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A Hot Potato

Our OSS Blog - Sat, 11/22/2014 - 21:52

The poor potato is being mashed by criticism.Too high a glycemic index, critics say, which means more sugar in the bloodstream for anyone concerned about diabetes. Forget about eating potatoes, say the proponents of low carb diets. French fries? Forget it. Loaded with fat. And supporters of California’s Proposition 65, which stipulates that any substance that has been linked to cancer must be clearly identified, clamor for potato chips to sport a label stating that they contain acrylamide, which is “known to the State of California to cause cancer.” Acrylamide forms when heat causes asparagine, an amino acid present in numerous foods, to react with starch. Potatoes have asparagine and starch, and when it comes to baking or frying, can indeed form acrylamide.

Technically this is a carcinogen because it can cause cancer in animals albeit only when they are treated with doses far greater than human exposure. No epidemiological studies have demonstrated that the traces of acrylamide to which we may be exposed in baked goods, coffee, cereals or potatoes play a role in human cancer. But California politicians argue that less exposure to a carcinogen is always better, and that people should know where such substances are found so they can take appropriate measures. This argument does not fly with most toxicologists who maintain that even with carcinogens there is a threshold effect below which there is no risk.

No matter whether the risk is real or not, reducing the possibility of acrylamide formation can be an effective marketing tool. So along comes the “Innate” potato, developed by the J.R. Simplot Company in the U.S. With its reduced asparagine content it will have less acrylamide when baked or fried. But there is an issue here that may not play so well in the marketplace. The new-fangled potato is a product of genetic engineering. The gene that codes for the production of asparagine, as well as one responsible for the browning of potatoes, has been silenced through a process known as “RNA interference.” This does involve the incorporation of novel genes into the Innate potato, but those genes come from other varieties of cultivated and wild potatoes. No genes from any other species are introduced.

Stll, there are critics who contend that RNA interference technology has not been studied well enough, and that asparagine may also play a role in defending the potato against disease causing organisms. And then there is the issue of implying that a “safer” potato has been engineered which can lead to less vigilance about eating fried potatoes. Realistically, the health concern about French fries is the amount of fat they harbour, not their acrylamide content. It is extremely unlikely that there is any health risk arising from consuming this genetically engineered potato, about as unlikely as there being any risk associated with the traces of acrylamide in foods we eat. Basically, though, this new potato is a solution to a problem that never existed.

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Seeds of Hope

Our OSS Blog - Fri, 11/21/2014 - 16:30

Why would anyone oppose a technology that dramatically increases crop yields and protects farmers from excessive exposure to pesticides? Because of irrational fears about the technology involved, which is of course genetic modification. A battle is now brewing in India and Bangladesh over the planting of eggplant that has been genetically modified to resist attack by insects. Eggplant is a staple in many dishes in India and Bangladesh but unfortunately the plant is susceptible to attack by the fruit and shoot borer and farmers have to spray to prevent infestation on a regular basis.

Most farmers are poor and are not well trained in pesticide use and put themselves at risk. But a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis can be incorporated into the eggplant’s genome and the plant will then secrete a protein that kills insects but is harmless to humans. Activists have organized protests with people dressed up like giant eggplants carrying placards about Indians being lab rats and companies putting poison into the food supply. Their cause is championed by environmentalist Vandana Shiva who suggests that GMO means God Move Over. She also claims that with genetically modified seeds giant corporations are trying to control all of agriculture. In fact the genetically modified eggplant seed is being donated for free by Monsanto and farmers will be allowed to propagate Bt eggplant using seeds from plants they have grown without having to pay any royalties. It is estimated that the technology could raise yields by about a third through controlling pests and go a long way towards solving the malnutriton and hunger problems that plague India and Bangladesh.

Of course hunger isn’t limited to these countries. In Africa cassava is a staple crop for some 250 million people. But two viruses can ravage the crop. One destroys leaves, the other, called brown streak virus, destroys the roots, something that isn’t evident until harvest time. These viruses are transmitted by the whitefly whose range is expanding due to climate change. Researchers are working on developing genetically modified strains of cassava that are immune to the brown streak virus. Of course, nobody is suggesting that genetic modification is the only answer to the whitefly problem. Planting rows of Tithonia diversifolia, a wild sunflower that whiteflies prefer, can also draw these pests away from cassava. Modern farming technology should be based on using the best combination of practices and in many cases that means the appropriate use of genetically modified seeds. Why deter farmers from using methods based on sound facts by promoting mythical fears?

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Climate Change

Our OSS Blog - Fri, 11/21/2014 - 16:27

As we get ready for winter here and watch news reports of unseasonable plummeting temperatures in some parts of North America, it is hard to be concerned about global warming. But climate change is here and it comes with baggage. Yes, there are some scientists who argue that humans are not responsible, and claim that we have experienced natural warming and cooling trends throughout history. They, however, are in the minority. The vast majority of climate change experts are convinced that the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases like methane and nitrous oxide are driving temperatures up with potentially a huge impact on wildlife, food production and the weather. Furthermore, when carbon dioxide dissolves in the oceans it forms carbonic acid which is detrimental to aquatic life.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has just released its final report, summarizing 13 months of work, not by a handful of scientists, but by more than 800 experts. Natural forces have virtually nothing to do with the rising temperatures, they say. And those temperatures are rising with the chance that 2014 may turn out to be the warmest year on record. Where is all the carbon dioxide coming from? Burning of fossil fuels is the number one cause, followed by cement manufacture and “flaring,” the burning of gases that are byproducts of oil and gas production. Methane emissions, mostly from natural gas and animal agriculture are also having a large impact with further contribution from nitrous oxide released from nitrogen based fertilizer.

The Panel noted that glaciers are melting, Arctic sea ice is disappearing, sea level is rising, permafrost is thawing and that the number of hot days and nights are increasing. They warn that most plants, small mammals and ocean organisms cannot adapt fast enough to keep up with changes, and that a global temperature rise greater than 2 degrees Celsius will compromise food supplies everywhere. If nothing is done, they warn, the temperature is likely to rise by 4 degrees C by 2100.

The situation though, is not hopeless. Keeping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere below the equivalent of 450 parts per million of CO2 can prevent excessive warming. But how do we do this? There is no single measure that will solve the problem, but there are many possibilities. They include low-carbon electricity sources such as solar, tidal and wind power. Nuclear energy will have to play a role. Technical solutions for storing carbon dioxide need to be found. And there are small things we can all do. Change to low energy LED lights. Improve insulation. Turn down the heat and AC a notch. Car pool. Eat less. That’s right. Food has a huge environmental footprint. That chicken was raised in henhouses that were lit and climate controlled with electricity, was fed on corn grown with the aid of fertilizers and pesticides and ended up being packaged and trucked to stores. All of that requires energy input. And while you are at it, consider giving up bottled water and soft drinks. The energy expenditure to produce these is horrendous. Think about this as we wait for the first snowstorm to strike. It may be cold outside but climate change is still a hot topic.

