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You Asked: Should we be concerned about parabens in cosmetics?

Our OSS Blog - Fri, 08/28/2015 - 10:30

Not if you look at the numbers. Many cosmetics now advertise "no parabens," as they cater to chemical paranoia. Parabens are very effective preservatives and prevent bacterial growth in creams and lotions. The reason that they have made news is that they have estrogenic activity. But the fact is that this activity by comparison to the body's natural estrogen is essentially insignificant, some 10,000 times less. Based on studies carried out with animals, the no observed adverse effect level (NOAEL) has been determined to be about 800 mgs per kg of body mass. The NOAEL is the maximum amount that can be given on a regular basis without causing any effect. This means that a 70 kg person would have to apply 55 grams of parabens regularly to have an adverse effect, assuming that it is all absorbed when applied to the skin, which of course is not the case. And how much cream does this translate to? Given that the most parabens used as a preservative makes up about 0.8% of the weight of a lotion, a quick calculation shows that about 70 bottles each containing 100 mL each would have to be applied to the skin every day to approach the NOAEL. Basically, parabens "toxicity" is a non-issue. And not that this is of any relevance, but parabens occur in nature. They are found in blueberries as well as in the secretions female dogs use to attract males.

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You Asked: Is it True That People Who Drink Tea Live Longer Longer ?

Our OSS Blog - Tue, 08/25/2015 - 08:17

Drink tea to live longer? Newspaper headlines may have said that, but, that is not exactly what the study they were referring to said. Nevertheless it is an interesting study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a highly respected peer-reviewed publication. The study evaluated intake of flavonoids in an elderly Australian female population through food frequency questionnaires. Flavonoids constitute a huge class of compounds found in plants, members of which are linked through a basic molecular structure they share. The reason for interest in these compounds is that laboratory experiments have shown possible anti-allergenic, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer,-anti-heart disease and antioxidant effects. Although, there is a dearth of studies in people using isolated flavonoids, it is generally assumed that the benefits ascribed to eating fruits and vegetables may be due to their flavonoid content.

One way to get a handle on possible flavonoid benefits is to see if there is any connection between estimated flavonoid intake and health status. The best measure of health status is longevity. Two data bases of flavonoid content of foods were used to estimate intake of these compounds in the diets of over a thousand women with an average age of 80 who were followed for five years. Indeed, subjects who consumed the most flavonoids, 800 mgs or so a day, lived longer than women whose intake was less than 500 mgs whether the eventual cause of death was cancer or heart disease. In this population the major source of flavonoids was tea, about 350 mg for two cups, but there is no reason to believe that flavonoids in tea are in any way different from those found in berries, onions, bananas, cocoa, wine, citrus fruits, parsley or peanut skins. What all these have in common is that they are plant products, so this study reinforces the notion that our diet should be mostly plant based.

There are the usual caveats with such a study, the classic one being that an association cannot prove cause and effect. Although attempts were made to correct for confounders such as body weight and physical activity level, it is still possible that other components of the diet that parallel flavonoid intake are responsible for the noted difference in longevity. Then there is the usual problem that food frequency questionnaires may not accurately reflect food intake because of memory and honesty issues. But if flavonoids are really players in the good health game, which is likely, it is interesting to note that the average North American intake is only about 300 mgs which is considerably less than that of the longest lived subjects in this study. For a ballpark idea, an apple, a cup of blueberries or a cup of tea are all in the 150 mg flavonoid content range. So while tea may not be the elixir of life, a couple of cups a day are an easy way to increase flavonoid intake. There is no downside. Unless you load it up with sugar as is the case with many canned and bottled teas. Make your tea at home, add a dose of lemon juice if you like, but leave out the sugar. It may not make you live longer but it will make life a little more pleasant.

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Could the Food Babe for once be on the right track?

Our OSS Blog - Tue, 08/25/2015 - 08:14
Even a clock that doesn't work is right twice a day. A blind squirrel sometimes finds an acorn. And the Food Babe sometimes flirts with the truth. She has organized ridiculous petitions against azodicarbonamide in Subway rolls and caramel coloring in beverages. But now she has taken up the scimitar to wield against antibiotics in animal feed. Her target once again is Subway and she wants the company to use only meat from animals grown without antibiotics. Of course her knowledge about antibiotics is the same as about all other scientific matters, which is basically zero. Nevertheless this time she has jumped on the right train. Here is a piece I wrote a couple of years ago on this issue; it is still current. By and large, drugs don’t cure disease. They may lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol, alleviate pain, restore hormone levels, help control diabetes or treat erectile dysfunction, but they don’t solve the underlying problem. Except for antibiotics! If the diagnosis is bacterial infection, the right antibiotic will be curative. At least for now. But the future for these wonder drugs is more murky. “Antibiotic resistance” is becoming a huge concern. Bacteria, like humans, are biochemically unique. Expose a group of people to the cold virus and they will not all come down with a cold. Obviously the capacity of the immune system to deal with foreign intruders varies from person to person. Similarly, some bacteria can survive the onslaught of antibiotics and then pass their protective genes on to their progeny. The result then is a bacterial population that is resistant to the original antibiotic. Such resistance is an inevitable consequence of the use of antibiotics, and the only protection we have against it is the wise use of these powerful drugs. Unfortunately, we have not always been wise. As pharmaceutical companies successfully developed a wide array of antibiotics, our attitude was that if resistance to one crops up, another will be available to take its place. Until now, this has mostly proven to be so, but the antibiotic cupboard is becoming bare. And there have even been a few chilling reports of resistance to vancomycin, the antibiotic of last resort. Simply stated, the more an antibiotic is used, the less likely that it will maintain its effectiveness. Given that the Center for Disease Control in the U.S. estimates one third of all antibiotic prescriptions are inappropriate, it is evident that we face a huge problem. Physicians are recognizing this and are becoming less cavalier about prescribing antibiotics. But there is another issue. Although the numbers are somewhat debatable, roughly 25 of the 28 million pounds of antibiotics produced annually in North America are not destined for human use. Instead they are given to hogs, poultry and cattle, in most cases, not to cure them of disease, but to promote their growth! Since the late 1940s, so-called “subtherapeutic” doses of antibiotics have been routinely added to animal feed to prevent disease and to increase feed efficiency. Exactly why animals put on weight more readily when exposed to small doses of antibiotics isn’t clear, but it may have to do with reducing the competition for nutrients by cutting down on the natural bacterial population in the animals’ gut. Some studies also suggest that antibiotic use thins the intestinal wall and increases nutrient absorption. What has become clear, however, is that such subtherapeutic use of antibiotics leads to the flourishing of antibiotic resistant bacteria in animals and that such bacteria can infect humans. Chickens, for example, will begin to excrete antibiotic-resistant E. coli in their feces just 36 hours after being given tetracycline-laced feed. Within a short time these bacteria also show up in the feces of farmers. And a truly frightening prospect is that bacteria can pass genes between each other, including the ones that make them resistant to antibiotics. This means that bacteria that have never been exposed to an antibiotic can acquire resistance just by encountering resistant ones. Then consider that animals shed bacteria in their feces and that manure is used as fertilizer, and fertilizer gets into ground water, and it quickly becomes evident how the bacterial resistance problem can mushroom. Thorough cooking of course kills bacteria, but the widespread incidence of food poisoning demonstrates that poor food handling and undercooking is common. True, most people who come down with bacterial food poisoning just experience some unpleasant cramps and diarrhea and recover without the need for antibiotic treatment. In this case resistance is not an issue. But there are numerous cases of children, the elderly, or people whose immune system is compromised, who need antibiotic treatment for food poisoning. And now if the bacteria are resistant to antibiotics, these patients can face a dire situation. Take for example the case of an unfortunate Danish woman who died in 1998 after eating Salmonella-infected pork. She failed to respond to ciprofloxacin (Cipro), the usual antibiotic of choice, because of bacterial resistance. In a piece of elegant research, Danish scientists succeeded in genetically matching the Salmonella-resistant strain to a specific pig farm. Surprisingly, these pigs had not been treated with ciprofloxacin, but the pigs on neighbouring farms had been, and the resistant bacteria had moved between farms! In North America antibiotics known as quinolones have been used since 1995 to treat infections in poultry. While this was great for the chickens’ health, it turned out not to be so good for humans. The most common cause of bacterial gastroenteritis in people is Campylobacter jejuni, and poultry is often responsible. If an antibiotic is needed, ciprofloxacin is the usual choice. But since the introduction of quinolones to farm animals, Campylobacter strains resistant to the drug have emerged. The Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. has recognized this as such a serious problem that it has made Baytril, a quinolone, the first veterinary drug to be banned because of the emergence of resistant bacteria. While this is the first action of its kind in North America, Europeans have been phasing out antibiotics in animal feed since the 1980s. Sweden banned the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in 1986 and Swedish farmers responded by improving hygiene on farms and by altering feed composition. They showed that meat can be produced for the consumer at virtually the same cost as with antibiotics. And without a cost to consumers’ health! The European Union has followed suit and on January 1, 2006 banned the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in animal feed. That actually hasn’t resulted in a huge reduction in antibiotic use. While the prophylactic use has decreased, there has been an increase in the therapeutic use of antibiotics in animals because there has been an increase in illness that apparently was being prevented by antibiotics added to feed. Antibiotics are wonderful drugs and we must do all we can to protect their efficacy. While certain uses of antibiotics to treat sick animals are justified, as one scientist who studies antibiotic resistance opined, “Cipro is an essential antibiotic, and we cannot allow its effectiveness to be compromised by squandering it on poultry.” Read more

