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Chemistry Lesson for The Food Babe…and everyone else #19

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 01/24/2016 - 05:50

The best treatment for people prone to swallowing woo is a dose of chemistry. And one of the wooiest ideas out there is the one about alkaline diets curing disease. Gives me a headache. So let’s start the discussion with a headache remedy, aspirin, or “acetylsalicylic acid.” As that name suggests, the compound is an acid and when it is absorbed into the bloodstream from the digestive tract it has an acidifying effect meaning that it lowers the pH of the blood. pH is a measure of acidity with values below 7 indicating an acidic solution and above 7 an alkaline one. Proper health requires that the pH of the blood be maintained in a narrow range, generally between 7.35 and 7.45 and to ensure that the value does not wander out of this range, our blood is equipped with a variety of compounds that can neutralize either excess acid or excess base. This makes blood a “buffer” solution, meaning that it resists large changes in pH.

The primary components of the buffer system are carbonic acid and sodium bicarbonate. Carbonic acid in the blood comes about when the carbon dioxide released from cells as they “burn” nutrients to produce energy reacts with water. Any excess base is neutralized by carbonic acid, whereas any excess acid is neutralized by sodium bicarbonate. The levels of carbonic acid are fine-tuned by the breathing rate. If respiration is very slow, carbon dioxide is not exhaled, carbonic acid builds up in the blood and the pH drops. Hyperventillation, on the other hand, causes loss of carbon dioxide, and since carbon dioxide is needed to form carbonic acid, levels of this acid drop and the pH rises. This is exactly what happens in response to an acetylsalicylic acid overdose. The aspirin causes blood pH to drop, and in response hyperventilation kicks in to raise the pH.

An influx of an acid such as aspirin, or of a large dose of an alkaline substance like baking soda, can affect blood pH, but the effect is temporary due to the blood’s rapid buffering action. There is no way to permanently alter blood pH, and in any case this would be highly undesirable because it would lead to severe complications and probably death. The reason for mentioning this is that there are all sorts of claims made by “alternative” practitioners about eating an “alkaline diet” or drinking alkaline water to change the blood’s pH in order to prevent cancer. This is based on laboratory experiments that have no relevance to a living body. When cancer cells are maintained in an acidic environment in a test tube they grow faster and chemotherapeutic drugs work more effectively in an alkaline environment. These conditions can be set up in a test tube, but not in the body. You cannot alter the acidity of the blood by any sort of diet.

The “alkaline” diet that is talked about is actually an “alkaline ash” diet that can affect the pH of the urine, but not the blood. This is determined by burning food and determining if the residue left is acidic or basic. While an alkaline diet can alter the pH of urine, it does not affect the blood. It isn’t a bad diet. It promotes the consumption of fruits, vegetables and nuts at the expense of meat, sugar, alcohol and caffeine, but the claim that this can reduce the risk of cancer is pure folly. There is absolutely no evidence that such a diet can support a sustained change in blood pH and there is no evidence of any clinical benefit. Testing the saliva or the urine with pH indicator paper is meaningless in terms of offering any clue about blood pH. None of this has stopped a variety of quacks from peddling their water alkalizers and miracle diets to cure cancer. Some even claim to cure diabetes. They are full of woo.

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Chemistry Lesson for The Food Babe…and everyone else #18

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 01/24/2016 - 05:49

Baby carrots are everywhere. Office workers are snacking on them, men watching football games are reaching for them instead of for potato chips and they’re even showing up in children’s lunchboxes. Great! Carrots have no fat, they don’t need to be salted, and they’re loaded with beta carotene, a Vitamin A precursor. Where do these baby carrots come from? What is their lineage? Well that depends. Some baby carrots are just that. They’re pulled out of the ground when they are still small, before they develop a woody taste. The majority of the tiny carrots we snack on, however, are not baby carrots, but “baby-cut carrots.” The parents of these babies could be said to be a cutting machine and a peeling machine. They actually start out life as fully grown carrots, but end up being cut into 5 cm long pieces before being fed into a machine that grates off the outer layer and rounds off the ends.

These babies were the brainchild of Mike Yurosek, a California carrot farmer who got tired of consigning huge numbers of his carrots to feed for pigs and cows because they were too twisted or otherwise misshapen to sell to consumers.  In some cases as much as 70% of a crop ended up as animal feed. So Yurosek devised a way to salvage the ugly carrots by cutting and reshaping them into the appealing baby carrots. Beast to beauty, as it were. Yurosek managed to make three little carrots out of one big one, and at the same time, triple the price. Now, that is good business.

As often happens these days, when a product becomes popular, the Internet quacks decide to throw a monkey wrench into the works. Those little carrots are poisoning us, they say. The proof is the white discoloration that shows up on their surface! This is the “toxic” chlorine that was used to wash the little guys. Humbug! Sometimes the carrots are rinsed in a dilute solution of chlorine or chlorine dioxide to do away with bacteria, that much is true, but this isn’t absorbed by the carrots.

The white discoloration, known in the trade as “carrot blush,” is the result of two separate factors. Moisture loss from the surface of the carrot roughens the surface and causes light to be scattered, giving a white appearance. This can be reversed by moistening the carrot. Whitening can also occur when damage to cells on the surface due to abrasion releases an enzyme that causes molecules called phenols to join together to form lignin, a structural substance in plants. It too scatters light and gives a white appearance. This is not reversible. Neither of these whitening effects has anything to do with the safety of eating a carrot. The bottom line is that carrots are good for you, whitened or not. If some of those internet quacks ate more carrots, maybe they could see the truth better.

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Chemistry Lesson for The Food Babe…and everyone else #17

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 01/24/2016 - 05:47

Back in the 1930s a flower merchant with a greenhouse full of carnations got worried when the weather forecast called for extremely cold temperatures. So he placed a kerosene burner in the greenhouse and confidently went to bed. When he woke up in the morning, he was devastated. The carnations had all withered and were unusable. This severe financial blow caused him to seek scientific advice but nobody seemed to know what had happened until the gases produced when kerosene burned were analyzed. One of the gases produced was ethylene, which turned out to be a plant hormone. This was the chemical, produced by plants, that stimulates the breakdown of chlorophyll, the synthesis of pigments like lycopene, the buildup of sugars and acids and the softening of plant tissue by the enzyme polygalacturonase.

When this was discovered, the solution to another mystery became apparent. When first harvested, lemons are often too green to be acceptable in the marketplace. In order to hasten the development of a uniform yellow color, lemon growers used to store newly-harvested lemons in sheds kept warm with kerosene stoves. The heat was believed to hasten ripening. But when one grower tried a more modern heating system, he found that his lemons no longer turned yellow on time. With the discovery of ethylene release from burning kerosene, this now made sense. The ripening process was triggered by heat, but by the small amount of ethylene gas given off by the burning kerosene.  Today some fruits and vegetables are picked when they are still green and are gassed to ripen them. Alarmists scare people by telling them that that their produce is being gassed with “chemicals.” What they don’t mention is that this is the same chemical that plants produce naturally during the maturing process.

