, oil of oregano and fresh garlic work like broad-spectrum antibiotics, you are making up facts. It seems that this professor has not come across a Google myth she hasn’t readily swallowed and then regurgitated in front of impressionable students. This isn’t academic freedom. It is an academic crime.

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Number Needed to Treat

Our OSS Blog - Tue, 02/03/2015 - 19:08

We all want to be healthy and live as long as possible. So we think about popping vitamin pills, a daily dose of aspirin, eating foods with probiotics and taking statin drugs. And we puzzle over dietary regimes that claim to result in weight loss, lower blood cholesterol and reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease. All of these are supported by some evidence. But the chances of significant benefit are in general much less than what people think.

One of the best way to evaluate such interventions is through a determination of what is referred to as the “number needed to treat,” or NNT. Basically this is a measure of the number of people who need to follow the particular regimen for one to have a successful outcome. Take for example the possibility of reducing the risk of cancer by taking a daily multivitamin. And let’s not even consider the numerous studies that have failed to show any reduction in risk, lets consider one that did. The Physicians Health Study followed close to 15,000 doctors over the age of fifty who took either a placebo or a multivitamin for eleven years and found an 8% lower risk of cancer in those who took the multivitamin. By comparing this reduction to the normal rate of cancer in such a population, we can calculate that to prevent one case of cancer about thirty people have to be taking the multivitamin. So the chance of prevention is small, but on the other hand, the risk of taking a multivitamin is essentially none.

The situation is more complicated when it comes to medications with potential side effects. The American Heart Association recommends that people who have a greater than 10% chance of suffering a heart attack within the next ten years based on risk factors such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and family history, take a daily low-dose aspirin pill. Statistics show that this intervention can prevent a heart attack. With what efficacy? Depending on which study one looks at, it is in the range of 1-2000 people who have to be treated to prevent one event. So with the best scenario, about 1000 people have to take the daily aspirin for one death from a heart attack to be prevented. But what about side effects? Aspirin can cause bleeding and over a ten year period in 1000 people there would be about two extra deaths from bleeding. So that doesn’t look so good. But wait. There is mounting evidence that aspirin can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer. Here the NNT over a ten year period is about 60. So in the case of the 1000 people taking aspirin 16 deaths from cancer would be prevented. Putting it all together, more people benefit than are harmed. But the overall NNT works out to be roughly 50-60, meaning that the chance that a single individual will benefit from a daily aspirin regimen is pretty slim. But if sixty million people followed the regimen, a million premature deaths could be prevented. Most people, though, I think would decide that if their individual odds of benefitting are 60 to 1, the intervention is not worthwhile. Yet they will go out and buy a lottery ticket where the odds of winning are millions to one.

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The Fat Conundrum

Our OSS Blog - Fri, 01/30/2015 - 08:36

Butter or margarine? Olive oil or canola oil? Low fat diets or high fat diets? You would think that after literally thousands of studies we would have some straight forward answers about the effect of fat on our health. But such is not the case. There is pretty solid evidence that saturated fats raise blood cholesterol. There is also solid evidence that high levels of blood cholesterol are a risk factor for heart disease. But then there is the conundrum. Studies have not been able to show that saturated fats raise the risk of heart disease. How is that to be explained?

There are several ways that the relationship between fat intake and health can be studied. Animals, rodents mostly, can be fed diets containing different fats and their health can be monitored. This is close to useless. The natural diet of these animals is very different from that of humans, as is their physiology. Also the manipulated dietary changes are much greater than that seen in human diets. Of greater significance are observational studies in which people are asked to fill out food frequency questionnaires from which the fat components of the diet are calculated. But people are notoriously unreliable in remembering what they have eaten and in judging amounts. Somewhat better are studies that actually measure blood levels of fatty acids which are a reflection of diet, but these do not determine the source of the fats. For example, saturated fats from meat may not have the same effect on health as those from dairy because both meat and dairy contains numerous other compounds that can have an impact. Then there is the issue that not all saturated fats are created equal and their effect may depend on the number of carbon atoms in the molecule. So-called medium chain fats, as found in coconut fat, may have a different impact than the longer chain saturated fats in chocolate, which may yet be different from those found in meat or dairy. Add to this the fact that diets also contain a variety of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which again can have a different effect on health than saturated fats, and we have an increasingly complex picture. Of course, fats are not eaten in isolation, they are part of a diet. If someone cuts down on fatty foods, they have to be replaced with something. Unfortunately, the replacement often turns out to be loaded with refined carbohydrates, particularly sugar, which pose a cardiovascular risk themselves. So in such a case, cutting back on saturated fats would not lead to a reduction in cardiovascular risk.