Catching some rays could help your heart

Our OSS Blog - Sat, 08/08/2015 - 22:43

Life comes down to a struggle between risk and benefit. Although not always consciously, we evaluate our diet, our cosmetics, our medications, household chemicals and activity levels on the basis of whether they are good or bad for us. Mention sun exposure, and the conflict comes down to the “bad,” namely skin cancer, and the “good,” usually ascribed to the enhanced production of vitamin D. Skin cancer is bad, but why is vitamin D good? For one, it is required for the proper absorption of calcium and a lack can lead to soft bones, in extreme cases to the characteristic bow legs of rickets. But there may be more to vitamin D.

Epidemiological investigations have shown that people with high blood levels are generally healthier, particularly when it comes to cardiovascular disease. It is interesting to note that the heart disease rate in Australia is lower than in northern climates, and that in Britain the risk increases as one travels north even when lifestyle factors are taken in to account. But here is a curiosity. Numerous studies have been carried out with vitamin D supplements without noting an effect on cardiovascular disease. Could it be that high blood levels of vitamin D are just a marker for sun exposure and that the cardiovascular benefits are actually due to some other feature of sunlight? British dermatologist Richard Weller makes a case for nitric oxide, a chemical that can be released by the action of ultraviolet light on substances such as nitrates that are stored in the skin.

Nitric oxide is a gas, and lasts only a few seconds after it is produced in the inner lining of blood vessels by the action of enzymes on the amino acid arginine. During its brief existence, though, it acts as an important signalling molecule causing smooth muscles around blood vessels to relax. This results in an increased blood flow and a lowering of blood pressure. Indeed, the classic drug to treat angina, nitroglycerine, works by releasing nitric oxide, and Viagra’s performance is due to its ability to increase signalling and improve blood flow through the nitric oxide pathway.

It was back in 1996 that Weller discovered that sunlight had the ability to convert nitrates in the skin to nitric oxide, a discovery that took on greater meaning with the awarding of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Robert F. Furchgott, Louis J. Ignarro and Ferid Murad “for their discoveries concerning nitric oxide as a signalling molecule in the cardiovascular system.” Weller began to wonder whether nitric oxide produced by sun exposure might explain the lower blood pressure in populations living closer to the equator and why the average blood pressure in the U.K. is lower in summer than in winter.

To investigate, Weller exposed volunteers to ultraviolet light and measured blood pressure and nitric oxide levels. To eliminate the possibility of vitamin D playing a role, he used long wavelength UVA that does not produce vitamin D. Nitric oxide levels increased and blood pressure decreased with an exposure equivalent to about thirty minutes of sunshine in Edinburgh in the summer. The effect wasn’t dramatic, but could be significant in a large population. Just heating the skin had no effect, so UVA is needed to produce nitric oxide.

In another experiment, the performance of cyclists was enhanced in response to irradiation with UVA but only if they took nitrate supplements. The theory is that increased nitric oxide release dilates blood vessels and allows more oxygen to reach the muscles. Nitrates occur naturally, and are particularly high in celery, red beet root, lettuce and spinach, vegetables that have been associated with lower blood pressure. In light of Weller’s studies, this may be a consequence of the combination of nitrates and exposure to sunlight. He also identifies studies that showed Scandinavian women who spent more time sunbathing lived longer. Of course that may also have been due to less stress, different diets or activity levels. And then there is a Danish study that showed that people with non-melanoma skin cancer were much less likely to have a heart attack. Could skin cancer be a marker for a longer life?

As I said, life is a struggle between the good and the bad, but it isn’t easy to identify what is good and what is bad. Maybe someone should investigate if nudists live longer.

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A Tale of Two Bracelets

Our OSS Blog - Mon, 08/03/2015 - 07:11

This is a tale of two bracelets. One brandishes flagrant nonsense, the other flirts with some clever science. We begin with a perplexing question I was asked while wandering through a mall in Phoenix. “How would you like to experience the benefits of nature captured in holographic frequencies?” Sniffing that some delicious twaddle was coming my way, I answered that I was keen to resonate with nature.

It turned out all I had to do was put on a “Power Balance” bracelet “imprinted with frequencies that would interact in a positive way with my body’s energy field.” I would feel better, aches and pains would resolve, my balance would improve and I would feel stronger. All because the unnatural vibrations produced by the likes of sugar, synthetic chemicals and cell phones would be neutralized by the frequencies embedded in the wristband’s hologram. Would I like proof, I was asked? Naturally!

I was then instructed to raise my right arm parallel to the ground and resist any attempt to push it down. I tried, but the salesman had no problem overcoming my resistance. He then slipped the bracelet on my left hand, and in spite of a convincing struggle on his part, my right arm hardly budged. “Energy is related to frequency,” I was informed.

My protagonist, who was a rather muscular young man, was also sporting a Power Balance bracelet which prompted me to ask how it was that its energy did not cancel out that of mine. This did seem to raise a point he had not previously considered, but he managed to mutter something about the benefits being greater if more unnatural frequencies had to be overcome. Do you eat only organic food, he asked? Not only, I answered somewhat ambiguously. His contended nod suggested the matter had been resolved.

Now it was my turn. I didn’t think there was much point in discussing how it was indeed true that energy was proportional to frequency through Planck’s constant, but that the frequency referred to was that of electromagnetic radiation and had nothing to do with the human body which does not have any innate “resonance.” Instead of trying to dam the river of the rapidly flowing pseudoscientific guck with scientific explanations, which I suspected would get us nowhere, I proposed my own experiment. I asked if the position of my left hand mattered, eliciting a chuckle. No, all that mattered was whether I was wearing the wristband or not. Good!

We would follow the same procedure as before, but this time I would put my left hand, which would either be sporting a bracelet or not, behind my back. His task was to determine if I was energized or not! Given our chat, he didn’t have much choice but agree. I suggested ten trials. He guessed right four times. Yes, “guessed” is the right term because there is no science here. But neither is there necessarily fraud. Perhaps in his eagerness to make a sale the young man didn’t realize that he was subconsciously exerting less effort when I was wearing the bracelet.

