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.Read more
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.Read more
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.Read more
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.Read more
Most people would like to keep their heads. But don't count Thomas Donaldson among them. This mathematician and computer consultant wanted his cut off. And he wanted it to be done while he was still alive. In one of the most bizarre court cases in history, Donaldson petitioned the State of California to allow him to be anesthetized and then be frozen solid with liquid nitrogen. He then wanted his head removed and placed in a stainless steel thermos bottle while the rest of his body was discarded.
Donaldson was not mad, not completely anyway. In the 1970s he had become interested in cryonics, the study of the behavior of matter at low temperatures. He had read about the potential of frozen tissues to be thawed out for future use and when he heard of a company that was looking for people to be frozen with hopes of future resuscitation, he jumped. Alcor was founded in the 1970s in California, where else, with hopes of enlisting people who would be flash frozen after death and stored in liquid nitrogen until technology evolved to the degree that not only could they be brought back to life, but whatever disease they died of, could be cured. In 1975 Donaldson signed up for the program. Unfortunately, thirteen years later he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. He concluded that if he waited to die, his brain would be so ravaged by the tumor that any hope of bringing him back to life at some future date would be lost. But if he were immediately frozen, the tumor would be stopped in its tracks.
Only his head needed to be kept, Donaldson maintained, because by the time he would be "reanimated" scientists would easily be able to clone the rest of his body from his cells. The only problem was that the authorities made it clear that any technician who took part in this weird experiment would be charged with murder. Hence Donaldsons's court petition to allow himself to be frozen. It was his constitutional right, he claimed, to determine when and how he would die. The court did not agree and neither did the California Superior court which denied the petition. So Donaldson grumbled and waited to die, which he did in 2006. His body was frozen and now is stored in a cryogenic container at Alcor. As far as we know his head is still attached. That’s unlike baseball great Ted Williams whose head sits in a neighbouring much smaller container...Read more
Herbal medicine is the oldest form of medicine. When our early ancestors foraged for plants to eat, they encountered some that had benefits other than curbing hunger. Maybe it was pain relief from the mandrake root, or ginseng to boost energy, or cannabis to offer delight. By 1500 BC the Egyptians had amassed a wealth of information about medicinal herbs as documented in the famous Ebers Papyrus. It described the use of botanicals such as myrrh, cardamom, dill, fennel, thyme and frankincense for various ailments ranging from intestinal problems and breathing difficulties to crocodile bites. It also alluded to treating infections with moldy bread some 3500 years before Fleming’s discovery of penicillin. But, curiously, the Papyrus also featured magic spells to combat demons.
Then some 2000 years ago, texts of Ayurvedic medicine, the traditional form of healing in India, also described all sorts of herbal remedies, many of which are still used today by Ayurvedic practitioners. But longevity of use does not equate to evidence. That can only be arrived at through proper scientific studies. Mounting such studies is important because they can either dismiss or validate the effects of herbal remedies. As we well know, many of the drugs used today in conventional medicine were developed based upon investigations stimulated by folklore.
In Ayurvedic medicine extracts of Bacopa monnieri, a plant we know as “water hyssop,” have long been used with claims of memory and cognitive function improvement. This is of interest to researchers because of our aging population, and goodness knows, we could use some brain function improvement in the world. There actually have been several proper clinical trials carried out, all showing some signs of improvement. In the latest study, 81 healthy Australians over the age of 55 were treated either with Bacopa or a placebo. After 12 weeks, Bacopa significantly improved verbal learning and some aspects of memory on standardized tests, but that does not necessarily mean that Bacopa extracts have a significant effect when it comes to daily life. Except for one. Subjects taking the extract were more likely to suffer from increased stool frequency, abdominal cramps and nausea. Like any plant product, Bacopa contains numerous compounds, including a variety of triterpene glycosides that can enhance nerve impulse transmission and possibly affect brain function. Perhaps those that have specific activity can be isolated, standardized and used as a true memory pill. Dr. Oz has spoken favourably about the Bacopa extracts now available, but his claim that Bacopa can make you smarter is kind of dumb.Read more
In the Sherlock Holmes story, The Case of the Illustrious Client, a former paramour seeks revenge on the dastardly Baron Adelbert Gruner by splashing the Baron’s face with sulphuric acid, which at the time was commonly known as vitriol. The effect was accurately described by Conan Doyle, which is not surprising, given that the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories was a physician: “The vitriol was eating into it everywhere and dripping from the ears and the chin. One eye was already white and glazed. The other was red and inflamed. The features which I had admired a few minutes before were now like some beautiful painting over which the artist has passed a wet and foul sponge. They were blurred, discoloured, inhuman, terrible.” Such vitriolic attacks are terrible indeed.