Where does this leave us? While studies examining saturated fats in isolation have not been able to link them to heart disease, there is plenty of evidence that replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated ones leads to lower cholesterol levels and a reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease. So if saturated fats are to be replaced, they should be replaced by unsaturated fats rather than by carbohydrates. As they are in the Mediterranean diet, which is heart healthy despite being high in fat. But the fat comes mostly from nuts, seeds and olive oil, not meat or butter.

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Hormones in cattle

Our OSS Blog - Fri, 01/30/2015 - 08:32

Those ads from A&W claiming that their beef is raised without hormones or steroids are popping up on TV with annoying frequency. The intent obviously is to suggest that this meat is somehow safer than competitors' brands. There is absolutely no evidence for this. The growth promoters used in cattle, usually released from capsules implanted in the ear, are regulated just like drugs intended for human use and residues are carefully monitored. The use of growth promoters results in better conversion of feed to muscle, meaning that meat can be produced more economically. Six such substances are approved. Three are natural hormones (testosterone, estradiol, and progesterone) and three are chemically similar synthetic hormones (melengestrol acetate, trenbolone acetate and zeranol). All of these, except for zeranol, are chemically classified as steroids. Zeranol is extracted from a mould found on corn. That should please the "natural" crowd who assume that natural substances are always better than syhthetics. Zeranol is mildly estrogenic, with 25% of the estrogenic activity of natural estrogens at the same dose level. The fact is that hormonal activity in treated beef sold for consumption is indistinguishable from that in non-treated beef. And remember that meat contains hormones naturally produced by the animal in far greater amounts than any residue from growth promoters. Furthermore, far, far more natural estrogen is produced by the human body on a daily basis than that consumed in meat from treated cattle. For example, a woman produces about 500,000 nanograms of estrogen a day (40 times that much when pregnant) while the amount in a quarter pound hamburger is about 2 nanograms! The estrogenic activity of milk, butter or eggs is much greater than that of meat from implanted cattle and soy products are millions of times more estrogenic. A&W's suggestion that their beef is healthier than other beef is not supported by science. It is a marketing gimmick. Eating an A&W burger is no better in terms of health than any other burger. Another way of putting this is that burgers made from cattle raised without hormone implants are just as suspect nutritionally as any other burger. And that suspicion involves an increased risk of cancer in carnivore populations when compared with vegetarians. Of course that doesn't mean hamburgers can't be a part of a healthy diet, but they shouldn't be a staple. I do occasionally eat an A&W burger, when I can't find an open Harvey's. And I certainly do not give any consideration to whether the meat comes from implanted cattle or not.

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Whole grains and protein, part of a complete breakfast

Our OSS Blog - Wed, 01/21/2015 - 22:26
"Eat Your Oatmeal! Study Finds That A Bowl A Day May Keep The Grim Reaper Away,” screams a headline reporting on a study by researchers at Harvard University.

Somewhat overly optimistic, given that there is pretty good evidence that the Reaper eventually gets us no matter what we have for breakfast. But according to this study, we may be able to put off his inevitable visit, even without oatmeal. The study did not investigate oatmeal per se, rather it dealt with the consumption of whole grains.

The Nurses Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up study that followed over 110,000 subjects for 25 years have provided Walter Willett and colleagues at Harvard with a wealth of information. Initially free of heart disease, the participants filled out periodic questionnaires about diet and various lifestyle factors. Close to 27,000 died during the study, and after adjusting for confounders such as age, smoking, physical activity and body mass index, the researchers concluded that higher whole grain intake was associated with lower mortality. And the effect wasn’t marginal.

Total mortality was reduced by 5 per cent and deaths from heart disease by 9 per cent during the 25 years spanned by the study. Since bran intake had a similar protective effect and cereal germ intake did not, the results imply that the benefits seen can be attributed to whole grains. And how much do we have to eat to see a reduction in mortality? About 30 grams, which is not a lot. That’s roughly the common serving size for whole grain cereals.

So how does oatmeal fit into this? It’s just an example of a whole grain, perhaps the reporter’s favourite. Although this study did not look at oats in particular, many others have, because oats contain beta-glucan, a form of soluble fibre that has been shown to lower cholesterol. Indeed, when Chinese researchers gave subjects with moderately elevated cholesterol either 100 grams of instant oat cereal or 100 grams of wheat flour-based noodles for six weeks, they found that total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol decreased by seven and nine per cent respectively, which is significant. An added benefit was a decrease in waist circumference of about 1.3 centimetres (half an inch), while the noodle eaters slightly increased their waist circumference. The researchers concluded that increased consumption of whole grains, including oats, should be encouraged.