Since the carnation tragedy of the 30s, a great deal has been learned about keeping carnations fresh. They are kept away from any other ethylene producing plants and are also treated with a preservative solution to kill bacteria which can attack the stem and block the channels that deliver water. Commercial preservative solutions contain about 3% sugar which serves as food, 200 ppm of 8-hydroxyquinoline citrate and silver thiosulphate (STS). A home solution can be made with half a tablespoon of sugar and one teaspoon of bleach in half a liter of water. That will serve well for carnations and roses. But just be sure you keep your flowers away from any ripening bananas or other fruits because you don’t want to experience an ethylene tragedy like the one that took place in the 1930s.

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Chemistry Lesson for The Food Babe…and everyone else #16

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 01/24/2016 - 05:46

Vitamin history

To take or not to take, that is the question often asked about vitamin supplements. Some experts suggest that a balanced diet provides all the vitamins we need, while others claim that a daily multivitamin pill provides nutritional insurance. Then there are those who allege that vitamins can both prevent or cure a variety of diseases while others point to studies that imply vitamins are linked with greater morbidity. Too much confusion to clear up in one short lesson. But the confusion about the term “vitamin” can be addressed. Indeed, it is a misnomer. Vitamins are “vital,” but they are not necessarily amines.

“Vitamin” derives from the Latin “vita” for life and “amine,” the name for a family of nitrogen containing organic compounds. But as it turns out, not all vitamins are amines. The very first one, isolated from rice hulls by biochemist Casimir Funk in 1912 was indeed an amine and was given the name “thiamine.” Funk thought that there likely were other amines essential to life that had to be supplied by the diet and suggested the term “vitamine” be used to describe them. He was right about the existence of other “vitamines,” but when it turned out that they were not all amines, the “e” was dropped from the name.

Funk’s discovery takes us back to the late nineteenth century when the mechanized rice mill was introduced in Asia . It produced attractive white rice, but it also produced a new disease that came to be called “beriberi”. In the native language of Sri Lanka, beriberi means “weakness”, and describes a condition of progressive muscular degeneration, heart irregularities and emaciation. Kanehiro Takaki, a Japanese medical officer, studied the high incidence of the disease among sailors in the Japanese navy from 1878-1883 and discovered that on a ship where the diet was mostly polished rice, among 276 men, 169 cases of beriberi developed and 25 men died during a nine-month period.  On another ship, there were no deaths and only 14 cases of the disease.  The difference was that the men on the second ship were given more meat, milk and vegetables.  Takaki thought this had something to do with the protein content of the diet, but he was wrong.

About 15 years later a Dutch physician in the East Indies , Christiaan Eijkman, noted that chickens fed mostly polished rice also contracted beriberi but recovered when fed rice polishings.  He thought that the starch in the polished rice was toxic to the nerves, but he was wrong.  And that’s when Casimir Funk entered the picture. The Polish-born biochemist determined that it wasn’t something that was present in white rice that was the problem, it was something that was absent, namely the outer coating, the rice “hulls.” Funk managed to show that an extract of rice hulls prevented beriberi and introduced the term “vitamine” for substances in food that could prevent specific diseases.

A short time later, E.V. McCollum and Marguerite Davis at the University of Wisconsin discovered that rats given lard as their only source of fat failed to grow and developed eye problems. When butterfat or an ether extract of egg yolk was added to the diet, growth resumed and the eye condition was corrected. McCollum suggested that whatever was present in the ether extract be called fat soluble “A,” and that the water extract Funk had used to prevent beriberi, be called water-soluble factor “B.” When the water-soluble extract was found to be a mixture of compounds, its components were given designations with numerical subscripts. The specific anti-beriberi factor was eventually called vitamin B1, or thiamine. These “vitamins” had a common function. They formed part of the various enzyme systems needed to metabolize proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Some of the compounds in Funk’s water extract eventually turned out to offer no protection against any specific disease and their names had to be removed from the list of vitamins. As other water soluble substances which were required by the body were discovered, they were added to the B vitamin list.

Other vitamins were subsequently identified and given the designations C, D and E in order of their discovery.  Vitamin K was so called because its discoverer, the Danish biochemist Henrik Dam, proposed the term "Koagulations Vitamin" because it promoted blood coagulation.  Are there still unrecognized vitamins?  Not likely.  Patients have now been successfully kept alive for many years through total parenteral nutrition ( TPN ) which involves using an intravenous formula that incorporates the known vitamins.

And what then about those daily vitamins that are so heavily advertised? They don’t kill and they don’t cure. But they may fill in some nutritional gaps in a less than ideal diet. And nobody really knows what an ideal diet is.

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Chemistry Lesson for The Food Babe…and everyone else #15

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 01/24/2016 - 05:44

Cause and Effect

Studies are the heart of science. But which studies do we take to heart? That is becoming more and more of a critical question as studies are being cranked out at a frenetic pace exploring every facet of our lives. On any given day we may hear about rosacea being improved by a kanuka honey preparation, cranberry juice helping to lower heart disease risk, olive leaf extract reducing inflammation, or fatty and sugary foods being linked to lower cognitive function, at least if you happen to be a mouse. And that’s not all. One can readily find dozens of other studies, ranging from how global warming may cause sex changes in lizards to the possibility that sodium octyl sulfosuccinate, a chemical used in some soft drinks to help mix the ingredients, may be linked to obesity. Or that consuming citrus fruits or their juices may increase the risk of melanoma.

The question is, what do we do with all this information? In some cases, as with the kanuka honey, the conclusion is simple. If you have rosacea, it is worth a try. But what is the take away message from the citrus fruit-melanoma study? Many newspapers reported on that one with headlines like "Drinking a glass of orange juice or eating a fresh grapefruit for breakfast may increase the risk of skin cancer." Yes it may. Slightly. And only in combination with sun exposure. Let’s expose the details of this study.? Over a twenty-five year period some 100,000 male and female health professionals filled out questionnaires every two years about their diet, lifestyle, sun exposure and health status. Participants who drank more than a glass of orange juice a day, or ate fresh grapefruit more than three times a week, had an increased risk of melanoma. Of course, as we so often say in science, association cannot prove cause and effect. Wearing skirts doesn’t cause brea st cancer even though there is a strong association. In the case of citrus fruits, it is possible that people who live in sunnier climates have more access to citrus products and consume more of them. That would lead to an association with skin cancer without being the cause.