How then do we explain the legions of athletes and celebrities who claim all sorts of benefits? Mind over matter is the real power in the Power Balance Bracelet! As I subsequently learned, the marketers of the bracelet in Australia actually admitted as much after experiments, much like my ad hoc one, unmasked the product. Sales quickly went belly up. The bracelets are still sold here, but the claims are of the weasel variety: “Power Balance is a favourite among elite competitors, weekend warriors, and everyday fitness enthusiasts. The hologram is designed based on Eastern philosophies. Many Eastern philosophies contain ideas related to energy.”

I’m more in favour of ideas related to science. And a new company, MyExposome, run by real scientists, has a good one. Supported by published proof of principle, the plan is to furnish people with a silicone bracelet that absorbs chemicals with which it comes in contact either from the air or from bodily secretions. Using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, the bracelets will then be analyzed for some 1400 chemicals, including controversial ones like flame retardants and phthalates. The company will not offer any advice on whether a particular chemical has any specific benefit or harm because presently there isn’t enough known to make such judgments. Hopefully, though, the data collected can eventually determine levels of exposure and any possible risks. MyExposome’s scientific approach may give us real “power” to “balance” chemicals in our lives.

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You Asked: Is it true that dogs are being poisoned by propylene glycol in some dogfoods?

Our OSS Blog - Sat, 07/25/2015 - 10:32

Numerous Internet posts attempt to scare dog owners with questions like “Is It a Dog Food Aide or Automotive Antifreeze?” The reference is to propylene glycol, a chemical added to some dog foods to help retain moisture. Of course being an antifreeze component and serving as a food additive are not mutually exclusive. After all nobody worries about eating salt because it is also used in enemas. The potential risk of a substance is determined by studying it, not by making specious associations.

So what do the studies say? Unfortunately when it comes to dogs, not a whole lot. In humans, propylene glycol when ingested is pretty innocuous. Toxicity occurs when blood concentration reach 4 grams per liter, which is unachievable by consuming foods or beverages that contain the chemical. And yes, it is used in human food, mostly to retain moisture, although it also serves as a solvent for flavours. The pharmaceutical industry uses propylene glycol as a solvent in formulations of drugs that are insoluble in water. In beer it can stabilize head foam, in soft drinks and flavoured coffees it carries flavour, it stabilizes whipped cream and prevents the formation of crystals in ice cream.

Canada attaches no numerical value to the maximum amount of propylene glycol that can be used as long as it conforms to “good manufacturing practices.” In the U.S., it can be used up to 50 grams per kilogram of food or beverage. Europe allows maximum of 3 grams per kilogram. The reason for the discrepancy is not clear since there is no evidence that amounts greater than the European limit cause any problem. But this difference between amounts allowed in Europe and the U.S. did cause quite a kerfuffle when Fireball Whisky was recalled in Norway, Sweden and Finland. It seems the American version of the product found its way across the ocean with levels of propylene glycol above those acceptable in Europe.

This precipitated a public outcry in Europe where people recalled with horror the 1985 episode when some Austrian wines were adulterated with diethylene glycol, another chemical that can be used in antifreeze, to make the wines sweeter and more full-bodied in the style of late harvest wines. Nobody was hurt except the Austrian wine industry which suffered an almost complete collapse.

The publicity about the Fireball recall in Europe bounced back to the U.S. where this whisky is a popular choice among the college set due to its low cost and relatively high alcohol content. Rumors that a Fireball recall was underway sent ripples of upset across social sites.There was no recall, but as expected the chemophobes rallied around the “they’re putting antifreeze into our food” battle cry. The fact is that someone would perish from alcohol poisoning long before enough alcohol were consumed to cause a problem with propylene glycol.

Exactly why propylene glycol is found in Fireball whisky isn’t clear. The company goes no further than to say that “the secret to Fireball is buried in the depths of our souls and it’s so damn special that we just can’t share it. Although we’d love to talk Fireball, we have a strict policy that we let our whisky speak for itself.” In all likelihood propylene glycol is used as a solvent for some flavour that is added to the whisky.

While there is no issue with propylene glycol in human food, dogs may be a different case. They often eat the same food for all their meals and the continued ingestion of propylene glycol even in small doses may conceivably be a problem. That is just what a class action lawsuit launched by a California pet owner contends. He claims that two of his dogs got sick and one died after he began to feed his pets with “Beneful” produced by Nestle Purina Dog Care. The lawsuit describes over 3000 complaints on line about dogs developing liver problems, kidney failure, seizures and diarrhea due either to propylene glycol or ochratoxin, a fungal metabolite found in the food.

The manufacturer dismisses the notion that Beneful is the cause of the ailments. Dogs get sick, and owners then look for a cause, with food being a prime suspect, they say. And Beneful is not associated with symptoms any more than any other dog food, whether it contains propylene glycol or not. However, whether that is indeed the case is hard to know. Nobody it seems has actually done a study. Given that propylene glycol is known to be toxic to cats, causing “Heinz body anemia,” and since questions have been raised about its effects on dogs, it may be prudent to choose varieties of dog food that do not contain the chemical.

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The turf may be artificial but the issues are real

Our OSS Blog - Mon, 07/13/2015 - 07:08

The women’s World Cup provided us with some hot soccer but it also brought the simmering controversy about the safety of playing on artificial turf to a boil. That’s an apt term because these surfaces heat up in the sun much more than natural grass and players complain of greater risk of heat exhaustion. They also complain of carpet burns and blisters on the feet. But the bigger concern is potential toxicity.

The first synthetic playing surface was developed by Monsanto in the 1960s. Named “ChemGrass,” at a time when it was still acceptable to use a chemical connection in a positive way, it was made by melting together nylon pellets and a pigment, and then extruding the hot mix through spinnerets to produce ribbons which could be woven into a fabric. It was durable enough, but falling on it was no fun even though the nylon carpet was supported by a soft foam layer of polyurethane. When it was installed in Houston’s Astrodome as “AstroTurf,” ballplayers had to add “carpet burn” and “turf toe” to their vocabulary.

“Field Turf,” a Canadian company took the complaints to heart and came up with an improved version. Out went the stiff nylon fibers, in came soft, elastic polyethylene fibers lubricated with silicone oil. These were tufted into a rubberized plastic mat, just like a giant shag rug. The “tour de force,” though, was the “infill” composed of sand and granules of “crumb rubber” which kept the fibers upright and provided shock absorbency. Old rubber tires and athletic shoe soles were frozen and ground up to make the pellets that would eventually become the subject of heated debate.

The issue is that tires are made of a mix of natural and synthetic rubbers and contain an incredibly complex array of chemicals ranging from natural contaminants such as lead to zinc oxide used in the vulcanization process and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the oil blended with the rubber to provide proper texture. There are vulcanization accelerators like benzothiazole, amines added as antioxidants and butadiene and styrene residues from the synthetic rubber component. Many of these are known, probable or possible carcinogens. Carbon black, used as a reinforcing filler, can harbour “nanoparticles” which some researchers claim are carcinogenic and can penetrate cells, even finding their way to the brain. Lead-based pigments, now phased out, but once used to colour the grass, are another worry. There is also concern that dust from the rubber pellets can trigger allergies and asthma.

Of course the major question is extent of exposure. That can come from the inhalation of volatiles or dust released as the crumb rubber crumbles further under stress. There is also the possibility of swallowing any particles that are kicked up by action on the field, a special concern to goalkeepers who often dive to make a save and end up stirring up the rubber pellets. Can this be of any consequence? A preliminary collection of data by a soccer coach in the US suggests an unusual number of cancer cases among athletes who have spent a lot of time playing on artificial surfaces, and in the case of soccer, a greater incidence among goalkeepers than other players. So far this evidence is anecdotal, but science often starts with someone noting such a relationship and saying, “hmmm, isn’t that interesting?”