Credit for the discovery of sulphuric acid is usually attributed to Jabir ibn Hayyan, an Arabian alchemist of the eight century. Our term “gibberish” supposedly derives from his English name Geber, in reference to the alchemists’ use of secret codes that to others were incomprehensible, or “gibberish.” But it seems Jabir’s experiments with hydrated sulfate salts of iron and copper were recorded well enough for him to be credited with the discovery of vitriol. The term “hydrated” refers to the inclusion of water in the crystal structure of these substances. Hydrated iron sulphate or copper sulphate decompose on heating to yield sulphur trioxide and water, which then combine to yield sulphuric acid, or vitriol. Vitreus is the Latin word for glass, and since crystals of sulphate salts have a glass-like appearance, “oil of vitriol” became a reasonable name for the acid that was derived from the heat treatment of these salts. Indeed, copper sulphate still has the common name blue vitriol, iron sulphate is green vitriol and cobalt sulphate is red vitriol.
Sulphuric acid is an extremely corrosive substance and can cause permanent disfigurement when splashed on the skin. Unfortunately such vitriolic attacks are not limited to fictional detective stories, they happen in real life. An attack by extremists on girls on their way to school in Afghanistan is a recent horrific example. Believing that girls would be polluted by education, they carried out an attack leaving some of the students scarred for life, both figuratively and literally. Used in this way, sulphuric acid is a terrible chemical weapon. But it is also the most important industrial chemical in the world, without which the steel, fertilizer and plastics industries would be crippled. There are no safe or dangerous chemicals, there are only safe and dangerous ways to use chemicals.Read more
A story is blazing around the blogosphere about a ten year old girl having an anaphylactic reaction to a blueberry pie. Physicians supposedly traced the reaction to streptomycin used as a pesticide on the blueberries. The account is spreading like wildfire with warnings about how an “antibiotic reside in food may cause severe allergies.” The reference is to a paper in the September issue of Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, a reputable publication. But there is a problem. The September issue is not yet out. So how do we know about the case? Because the Journal has put out a press release hyping the story. Scientific journals, just like any other publication, vie for readership and subscriptions, so they do seek attention. But here we are talking about a story that has some questionable features that cannot be checked because the actual paper is not yet available.
So what are these questionable features? First of all, the use of antibiotics as pesticides is rare. In Canada, streptomycin is registered only for use against “fire blight,” a destructive bacterial disease that can strike pear and apple trees. It cannot be used on blueberries. In the U.S. it may also be used on tomatoes and is even allowed in organic agriculture because it comes from a natural source, the bacterium Streptomyces griseus. The use of streptomycin is uncommon. Any suggestion that antibiotics are widely used as pesticides is simply wrong. The press release states that “as far as we know, this is the first report that links an allergic reaction to fruits treated with antibiotic pesticides.” Since streptomycin has been allowed for decades, and this is the first time a problem has cropped up, we are not looking at a highly significant problem. If indeed the problem was streptomycin.
We’ll have to wait to see what the case report actually says about how the reaction was linked to the antibiotic. Streptomycin breaks down quickly in the environment and the prescribed pre-harvest interval for its use is long so it would not be expected to show up in any marketed food. It is worth mentioning that at one time or another traces of fifty two pesticides have been detected on blueberries, but never streptomycin. For now, the story is more along the lines of the impropriety of an alarmist press release before the details of the actual study are made available.Read more
The press went crazy jumping all over a report that four North Carolina students invented a nail polish to detect "date rape" drugs. Just dip a finger into a drink, and watch for a colour change that is indicative of the beverage having been doctored with rohypnol, Xanax or gamma hydroxybutyrate, the classic date rape drugs. At least so goes the story.. Actually, the nail polish doesn't yet exist, it is just a concept. It is, however, a legitimate idea, given that test strips, coasters, straws and even glasses that change colour in response to the presence of certain drugs do exist.