Statistics alone can never prove causality, but they can point researchers towards avenues to explore in search of a possible mechanism that might lead to a cause and effect relationship. Is there some such mechanism that may explain the melanoma connection? Possibly. Citrus fruits contain compounds called furocoumarins that are known to be photocarcinogenic, meaning that in combination with sunlight they can cause mutations in DNA , a prelude to cancer. Does this mean that we should give up drinking oran ge juice and eating grapefruit? No. Citrus fruits contain a number of compounds that have been linked with protection from cancer. And furocoumarins do not cause melanoma by themselves, only in combination with sun exposure. The take-away message then is to keep sipping that orange juice, but do it in the shade. And don’t forget the broad spectrum, SPF 30 sunscreen.

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You Asked: Why does a cooked onion taste sweet and how come cutting a cooked onion does not make the eyes water?

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 01/17/2016 - 07:18

Onion chemistry is extremely fascinating and extremely complex! We've been intrigued by this vegetable ever since our prehistoric ancestors gathered and cooked wild onions. By the time of the First Egyptian Dynasty 5000 years ago, onions were widely consumed for flavor and for their supposed medicinal properties. At various times they have been associated with the prevention of colds, loosening of phlegm, correction of indigestion, inducement of sleep, stimulation of appetite, disinfection of wounds and the elimination of parasites from the digestive tract. In ancient times people believed that onions were a symbol of eternity because of the concentric circles that make up their structure. For this reason, onion shaped towers became popular in Russia and Eastern Europe; the idea was that these buildings would stand forever.

Onions may not make us live forever but some of their components may indeed have medical benefits in reducing cholesterol, blood pressure and perhaps even the risk of cancer. This is why their chemistry has received a great deal of attention. The smell produced by a cut onion is actually a form of chemical warfare the plant has evolved to ward off pests. When an insect attacks the bulb, tissue damage unleashes a sequence of chemical reactions resulting in the release of propanethial oxide, an irritating substance designed to repel the attacker. This reacts with moisture in the eyes to form sulphuric acid which is the stuff that makes our eyes water. Unfortunately, to the onion, attack by an insect or a sharp knife appears to be the same.

Frying the onion causes yet another reaction, resulting in the formation of bispropenyl disulfide which has a sweet smell and a sweet taste. Some of the harsher tasting compounds are also destroyed by the heat, explaining the change in flavor. Furthermore, we do not cry over cooked onions because heat destroys the enzymes that are needed for the formation of propanethial oxide. Also the cooking process drives off any volatile irritants.

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Book review: Monkeys, Myths, and Molecules, Separating fact from fiction, and the science of everyday life

Our OSS Blog - Sat, 01/09/2016 - 20:00

"Reading a Dr. Joe book is always a thrill and Monkeys, Myths, and Molecules is no exception. Dr. Joe’s writing style is comfortable, engaging and humorous. While he writes for a general audience, he does so with a chemical flair. Monkeys, Myths, and Molecules appeals to chemistry teachers for numerous reasons. It really is a perfect educational gift for a family member or friend. If it does end up being a gift, make sure to read it first.

In the food section, Dr. Joe brings into focus the discussion surrounding fat consumption, cholesterol and heart disease. He examines and explains numerous studies relating to diet, fat and fat type, carbohydrate intake as well as sugar intake and shows where the health issues lie. He is clearly an advocate for healthy eating, tending to advise against the many fads one sees in print and on television."

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Chemistry Lesson for The Food Babe…and everyone else #14

Our OSS Blog - Sat, 01/02/2016 - 01:16

“You Won’t Believe Where Silly Putty Is Hiding In Your Food.” So begins one of the Food Babe’s attempts to shock us about how the food industry is poisoning us. This time the target of the wild rant is the oil that McDonald’s and other fast food establishment use for frying. That’s where Silly Putty is lurking, apparently just waiting to gum up our insides. Except that it’s not. There is no Silly Putty in oil or in anything that we eat. What we have here is another example of classic vaniharism.

Frying oil does sometimes contain polydimethylsiloxane , a chemical with a name that twists Vani’s tongue and is therefore deemed to be dangerous. At a concentration of 2 parts per million it prevents the oil from foaming over. Polydimethylsiloxane is a “silicone” which is a general term for compounds that contain -Si-O-Si- atom groupings in their molecular structure. But the properties of silicones vary depending on their specific structure. To use an analogy, “alcohol” is a general term for compounds that have the –O-H grouping, but there is a huge difference in the toxicity of ethanol, CH3CH2OH, which is what we drink, and methanol, CH3OH, which is lethal if consumed.

Polydimethylsiloxane is a clear liquid that when reacted with boric acid changes into a solid that we know as Silly Putty. This happens because the long molecules of polydimethylsiloxane are linked together iby boron into a three dimensional array with totally novel properties. This “cross-linked” silicone polymer is not present in any food. And the polydimethylsiloxane that is present is inert and non-toxic. Furthermore, even if Silly Putty were present, it wouldn’t be a problem in terms of toxicity. Untold number of kids have smeared it all over their face and mouth with no consequence. Of course one of Vani’s favourite fright techniques is to connect some ingredient in our food supply to a non-food use and imply that it is therefore dangerous. Just imagine the fuse she would try to light on learning that the glycerol added to breakfast cereals as a humectants is also used to make nitroglycerine.

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Chemistry Lesson for The Food Babe…and everyone else #13

Our OSS Blog - Sat, 01/02/2016 - 01:15

Yikes-There’s Cyanide in My Salt!

Is it true that they add cyanide to salt,” was the question tossed at me via an email. The answer is yes, sort of. Some commercial varieties of salt have small amounts of sodium ferrocyanide added to prevent caking. When humidity is high, a thin layer of moisture forms on the surface of the salt crystals, and some of the salt dissolves in this layer to form brine. If the relative humidity then drops, the water evaporates and the brine solution recrystallizes between the salt crystals, causing them to aggregate into clumps. Ferrocyanide decreases the solubility of salt in water so the salt is less likely to dissolve in the moisture that coats the crystals and that in turn reduces the amount of recrystallization.

Any mention of cyanide conjures up images of poison so the presence of ferrocyanide in salt sounds scary. That’s why producers would rather list it on a label as “yellow prussiate of soda,” an old-fashioned term first coined in reference to Prussia, the country where it was originally synthesized. There is, however, no need to be terrified of ferrocyanide because the cyanide in this compound is tightly bound to an iron atom and is not released in the body. Even if it were, it would be irrelevant because the amount would be way too little to cause any harm. And ferrocyanide itself is remarkably non-toxic.