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The oPhone

Our OSS Blog - Fri, 11/21/2014 - 16:23

Your cell phone wakes you up in the morning. No big deal. You reach over to turn off the alarm, touch another button, and suddenly the smell of freshly brewed coffee wafts into your nose. But no point reaching for the cup, there isn’t one. The scent is drifting out from the phone! If you would rather wake up to the odour frying bacon and toast, that’s possible too. Welcome to the wonderful world of the “oPhone.” And we are not talking science fiction here; the oPhone already exists and will be hitting the market soon. Not only will you be able to entertain your nasal passages with a multitude of fragrances, you will also be able to send scent messages. Imagine irritating your friends back home with the scent of tropical fruit along with a picture of yourself swinging in a hammock and sipping a pina colada somewhere in the tropics. Of course your friends will have to be equipped with an oPhone.

So what makes this magic happen? A set of eight replaceable chips, each containing four “building-block scents” that can be dispensed in response to an electronic signal. The 32 basic smells can be combined to dispense a fantastic array of aromas. Select “meaty,” “cheesy” and “grilled toast,” and you’ll conjure up the odour of a cheeseburger. And of course you can experiment. Who knows what sort of a whiff you’ll get by pushing the “cocoa beans” and “meaty” buttons?

It sounds like the oPhone could be a lot of fun, but can this technology be put to some useful purpose? Maybe. You just finished dinner and there is that delectable dessert staring you in the face. You know you shouldn’t indulge, but it looks so good. Perhaps you’ll whip out your oPhone, push a button and the unpleasant smell of rotting meat will kill your appetite. There is even the possibility of diagnosing early Alzheimer’s disease. The inability to recognize certain scents has been linked with the early stage of this disease. And maybe the oPhone can even deal with the situation by helping with memory. Studies have shown that reading something while being exposed to a scent can lead to improved recall in the presence of the same scent. Trigger a smell from your phone as you put down your keys. When you want to find them again, push the button for the same scent and you’ll remember where you put them. Maybe. Of course this method won’t work to find a lost oPhone.

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Dr Oz and phthalates

Our OSS Blog - Thu, 11/13/2014 - 22:39

The title of the segment on the Dr. Oz Show was “The Secret Ingredient Companies are Hiding in Your Food.” What could that be? Some opiate to keep you coming back for more? Tetrahydrocannabinol to increase appetite? No. The segment was all about chemicals called phthalates. And companies are not hiding their presence any more than they are “hiding” the presence of numerous substances that are not added to our food supply on purpose but can be detected through sophisticated analytical methods. These include pesticide residues, corrosion inhibitors, PCBs, detergents, chloroform, cadmium, radium, mercury, aflatoxins, bacteria and a host of others. Some of these are man-made, some occur naturally, but all are potentially toxic if present in a high enough dose. They end up in our food supply for the simple reason that if substances come into contact with each other, there will be a transfer of material from one to the other. If chloroform forms in water as a result of chlorination, which it does, some will be transferred to food that comes into contact with the water. Flourinated compounds used to produce grease-proof packaging can leave residues in food, aspergillus fungi can contaminate apple juice with their toxic metabolite patulin, wine may harbour residues of isinglass, a fish protein used to remove fine particles, and the potential carcinogen acrylamide forms when bread is baked.

None of these substances appears on food labels, not because there is some conspiracy to hide them, but because they are unavoidable. So it is with the phthalates. They do end up in our food supply because these chemicals have widespread applications. They lend flexibility conveyor belts, tubes used in milking machines and to plastic water pipes. They help the dispersal of pesticides, they’re found in caulking and in printing inks used on food packaging.

It’s no surprise to anyone familiar with chemical analysis that phthalates can be detected in our urine. Their presence, though, did come as a big surprise to the ten women Dr. Oz selected to have their urine analyzed for phthalates. None of the women had ever heard of phthalates before, which is quite surprising given the amount of publicity they have received. Their faces filled with panic when Oz revealed that they all tested positive for phthalates, chemicals that had been associated with endometriosis, weight gain, respiratory problems as well as brain and behaviour changes in children.

But here is the crux of the problem. Associations do not prove cause and effect. Just because women are more likely to suffer from endometriosis if they have higher levels of phthalates in their urine doesn’t mean that phthalates are the cause. Perhaps they have greater phthalate exposure because they eat more fatty foods like dairy and meat which are known to have higher amounts of phthalates. Perhaps they used more scented products most of which contain phthalates to inhibit the evaporation of the scent and they were somehow reacting to some of the numerous chemicals that make up scented products.

None of this is meant absolve phthalates from all blame because there are sufficient laboratory studies, animal experiments and human epidemiological data that suggest the need for further investigation. But there is no need for panic. There are numerous other substances that could be detected in our urine that could also be vilified in the same fashion as the phthalates. How many? At least 3,079 compounds can be detected, of which 2,282 come from diet, drugs, cosmetics or environmental exposure. Enough chemicals there for Dr. Oz to discuss and panic audiences for many years.

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Opioid peptides: the heroin within?

From Our Contributors - Fri, 11/07/2014 - 07:40

By: Emily Brown PhD

If you were to hear the words ‘opioid peptides’, they might not trigger much within your brain, other than that the former sounds a bit like opium and together they sound quite scientific. Opium (also known as poppy tears) is a dried substance or latex that originates, as the alternative name suggests, from the opium poppy. Beautifully intricate pipes of bamboo, ivory, silver, jade and porcelain have been carved over the centuries and used to vaporise and inhale the latex traditionally obtained by scratching immature poppy seed pods by hand. Numerous Empires including the Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Persian and Arab made widespread use of the drug, which was then the most potent form of pain relief available. This analgesic property is conferred by morphine, which constitutes approximately twelve per cent of opium and is chemically processed to produce heroin. Commonly known by the street names H, smack, horse and brown, among others, the effects of heroin will be well known by any ‘Trainspotting’ fans. What writer Irvine Welsh did not reveal, however, is that opiates such as heroin mimic the effects of naturally occurring molecules that can be generated inside our own bodies.

Opioid peptides are small molecules that are produced in the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) and in various glands throughout the body such as the pituitary and adrenal glands. These peptides can be divided into three categories (enkephalins, endorphins, and dynorphins), depending on the type of larger precursor molecule from which they are derived. Opioid peptides function both as hormones and as neuromodulators; the former are secreted in the blood system by glands and are delivered to a variety of target tissues where they induce a response, while the later are produced and secreted by nerve cells (or neurons) and act in the central nervous system to modulate the actions of other neurotransmitters.

Neurons are electrically excitable cells that process and transmit information through electrical and chemical signals that travel via synapses, specialised connections with other cells. These signals are transmitted across a synapse from one neuron to another by neurotransmitters. By altering the electrical properties of their target neurons and making them difficult to excite, opioid peptides can influence the release of various neurotransmitters.