I’m all for that. Steel-cut oatmeal, or oat bran, with berries or other fruits, along with some Greek yogurt is my favourite for starting off the day. Indeed, the adage that breakfast is the most important meal of the day actually has some traction. It turns out that what is eaten for breakfast has an effect on the ups and downs of blood glucose for the rest of the day. And that is important because fluctuations in blood glucose stress the pancreas and increase the chance of developing diabetes. Furthermore, a skimpy breakfast not only reduces energy levels throughout the morning, it increases the chance of overeating at lunch.

Unfortunately, some people think that skipping breakfast is helpful for weight loss. After all, no breakfast means no calories. But studies show that this is not an effective strategy. Breakfast skippers are more prone to “Night Eating Syndrome,” and moderately overweight women have been shown to lose more weight when they consume 70 per cent of their daily calories before noon instead of the afternoon or evening. To further boost the arguments for a good breakfast, we can look at studies that show people who do not eat breakfast have a higher risk of developing heart disease and diabetes. They also may be less creative and slower at processing information in the morning.

Now that we know how important breakfast is, we can get down to the nuts and bolts of what it should be. I like oatmeal, fruit and yogurt, but there’s no magic formula. First, breakfast should not be meagre: 400-500 calories is a ballpark figure. But what we don’t want is a lot of sugar. No more than about 10 grams. What we do want is whole grains and some protein. Roughly 25-35 grams of protein in the morning stabilizes blood glucose, increases satiety and reduces calorie consumption during the rest of the day.

While cereals that are low in sugar are available, they generally contain only a few grams of protein. Plain Greek yogurt is a good choice for increasing protein intake because a serving has 20-25 grams and generally less than 10 grams of sugar. It is available in a no-fat version. Some whole grain toast with almond butter, and you’ve got a breakfast that nutritional scientists would drool over.

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Pills for the Brain

Our OSS Blog - Thu, 01/15/2015 - 10:18

Pop this pill and improve your memory. Swallow that one and reduce your cognitive decline. We see ads for such products all the time and I suspect they will increase as the baby boomers reach senior citizenhood. The most popular brain boosting supplements are fish oil pills and they are also probably the best studied ones. The results are not encouraging. When all the studies are pooled, we are left with the possibility of a barely significant improvement in recalling lists of words soon after they have been learned, but the effect does not last. Extracts of the ginkgo biloba tree are also popular, and here the prospects are even dimmer. There is no impact on memory, despite claims of increased circulation in the brain. And ginkgo can interfere with the action of anticoagulants and has also been shown to be an animal carcinogen.

B vitamins are also sold with claims of enhancing memory, usually rationalized by their reduction of homocysteine, a chemical in the blood that may affect circulation in the brain. No benefits from B vitamin intake have been demonstrated when it comes to memory or cognitive function except in the case of people who have high homocysteine levels due to a diet that is very low in B vitamins. There is some concern that folic acid, one of the B vitamins, may spur the growth of polyps in the colon at doses greater than 800 micrograms a day. Phosphatidyl serine is a natural component of nerve cell membranes and its promoters argue that a deficiency leads to impaired communication between nerve cells which in turn impairs cognitive function. Sounds reasonable, except that proper controlled trials have come up empty. The same goes for vinpocetine, a compound originally isolated from the lesser periwinkle plant by Hungarian chemist Csaba Szantay in 1975. It is widely used in Europe to treat strokes and memory problems with claims of increased circulation to the brain. It does indeed increase circulation, much like ginkgo, but there is no compelling evidence for memory improvement.

People with failing memory and worried about Alzheimer’s disease are sometimes seduced by advertisements for Huperzine A, extracted from a type of moss. Some studies have shown that it increases levels of acetylcholine in the brain, a chemical that is in short supply in Alzheimer’s. But despite increasing acetylcholine, aside from a few questionable studies in China, there is no evidence that it improves memory. Unfortunately when it comes to memory pills, they are best forgotten. There is, however, hope that a nasal spray containing insulin can increase the absorption of glucose into brain cells and improve cognitive function. But in the meantime, the best bet to maintain good brain function is to monitor blood glucose and blood pressure, eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and low in simple carbs and saturated fat. And don’t forget that physical exercise also exercises your brain.