Other anti-caking agents are available. Regular Windsor salt, for example, uses calcium silicate, whereas its kosher salt version uses yellow prussiate of soda. Kosher salt should really be called “koshering salt” because it is used to draw blood out of meat based on the biblical reference that consuming blood should be avoided. It is not blessed by a rabbi nor is it healthier than any other salt. The difference is that it is composed of large irregular shaped flakes that can cover the surface of the meat easily and then can be washed off. The large flakes gather moisture more easily from the air and apparently ferrocyanide is better at reducing the solubility of the salt in the moisture layer that other anticaking agents.

The only nutritional difference between regular salt and kosher salt is that kosher salt has no added iodide. The addition of iodide to salt began in the 1920s to remedy the increased incidence of goiter, a swelling of the thyroid gland caused by a lack of iodine in the diet. Back then many people had a very limited diet and lacked iodine, but that is not the case today in North America. Using kosher salt is not going to lead to iodine deficiency. Many chefs prefer to use kosher salt because regular salt is comprised of tiny cube-shaped crystals that allow for very tight packing while the irregularly shaped flakes of kosher salt don’t pack so easily, leaving lots of air space between the crystals. The large grains of kosher salt are therefore easier to pick up with a pinch of the fingers, making it easier to gauge the amount of salt to be added to food. Because of the space between the grains of kosher salt, a spoonful of regular salt will have about twice the salting power of kosher salt. This has to be taken into account when recipes that call for salt by volume are followed.

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Chemistry Lesson for The Food Babe…and everyone else #12

Our OSS Blog - Sat, 01/02/2016 - 01:13

Warning: This post contains chemical terms.

Cream of tartar is close to the heart of any organic chemist because the study of this compound by Louis Pasteur in 1848 was pivotal in leading to the understanding of the three dimensional structure of molecules.  It is a byproduct of winemaking and remains behind as a sediment after fermentation.  In chemical terms, it is potassium hydrogen tartrate which is basically partially neutralized tartaric acid.  Pasteur became interested in the chemistry of winemaking and launched into a study of tartaric acid and its various salts.  He found that sodium ammonium tartrate which he prepared from natural tartaric acid was not exactly the same as the version made from tartaric acid that had been synthesized in the laboratory.

When he examined the latter through a microscope, he found that it was composed of two kinds of crystals which were mirror images of each other.  He laboriously separated these with tweezers and discovered that one set of crystals was identical to the tartrate prepared from the “natural” source.  He then went on to suggest that the mirror image crystals were likely made of mirror image molecules and that nature produced only one of these two versions.  A brilliant deduction!  Eventually van’t Hoff and Lebel concluded that this was possible only if the molecules were not planar but three-dimensional.  And thus was born the idea of the tetrahedral carbon atom.

Emotional connections aside, there are still plenty of reasons to appreciate cream of tartar.  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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Chemistry Lesson for The Food Babe…and everyone else #11

Our OSS Blog - Sat, 01/02/2016 - 01:11

The gold standard in science is the randomized, controlled, double-blind trial. If you want to know whether Garcinia cambogia causes weight loss, or whether glucosamine helps with arthritic pain, there is only one way to find out. You have an experimental group that is given the substance and a control group that is given a placebo, with every other variable being held constant. These are difficult, expensive studies to carry out because you need a large enough group of subjects for statistical weight, you have to ensure compliance and you have to monitor what is going on. Almost always some questions remain unanswered. Could results have been different with a different dose? Perhaps a longer experimental time is needed. Were all variables properly controlled for?

While randomized controlled trials are important, they are not always necessary. Science has accumulated a great deal of knowledge over the years making it possible to make evaluations based on scientific plausibility. Let’s take an extreme example. You see a picture on the web that purportedly shows a man floating over the country side being held aloft by a couple of dozen helium balloons. We do not need to design a trial to determine if this is possible. It is not. Why? Because of the law of buoyancy. A balloon filled with helium rises because the helium in it weighs less than the amount of air it displaces. Using this difference in weight, one can calculate the weight a balloon can lift. A liter of air weighs roughly 1 gram more than a liter of helium, so that’s what the balloon can lift. A 50 kilo man would need at least 3500 balloons to experience any lift at all. There is no need to carry out any experiment to know that the picture on the web is a fake.

Similarly no randomized trials are needed to determine that oxygenated water, despite its advertisers’ claims, cannot increase energy or improve physical stamina. The amount of oxygen dissolved in the water can be calculated and it is insignificant in comparison to what the body uses. Furthermore, we breathe through our lungs, not through our stomach, so that whatever oxygen is dissolved in the water is not going to make it into the blood to combine with hemoglobin. In addition, blood is normally saturated with oxygen anyway.

Neither do we have to carry out studies to determine if the newly approved artificial sweetener advantame should be required to carry a warning about a risk for people afflicted with phenylketonurea (PKU), a genetic inability to metabolize the amino acid phenylalanine. Advantame has a chemical similarity to aspartame, and like its cousin, can release phenylalanine. Why does it not need a warning? Because it is one hundred times sweeter than aspartame, so only one, one hundredth as much is needed to sweeten a beverage. This cannot release enough phenylalanine to cause a problem.

There is no need to mount experiments to determine whether tuning forks can restore the human body’s natural vibration of 60-65 Hz and thereby alleviate all sorts of health issues, as is claimed by the promoters of “Sound Therapy.” There is no such thing as the body having a natural vibrational frequency, and talk of tuning forks being able to restore al frequency that has gone out of tune due to illness is plain nonsense. Claims that tuning forks can address specific diseases like cancer or multiple sclerosis are just out of tune with what we know about how the body works. The idea that cancer can be cured with a tuning form is totally implausible and does not require an experiment to prove that it is not sound.

Carmine went over big in Europe.  Wool and silk were dyed with it, but perhaps the most memorable use of cochineal red was in the brilliant scarlet colors for which the Gobelin tapestries of Paris became famous.  Producing the dye was not an easy business.  It is the female insects that feed on the red cactus berries and concentrate the dye in their bodies and in that of their unhatched larvae.  They are scraped off the cactus and are dumped into hot water where they instantly die.  Their corpses are then dried in the sun and crushed into a powder.  This can then be added to water or to a water-alcohol mixture to produce “bug juice” for dying purposes.  A mordant such as alum, which binds the color to fabrics is often used.

Carminic acid, the active coloring agent, is one of the safest dyes that exist and is commonly used in foods and cosmetics.  Candies, ice cream, beverages, yogurt, lipstick and eye shadow can all be colored with cochineal.  Allergies are possible but are rare.  There have been reports about reactions to Campari, pink popsicles, maraschino cherries or red lipstick, but these are less frequent than reactions to other components in foods and cosmetics.  In one instance, a little boy’s face swelled after being kissed by his loving grandmother.  It seems he had been sensitized to carmine, probably through food or candies, and reacted to the coloring in the lipstick.  Obviously, he will have to be careful in the future when he becomes involved in romantic escapades.  Reactions to carmine tend to be in the form of hives and swelling although one case of anaphylactic reaction to Campari-Orange has been reported.