Through these two different mechanisms, opioid peptides can produce many effects including pain relief, euphoria and altered behaviour such as food and alcohol consumption. The apparent connection between exercise and happiness has been explained at least somewhat by the release of endorphins, for example. Exercise is commonly recommended as a strategy for stress-relief and mood improvement, but less widely accepted forms of therapy might also be connected to opioid peptides. Evidence suggests that pain relief induced by acupuncture results from stimulation of opioid peptides - these peptides act through receptors on their target neurons, and chemicals that inhibit opioid receptor function have been found to reverse acupuncture-induced analgesia. Painful, stressful or traumatic events or stimuli can induce the release of opioid peptides, with the resulting euphoria and pain relief making the sufferer less sensitive to noxious events. Opioid peptides have been reported to affect the release of specific neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, but the response of the neurons that receive opioid-peptide stimulation depends on their excitatory versus inhibitory nature, making the outcome difficult to predict.

The words ‘opioid peptides’ may not have left a dazzling feeling of recognition within your memory upon first encounter, but these peptides act within the brain and wider body to influence a number of important functions. Although it is not easy to predict the effect of neuromodulators that alter the release of other neurotransmitters, there is little question that opioid systems play a critical role in modulating a large number of sensory, motivational, emotional and cognitive functions. Alterations in opioid peptide systems may contribute to a variety of clinical conditions, including alcoholism, obesity, depression, diabetes and epilepsy. Many questions still remain, particularly those concerning the exact role of opioid peptides produced within the body in relation to addictive and emotional behaviour and psychiatric disorders. Since these disorders are typically of a complex nature, seeking the answers to these questions is not a simple feat. Advances in genetics and genomics research that aim to explain function by studying our DNA are helping to pave the way. But perhaps if there is one thing that can help motivate our talented scientists to reach their challenging goals, a healthy dose of opioid peptide might be just the thing.

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The Catholic Church and Science

Our OSS Blog - Fri, 11/07/2014 - 07:34

Pope Francis’ recent statement at the Pontifical Academy of Science that evolution and the Big Bang model are not contrary to Catholic beliefs created quite a stir. Afterall, for many people the notion that the Church is anti- science is a given. And they have many examples to support their opinion. Galileo was put under house arrest for claiming that the Sun and not the Earth was the center of our planetary system. Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake for his free-thinking ideas, is considered today to be a martyr to science.

However, the position of the Catholic Church on current scientific issues is much more in line with the scientific consensus. Many US Protestant denominations believe in a world created by God in its present form less than 10,000 years ago. This is a view shared by 40% of Americans according to a 2014 Gallup survey. In contrast, the Catholic Church has had a much more open attitude toward evolution.

For the first 100 years or so after the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species the Church did not take an official position (although local clergy tended to be hostile). This allowed for a relatively open discussion of the topic among catholic scholars. It led Pope Pius XII, in the 1950 Encyclical Human generis, to accept evolution as a possibility (as opposed to a probability) which warranted further studies. Subsequently Pope John Paul II declared in 1996 in a pronouncement to the Pontifical Academy of Science that Evolution is "more than a hypothesis." It is interesting to note in this light, that before Darwin, the French Jesuit, Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), was the first to postulate that species could develop new traits as needed for their survival and that these traits could be passed on to their offspring. And when it comes to the Big Bang it was first proposed by the Belgian priest Georges Lemaitre who himself was president of the Pontifical Academy of Science.

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences was established in 1936 by Pope Pius XI to advise the Pope on scientific matters. Its membership consists of 80 members and includes numerous Nobel Prize winners including Canadian John Polanyi and Israeli Aaron Ciechanover. The current president is Werner Arber, 1978 Nobel laureate, for his work on recombinant DNA technology. Werner Arber is the first Protestant to hold that position. The Academy does not shy away from controversial issues. In 2009 a group of its members, led by Werner Arber, released a statement praising GMOs as a useful tool to help the world's poor. The statement takes issues with objections made by critics and states that their misguided opposition prevents, or slows, the development of crops for the public good, especially in Third World countries.

The Pope, who has a scientific background with a master in chemistry, has come strongly in favor of sustainable development. In a recent address he has argued for the "respect of the beauty of nature." In his speech he stressed the need to "Safeguard Creation because if we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us."

The openness of the Church does not extend to what it considers to be moral or ethical issues. It is widely accepted that the use of condoms is the most reliable way, outside the unrealistic abstinence method promoted by the Church, to prevent the spread of AIDS. Still when Pope John II visited Tanzania, a country where AIDS is rampant, he declared that condoms were a sin in any circumstances.  It should be interesting to see if the Catholic Church under Pope Francis will evolve on this issue as well.

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The Hippocrates Health Institute Dispenses Unhealthy Advice

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 10/26/2014 - 22:09

Do parents have a right to make a decision about how a minor’s cancer is to be treated? Or not treated? This is not just a hypothetical question, it is a very current one. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia is a bone marrow cancer that untreated leads to death but with appropriate chemotherapy has an over 90% cure rate. The parents of an eleven year old Canadian girl have decided to end the recommended treatment before it was completed in favour of a “natural” therapy, stating that this was more in line with their native traditions. They elected to have their child treated at the Hippocrates Health Institute in Florida which features alternative therapies based on the theories of Ann Wigmore, a Lithuanian émigré to the U.S. who had become convinced of the healing power of grasses after reading the Biblical story of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king who went through a seven year period of insanity from which he apparently cured himself by eating grass.

Wigmore reflected on this story, considered how dogs and cats sometimes eat grass when they feel ill, and came up with a theory about the magical properties of wheatgrass juice. Food rots in the intestine due to improper digestion, she maintained, and forms “toxins” that then enter the circulation. The living enzymes in raw wheatgrass prevent these toxins from forming and ward off disease. So she claimed. By 1988 Wigmore, who had no recognized scientific education, was even suggesting that her “energy enzyme soup” was capable of curing AIDS and cancer. Ann is no longer with us but her “live enzyme therapy” is still a mainstay at the Hippocrates Health Institute.

The term “live enzyme” is meaningless since enzymes are not living entities. They are not composed of cellular units, they cannot reproduce, they cannot carry on metabolism and they cannot grow. Ergo, they are not alive. Enzymes are specialized protein molecules that are essential because they catalyze the numerous reactions that go on in our bodies all the time that are necessary to sustain life. But our bodies make all the enzymes that are needed and enzymes present in food are not the same as the enzymes our cells need and in any case are broken down during digestion. Claims that cancer can be cured by live enzyme therapy are bogus and dangerous. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia requires treatment that has been worked out by decades of research, not concoctions based on folklore and wishful thinking. Should authorities step in and override the parents’ wishes? If this young girl is to have a chance at survival, yes.

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The US EPA approves a new herbicide system …but for the first time ever, with restrictions

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 10/26/2014 - 22:02

The Environmental Protection Agency disregarded critics by approving Enlist Duo, a new herbicide developed by Dow AgroSciences. In fact Enlist Duo is not totally new. It is a combination of two widely used herbicides, glyphosate and 2,4D. The herbicide, to be used with Dow‘s genetically modified corn and soybean seeds, was developed to counteract the problem of weed resistance.  A serious issue, caused among other things, by the overuse of single herbicide systems based on glyphosate, the herbicide developed by Monsanto for use with its Roundup Ready crops.