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Snake Bitten

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 01/11/2015 - 19:09

Not many people have heard of boomslang. That’s not surprising because these venomous tree snakes are a super shy and non-aggressive species native to Sub-Saharan Africa. These snakes exhibit sexual dimorphism therefore it is easy to distinguish between genders. One of the most obvious morphological differences between genders is that females are brown in color while males are usually bright colors such as green, yellow or pinkish red. Boomslang snakes have strikingly large eyes and juvenile boomslangs are known for their beautiful iridescent green eyes.

Because boomslang snakes are ‘rear-fanged’ it is extremely unlikely to be bitten by this snake.  One has to be very unlucky! In order for the boomslang snake to inject its venom on its prey, it would have to open its mouth extremely wide, scientifically speaking, to at least 170 degrees. Because of this, boomslang snakes have been dubbed “harmless.” But it wasn’t until 1957 that this was proved not to be the case.

In 1957, a juvenile boomslang snake raised in captivity at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo bit well-known herpetologist Karl Schmidt.  The bite was minor, just a single fang on his thumb! But that was enough to kill Karl Schmidt.

Karl Schmidt’s death revolutionized the scientific world. The venom of the boomslang snake was analyzed and it was revealed that boomslang venom is highly potent and primarily is a hemotoxin.

Hemotoxins are toxins that destroy red blood cells, disrupt blood clotting and can also cause organ and tissue damage. Because boomslang venom is a hemotoxin it’s not surprising that it can lead to major brain and muscle hemorrhage. But the venom also causes other symptoms like nausea, headaches and sleepiness. Perhaps what is most surprising is that this venom has the ability to make the victim bleed from every possible orifice. It is not uncommon for blood to seep out of the victim from the gums, nostrils, urine, saliva, stools, vomit and even through the tiniest of cuts. This is extremely unfortunate because the victim will continue to bleed until death and death from internal bleeding is a slow and lingering process that can take anywhere from three to five days.

One of the issues with boomslang venom is that symptoms emerge only several hours after being bitten. Because the venom is not fast acting, victims may not realize that they are at serious risk and require immediate medical assistance. Although records show that less than ten people have died from boomslang bites worldwide, this ought to not be taken lightly.  Death came swiftly for Karl Schmidt, as he was found dead 24 hours later in his home from respiratory arrest and severe brain hemorrhaging. If Schmidt had known about the anti-venom his life might have been spared. It is imperative to act quickly otherwise Africa’s most venomous snake might have the last laugh.

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Bad breath

From Our Contributors - Sun, 01/11/2015 - 17:07

Foul breath—also known as halitosis—is an unpleasant condition that affects almost everyone. Because it is so widespread, determining and subsequently diagnosing each individual patient can be difficult. And it gets even harder because patients really can’t smell their own bad breath. But strong-nosed scientists have been discerning the truth bit by bit: there is now hope for those hoping to remedy their morning dragon’s breath.

Originally many believed that malodors originated in the stomach and blamed things like acid reflux, indigestion and gut flora. But what people are beginning to see is that in most cases of halitosis, the mouth is to blame. Halitosis originates from bacteria on the tongue, a condition known as tongue coating. The byproducts are largely responsible for bad breath in patients.  They produce what are known as volatile sulfur compounds (VSCs) such as hydrogen sulfide and methyl mercaptan. In order to then treat halitosis, efforts have focused on developing products that will either reduce these odiferous bacteria or neutralize the VSCs themselves.

The main form of treatment against halitosis is to simply brush the tongue to remove built-up bacteria. When halitosis persists, patients instead try to stop the creation of VSCs. By neutralizing the VSCs, the malodor does not volatilize, and the mouth does not stink. Some of the most successful neutralizing compounds have been zinc salts, chlorhexidine and hydrogen peroxide. Chlorhexidine can result in stained teeth, tongue numbness and burning; on the other hand, hydrogen peroxide can be highly oxidative and damaging to soft tissues. Zinc seems the best breath-fighting agent out there.

Zinc ions have a very high affinity for sulphur and can therefore inhibit the formation of stinky sulphur compounds by reacting with them before they leave the mouth. Zinc is also non-toxic and does not stain teeth, making it an ideal candidate to treat bad breath. While protocols to measure the efficacy of bad breath levels vary, the best measure of a persons’ breath is when the human nose smells it. And generally, these smell-tests result in accurate and reproducible results. When put to the schnoz studies show that mouthwashes, lozenges, and gums containing zinc in 0.2-0.5% are the most pleasant and effective in treating halitosis. It should not be used alone, however. A careful combination of good dental hygiene, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, and drinking plenty of water will help minimize the smell.

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