The cochineal insects are very small.  It takes about 70,000 females to produce a pound of dye.  The males are quite useless in this respect.  They are also rare and live for only a week, just long enough to mate with as many females as possible.  And how are they separated?  The males can fly but the wingless females cannot.  When the cactus is disturbed, the males scoot, but the females cannot escape.  They are scraped off, destined to color our cherry or strawberry ice cream.  Some people may not find the prospect of ice cream colored with bug juice appetizing, but cochineal red is an effective and safe dye…most of the time.

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Chemistry Lesson for The Food Babe and everyone else #10

Our OSS Blog - Sat, 01/02/2016 - 01:08

What was the first item of commerce to be exported from the New World to the Old?  No, not corn.  Not rubber.  It was bug juice.  At least in a manner of speaking.  When Hernan Cortez came to America in 1518 he was intrigued by the beautifully colored Aztec fabrics, particularly the stunning reds.  He asked the natives about the source of the colorant and was shown some specks on a cactus plant.  Closer scrutiny revealed that the little specks were actually little bugs.  Today we know them as Dactylopius coccus, or simply as cochineal.  The dye that can be extracted from these insects is called carmine.  Montezuma was so fond of it that he imposed a tax upon his subjects that had to be paid in dried cochineal bugs.

Carmine went over big in Europe.  Wool and silk were dyed with it, but perhaps the most memorable use of cochineal red was in the brilliant scarlet colors for which the Gobelin tapestries of Paris became famous.  Producing the dye was not an easy business.  It is the female insects that feed on the red cactus berries and concentrate the dye in their bodies and in that of their unhatched larvae.  They are scraped off the cactus and are dumped into hot water where they instantly die.  Their corpses are then dried in the sun and crushed into a powder.  This can then be added to water or to a water-alcohol mixture to produce “bug juice” for dying purposes.  A mordant such as alum, which binds the color to fabrics is often used.

Carminic acid, the active coloring agent, is one of the safest dyes that exist and is commonly used in foods and cosmetics.  Candies, ice cream, beverages, yogurt, lipstick and eye shadow can all be colored with cochineal.  Allergies are possible but are rare.  There have been reports about reactions to Campari, pink popsicles, maraschino cherries or red lipstick, but these are less frequent than reactions to other components in foods and cosmetics.  In one instance, a little boy’s face swelled after being kissed by his loving grandmother.  It seems he had been sensitized to carmine, probably through food or candies, and reacted to the coloring in the lipstick.  Obviously, he will have to be careful in the future when he becomes involved in romantic escapades.  Reactions to carmine tend to be in the form of hives and swelling although one case of anaphylactic reaction to Campari-Orange has been reported.

 The cochineal insects are very small.  It takes about 70,000 females to produce a pound of dye.  The males are quite useless in this respect.  They are also rare and live for only a week, just long enough to mate with as many females as possible.  And how are they separated?  The males can fly but the wingless females cannot.  When the cactus is disturbed, the males scoot, but the females cannot escape.  They are scraped off, destined to color our cherry or strawberry ice cream.  Some people may not find the prospect of ice cream colored with bug juice appetizing, but cochineal red is an effective and safe dye…most of the time.

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Chemistry Lesson for The Food Babe and everyone else #9

Our OSS Blog - Sat, 01/02/2016 - 01:07

“Are you poisoning your family?” “Is your bathroom killing you?” “Yes!” proclaim numerous websites. And they’re not talking about intestinal gas. They’re talking about sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). SLS is asynthetic detergent, widely found in cleaning agents ranging from shampoos to dishwashing products and even toothpastes. “Syndets” were originally developed by chemists to eliminate a problem commonly found with soap, namely “scum” formation. Soaps, unlike detergents, react with dissolved minerals in water to form an insoluble precipitate; often seen as the classic bathtub ring. With sodium lauryl sulphate there is no scum problem.

But there is one problem with SLS. It is such an effective detergent that it is too good at removing the protective oils from the skin and that can result in skin irritation. As far as toxicity goes, given that it is even used in toothpaste, it has undergone a battery of toxicity tests and passed with no problem. But the “natural personal care product” industry sees synthetic chemicals as evil, giving traction to “sodium lauryl sulphate-free” products. But just because the term does not appear on the label does not mean the product does not contain the chemical. All you have to do is come up with a different name for SLS. And there are plenty: olefin sulfate, sodium dodecyl sulphate (SDS), dodecyl sodium sulfate; lauryl sodium sulfate, lauryl sulfate sodium salt, sodium n-dodecyl sulfate, sulfuric acid monododecyl ester sodium salt, and sodium dodecane sulfate.

Another way to hide SLS is by listing “sodium coco sulphate” as an ingredient and explaining that it is derived from natural coconut oil. First, a comment about “derived from.” Converting the fats in coconut oil into sodium coco sulphate involves a series of complex chemical reactions so the final product is hardly “natural.” By this sort of logic an automobile could be described as “derived from nature” because every substance of which it is made originates in nature. Iron-containing minerals and petroleum are as natural as you get. Perhaps more significantly, lauric acid makes up about two thirds of the fatty acids of which coconut oil is composed so that when this mixture undergoes the conversion to sulphates, sodium lauryl sulphate makes up two thirds of the products. There is nothing wrong with sodium coco sulphate in a cleaning product, it is an effective detergent, but insinuating that it is free of sodium lauryl sulphate is a dirty business.

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Chemistry Lesson for the Food Babe…and everyone else #8

Our OSS Blog - Sat, 01/02/2016 - 01:05

I wonder if Ms. Hari would ever consider taking aspirin. If she found out that it is made from petroleum, probably not. For some reason she considers petroleum to be a substance that comes from hell. It is a common misconception that aspirin is produced from the bark of the willow tree. In fact, the starting material for the chemical synthesis of aspirin is benzene, derived from petroleum. This is then converted to phenol which in turn is converted to salicylic acid which is then converted to acetylsalicylic acid or ASA, which we know as aspirin.

While aspirin is not made from willow bark, there is a connection. The bark of the white willow contains salicin, a chemical that, like aspirin, has an effect on pain, fever, inflammation and blood clotting. The Ebers papyrus, an Egyptian medical text dating back to the sixteenth century BC describes the use of the bark of the willow tree to treat pain, fever and conditions that today we would describe as inflammatory. In the fifth century BC, Hippocrates recommended willow bark preparations to reduce fever and ease the pain of childbirth.