Critics attack the EPA decision, claiming that it will lead to more health and environmental problems and to more weed resistance. EPA’s reply was that all possible risks were taken into account and that the use of the choline salt of 2,4D, which sticks better to leaves, should significantly reduce the problem of drift and volatilization.

But where the EPA decision really stands out is that it was made with a number of restrictions. The agency indicates that these will be a model for future approval of herbicides designed for use with genetically modified crops.

The agency will require Dow to closely monitor and report the use of Enlist Duo to ensure that the weeds are not developing resistance. EPA is also ordering a “no spray” buffer zone around application areas and also banned the use of Enlist Duo when wind speeds are over 15 miles per hour (24 km/h).

In contrast to previous country-wide approval, Enlist Duo will initially be allowed only in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin. It is only after public consultations that the EPA will consider approving the product for use in other states. Also EPA will review its approval of Enlist Duo in six years rather than the usual 15 years.

Still the EPA’s decision did not go unnoticed and has already sparked a legal challenge by a group of farmers who claim the agency did not fulfill it its duties in its assessment of the risks posed by the herbicide to human health and endangered species. The Natural Resources Defense Council is also taking legal action pointing out that the potential dangers to human health and the environment, in particular to monarch butterflies, had not been properly evaluated.

An interesting aspect of this situation is that Canada approved Duo last year with none of the restrictions proposed by the EPA without generating any controversy. However, Dow has not yet launched the product here, waiting for US approval. With the controversy starting to brew is the US the situation may change.

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Ebola scams are sickening

Our OSS Blog - Fri, 10/24/2014 - 19:57

We’ve seen it before. A medical crisis emerges and the scam artists crawl out of the woodwork. Fearful citizens pop open their wallets and fork out hard-earned money for nonsensical “cures.” When it comes to a disease for which science cannot offer an effective treatment, quacks quickly rush in to fill the vacuum. This is just what is happening with Ebola. Claims about preventing infection, and even treating the disease, range from the laughable like eating organic dark chocolate to the totally inane recipe from a Norwegian homeopath for preparing a remedy from the body fluids of an Ebola victim. Homeopathy is based on the scientifically bankrupt notion that a substance capable of causing symptoms in a healthy person can cure those symptoms in an ill person if it is sufficiently diluted. This is nonsensical at any time, but handling the body fluids of an infected person is not a recipe for a cure, it is a recipe for disaster.

One would think that reasonable homeopaths, if such a term is ever applicable, would not support this absurd regimen. But homeopaths certainly have supported other “remedies” for Ebola, such as those concocted from various types of snake venom. Why? Because snake venom can cause intense bleeding, so in the perverse world of homeopathy, in an extremely diluted version it should be a remedy to stop hemorrhaging, a classic sign of Ebola infection. Of course the treatment is useless, but at least the only person at risk is the one collecting the snake venom. And that is unlikely to be the homeopath.

Homeopathic remedies are not the only ones being touted as effective tools in the battle against the Ebola virus. “Nanosilver” is also a hot item thanks to some clever pseudoscientific promotional lingo. Silver has been shown to have antimicrobial properties, begins the sales pitch, and then goes on to describe how silver is used in water purifiers and is even woven into socks to reduce odour caused by microbes. True enough. But deodourizing socks is a long way from destroying the Ebola virus in the body. Colloidal silver can, however, do something. It can cause an irreversible condition known as argyria in which skin colour is permanently altered by deposits of silver. Essential oils from plants won’t fare any better than silver in dealing with the Ebola virus. “Thieves oil,” a blend of cinnamon, rosemary, clove, eucalyptus and lemon oils, is hyped by some as an infection preventative. Seems like an appropriate name for a product that takes money and offers nothing in return.

Other plants, such as bitter kola, astragalus and elderberry are also said to contain compounds that can destroy the Ebola virus and are promoted by some hucksters as a treatment. They clamor for testing such herbal remedies and complain that while untested pharmaceutical products such as Zmapp are being fast-tracked, there is no will to test herbs. Yes, Zmapp is being fast-tracked because it has a plausible chance of working, backed by the solid science of monoclonal antibodies. Vague claims of herbal preparations “boosting immunity” will not do. The immune system is a complex network of organs, specialized cells, antibodies, vitamins, hormones and various other molecules. Nobody knows just what should be boosted to help fight the Ebola virus. This is not to say that herbal remedies have no potential. Honeysuckle tea, for example, has recently been shown to contain a “microRNA” that interferes with messenger RNA and is capable of silencing two genes that flu viruses need to replicate.

In Africa, there have been cases of desperate Ebola victims seeking out healers who claim to have herbal cures. There is at least one account of such a healer actually having exacerbated the problem when infected people came to be healed and ended up inadvertently spreading the disease including to the healer, who reportedly then died of Ebola.

Perhaps the greatest publicity for a supposed preventative has been garnered by vitamin C, a substance that in most minds is associated with health and justifiably so. An extreme deficiency of this vitamin causes scurvy and more mild deficiencies can lead to an increased release of the stress hormone cortisol from the adrenal glands. Cortisol raises blood sugar, suppresses the immune system and decreases bone formation. But none of this means that it can treat an Ebola infection. Yet that is the obvious implication of a product that has seen a meteoric rise in sales recently. The cleverly named Ebola-C sells for $34.95 for 60 tablets of vitamin C, 500 mgs per tablet. This is about ten times the price of no-name brands available everywhere. There is zero evidence that Ebola-C has any effect on the prevention or treatment of an Ebola infection.

The brains behind this marketing scam is New York businessman Todd Spinelli who claims to have gotten the idea from Dr. Oz. Well, I’m not one to come to the rescue of a guy who has dispensed a truckload of questionable advice, but in this case he did not claim that vitamin C could prevent Ebola infection. He did have a show on Ebola that included a segment in which he talked about stress and how vitamin C could reduce the negative effects of cortisol but he did not link this to Ebola. Of course it may be true that Spinelli heard him prattle on about vitamin C on the same program as his Ebola discussion and that sparked a marketing idea. Some promoters of vitamin C supplements have rationalized that Ebola and scurvy have similarities in that both conditions are associated with excessive bleeding. Since vitamin C treats scurvy it may have an effect on an Ebola infection as well, they suggest. This is like arguing that since brain tumours are associated with headaches, they could conceivably be treated with aspirin. Makes no sense.

Even vitamin C supplement advocates, and there are many in the medical community, agree that small doses of oral vitamin C are ineffective in the battle against viruses. But some claim that massive intravenous doses, of the order of 30-50 grams a day, can wipe out viruses and should be tried on Ebola victims. They base this on baseless reports that large doses of vitamin C have cured victims of polio, Yellow Fever and Dengue Fever. Of course since intravenous vitamin C hasn’t been tried on Ebola patients, it is impossible to say categorically that it will not cure Ebola, but given what we know about infectious diseases, it’s a good bet that the only result of intravenous vitamin C would be diarrhea. Not the best thing for a dehydrated patient.