Given that the sporting landscape is dotted with artificial turf, and that thousands and thousands of children, who are more prone to the effects of toxins, play on such surfaces, further investigation is in order. Solid epidemiological data are needed to determine if there is indeed a link between artificial turf and cancer incidence, and we need experimental data about the extent and effects of exposure. The latter can be addressed by sampling the air above artificial fields for chemicals wafting out and by immersing samples of turf in fluids that simulate sweat, lung mucus and digestive juices. So far, the few experiments that have been carried out along these lines found that the chemicals detected were below what is considered to be hazardous, but there is great variation between turfs produced by different companies, so that small surveys cannot yield conclusive results. Furthermore, such studies do not address the possible cumulative effect that may be proportional to the time spent playing on artificial turf.

At this point it is impossible to quantify the toxicological risk, if any, of playing on artificial turf that may look like grass, and even feel like grass, but doesn’t behave like grass.

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Hot Diggety Dog

Our OSS Blog - Tue, 07/07/2015 - 08:35

I have a confession to make. I like hot dogs. I couldn't eat 62, like Matt Stonie the winner of the Nathan's hot dog eating contest on Julky 4, but I could pack away one. Maybe two. In these days of nutritional correctness, that makes me feel as if I’m admitting to some criminal activity. At the risk of riling people devoted to subsisting on alfalfa sprouts, algae, tofu and diverse supplements, let me assure you that it is possible to occasionally indulge in hot dogs and still have a healthy diet. It is also possible to never eat a wienie and have a diet that is a nutritional nightmare. Individual foods should not be vilified or deified; it is the overall diet that determines whether we are eating in a healthy or an unhealthy fashion. In any case, like it or not, sausages in various forms have been with us a long time and are destined to remain part of our nutritional culture for the simple reason that they taste good.

People have been stuffing ground meat along with various spices and other ingredients into casings for thousands of years. 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 first made. 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 in 1904 by Anton Ludwig Feuchtwanger, a Bavarian peddler who set up a booth at the St. Louis World's Fair. Since the sausages he sold 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?

Everyone wanted to try the new-fanged hot "Dachshund sausages," as the franks were now called because of their resemblance to these lengthy canines. Soon the name was abbreviated to "hot dog," and a North American staple was born. Today there are hundreds of manufacturers vying to satisfy the North American craving for some 60 million franks a day!

We obviously eat a lot of hot dogs, but not without trepidation. We’re never really quite sure what they contain. 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 behavior I've seen, he was right about the law. But sausages are not that scary. We can actually learn a lot of science from investigating how they are made.

No matter what you may have heard there are no ears, snouts or genitals in your hot dogs. So what is there? Hot dogs can be made from the edible parts of beef, veal, lamb, pork or poultry. This can include tongue, heart, esophagus and blood. If you find that hard to stomach, I probably shouldn't tell you that they also sometimes use the stomach. Kosher hot dogs do not contain any of these delicacies; they are made from good quality lean meat mixed with “plate trimmings,” which is essentially a pseudonym for fat.

Whatever the kind of hot dog, the basic process of manufacture is the same. The ingredients are finely chopped and then blended into a smooth paste which is eventually stuffed into a casing and cooked. The taste comes from a mixture of spices including garlic, pepper, paprika, smoke flavoring and MSG. Vitamin C or its chemical cousin, sodium erythorbate are also included in the mix. Why vitamin C? Because it mitigates the action of the curing salts which are added next. The curing salt is a mixture of about 98% regular salt and 2% sodium nitrite.

Nitrites are perhaps the most controversial components of hot dogs. They add flavor, color and prevent the growth of the deadly clostridium botulinum bacteria. But they can also react with other components in meat, called amines, to form nitrosamines. These substances are carcinogenic in test animals, and probably in humans. But their actual risk is very small. The odd study has linked hot dog consumption to some rare childhood cancers, but critics have pointed out that if this is indeed the case, it is so only in vitamin deficient children. Another reason to make sure kids are taking their multivitamins.

In any case, food processors have greatly reduced their use of nitrites since the discovery that vitamin C, potentiates the action of these chemicals. This means that less nitrite can be used if vitamin C is added to the mix. Studies have also shown that the added vitamin C reduces the chance of nitrosamine formation in the body. It is also possible to make nitrite free hot dogs, but these must be kept frozen.

If the nitrite issue isn’t that significant, why should we be concerned about feasting on hot dogs? The major problem is the fat content. By law, the protein content must be at least 11% but the fat content is not regulated. The average hot dog is 23% fat by weight. That’s a lot; a T-bone steak is 12% fat by weight. An average hot dog contains about 10 to 15 grams of fat, most of it saturated, although poultry and veal franks contain somewhat less. This is quite a bit considering that our daily fat intake should not routinely exceed 60-70 grams. Unfortunately, it is the fat in the hot dog that makes it taste so darn good.

Is it possible to have a low fat hot dog? Well, Hormel in the US has come up with "97% Fat Free Franks" which only have 1.3 grams of fat in each hot dog. The replacement of some of the fat by hydrolyzed vegetable protein is certainly a giant step in the right direction, especially when one considers that a panel of tasters found the Hormel product as tasty as regular hot dogs. Incidentally, the label "100% beef" on the packaging is meaningless on nutritional grounds. It just means that all components, including the fat, are derived from cows, steers or bulls. Actually bull meat is very flavorful, but because it is so fibrous, tends to be tough. However when macerated in a blender, it makes for an ideal hot dog. And that's no bull.

Then of course there are tofu hot dogs. These are getting better, but they still seem to develop those revolting “warts” when grilled. For now, I’ll still take the occasional regular hot dog, especially if you put a good ball game in front of it. But just to be on the safe side, I’ll take it with sauerkraut. Lots of vitamin C in there to take care of any nitrite problems.

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You Asked: Does taking a supplement of maca root have any merit?

Our OSS Blog - Sat, 07/04/2015 - 20:20

A good story can sell a product especially when it comes to dietary supplements. Talk about some legendary use by natives, throw in terms like increased stamina, improved mood, natural and aphrodisiac, and you are off and running to the marketplace. Maca root powder, here we come! Maca is grown mostly in Peru and its cooked root, with a composition much like wheat or rice, has a long history as a dietary staple. But it is stories about the enhanced virility of Inca warriors who supposedly downed maca root before going into battle that captured the imaginnation of supplement manufacturers. Although there is no evidence that the Inca fighters actually did this, legends are often based on kernels of truth.

Couple this with anecdotes of Peruvians eating maca root for energy and improved sexual function, and you have a basis for carrying out studies that may potentially lay the groundwork for marketing. After all, plants are fascinating chemical factories and it is conceivable that maca may have some biologically active compounds. None have been detected so far, but that is not surprising. It takes a monumental effort to isolate, separate and identify the hundreds of compounds found in plants, and that is only the beginning. Then comes the even greater challenge of testing candidate compounds for biological activity. That’s why when it comes to herbal products, the simplest process is to test crude mixtures.

There have been studies of various maca root preparations, and although not compelling, they are suggestive of some potential benefit. In one small study, men taking 1500 or 3000 mg per day of powdered root claimed increased sexual desire compared with a placebo. There was no measurable change in sex hormones and curiously the effect was not dose dependent. Another study in young men showed a slight but significant improvement in erectile dysfunction, and one in postmenopausal women resulted in decreased anxiety and depression and some improvement in sexual function compared with placebo. Again, there were no changes noted in any hormone levels.

As usual with such dietary supplements, the consumer is at the mercy of the manufacturer in terms of product quality. There is no systematic checking by regulators that the product actually contains what it is supposed to contain or whether it harbours lead, cadmium or arsenic, all of which are possible soil contaminants and capable of ending up in the marketed product. Given that maca is widely consumed as a food, it is unlikely that any of the root powders pose a significant health risk, although headaches, stomach problems, sweating and sleep disruption have been reported in rare cases. It seems that for people looking for a little boost in stamina and sexual function, a daily dose in the range of 1500-3000 mgs of “Peruvian ginseng,” as maca is sometimes called, is an option. It may actually do something, especially if you think it will.