But the problem with willow bark extracts is that the active ingredient they generated on ingestion, salicylic acid, irritates the stomach, often causing ulcers. It was the search for a modified form of salicylic acid that eventually led Felix Hoffman, working for the German pharmaceutical company, Bayer, to come up with acetylsalicylic acid. It was a great improvement over willow bark extract because it caused much less stomach irritation, and since it was a pure compound, dosages could be properly controlled. Curiously, willow bark extract is now sold in health food stores as a “natural alternative” to aspirin. Ms. Hari might prefer it since it is “natural” and not made from petroleum. As for me, the “natural is better” fallacy gives me a headache. But I know what to take for it. Synthetic acetylsalicylic acid.

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You Asked: Is it true that they add cyanide to salt?

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 12/27/2015 - 22:48

Yes, sort of. Some commercial varieties of salt have small amounts of sodium ferrocyanide added to prevent caking. When humidity is high, a thin layer of moisture forms on the surface of the salt crystals, and some of the salt dissolves in this layer to form brine. If the relative humidity then drops, the water evaporates and the brine solution recrystallizes between the salt crystals, causing them to aggregate into clumps. Ferrocyanide decreases the solubility of salt in water so the salt is less likely to dissolve in the moisture that coats the crystals and that in turn reduces the amount of recrystallization.

Any mention of cyanide conjures up images of poison so the presence of ferrocyanide in salt sounds scary. That’s why producers would rather list it on a label as “yellow prussiate of soda,” an old-fashioned term first coined in reference to Prussia, the country where it was originally synthesized. There is, however, no need to be terrified of ferrocyanide because the cyanide in this compound is tightly bound to an iron atom and is not released in the body. Even if it were, it would be irrelevant because the amount would be way too little to cause any harm. And ferrocyanide itself is remarkably non-toxic.

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Are Chemists Suffering from Chemophobiaphobia?

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 12/27/2015 - 15:23

Most chemistry conferences these days feature a session on the “public understanding of chemistry.” Usually speakers express frustration about equating the term “chemical” with “toxin” or “poison,” about consumers looking for “chemical-free” products, and about the extent of scientific illiteracy. There tends to be a collective bemoaning of the lack of appreciation of the contributions that chemistry has made to life and of the eyebrows raised when a chemist reveals his profession in some social setting. Annoyance surfaces about synthetic chemicals being seen as the culprits responsible for a host of human ailments whereas natural substances are judged to be unquestionably safe.

Often there is criticism of bloggers who maintain that if you can’t pronounce the chemical name of a food ingredient you shouldn’t be eating it and of the bothersome image of the frizzy-haired “mad scientist” who is bent on brewing up some nasty carcinogen to unleash on an unsuspecting public. There’s lots of lamenting the demonization of “petroleum-derived” chemicals by scientifically uneducated, self-appointed protectors of the public good.

Speaker after speaker expresses concern that the public is being unduly alarmed by ill-informed pundits who inflate the risks of non-stick cookware, fluoride, pesticide residues, preservatives, plasticizers, GMOs and various chemicals found in cosmetics and cleaning agents. There is also concern that chemists are unfairly maligned, mistrusted and uncaring about the long term consequences of their actions. All of this is usually followed by a call to arms to change the public’s attitude toward chemistry, and vigorous discussions ensue about how to go about curing what is seen as widespread “chemophobia.” I know, because I’ve been there and have taken an active role in such dialogues.

Now, though, it seems that our worries may have been overblown, at least judging by the largest survey ever carried out about the public’s attitude toward chemistry by the U.K.’s Royal Society of Chemistry. A qualifier has to be mentioned here though. In the U.K. pharmacists are also called chemists and this likely skewed the statistics since health professionals tends to be regarded in a positive fashion.

The survey featured interviews with over 2000 randomly selected people and discussions with a number of focus groups. While there were concerns about chemicals, chemistry as a profession was viewed positively. Sixty percent of the subjects interviewed said they believed that the benefits of chemistry outweigh any harmful effect, and eighty four percent agreed that chemists make a valuable contribution to society. Interestingly, only twelve percent of chemists interviewed thought the public would have such a high appraisal of their profession.

When it comes to chemicals, seventy percent agreed that everything can be toxic at a certain dose, but only sixty percent knew that everything is made of chemicals. On the positive side, less than twenty percent thought that all chemicals are dangerous. So chemophobia does not seem to be as extensive as we think it is.

Chemists have a knee-jerk reaction every time we see the word “chemical” used in what we consider to be an inappropriate fashion. We bristle when someone says they do not want to eat food that contains chemicals or when we hear that consumers are looking for a cleaning agent without chemicals. What ignorance, we think! But it seems that when people use “chemical” in this fashion, they refer to substances that they believe are potentially toxic, not to all chemicals in general. It’s a matter of semantics. Maybe we are wasting our time by trying to set the record straight every time we see the word chemical used in a way that strays from our scientific definition. Perhaps it is time to accept that words can have different meanings depending on their context, and that when lay people talk about “chemicals” they are using the term to mean substances that are potentially harmful.

Ridiculing the misuse of the word as a synonym for “toxic”, as those of us in the chemistry field often tend to do, can have an undesired consequence. It can give the impression that we think that all chemicals are safe. In fact no one knows the potential harm that can be caused by some chemicals better than chemists.

An unreasonable attack mounted against some chemical by a chemically illiterate person is sometimes interpreted by chemists as an attack on their profession and prompts a vigorous rebuttal. Even if scientifically warranted, it tends to project an image of being a defender of all chemicals.

As scientists, chemists are gung-ho on evidence and are wary of anecdote. Yet, it appears that our belief that chemists are considered as societal pariahs because they produce chemicals, that is, “toxins,” is purely anecdotal. The U.K. survey actually revealed that seventy-five percent of people think that chemistry has a positive impact on our wellbeing.

Admittedly, I was surprised by that statistic, probably having been misled by my personal anecdotal evidence. Because of the business I’m in, I tend to take note of any chemical nonsense I come across. I see it in my emails and on posts on my Facebook page. And I guess I forget that the vast majority of people who have a reasonable view of chemicals and chemists are not vocal about their beliefs. It’s the squeaky wheel that we hear.

Thanks to the Royal Society of Chemistry’s survey, we can now move from anecdote to science. It is comforting to note that chemophobia is not rampant and that only twenty-five percent of people are confused, bored, shocked, saddened or angered by chemistry. But there is another noteworthy statistic. More than half the people do not know what chemists actually do, and do not feel confident enough to talk about chemistry. So instead of worrying about the misuse of the word “chemical,” we should focus on educating the public about the role of chemistry in our lives.