The chemistry here is fascinating but very complex. It is based on a polymer which is cross linked after being treated with the drug that is to be eventually detected. The drug forges a space in the polymer matrix according to its molecular shape. It is then washed out leaving a cavity in the shape of the drug molecule. The same drug is then coupled to a dye and is added to occupy the spaces that have been vacated. When the polymer, which in theory could be incorporated into nail polish, is then dipped into a beverage, should any of the same drug be present, it will displace some of the the embedded molecules which after being bumped out release the dye that was attached.
Just how well the technology works still has not been properly established. There are many substances such as juices or milk that can interfere with the reaction.Furthermore there is a whole host of other potential date rape drugs like ketamine, zolpidem, barbiturates, chloral hydrate, opiods and phencyclidine that would not be detected. And of course the most widely used date rape drug is alcohol. Then there is also the issue that such products suggest that it is a potential victim's responsibility to detect the presence of a drug. As is far too common, press reports have been far too zealous in hyping this "invention."Read more
Health Canada is set to ban topical mosquito repellants that contain oil of citronella. The oil contains methyleugenol, a compound that has caused liver tumours in rats fed in large doses, but this really has no relevance to topical application by humans While there is no evidence of harm from any topical application, other than the rare allergic reaction, no formal studies of safety have been carried out. In this case Health Canada seems to be applying the letter of the law. Insecticides, whether natural or synthetic, are regulated by Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) which is distinct from the Natural Products Directorate. The law is that any pesticide has to be backed up by appropriate safety studies and the requirements here are far more stringent than those for natural products. The required safety studies for citronella have never been carried out because the product is not patentable and no company wants to invest the necessary funds.
Contrary to arguments voiced by some conspiracy theorists, Big Pharma, producers of DEET, is not behind the ban. Citronella isn’t a significant competitor for the simple reason that it doesn’t work very well. Basically, what Health Canada is saying to citronella repellant producers is, “hey, you are claiming your product is an insecticide, then it has to be regulated as one and the same rules apply as for any other insecticide.” And since the safety studies are not available, the law says citronella cannot be sold as an insecticide.
What is disturbing here is that Health Canada has gone after what almost certainly is an innocuous product while allowing a nonsensical homeopathic mosquito repellant, Mozi-Q, to be sold, even furnishing it with a homeopathic drug identification number. This absurdity comes about because homeopathic products fall under different regulations. There is no requirement for safety or efficacy. A ridiculous situation. Especially given that Mozi-Q presents a real risk. People apply it, believing the homeopathic hype and then go out and get bitten by a mosquito that potentially injects a non-homeopathic dose of West Nile virus.
Anyone wishing to still use citronella extracts will have purchase them in the U.S. where FDA or EPA see no problems. Don’t look for citronella in Europe though, their regulations are even stricter than Canada’s. But dog owners who have been using oil citronella to condition dogs from barking don’t have to worry, citronella scents will still be allowed for the device that hangs around their pet’s neck. And citronella extract will continue to be used extensively in the perfumery industry. Nobody smells a problem there.Read more
When I first came across a “wonder” product called ASEA on the web, I thought someone had come up with a clever parody. The Internet of course is full of of ads for supplements, drinks and gimmicks of every conceivable variety that promise to keep us out of the clutches of the grim reaper. There are extracts of exotic berries and herbs. There are miraculous minerals and mushrooms. There are oxygenated and magnetized waters. And then there is ASEA.
The product’s name derives from the word “sea” and the Latin prefix “a” meaning “from.” From the sea! A very appropriate name. The ingredients on the label tell the story. Distilled water and salt! What we have here is sea water! That’s why I thought this was a parody. Selling salt water as an anti-aging regimen? Isn’t that sort of like selling ice to Arctic explorers? I thought someone was making fun of all the nonsensical products being sold. But it turns out that is not the case. This is a real product, sold for very real money. Lots of very real money.
Asea is promoted in ads as “Time machine in a bottle,” the message obviously being that imbibing in this salt water will turn back the clock. Of course you can’t make any such claim on the product itself because that would require some sort of evidence, so the bottle simply says, “advancing life.” A nebulous, meaningless statement. I suppose one could say that since salt is essential to life, it does advance life. But if you are going to make a case for selling salt water as a rejuvenation therapy, you have to come up with something a bit more impressive than “advancing life.” So what claim did ASEA come up with? “The world’s only Redox Signaling supplement.”