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Unexpected consequences are part and parcel of science

Our OSS Blog - Sat, 07/04/2015 - 20:17
 Science is as a quest for knowledge. Sometimes it ends with a clear-cut result, often not. The Earth goes around the sun. Water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen. The speed of light is 299,792,458 meters per second. These are facts and will never change. But knowledge is often fluid, conforming to new information as it comes to light. We no longer think maggots spontaneously arise from decaying flesh or that heart attack patients have to be kept on six weeks bed rest. These beliefs, though, were reasonable based on the knowledge available at the time.

Scientists are sometimes accused of being slipshod, too profit-motivated, or even incompetent for having made a decision that eventually turned sour. The prescribing of thalidomide, the introduction of DDT and the routine use of hormone replacement therapy at menopause are commonly cited as scientific errors, yet these were all backed by appropriate peer-reviewed studies. It often takes years for problems to emerge, and not having foreseen them does not mean that researchers erred or were motivated by interests other than the honest pursuit of science. Of course, when unexpected consequences do occur, it is important to recognize them. Making a change is not an admission of failure, indeed it is one of the hallmarks of science.

When back in the middle of the last century research revealed that cholesterol levels in the blood were associated with a risk for heart disease, it made sense to suggest that eggs, because of their significant cholesterol content, should be consumed in a limited fashion. That, though, was just an educated guess. Science dictates that such a guess be followed up and be properly evaluated. But it can take years of studies to determine if a hypothesis is correct, and such studies, particularly in the are of nutrition, are not easy to carry out. Food frequency questionnaires are notoriously unreliable, and there are all sorts of confounding factors such as genetics, age, weight and other dietary components that have to be taken into account.

Furthermore, no decision can be made based on any single study; a preponderance of evidence is required to arrive at a conclusion. With eggs, sufficient data has now been collected to indicate that their consumption does not have a significant effect on blood cholesterol levels. Indeed, the expert panel in the US that every five years makes dietary guideline recommendations has concluded that “cholesterol is not a nutrient of concern because cholesterol from foods doesn’t cause higher blood cholesterol levels.”

As far as scientific questions go, the effect of eggs on blood cholesterol was a relatively easy one to answer. But this is not always the case. Consider the question of chemicals that are suspected of causing cancer. Obviously people cannot be given suspected carcinogens and in any case, such trials would take decades to reveal an effect. Therefore, “knowledge” emerges from human epidemiological evidence along with studies in animals and cell cultures.

Various organizations classify carcinogens into different categories, with the most widely referenced one being the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Its Group 1 substances are definitely known to cause cancer based on human evidence and include tobacco, the combustion product benzopyrene, asbestos, benzene, formaldehyde, dioxin and ultraviolet light. Aflatoxins from molds, infection by helicobacter pylori bacteria, herbal remedies containing Aristolochia species, x-rays, occupation as a painter and alcoholic beverages are also on this list.

Group 2A is a compilation of “probable” carcinogens as determined by strong evidence from animal studies but limited human evidence. Lead compounds, acrylamide in baked goods, emissions from frying foods, hairdressing as an occupation, shift work, the herbicide glyphosate and insecticides such as diazinon and malathion are in this category. “Possible” carcinogens for which there is insufficient animal evidence and limited evidence in humans fall into Group 2B and include coffee, pickled vegetables, radiofrequency fields, titanium dioxide and DDT.

Combining all three groups, there are more than 450 substances or processes that are classified as known, probable or possible carcinogens. What do we do with this information? We can limit alcohol consumption, take care with sun exposure, treat helicobacter infection, avoid charred foods and of course shun smoking. As far as the other agents are concerned, sometimes we have to be satisfied with knowing that not everything can be known. Outside of occupational exposure, there just isn’t enough known to make sweeping recommendations. But if you are offered a job as a chimney sweep, don’t take it.

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Bee Buzz

Our OSS Blog - Tue, 06/30/2015 - 10:24

Bees are critical to agriculture, there is no doubt about that. They fertilize various crops by spreading the pollen that they collect to meet their protein and fat needs. Recently there has been much concern about declining bee populations in some areas and speculation has focused on insecticides known as “neonicotinoids.” Many media reports have tried and convicted the “neonics” and urged that they be banned. But as is so often the case, media reports only scratch the scientific surface and deeper digging produces a different buzz. Neonics at a certain level of exposure can disorient or even kill bees, which comes as no surprise since they are insecticides, and bees are insects. The question is whether these chemicals can be used in a way that protects plants without harming bees.

Neonicotinoids, first introduced in 2004, are modeled on nicotine, the natural insecticide produced by the tobacco plant. One advantage is that instead of spraying, these chemicals can be applied to the seeds of crops such as corn, soybeans and canola. They then end up distributed throughout the plant as it grows and are ready to dispatch any insect that dares to dine on the foliage. Bees don’t do that, they go for the nectar in the flowers which has only traces of neonics. Yet bee deaths have been linked with neonic-coated corn and soy seeds, mostly in Ontario. But curiously, not with canola seeds in western Canada which are also treated with the same pesticides. So what is going on?

Mechanical planters use a jet of air to blow seeds into the soil. Commonly talc or graphite are added as lubricants to reduce friction between the seeds but these can rub off and can carry insecticide contaminated dust into the air, exposing flying insects such as bees to the neonics. The concern is that the tainted bees return to the hive where they can expose fellow bees to the neonics and wreak havoc. A novel polyethylene wax lubricant that can replace talc and graphite has shown a significant reduction in airborne insecticide during planting. There are also polymers being developed to help the insecticide stick to the seeds.

The planting of canola uses different technology and doesn’t produce comparable amounts of dust. Some 20 million acres of canola are planted in Canada with neonicotinoid treated seed and there has been no impact on bee health at all. So it seems the problem may not be the neonics as much as the seeding methodology. Neonics are also commonly used on cut flowers and on plants purchased from nurseries but whether these affect pollinators is an open question.

In any case, the neonics are only part of the picture when it comes to bee health. There are mites, parasites and viruses that can infect bees, and transporting hives, which is commonly done, also stresses them, as do harsh winters and long springs. Specifically, the Varroa mite can affect bee health significantly, and it is interesting to note that in Australia, which is free of these mites, no problems have been seen with bee populations in spite of extensive use of neonicotinoid coated seeds.

So while the neonicotinoids may be a factor in the decline of bee populations in some areas, they are not the only factor. Furthermore, loss of bee colonies has been observed in places where neonicotinoids are not used at all, and history records many cases of unusual deaths of honey bee colonies long before neonics were introduced.

Still, there are some troubling developments. A recent British study showed that bees are more attracted to a sugar solution laced with neonics than to one without, implying the bees may be getting some sort of a buzz from the chemicals and may be more likely to visit plants containing them and end up contaminating hives. And a study in Sweden showed a reduced density of wild bees, but not honey bees, in a field planted with neonic-coated seeds.

Because of the cloud hanging over neonics, Europe and Ontario have decided to greatly restrict their use. It will take a while to see the effect, not only on the bees, but also on crop yields which have steadily increased since the introduction of the neonicotinoids. If yields are to be maintained, it may be back to the insecticidal sprays which come with problems of their own, not only for pollinators, but for people as well. Of course in the western world we can forego insecticides and just pay more for our locally-grown food.