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Chemistry Lesson for the Food Babe #7

Our OSS Blog - Thu, 12/17/2015 - 13:03

We know that Ms. Food Babe's scientific knowledge is negligible. Especially when it comes to understanding the difference between hazard and risk. This is important especially when it come to understanding the International Agency for Research on Cancer's listing of chemicals as being carcinogenic. This list is based on hazard, not risk. Hazard can be defined as a potential source of harm or of some adverse health effect. Risk is the likelihood that exposure to a hazard causes harm or some adverse effect. If a substance is placed in IARC’s Group 1, it means that there is strong evidence that the substance can cause cancer, but it says nothing about how likely it is to do so. That likelihood depends on several factors including innate carcinogenicity, extent of exposure and personal liability. Ultraviolet light, a component of sunlight, is a good example to illustrate the difference between hazard and risk

Light can be thought of as being composed of packets of energy called photons. When a photon impacts a molecule of DNA it can damage it, triggering an irregular multiplication of cells, in other words, cancer. X-rays are also made up of photons, but these are more energetic than the photons of ultraviolet light so they are more likely to damage DNA. Although both sunlight and X-rays are in Group 1, X-rays are clearly more capable of triggering cancer than sunlight. But exposure matters. A single chest X-ray is not a problem but repeated baking in the sun is. More photons of lower energy can have a greater effect than fewer photons of greater energy. Then there is individual liability. A person with dark skin is less at risk for developing cancer than someone with pale skin even at the same ultraviolet light exposure.

Inhaled sand is also listed in Group 1. That’s because studies have shown that workers engaged in occupations that can result in inhaling sand show a significantly increased risk of cancer. But this doesn’t mean that going to the beach and frolicking in the sand is a risky business. Tobacco smoke is also in Group 1because there is no doubt that it causes lung cancer. In fact about ninety percent of all lung cancer cases can be attributed to smoking. Alcohol is also in this category because it is known to increase the risk of oral cancers as well as breast cancer, yet nobody worries about drinking a glass of wine. Listing processed meat in IARC’s Group 1 just says that like alcohol, like tobacco, like sunshine, and some 180 other chemicals, mixtures and exposure circumstances, it is capable of causing cancer. It does not mean that if you have a bacon lettuce and tomato sandwich you are putting yourself at risk. Vani Hari herself is a good example of a hazard. She has the potential to do harm. But if you ignore her mindless anti-GMO rants, she presents little risk.

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Chemistry Lesson for Food Babe #6

Our OSS Blog - Thu, 12/17/2015 - 13:01

We live in a fascinating, complex chemical world. Smell that cup of coffee and you are sniffing hundreds of compounds! A whiff in the bathroom will add about three hundred, many of them such as methyl mercaptan and skatole decidedly unpleasant. A single meal will dump thousands and thousands of chemicals into your body, ranging from the proteins, sugars and fats that plants produce to allow their growth and development, to the pigments and scents they use to attract pollinators. Add to this the vast array of compounds they use to ward of predators. Indeed, we encounter far more natural pesticides than synthetic ones. We are also exposed to a huge array of chemicals produced by industry such as solvents, dry cleaning compounds, degreasers, paints, plastic additives, pesticides and packaging materials.

Just to present a picture of chemical diversity and complexity, consider something as simple as honey. Everyone knows that basically it is composed of sugar and water. But “sugar” is a general term for a variety of simple carbohydrates, the most familiar of which are sucrose, glucose and fructose. But these are not the only sugars found in honey, not by a long shot. There’s a long list of others that includes raffinose, gentiobiose, maltose, maltulose, kojibiose, nigerose, turanose and many more. Then there are proteins, amino acids and various enzymes that include invertase, which converts sucrose to glucose and fructose and amylase which breaks starch down into smaller units. There’s also; glucose oxidase, which converts glucose to gluconolactone, which in turn yields gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide. Catalase breaks down the peroxide formed by glucose oxidase to water and oxygen.

Honey also contains trace amounts of the B vitamins riboflavin, niacin, folic acid, pantothenic acid and vitamin B6. It also has ascorbic acid (vitamin C), and the minerals calcium, iron, zinc, potassium, phosphorous, magnesium, selenium, chromium and manganese. Then, depending on what plants the bees have been visiting, there are all sorts of flavonoids, of which one, pinocembrin, is unique to honey and bee propolis. There’s still more. Honey contains organic acids such as acetic, butanoic, formic, citric, succinic, lactic, malic and pyroglutamic acids. Use the honey to make cake, and you’ll be generating dozens of more compounds, including hydroxymethylfurfural, a potential carcinogen! What a chemical concoction we have here, with a slew of compounds with multisyllabic, hard-to-pronounce names. We should really give it up, right Vani?

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It Started with a Mystery

Our OSS Blog - Mon, 12/07/2015 - 14:44

“You are what you eat” is a time honoured truism. After all, food is the only raw material that enters our body, so we are literally made of what we eat. That of course includes our brain. But what do we fill that brain with? Here I would propose another maxim: “You are what you read.” That comes to mind because I was recently asked about how I originally got interested in what I do. That meant I first had to think about what it is that I do. Of course I know what I spend my time on. I teach, I write, I blog, I answer email questions, I’m active on Facebook, radio and TV, always with an emphasis on science. But what is at the heart of what I really try to do? Simply put, I think I try to demystify science and dispel myths by sticking to facts. My views and approach have evolved over the years, by there was a germinating factor.

I grew up in Hungary before the internet, before computers. We didn’t even have a telephone. I didn’t know that television existed until I came to Canada. We did have radio, and I actually remember hearing the announcement of Stalin’s death, and listening to the 1954 world cup final between Germany and Hungary. The Germans got lucky because Puskas was injured.

So what did I do in the evenings? I read books. And some I think played a significant role in formulating my future interests. I was absolutely captivated by the first novel I ever read, Jules Verne’s “The Mysterious Island.” It told the story of how a group of northerners captured by the Confederates during the Civil War escaped by hijacking a balloon and became marooned on a deserted island somewhere in the South Pacific. Stranded there, they are forced to establish a colony by making use of their wits. One of the castaways, Cyrus Smith, is an engineer who turns out to be sort of a forerunner of MacGyver, the TV hero whose encyclopedic knowledge of science helped him solve problems by making use of whatever ordinary materials were available. Guided by Smith’s profound practical knowledge of botany, geology, physics and chemistry the colonists fabricate cooking pots, bricks, manage to smelt iron and even design a primitive telegraph system on the island.

Much to their surprise, as they run into problems, mysterious solutions appear. A box filled with weapons and tools inexplicably materializes, tablets of quinine magically turn up when malaria strikes, and a horde of invading pirates end up dead without any apparent wounds. With no logical explanation apparent, it seems that some benevolent deity is looking out for the colonists’ welfare. But in the end, the mystery is solved. The island turns out to be the hideout of Captain Nemo, a scientific genius, who lives in a grotto aboard his submarine, the Nautilus. It was he who had been the settlers’ mysterious benefactor. All of the events that had been so puzzling now turn out to have a down-to earth explanation. At that young age I didn’t understand all of the scientific details described in the book, but a couple of points struck home. Scientific ingenuity can solve a lot of problems, and phenomena that at first seem paranormal can turn out to be quite mundane as facts come to light.