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Green coffee beans give science a black eye

Our OSS Blog - Thu, 10/23/2014 - 22:29

Dr. Oz  didn’t mince his words when he described the wondrous effects of green coffee been extract. “Magical,” “staggering,” an “unprecedented discovery!” “Finally, a cure for obesity” he breathlessly gushed. I gasped too. Not at the results of the study that sent Oz into rapture, but at the credulity of the man. Losing 10.5% of one’s body weight and 16% of body fat in 22 weeks without any dieting or exercise? Just by taking green coffee bean extract? That would indeed be a miracle. If only the study had been properly conducted and involved more than 16 people.

But what we actually had was a study so sloppy that it was rejected by the journals to which it was originally submitted. That’s when, as the story goes, the manufacturer of the green coffee bean supplement, Applied Food Sciences, hired University of Scranton Professors Joe Vinson and Bryan Burnham to rewrite the paper to make it acceptable for publication. It seems these two had nothing to do with the research and were more or less hired guns. Obviously there is a major ethical issue here with university professors basically writing a paper about research that they were not involved in.

Granted, Dr. Oz could not have been aware of the sordid history of the publication but having been trained in science he should have known better than to tout a piece of ragged research that involved so few subjects as a “miracle.” His unbridled enthusiasm for the supplement led to skyrocketing sales but a pretty rough landing for the hopeful who bought into the easy weight loss scheme. But the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the U.S. didn’t buy  the outrageous claims and launched an investigation, quickly concluding that the lead investigator in the study had altered some of the data and was even unclear about which subjects had taken the coffee bean extract and which the placebo. “Sloppy” would be the kind expression, “fraudulent” the more realistic one.

The FTC doesn’t take kindly to such fiddling with data and initiated legal proceedings. The result was a fine of $3.5 million for the company and a promise to desist from false advertising in the future. By this time Vinson and Burnham were feeling the heat and have now decided to retract the paper because as they said, “the sponsors of the study cannot assure the validity of the data.” What on earth are they talking about? Being the authors of the paper, didn’t they think of verifying the data before? They relied on the manufacturer of the product being tested to check the data? Does one ask the fox to check on the welfare of the chickens in the hen house? If it turns out that Vinson and Burnham were really paid to write this paper without having been involved in the research, some sort of disciplinary action is indicated.

“Green coffee bean-gate” should be widely publicized because it is an excellent example of how a credulous TV personality, shoddy science and a curious lack of judgment by a couple of professors can result in the runaway sales of a questionable product. A black eye for science.

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Cherry Picking Cranberry Juice Data

Our OSS Blog - Fri, 10/17/2014 - 10:38

Cranberry juice manufacturers are adept at cherry-picking data. Of course this is not a unique pursuit. Be it milk, or blueberries or pomegranates or artificial sweeteners or beef or turmeric or bottled water or virtually any other food or beverage that is on the market, its producers scour the scientific literature for any study that can be used as promotional material. And given the vast number of scientific papers that are published, something can always be found and relatively insignificant data can be seductively exaggerated. How about this press release cooked up by a cranberry juice company’s publicity agency. “Feeling Lovesick? Scientists Say Cranberry Juice Can Help.” Actually no scientist said that.

The twisted reference is to a study that involved subjects drinking a non-commercially available cranberry drink and donating blood from which a special type of immune cell was isolated and its proliferation in a Petri dish was studied. The researchers discovered that the immune cells isolated from the juice drinkers proliferated more quickly. But this was a study carried out in a test tube. The subjects also were asked about cold and flu symptoms and once again the juice drinkers reported reduced severity although there was no difference in frequency of illness. So how does this rather pedantic data convert cranberry juice into a love potion for a Valentine’s Day promotion? With some clever wording. “If you want to smooch, not sniffle, grab a glass of cranberry juice,” starts the enticing copy.

But if you do grab that glass, you will also be grabbing about ten spoonfuls of added sugar. That’s what you get in a soft drink or any other fruit juice. Cranberry juice producers are feeling the heat about sugar and are upping the ante about the benefits of the juice, claiming that these benefits are not wiped out by the sugar. The question of course is, what really are those benefits? In many minds cranberry juice is associated with reducing the risk of urinary tract infections and even with curing those infections. These are not rare. There are millions of urinary tract infections every year in Canada and their treatment with antibiotics contributes to antibiotic resistance.

It would be great if there were a simple preventative regimen, such as drinking cranberry juice. While there are some studies that have shown a marginal benefit, when all the high quality studies are lumped together in a “meta analysis,” the evidence for the prevention of urinary tract infection by cranberry juice is just too weak to recommend its consumption for this purpose. But a little more data dredging can unearth studies that suggest cardiovascular and gastrointestinal benefits. You can even find studies that imply a reduction in dental plaque with cranberry extract mouthwashes as well as inhibition of the growth of cancer cells. But these are mostly esoteric laboratory studies with little practical application. If it’s a choice between a soda pop and cranberry juice, by all means choose the juice. However, when it comes to adding it to the diet hoping to improve health, juicing the berries comes with squeezing of the data.

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We need rational discussion about pesticides, without rhetoric

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 10/12/2014 - 22:58

David Copperfield performed many an illusion on his television specials with his hair blowing in the wind, tussled by an offstage fan. I was reminded of that effect by an episode of the Dr. Oz show in which the hot air so often generated by the host was amplified by a fan à la Copperfield. And Oz, too, was performing a sort of illusion if we go by the definition of the term as “something that deceives by a false perception or belief.” In this case, Oz dumped a bunch of yellow feathers on a patch of synthetic turf adorned with some synthetic plants to demonstrate pesticide drift. The flurry of feathers was meant to illustrate how neighbouring fields, as well as people who happen to be nearby, may be affected. A powerful visual skit to be sure, but a gross misrepresentation of the risks posed by pesticide drift.

The reason for the demo at this particular time was that, in Oz’s words, “the Environmental Protection Agency is on the brink of approving a brand new toxic pesticide you don’t know about.” The reference was to Enlist Duo, a mixture of the weed killers glyphosate and 2,4-D (short for 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid), designed to be used on corn and soy grown from seeds genetically engineered to resist these herbicides. Fields can then be sprayed to kill weeds without harming the crops. Enlist Duo is already approved in Canada.

The need for the new combination was generated by the development of resistance to glyphosate by weeds in fields planted with crops genetically modified to tolerate this herbicide. Such resistance has nothing to do with genetic modification, it is a consequence of biology, since some members of a target species will have a natural resistance to a pesticide and will go on to reproduce and yield offspring that are also resistant. Eventually, the whole population becomes resistant. This is the same problem we face today with bacteria developing resistance to antibiotics.