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Murky Mercola

Our OSS Blog - Tue, 06/30/2015 - 04:32

If you haven’t heard of Joe Mercola, you have not been surfing the waves of health advice on the web. He is an osteopathic physician whose practice now is limited to offering mostly iffy medical advice on his website and selling a variety of questionable products. He claims his website “is not a tool to get me a bigger house and car, or to run for senate.”. He says he funds his site and therefore, is not handcuffed to any advertisers, silent partners or corporate parents and profit generated from the sale of the products he recommend goes right back into maintaining and building a better site, “ a site that, startling as it may be with all the greed-motivated hype out there in health care land, is truly for you.” Gee, that sounds like motherhood and apple pie. It seems though that not every penny earned goes back into the managing the website. Mercola lives high on the hog in a multi-million dollar estate in Chicago. That wouldn’t be objectionable if the edifice were built on gains from promoting sound science. But that is not the case.

Besides being critical of vaccination, calling microwave ovens dangerous, questioning whether the HIV virus is the cause of AIDS, opposing homogenized milk, claiming that sunscreens increase the risk of skin cancer, Mercola hypes and sells a variety of pseudoscience-laced products. Let’s start with “Dr. Mercola’s Earthing Universal Mat,” which is described thus: “When you walk barefoot on the Earth, there's a transfer of free electrons from the Earth into your body that spread throughout your tissues. The effect is sufficient to maintain your body at the same negatively-charged electrical potential as the Earth. This simple process is called 'grounding.' If you constantly wear materials like rubber or 'plastic' shoes, which are both very effective insulators, you'll be disconnected from the natural energy that flows from the Earth.” Well, in my view, the only thing you will be disconnected from is science. This business of improving health by walking barefoot or by using Mercola’s Earthing Mat is nonsense. But Mercola tells us that his mat “is a great way to complement any outside 'barefooting' you might be able to fit into your busy schedule. It's a quick and easy way for you to get started grounding whether at home, at the office, or almost anywhere you go.” I prefer to get my grounding from science not fairy tales.

Dr. Mercola also sells books such as “Dark Deception” in which he describes how we need sun exposure for health. But he would prefer to expose you to the tanning beds he sells, the same ones health experts agree are dangerous and increase the risk of skin cancer. There is also Dr. Mercola’s “organic deodorant” with “baking soda as the “active ingredient.” Except that it isn’t very active. There are also supplements galore. Like “breast health formula,” “mushroom complex” and “silver solution,” none of is a solution to anything. His bamboo toilet paper I’m sure does as good a job as any other, but the claim that it is better because it is free of toxic BPA can be safely flushed away.

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Should one worry about reboiling water for coffee or tea?

Our OSS Blog - Tue, 06/30/2015 - 04:29

An article is circulating on the internet about the dangers of reboiling water and concentrating dissolved chemicals. It amounts to baseless fear-mongering. Lets consider fluoride as an example. Suppose you put a liter of water containing 1 ppm fluoride in a kettle and boil it. You then take 200 mL to make a cup of coffee or tea. That means you will ingest 0.2 mg of fluoride. If you now let the water keep boiling until 100 mL evaporates...which would take a long time...and you take 200 mL from the remaining water to make your next cup of coffee, you will be ingesting 0.22 mg of fluoride. This is an insignificant difference, even if there were an issue with that amount of fluoride, which there isn't. The same argument applies to any other solutes in water. To imply that making your next cup of coffee from boiled water is going to have any sort of impact on health is absolute nonsense. With tea there may actually be a slight difference but that has nothing to do with taste not toxicity. Boiling drives oxygen out of the water and deoxygenated water tends to taste more flat.

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Is it true that ice cream that doesn’t melt easily should be avoided?

Our OSS Blog - Sat, 06/20/2015 - 06:25

Joe Mercola, the font of much Internet poppycock, thinks that the safety of ice cream is somehow related to the ease with which it melts. He and other bloggers not well versed in science suggest that ice cream that does not melt easily should be avoided. There are ice creams that don't melt as readily as others but that doesn't mean that eating them poses a risk. There are a number of factors that determine how readily an ice cream melts. Basically, the melting rate is determined by the additives used. Ice cream is a mixture of fat globules, water, sugar and air. For a smooth texture the separation of fat and water must be avoided as well as the formation of large ice crystals. Emulsifiers such as mono and diglycerides prevent the fat from separating and guar gum and calcium sulphate add thickness. The thick texture also results in an ice cream that is more difficult to melt.There is no problem with these additives. The glycerides are basically a type of fat that occur naturally in many foods, guar gum is extracted from a bean and calcium sulphate is used in much higher doses in calcium supplements. People who suggest that ice cream is somehow toxic because it stays solid longer need to solidify their knowledge of chemistry.

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You Asked: What is “meat glue?’

Our OSS Blog - Sat, 06/20/2015 - 06:22

The idea of eating a steak made from pieces of meat scrap glued together is likely to stick in the craw for most people.  But there are also those who are ready to shell out a small fortune at New York’s uppity WD-50 restaurant for a chance to sink their teeth into “shrimp noodles” concocted with the same “meat glue.”

So, what is this “meat glue?”  Rest assured that no horses were condemned to the glue factory to produce it.  What we’re talking about is an enzyme called transglutaminase that allows a mouthful of shrimp to be served in the form of noodles that look, but certainly do not taste, like regular pasta.  How does it do this?  By facilitating a chemical reaction that forges links between structural protein molecules. Proteins of course are composed of chains of amino acids, and transglutaminase links the amino acid lysine in one chain to glutamine in an adjacent chain.  If these chains are located on the surface of adjacent pieces of meat, the pieces get stuck together almost like magic.  The joint then looks just like one of the white streaks of gristle or fat commonly seen in meat.  It’s so strong that the meat doesn’t even tear along the “fault line.”

Transglutaminase is not foreign to the human body.  We produce it to aid in blood clotting, a process that requires protein molecules to form interlinked complex structures.  Skin and hair are also composed of proteins that have been bound together, and transglutaminase plays a role here as well.

In the 1990s, the food industry discovered that this enzyme can be isolated in good yield from the bacterium Streptoverticillium mobaraense and that it can be used to “restructure” meat, fish and poultry.  For example, with the help of transglutaminase, bits of chicken left over after the carcass has been processed, instead of being discarded as waste, can be glued together to produce chicken patties.  Similarly, artificial crab legs and shrimp can be made by sticking together ground pieces of cheaper seafoods such as Pollock. While the taste of such artificial foods can be criticized, there is no health issue associated with consuming transglutaminase.  As any other protein, it is readily broken down into its component amino acids in the digestive tract.

“Meat glue” is produced for the food industry under the name Activa by the giant Japanese company Ajinomoto which also markets monosodium glutamate (MSG).  It did its work quietly behind the scenes until celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal brought it out of the shadows at the Fat Duck, the restaurant on the outskirts of London that has been labeled by many as the best eating place in the world. Blumenthal’s enthusiasm for creating novel dishes with transglutaminase rubbed off on Wylie Dufresne at New York’s famed WD-50 restaurant who managed to grind shrimp into noodles with the help of transglutaminase and served it on a bed of smoked yogurt.

Other chefs who pursue what has been called “molecular gastronomy,” defined as the application of scientific principles to the creation of new dishes, are pushing the transglutaminase envelope.  Around the corner are filet mignon with strips of bacon glued to its surface, fish coated with chicken skin to enhance flavour and shrimp burgers held together by cross-linked proteins.  How about chicken fat stuck to steak to add a new dimension to chicken fried steak?  Just in case your cholesterol isn’t high enough.

Unfortunately transglutaminase also lends itself to some less savory applications.  Such as producers or butchers using it to bind meat scraps too small to be sold into slices that look every bit as delectable as prime cuts.  The seamless joints are virtually undetectable. Ditto for any difference in taste.  Just take the bits of meat, sprinkle them with transglutaminase, place them on a sheet of plastic wrap and roll tightly into the shape of a tube.  Refrigerate for a few hours and then unwrap.  You’ll be looking at meat that for all the world looks like a single piece of filet.  And it can be priced accordingly.