One of the problems the colonists faced was to find a source of water. With his knowledge of geology, the engineer locates an underground lake. Unfortunately it is inaccessible and an explosive would be needed to blast apart the rocks blocking the path to the water. Smith has an idea. Make some nitroglycerin! And that, I think was my first exposure to chemistry! Although I didn’t follow Verne’s description of the process of making nitroglycerin, I do know that subsequently my interest perked every time I ran across the term. When I heard that “The Wages of Fear,” an adventure film about the difficulty of transporting the compound, would be playing in our local cinema I begged my parents to take me. (Yes, we did have movies). Later, I would often write about nitroglycerin, an excellent example of how a chemical can be used either to the benefit or detriment of mankind.

Recently I reread The Mysterious Island. With my current understanding of chemistry I now marvel at Jules Verne’s classic more than ever. His description of Smith’s production of nitroglycerin is brilliant and scientifically plausible. The key chemicals needed are glycerin and nitric acid and Smith manages to make both.

The colonists ‘dog is attacked by a dugong, a manatee-like marine creature and an underwater struggle ensues with the dog being saved by a mysterious hand (Captain Nemo’s as we later learn) that kills the dugong. The fatty animal is just what is needed to make glycerin. Any fat treated with soda (sodium carbonate) yields glycerin and soap, one of the oldest known chemical processes. But where to get sodium carbonate? It can be extracted from the ashes left when seaweed burns, which is just what Smith did. Then he needed nitric acid. That can be made by treating potassium nitrate, or saltpeter, with sulphuric acid. There was plenty of bird poop on the island, a good source of saltpeter, and fool’s gold, or iron sulphide, was also abundant. Heating the sulphide converted it into iron sulphate, a solution of which when distilled yielded sulphuric acid. When it came to making a still, Smith’s knowledge of pottery came in handy. The clever engineer then reacted the glycerin with nitric acid and produced the required nitroglycerin!

It turns out that the book that first stimulated my interest in science and sparked my passion for solving mysteries is more drenched in chemistry than I ever realized.

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Hazard and risk

Our OSS Blog - Thu, 11/26/2015 - 19:19

If you watched the news, read newspapers or surfed the web recently you will have been inundated with pictures of bacon and headlines describing it as carcinogenic. That’s because the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified processed meats as being carcinogenic, placing them in the same category as tobacco smoke, asbestos, oral contraceptives, alcohol, sunshine, X-rays, polluted air, and inhaled sand. However, it is critical to understand that the classification is based on hazard as opposed to risk. Hazard can be defined as a potential source of harm or adverse health effect. Risk is the likelihood that exposure to a hazard causes harm or some adverse effect. If a substance is placed in IARC’s Group 1, it means that there is strong evidence that the substance can cause cancer, but it says nothing about how likely it is to do so. That likelihood depends on several factors including innate carcinogenicity, extent of exposure and personal liability. Ultraviolet light, a component of sunlight, is a good example to illustrate the difference between hazard and risk

Light can be thought of as being composed of packets of energy called photons. When a photon impacts a molecule of DNA it can damage it, triggering an irregular multiplication of cells, in other words, cancer. X-rays are also made up of photons, but these are more energetic than the photons of ultraviolet light so they are more likely to damage DNA. Although both sunlight and X-rays are in Group 1, X-rays are clearly more capable of triggering cancer than sunlight. But exposure matters. A single chest X-ray is not a problem but repeated baking in the sun is. More photons of lower energy can have a greater effect than fewer photons of greater energy. Then there is individual liability. A person with dark skin is less at risk for developing cancer than someone with pale skin even at the same ultraviolet light exposure. Inhaled sand is also listed in Group 1. That’s because studies have shown that workers engaged in occupations that can result in inhaling sand show a significantly increased risk of cancer. But this doesn’t mean that going to the beach and frolicking in the sand is a risky business. Tobacco smoke is also in Group 1because there is no doubt that it causes lung cancer. In fact about ninety percent of all lung cancer cases can be attributed to smoking. Alcohol is also in this category because it is known to increase the risk of oral cancers as well as breast cancer, yet nobody worries about drinking a glass of wine. Listing processed meat in IARC’s Group 1 just says that like alcohol, like tobacco, like sunshine, and some 180 other chemicals, mixtures and exposure circumstances, it is capable of causing cancer. It does not mean that if you have a bacon lettuce and tomato sandwich you are putting yourself at risk. Let’s clarify what is meant by processed meat. Grinding meat into hamburger does not result in processed meat. But smoking, fermenting or adding chemicals such as salt or nitrites to either extend the product’s shelf life or change its taste does. We’re talking about bacon, sausages, hot dogs, salami, corned beef, beef jerky and ham as well as canned meat and often meat-based sauces. The evidence that these tasty morsels are linked to cancer comes from observational studies, which of course do not prove cause and effect. But they are quite consistent in demonstrating that populations that consume lots of processed meats have higher cancer rates, particularly colorectal cancer, even when corrections are made for smoking, other foods eaten and activity levels. Furthermore, there are theoretical and experimental foundations for declaring some components found in processed meat, like polycyclic aromatics, heterocyclic amines, nitrites, insulin-like growth factor and heme-iron, carcinogenic. The evidence is certainly not ironclad, but science rarely is. It comes down to making educated guesses and evaluating the downside of such guesses. There is no significant downside to limiting processed meat, especially if it is replaced by plant products.But the significant question to ask is how much can we reduce our risk of colorectal cancer by robbing our taste buds of the taste of bacon and such? The risk of this cancer in the general population is roughly six in a hundred. After poring through some 800 peer-reviewed publications, IARC estimates that eating 50 grams of processed meat every day over a lifetime increases risk by about 18%. In other words, if a hundred people follow such a regimen over a lifetime, there will be seven cases of colorectal cancer instead of six. So for an individual, the chance of getting colon cancer because of eating processed meats is about 1 in 100. That is a very small risk, but because there may well be millions of people following such a diet, the impact on the population can be significant, in IARC’s estimate, about 34,000 cases a year.

What do we do with this information? A one in a hundred chance is not insignificant and it makes sense to try to reduce it. That means consuming less than 50 grams of processed meat a day on average. To do that we need to keep some numbers in mind. Two to three strips of bacon add up to 50 grams, as do two slices of ham, 4 slices of salami or one hot dog. Remember though that we are talking averages here. Certainly a couple of hot dogs, a salami sandwich and a couple of bacon and egg breakfasts a week is not a great risk. But if you have a smoked meat sandwich, well, you have used up your weekly allotment. But remember that all these numbers are estimates, basically educated guesses, and are not based on hard evidence.

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