Oz got one thing right. Pesticides are toxic. That’s exactly why they are used. And that is why there is extensive research about their effects and strict regulation about their application. Remember that there are no “safe” or “dangerous” chemicals, just safe or dangerous ways to use them. As far as 2,4-D and glyphosate go, there is nothing new here, since both of these have been widely used for years, although not in this specific combination. What is new is the development of crops resistant to 2,4-D, which will allow for its use to kill weeds in corn and soy fields, something that was not possible before. This has raised alarm among those who maintain that 2,4-D is dangerous and that its increased use is going to affect human health. Dr. Oz apparently is of this belief, and as the feathers were flying around the stage, he chimed in with how “2,4-D is a chemical that was used in Agent Orange which the government banned during the Vietnam War.”

2,4-D, was indeed one of the components in the notorious Agent Orange used to defoliate trees in Vietnam. Tragically, it was later found to be contaminated with tetrachlorodibenzodioxin (TCDD), a highly toxic chemical linked to birth defects and cancer. This dioxin, however, has nothing to do with 2,4-D. It was inadvertently formed during the production of 2,4,5-trichloroacetic acid, or 2,4,5-T, the other component in Agent Orange. That is why the production of 2,4,5-T, but not 2,4-D, was banned.

It is deceitful to imply that the new herbicide is dangerous because it contains the harmful compound that was used in Agent Orange. Not only does Enlist Duo not contain any TCDD, the form of 2,4-D it does contain is also different from what was used in Vietnam. Enlist Duo is formulated with “2,4-D choline” which is far less volatile than 2,4-D itself and has an even safer profile. While legitimate concerns can be raised about genetic modification, it is disingenuous to scare the public by linking the newly proposed herbicide to Agent Orange. It is also irresponsible to show videos of crops such as green peppers being sprayed, insinuating that Enlist Duo will be used on all sorts of crops whereas it would only be suitable for Dow’s genetically engineered corn and soy.

Now on to the issue of pesticide drift, which can happen in two ways. Tiny droplets of the spray can be carried by air currents, and the chemicals can also evaporate and spread as a vapour after being deposited on a field in their liquid form. These are realistic concerns especially given that some schools are located in the vicinity of agricultural fields. But these are just the sort of concerns that are taken into account when a pesticide is approved. For example, one well-designed study concluded that a person standing about 40 metres from a sprayer would be exposed to about 10 microlitres of spray, of which 9 microlitres are just water. Calculations show that the amount of 2,4-D in the 1 microlitre is well within safety limits, and of course spraying isn’t continuous, it is done a few times a year. Consider also that 2,4-D choline, which is what is found in Enlist Duo, has far lower volatility and tendency to drift than 2,4-D itself, further improving its safety profile.

While no pesticide can be regarded as risk-free, the portrayal of Enlist Duo by Dr. Oz amounts to unscientific fear mongering. His final comment that “this subjects our entire nation to one massive experiment and I’m very concerned that we’re at the beginning of a catastrophe that we don’t have to subject ourselves to” totally ignores the massive number of experiments that have been carried out on pesticides before approval, based on a scientific rather than an emotional evaluation of the risk versus benefit ratio. True, when it comes to pesticides, there is no free lunch. But without the judicious use of such agrochemicals producing that lunch for the close to 10 billion people who by 2050 will be lining up for it becomes a challenge. What we need is rational discussion, not the spraying around of feathers and ill-informed rhetoric in a deception-laden stage act. If I want deception on the stage, I’ll stick to watching David Copperfield.

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Leukemia Needs Chemotherapy, Not “Live Enzyme Treatment”

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 10/12/2014 - 09:39

Do parents have a right to make a decision about how a minor’s cancer is to be treated? Or not treated? This is not just a hypothetical question, it is a very current one. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia is a bone marrow cancer that untreated leads to death but with appropriate chemotherapy has an over 90% cure rate. The parents of an eleven year old Canadian girl have decided to end the recommended treatment before it was completed in favour of a “natural” therapy, stating that this was more in line with their native traditions. They elected to have their child treated at the Hippocrates Health Institute in Florida which features alternative therapies based on the theories of Ann Wigmore, a Lithuanian émigré to the U.S. who had become convinced of the healing power of grasses after reading the Biblical story of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king who went through a seven year period of insanity from which he apparently cured himself by eating grass.

Wigmore reflected on this story, considered how dogs and cats sometimes eat grass when they feel ill, and came up with a theory about the magical properties of wheatgrass juice. Food rots in the intestine due to improper digestion, she maintained, and forms “toxins” that then enter the circulation. The living enzymes in raw wheatgrass prevent these toxins from forming and ward off disease. So she claimed. By 1988 Wigmore, who had no recognized scientific education, was even suggesting that her “energy enzyme soup” was capable of curing AIDS and cancer. Ann is no longer with us but her “live enzyme therapy” is still a mainstay at the Hippocrates Health Institute.

The term “live enzyme” is meaningless since enzymes are not living entities. They are not composed of cellular units, they cannot reproduce, they cannot carry on metabolism and they cannot grow. Ergo, they are not alive. Enzymes are specialized protein molecules that are essential because they catalyze the numerous reactions that go on in our bodies all the time that are necessary to sustain life. But our bodies make all the enzymes that are needed and enzymes present in food are not the same as the enzymes our cells need and in any case are broken down during digestion. Claims that cancer can be cured by live enzyme therapy are bogus and dangerous. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia requires treatment that has been worked out by decades of research, not concoctions based on folklore and wishful thinking. Should authorities step in and override the parents’ wishes? If this young girl is to have a chance at survival, yes.

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Space molecules are branching out

Our OSS Blog - Tue, 10/07/2014 - 21:29

In a paper published in this week’s issue of Science, astronomers from the Max Planck institute, the University of Cologne (Germany) and Cornell University (USA), announced to have for the first time detected, in interstellar space, a carbon-containing molecule with a branched structure. The molecule, isopropyl cyanide (i-C3H7CN), was discovered in a gas cloud called Sagittarius B2 close to the center of our galaxy. This region of ongoing star formation is heavily scrutinized by astronomers as it has been shown to be especially rich in hydrogen-containing, carbon-bearing (organic) molecules that are most closely related to the ones necessary for life on Earth. "Understanding the production of organic material at the early stages of star formation is critical to piecing together the gradual progression from simple molecules to potentially life-bearing chemistry," says Arnaud Belloche from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, the lead author of the paper. Previous research had revealed the presence of a variety of molecules, (including ethylformate, the molecule responsible for the flavor of raspberries!) but until now they all consisted in a backbone of straight chain carbon atoms. The branched isopropyl cyanide (i-C3H7CN) is of special interest as this type of molecular arrangement is a key characteristic of amino acids, compounds associated with life

It is not only the structure of the molecule that surprised the team but also its abundance. It is almost half as plentiful as its sister molecule, normal-propylcyanide (n- C3H7CN). According to one of the coauthors, Robin Garrod, an astrochemist at Cornell University, "…the enormous abundance of iso-propyl cyanide suggests that branched molecules may in fact be the rule, rather than the exception, in the interstellar medium". The two molecules, each consisting of 12 atoms, are also the joint-largest molecules yet detected in any star-forming region.