Clearly there is deception involved here.  The customer is not getting what he or she is paying for.  There are some other issues as well.  Transglutaminase can be isolated from blood, with bovine and pig blood being used commercially.  This can be a problem for people adhering to religious dietary laws.  Not only can transglutaminase be used to make “restructured meat,” it can also be used to improve the texture of hot dogs and sausages.  Meat glue is not allowed in Europe, but can be used in Canada as long as it is declared on the label like any other additive.  For example, if Chicken McNuggets were glued together with this enzyme, it would have to be listed on the ingredients list, which is available from McDonald’s.  It’s not.  So no “meat glue” there.  Whether or not some unscrupulous butchers use it to make fake steaks, is another matter.

Any butcher engaging in such clandestine operations may pay a price.  While ingesting transglutaminase is no problem, inhaling the powder can damage the lungs.  Consumers don’t have to worry about this, but there is an issue with cooking glued meat.  The surface of meat is always covered with bacteria but the microbes are readily killed by cooking.  However, with structured meat, some of the outside becomes the inside, and if the meat is not thoroughly cooked, as is of course possible for people who like their steak rare, bacteria on the inside may survive.  This is the reason why hamburger meat, a classic “outside becomes inside” situation, has to be cooked through and through.

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You Asked: What is cream of tartar good for?

Our OSS Blog - Wed, 06/10/2015 - 09:30

It is a cheap, safe, readily available mild acid.  It is ideal for the generation of carbon dioxide from baking soda.  In fact, one version of baking powder is a mixture of sodium bicarbonate and cream of tartar.  When the mixture dissolves, bubbles of carbon dioxide are released.  The same chemistry can be used to keep drains clear.  Just make up a mix of one cup bicarbonate, one quarter cup cream of tartar and one cup of salt (for increased density) and periodically pour a few spoonfuls down the drain.  The bubbling action can dislodge small blockages.

Candy makers also know all about cream of tartar.  Candies are basically made by cooling down solutions in which a lot of sugar has been dissolved.  But this has to be done in a fashion that ensures small crystal formation otherwise the candy becomes too brittle and crunchy. If a small amount of cream of tartar is added, some of the sucrose is hydrolyzed to glucose and fructose which are less likely to form large crystals.

There is something else that cream of tartar can interfere with.  Protein molecules joining to each other.  That’s just what happens when we whip egg whites to make meringue.  Coiled proteins unwind and link up in a rigid three-dimensional network.  Sometimes, however, the proteins form too many links to each other and overcoagulation results.  This causes the meringue to be lumpy.  The addition of cream of tartar limits the extent to which proteins can bond to each other.  So it is a pastry chef’s beloved friend.

If that still isn’t enough to make you appreciate cream of tartar, how about its cleaning abilities?  A blackened aluminum pot will shine like new if you boil water with two spoonfuls of cream of tartar per liter in it.  Finally, cream of tartar complexes iron so it will even take rust stains out of fabrics and the bathtub.  Obviously no household should be without it.

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Plastic Cheese and Fake Mayo

Our OSS Blog - Mon, 06/08/2015 - 07:21

On a recent trip to the U.S. I perused the menu and decided on a cheese sandwich. When I queried the waitress about the kind of cheese involved, I was told, “American!” I replied I was interested in the type of cheese, not its citizenship. “You know, American, the plastic kind” came the irritated response. I now knew I had to prep the taste buds for “processed” cheese.

“Would you like it with just mayo?” “Not just mayo,” I replied, “I’d like lettuce and tomato as well.” “Yes, but with just mayo or real mayo?” Sensing my confusion, the waitress turned on her heels and returned with a jar sporting the label “Just Mayo.” Looked real to me. I decided not to torment the poor lady further and decided that “Just Mayo” would be just fine with my plastic cheese.

“American cheese” really is plastic. But don’t start conjuring up images of cheese makers grinding up recycled plastic bottles. A plastic is simply any material that can be molded into a desired shape, and processed cheese does fit that definition.

It was back in 1916 that cheese merchant J.L. Kraft, plagued by complaints of inconsistent quality, hatched a scheme to mix a variety of cheeses and blend them with water to produce a uniform product. For a smooth consistency Kraft had to devise a method to prevent the fat, protein and the water from separating. Sodium monohydrogen phosphate turned out to be an ideal “emulsifier,” and ensured that people who like their cheeseburgers can count on a slice that will always taste the same and melt in a uniform fashion. And yes, processed cheese does melt, as anyone who has ever made a grilled cheese sandwich can attest.

That is contrary to the implication of a widely circulating video portraying processed cheese as some sort of Satanic product because it does not melt in the heat of a flame. One viewer was prompted to wonder if this is why “cancer is on the rise,” and another asked why Kraft puts plastic in its cheese. No, there’s no plastic. But there are emulsifiers that bind the cheese’s components tightly and do not lose their hold with a sudden increase in temperature. They do, however, let go with prolonged heating at a lower temperature. There is nothing devilish here, just some clever chemistry. Nutritionally, processed cheese is comparable to whatever cheese was used to make it, usually cheddar. It does tend to be higher in sodium, but if there is any risk to be had from processed cheese, it is to the palate.

Now what about “Just Mayo?” Isn’t it real mayonnaise? Not according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Mayonnaise" is defined as a condiment that must contain a specific amount of vegetable oil and egg yolk. But what if you shorten the name and call it “Just Mayo?” Does it still have to contain eggs? No, says Josh Tetrick of Hampton Creek, maker of the new-fangled spread that advertises itself as being healthier, more environmentally friendly, and more humane than “real mayonnaise” The term “mayo” is not defined, Tetrick maintains, and he says he does not sell his product as mayonnaise. “It’s Just Mayo!”

The “more humane” refers to the way egg-laying chickens are raised in small cages. True, the peas that are grown to produce the protein extract used to emulsify the oil and vinegar in Just Mayo have a peaceful life, and presumably do not suffer when their pods are wrenched apart. The “environmental friendliness” is based on the ratio of energy input to food energy output for eggs being about 39-to-1, whereas Just Mayo’s plant ingredients that replace eggs weigh in at a ratio 2-to-1.

Hampton Creek may be on firm footing when it comes to promoting the benefits of “no eggs” in terms of environmental footprint, but when it comes to implication of health benefits, the company is trampling in mud. Both Just Mayo and Hellman’s “real mayonnaise,” contain 90 calories per serving from 10 grams of fat. The 5 milligrams of cholesterol in the real mayo is inconsequential. Curiously, Just Mayo lists its protein content as zero, yet its promotional material describes how the company’s biochemists have investigated numerous plants to come up with a protein that can rival egg yolk as an emulsifier. Obviously not much of this protein is needed in the product. And how did the sandwich taste? Like plastic cheese with fake mayo.

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Miracle Mineral Solution is a Nightmare

Our OSS Blog - Tue, 06/02/2015 - 04:58

Malaria, AIDS, hepatitis, herpes, cancer.  Terrible diseases.  That’s why thousands and thousands of scientists around the world, armed with advanced degrees, are engaged in research projects aimed at finding a cure.

Now, ask yourself this question: what is the chance of a gold prospector, with no training in the health sciences, tackling a problem and finding an answer that has eluded the world’s most renowned researchers?  Furthermore, it’s simple to administer, readily available, and to boot, also destroys the H1N1 virus, clears up acne, eliminates heavy metals and cures the common cold.  I can tell you what probability I would attach to this miracle solution performing as claimed.  Let me see now, how does “zero” sound?

There’s nothing subtle about the name of this purported wonder: “Miracle Mineral Solution (MMS)!”  Well, there are no miracles to be had.  Or minerals.  Admittedly, however, there is a solution.  Not a solution to any problem, but a solution in the sense of a substance being dissolved in water.  And that substance is sodium chlorite, a common disinfectant and bleaching agent.  Its chief promoter, Jim Humble, is either a brilliant inventor, a self-delusional scientifically-bewildered simpleton, or a cunning scoundrel.  Take your pick.  I know which box I would tick off.

In a decidedly non-humble fashion, Humble claims that “this breakthrough can save your life, or the life of a loved one.”  He then brags that his discovery is the answer to AIDS, hepatitis A,B and C, malaria, herpes, TB, most cancers and many more of mankind's worse diseases."  Of course you may not have heard of this revolutionary treatment because it is being hidden from the public by those devilish pharmaceutical companies whose profits would be destroyed if the word got out about all diseases being cured in such a simple fashion.

Let’s just trace how this visionary, this wonder-worker, this mental colossus, discovered the gift “that would shift the course of human health history forever.”  Incidentally, MMS wasn’t this amazing philanthropist’s first gift to humanity.  That was the automatic garage door opener, which humble Humble supposedly invented although I can’t find any documented evidence for this claim.

In any case, the MMS saga begins in the South American jungle where our hero was prospecting for gold when two of his men fell ill with malaria.  With no prospects for immediate medical help, Humble had to resort to his razor-sharp wits.  Actually, I don’t think there was much chance of any cuts being inflicted.  The sodium chlorite solution he had brought along to disinfect water obviously killed bacteria, our champion thought, maybe it would also destroy whatever was causing the malaria.  So, he gave the men some of the solution and was stunned to see their symptoms vanish in just four hours.  I bet he was!

Now Humble had a new calling, rid the world of malaria.  He started to treat sick South Americans but found that the sodium chlorite solution was only effective 70% of the time.  Not good enough for this dazzling mind!  He began to experiment with his concoction and discovered that when mixed with citric acid, the chlorite would be converted to chlorine dioxide, which turned out to be a superior treatment.  Wow!  Before long, Humble claimed to have registered 75,000 successful treatments of malaria with his miracle product.

Strange, but I can’t find any of these spectacular results documented in the scientific literature.  Wouldn’t you think that the discovery of such a simple cure for malaria would merit publication?  Surely a Nobel Prize would be in the offing!  Ah, I know.  It must be those dastardly jealous scientists, or the evil pharmaceutical companies that are preventing publication.  Yup.  Must be.  As a supporter explains, “Humble had become so famous that two drug companies contacted the Minister of Health (in an unnamed country) and threatened to quit shipping drugs to the local hospitals if she didn’t do something about the person claiming to be able to cure malaria.”  Those fiendish companies!  It’s a wonder they have allowed Humble to live.  Actually.  Maybe they haven’t.   Attempts to contact him repeatedly fail.  I’m told he is “travelling” the world, busily helping people.  Helping them lighten their wallets, I suspect.  If you want to know the details of his discovery, that is “how to manufacture it in your own kitchen, how to use it intravenously, how to cure colds in an hour, how to cure the worst of flu in 12 hours, how to treat cancer, AIDS and hundreds of other problems,” you have to buy his book.

I’m not sure how to describe that epic work, but “comedic” comes to mind.  Discussions about how chlorine dioxide “elongates the electron shell” of pathogens, and how its safety is confirmed by the fact that its “oxidation strength” of 0.95 volts is less than oxygen’s 1.30 volts amount to no more than mindless chemical chatter.  I don’t buy it.  More importantly, Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration don’t buy it.  And both urge consumers not to buy any version of Miracle Mineral Supplement.  Not only is there no evidence of efficacy for any condition, there is evidence of possible harm.  Nausea, vomiting, and a life-threatening drop in blood pressure have been reported.  Humble actually maintains that nausea is a good thing because it means the body is eliminating toxins, but if bothered, he suggests it can be controlled “by eating cold apple slices that will absorb stomach toxins that have been dumped there.” Like I said, comedic.  But what is decidedly not comedic is the advice on some MMS websites that AIDS patients give up their drugs and resort to intravenous MMS.

Jim Humble went out looking for gold and it seems that at least figuratively he has found it.  But it is fool’s gold.  MMS is not based on any reasonable science, has not been tested in any sort of randomized trials, and amounts to no more than a scheme to capitalize on the gullibility of the scientifically challenged and the desperate.  Promoting the sale of this product is criminal.

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“The Great Moment”

Our OSS Blog - Mon, 06/01/2015 - 07:40

Rarely does a single event alter the course of medicine, but that is exactly what happened at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital on October 16, 1846 in the surgical theatre that would eventually be christened “The Ether Dome.” Dr. John Collins Warren, having just excised a growth from the neck of a patient rendered unconscious with ether, looked up at the physicians and students who had witnessed the epic event, and declared, “Gentlemen, this is no humbug!”

The onlookers had likely anticipated a duplication of the fiasco that just two years earlier had disgraced dentist Horace Wells who had convinced Warren to allow a demonstration of painless tooth extraction using nitrous oxide. Wells had in his own practice administered the gas successfully on many occasions and gallantly even volunteered to have one of his own teeth extracted to confirm the wondrous properties of “laughing gas.” But in his eagerness to demonstrate the effect, Wells had not allowed enough time for the medical student, who curiously had agreed to be experimented upon, to inhale enough nitrous oxide. An ear shattering scream brought the proceedings to a halt and Wells retreated amidst loud cries of “humbug.”

William Morton had shared a dental practice with Wells and had seen nitrous oxide at work. He wondered if other gases could perform even better. How he happened upon ether would eventually become a matter of much acrimonious debate, but it seems he was put on its trail by Dr. Charles Jackson whose lectures on chemistry Morton attended after giving up dentistry in favour of studying medicine at Harvard. Ether was hardly a novel substance at the time, having been first made in 1540 by the Prussian Valerius Cordus who distilled it from a reaction between alcohol and sulfuric acid. The volatile chemical didn’t get much attention until John Dalton, of atomic theory fame, described it extensively in his 1819 monograph, “Memoir on SulfuricEther." Shortly after, an anonymous note, believed to have been penned by Michael Faraday, appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Science and the Arts pointing out that the vapours of ether, which some physicians were using at the time to treat respiratory problems, "produces effects similar to nitrous oxide." Faraday knew all about nitrous oxide from his mentor Humphry Davy who had illustrated its giddiness-inducing effects and sparked a craze of laughing gas parties. These were soon joined by “ether frolics.”

Jackson it seems was familiar with such frolics and had discussed ether with Morton, although there is no evidence he had suggested its use as an anesthetic. He did suggest rubbing the liquid on the gums before pulling a tooth to reduce pain. What is clear, is that Morton began to experiment on insects, fish, his dog and finally on himself. "Delighted with the success of this experiment, I waited impatiently for someone upon whom I could make a fuller trial. A man came in, suffering great pain, and wishing to have a tooth extracted. Saturating my handkerchief with ether, I gave it to him to inhale. He became unconscious almost immediately. It was dark, and Dr. Hayden held the lamp while I extracted a firmly-rooted bicuspid tooth. He recovered in a minute and knew nothing of what had been done for him. This was on the 30th of September, 1846."

An account of the event in the Boston Daily Journal the next day precipitated a visit to Morton by the eminent surgeon, Dr. Henry J. Bigelow, who after witnessing a number of successful tooth extractions under ether, convinced Dr. Warren to give ether a try. The result was “The Great Moment,” as it was called in a 1944 film that more or less accurately portrayed the story of the discovery of ether anesthesia.

Morton and Jackson fought bitterly over credit for the discovery of ether, oblivious of the fact that in 1842 Dr. Crawford Long, a physician practicing in Georgia, had witnessed a demonstration of "chemistry" with ether and laughing gas by an itinerant showman and made the connection to anesthesia. He amputated a toe under ether but never described his experiments until 1849 at the urging of his friends who regarded him as the true inventor of anesthesia. Indeed, Long may have been the first to use ether, but it was in Morton’s footsteps that others followed, justifying the epitaph on his tombstone "Inventor and Revealer of Anesthetic Inhalation." When Jackson chanced upon this one day, he apparently went mad and spent his last seven years in an insane asylum.

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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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