The molecule was identified from its spectroscopic fingerprint using the newly established radio telescope station in the Atacama Desert in Chile. The area, the driest spot on earth, is especially suited for this type of observation. The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), consisting of 66 radio antennas, most 12 meters in diameter, can create images that would require a 14,000 m single dish. Costing about US $1.4 billion it is the most expensive ground-based telescope on earth. It became fully operational in March 2013.

Find out more about ALMA, and interstellar science, by coming to the 2014 Trottier Symposium “Are We Alone”, Monday October 6 and Tuesday October 7th, “… it will be out of this world.”

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Antibiotics linked to childhood obesity

Our OSS Blog - Wed, 10/01/2014 - 21:14

A newly published study in JAMA Pediatrics indicates that children who had had four or more courses of antibiotics by age two were at a 10% higher risk of being obese by age five.  Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the Bloomberg School of Public Health examined the records of more than 64,500 children between 2011 and 2013. The children were followed until the age of five. In addition to show a link between antibiotic use and childhood obesity the study also indicated that the type of antibiotic also appeared to make a difference.  Children who were given repeated doses of broad spectrum antibiotics, that target a variety of microbes, were nearly twice as likely to become obese when compared to those who received the narrow spectrum varieties aimed at specific species. The researchers corrected their data to take into account variations in obesity risks associated with ethnic and socioeconomic factors. They also discounted the possibility that other medications given alongside antibiotics might be responsible for the weight gain.

The study confirms that the microbial gut population plays a role in obesity and that antibiotics can alter its composition to foster weight gains. A notion supported by animal studies carried out by Dr Blaser of New York University in New York  and published last August in the prestigious journal Cell. In one study three groups of mice were followed. One group was treated with low doses of penicillin in the womb. A second group received the same dose after weaning. The third did not receive any penicillin. Both groups that received penicillin showed an increase in fat mass when compared to mice not treated with antibiotic. The interesting feature though, was that the increase was higher in the group receiving penicillin stating in the womb. This suggests that mice are more prone to weight gain when receiving antibiotics early in life.

Another experiment was the carried out by determine if the weight gain was caused by the antibiotic or by altered bacterial population in the gut. Bacteria were transferred from penicillin treated mice to specially bred germ-free mice and antibiotic free mice. The researchers discovered that mice receiving bacteria from the antibiotic-treated donors became fatter than the germ-free mice inoculated with bacteria from untreated donors. This showed, according to the researchers, that the altered microbes are driving the obesity effects not the antibiotics.  It also contradicted the theory that antibiotics in farming causes weight gain in animals by reducing total microbial population and therefore the competition for nutrients.

It has been known for decades that over prescription of antibiotics could lead to the growth of resistant bacteria. Now here is another potential health effect to consider. It suggests that doctors should, as much as possible, reduce restrict their prescriptions of antibiotics in children and more specifically of the broad spectrum type.

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Goat Poop in Your Hair?

Our OSS Blog - Tue, 09/30/2014 - 05:08

Now that we’ve got your attention, let’s talk about argan oil. Don’t worry, we will get around to the poop. Surely you’ve heard of corn oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil and canola oil. But unless you’re familiar with Moroccan traditions, or are in the habit of frequenting trendy hair salons, chances are that argan oil has escaped your attention. So what is this oil that most people have never heard of?

Argan is a tree that grows in only one specific region of Morocco and produces a fruit that resembles a large olive. Stripping away the fleshy outside layer exposes a nut that can be dried and cracked open to reveal several kernels. Traditionally these have been roasted, mashed and squeezed to yield an oil with a nutty flavor. Because the trees are rare, and a lot of work is involved in producing the oil, it tends to be expensive. That’s why it is used sparingly, usually to flavor salads and dips. It can also be stirred into couscous. There are even health claims about lowering cholesterol and boosting the immune system, although these have to be taken with a very large grain of salt.

Chemically argan oil is very similar to olive oil, consisting mostly of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat, and linoleic acid, a polyunsaturated fat. While these are deemed to be “healthy,” argan oil would rarely be consumed regularly in significant amounts to have any impact on health. Like olive oil it also contains some vitamin E, along with small quantities of other antioxidants of no practical relevance. There is somewhat more rationale for the use of argan oil in cosmetic products. At least one study suggests that a small amount rubbed on the skin can reduce sebum production and there is some hope that it may have an effect on psoriasis. But even here it is doubtful it would differ from olive oil.

Some hair dressers recommend argan oil as a conditioning agent, often citing that it is the reason why Moroccan women have beautiful hair. Actually there’s no evidence that Moroccan women have particularly beautiful hair, or that significant numbers of them use argan oil. In any case, there’s no theoretical reason to think that argan oil would work better than olive oil as a hair conditioner. But there is also a product called “Moroccan oil” that is available in better hair salons and pharmacies that actually works very well in making hair more manageable and more likely to hold its shape.

While this product does contain some argan oil, it is hardly the active ingredient. Basically it is included to allow for some hype about a rare oil. The first three ingredients are actually cyclopentasiloxane, dimethicone and cyclomethicone, three very effective silicones that really can tame troublesome hair. But there are plenty of cheaper silicone products that do as good a job. However, they don’t come with the mythology that surrounds argan oil. And part of that mythology is that traditionally the oil was pressed from nuts that had passed through the digestive tracts of goats that had climbed the tree to satisfy their craving for the argan fruit. Supposedly the nuts processed by the goats were easier to crack and yielded a particularly flavourful oil. Goats do climb the argan trees, that much is true. But collecting their poop to isolate the nuts is a myth. As much a myth as the one about argan oil having magical properties.

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The new meaning of natural vanilla flavor

Our OSS Blog - Tue, 09/30/2014 - 05:05

Vanilla is the most popular flavor in North America. But it is not that often that one gets the chance to taste the “real stuff”. The flavor made from the beans of the vanilla orchid is expensive. This is why 99% of the time what is found in food comes from synthetic vanillin. The compound, which is also present in natural vanilla, can be prepared from wood pulp but today most of it comes from guaiacol a substance extracted from a petroleum derivative. Recently though a Japanese chemist, Mayu Yamamoto prepared the synthetic flavor from cow dung. The process, which won him the Ig Nobel, the humorous alternate to the real prize, involves extracting the pulp from the poop, and converting it to vanillin.

Natural vanilla can cost up to 200 times as much as the synthetic derivative an there is a lot of fake on the market. The easiest way to detect the fraud is using analytical techniques to detect the presence of side products in addition to vanillin. Natural vanilla is a collage of chemicals whereas the synthetic stuff contains only vanillin. The absence of a compound such as 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde would indicate fraud. But as the counterfeiter can simply add the appropriate molecules, another more sophisticated method can be used, carbon-14 dating. Natural vanilla contains a set level of radioactive carbon-14 whose half-life is 5730 years. This means that synthetic vanillin, derived from petroleum that has decayed over millions of years, is not expected to exhibit any radioactivity.

The cost of vanilla flavor from the plant and the desire from consumers for natural ingredients has spurred the industry to search for naturally produced versions of vanillin. Two companies are in the running. A Belgian company Solvay, makes its vanillin by yeast fermentation of ferulic acid, a by-product of rice milling.  Evola, also employs yeast fermentation but begins with sugar and makes use of a genetically modified strain of baker’s yeast.  The two companies argue that their vanillin, derived from natural ingredients, and natural processes, can therefore be labeled as “natural vanilla flavor.” This even though the vanillin does not come from the plant. Also Evola claims that their process yields some of the chemicals naturally present in the plant giving it a more real taste.

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The Healing Code

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 09/28/2014 - 22:10

You would think it’s a Saturday Night Live skit. And it would be funny if it didn’t have a serious side. Just picture this. Using different fingers, a man points at four specific parts of his body in a seemingly predetermined sequence. Looks like some bizarre ritual. But it’s not. It’s an attempt to rid the body of some disease according to specific instructions embodied in an epic piece of work called the “Healing Code.” Depending on the ailment, a different pattern of finger wagging is indicated. No pills or supplements to take, no scalpel to fear.

The Healing Code is the brain child of one Alex Loyd, who happens to be a naturopath. He is into what he calls the new science of “energy medicine.” I call it bunk. The basic tenet of “energy medicine” is that the human body is surrounded by some sort of energy field that is prone to becoming disturbed. Such disturbances lead to disease. Luckily, though, according to the proponents of energy medicine, these disturbances can be fixed by some sort of external energetic intervention. They are not bothered at all by the fact that nobody has ever shown the existence of such an energy field that is anything other than heat radiating from the body or that wagging fingers do not release energy.

According to Loyd you can even heal other people, and even animals, with these codes. And you don’t even have to do any finger pointing at them. You just have to state in your mind the intention that the dancing fingers are for someone else. Then you just go on and point at your own healing centers. The subjects of the healing can be anywhere, even across the world. Mind boggling. Loyd charges about $700 for a manual and a DVD to learn his system. The only thing his system energizes is his bank account.

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Weighing the benefits of tea

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 09/28/2014 - 07:50

“Get in here and sit your ass down!”

Not exactly what you expect to hear when you are peacefully walking in San Francisco’s Chinatown. But the boisterous elderly Chinese gentleman seemed charismatic enough, and the establishment didn’t look like an opium den. Indeed it wasn’t. It was a tea house. But not your ordinary tea house.

We quickly found ourselves plunked down at a long counter along with a number of other tourists who had been dragged in from the street.

“It’s not for taste, it’s for health,” began “Uncle Gee,” who I was to learn was a local institution.

“Eighty-four years old,” he boasted, and “in perfect health!”

“Drink eight cups of tea a day; never coffee!”

“Tea full of antioxidants against cancer!”

Not only were we treated to a lecture on the “science” and history of tea, we were also ordered to try about half a dozen varieties.

“Never use boiling water, the tea will scream,” and so did he. “Don’t even dream about adding milk or sugar.”

“Steep for only twenty seconds!”

We sipped rosebud tea from Iran to ward off insomnia, and “puerh” for weight loss and heart problems. Next came Blue People Ginseng Oolong. I don’t know why the “blue.” I looked around and none of the people drinking it were turning blue. Everyone enjoyed that one. It was a truly different taste, with a hint of licorice, “a party-in-your-mouth tea,” we were told.

As our taste buds were partying, I glanced around at the dozens and dozens of jars, all with intriguing names.

“Monkey-picked green tea” for “cleansing the body” caught my attention. It wasn’t clear if this was to be applied to the outside or the inside of the body, or how the monkeys had been trained to pick tea. I wanted to ask if this was just monkey business, but didn’t dare. I did muster up enough courage to ask Uncle Gee about his favourite tea, the one that kept him young and so full of whatever. He quickly pointed to “Angel Green tea.”

“Good for high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes and detox.”

At $160 a pound, I suspect good for profits too, although there was no “hard sell.” The tea bash ended with Uncle Gee telling us that while we were strangers when we came in, we were now part of the family. How could I resist buying some Angel Green and Blue People?

We’ve been enjoying both teas ever since, but other than frolicking taste buds, I can’t vouch for any benefits. But tea leaves do contain more than 700 compounds, many with potential biological activity. It is the “polyphenols,” the “catechins” in particular, that have aroused researchers’ interest enough to generate a truckload of studies.

When rats are fed green-tea leaves, their blood cholesterol and triglycerides go down. Levels of such enzymes as superoxide dismutase, catalase and glutathione-S-transferase, all involved in removing foreign chemicals from the body, go up. The rats are also less prone to weight gain, apparently because of an increase in metabolism.

But in these studies, the rats consume far more tea on a weight basis than people ever can. As far as human-population studies go, some show a decrease in colon, breast, stomach and prostate cancer; but others don’t. The studies are neither consistent nor convincing, which is not surprising given that there are numerous varieties of tea, their chemical profiles depending on the type of tea, where it is grown and how it is harvested, stored and processed. Most of the epidemiological studies that have shown health benefits have focused on Asian populations, where tea consumption is much greater than in North America, and lifestyles are very different.

Laboratory studies have also been carried out with various tea components. For example, heterocyclic aromatic amines, compounds produced when meat is cooked at a high temperature, are less likely to trigger cancer in the presence of the polyphenols theaflavine gallate and epigallocatechin gallate. Such findings, along with the suggestion of increased rates of metabolism, have led to the sale of various dietary supplements based on tea extracts. Why go to the trouble of drinking tea when you can just pop a “cancer-fighting, fat-burning” pill?

But here we run into a problem. Such dietary supplements are poorly regulated; and the amount of catechins they contain can be far greater than that available from drinking tea. The high doses may indeed help to increase metabolism and result in weight loss, but the cost can be high. Just ask the teenager who walked into the emergency room at Texas Children’s Hospital with his chest, face and eyes bright yellow due to severe liver damage, after using a concentrated green-tea extract he bought at a “nutrition” store as a “fat-burning” supplement.

There was concern that he might need a liver transplant but luckily his liver, an organ that has regenerative properties, managed to recover. He did have to give up sporting activities, and will require regular liver function checkups.

Unfortunately this is not an isolated case, and such cases are not limited to green-tea extracts. Recently aegeline, a compound found in the leaves of the Asian bael tree, showed up in supplements marketed as an aid in losing weight and building muscle — despite a lack of any credible evidence. But aegeline may not be without some effect. More than 50 people suffered liver damage, two had to have liver transplants and one died after consuming a supplement containing aegeline.

The multi-hospital-based Drug Induced Liver Injury Network in the U.S. has found that liver problems due to herbal and other dietary supplements have increased three-fold in the last 10 years. Conventional medications still cause far more cases of liver injury, but they also have evidence of efficacy, which is not the case for many herbals.

I suspect that Uncle Gee would have a few devilish words to say about people who might think that they can encapsulate the benefits of Angel tea in a pill. He would likely argue that supplements cannot replicate the same rejuvenating effects he experiences from his daily tea regimen.

I must admit he did look robust and way younger than 84.

But when pushed, he did tell me that he runs six miles three times a week, and can bench press 110 pounds.

So maybe it’s not only the tea that’s keeping him young.

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