Someone must have been reading the scientific literature and came across “redox signaling,” an interesting and evolving area of research. Our nerve cells communicate with each other through chemicals called neurotransmitters. Some of these chemical messengers are free radicals, which are highly reactive species that can either gain or loose electrons, or in proper terminology, take part in oxidation or reduction reactions. The term redox signaling is used when the chemical messengers between cells are free radicals. What this has to do with ASEA is a mystery. And we don’t get much help from the information on the label which states that “ASEA is a proprietary blend of naturally occurring reactive molecules derived from a patented redox balance process. This unique process rearranges the constituent components into a beneficial mixture that is critical to to proper balanced cellular chemistry enabling the immune system to function at its optimum level.” This is nothing more than meaningless double talk. What reactive molecules are they talking about? The only ingredient listed is salt.
I thought that perhaps I could learn something about the mysterious chemistry involved by watching the company’s video entitled “The Science Behind Asea.” Turned out to be nothing more than a comic series of testimonials about improved mood and energy. Of course you can get testimonials about anything either by hiring actors to play the role of satisfied customers or by interviewing people who are experiencing a placebo effect. I’m still not convinced that this whole thing didn’t start out as a joke by someone wondering if they could sell something as ridiculous as salt water as a health product. They found it worked, and now they are in the business that amounts to selling hair dye to bald people. What I have to say to people promoting ASEA is “see ya.”Read more
The term derives from “quaranta giorni,” meaning 40 days, and traces back to the 14th century when the city of Dubrovnik, now in Croatia, was under Venetian rule. The Great Pestilence, or the Great Plague, as it was known at the time, was devastating Europe. As a form of protection, Dubrovnik declared that all ships and people had to be isolated for 40 days before entering the city. Later, the disease would be referred to as the Black Death — probably because of the gloom it brought, although some theorize that the “black” referred to the terrible dark bruising of the skin due to internal bleeding, a hallmark of the disease.
Between 1345 and 1360, the plague wiped out roughly half of Europe’s population. The cause was unknown, but it was clear that the disease was contagious. Once it took hold, it spread like wildfire. In Milan, doctors advised that victims should be walled up in their homes along with healthy family members — a measure that apparently worked, since Milan had the lowest death rate from the plague in all of Italy.
It would not be until 1894 that Alexandre Yersin of France’s Pasteur Institute would identify a bacterium as the causative agent while investigating an outbreak of the plague in Hong Kong. The bacterium, eventually named Yersinia pestis in his honour, is thought to have originated in Asia, where it found a hospitable environment in fleas, which would readily transmit it through their bites. Since fleas infested rats and mice, rodents that were regular passengers on ships, the disease spread throughout the Mediterranean and Europe.
Infection with the bacterium can take several forms, with “bubonic plague” being the most notorious. This term originates from the Greek for “groin,” due to the characteristic swellings of the lymph glands particularly in the groin, an area close to the legs, where flea bites are most likely to occur. In “septicemic” and “pneumonic plague,” bacteria enter the bloodstream and can be transmitted from person to person, especially though the coughing associated with pneumonic plague.
When science fails to find an explanation for a phenomenon, superstition and quackery rush in to fill the void. And there certainly was no scientific explanation for the plague in the 14th century. The Church decreed that the Black Death was punishment for human sin. Lepers, because of their outward signs that resembled the plague, were blamed, as were astrological alignments and volcanic eruptions.
“Flagellants” believed God’s punishment could be avoided by stripping to the waist and whipping themselves as they marched from town to town. Jews were also targeted, accused of poisoning wells. Many Jewish communities in Europe were exterminated in hopes of bringing an end to the plague. In Cologne, thousands of Jews were burned alive after being accused of starting the plague. Black cats also became victims. They were thought to be witches in an animal form, casting their spell on the population. Since cats were a natural enemy of the disease-carrying rats, hunting them actually increased the spread of the plague.
As far as treatments went, there were none. Since the plague was often accompanied by a terrible smell, people walked around with flowers under their noses hoping to ward off the stench and the disease. This, of course, did nothing. Neither did the burning of aromatic woods to purify the atmosphere. Other attempts to remedy the “bad air” included the ringing of bells and the firing of guns. Birds were released indoors so that the flapping of their wings would break up the pestilence. Bathing was thought to be dangerous, as was the consumption of olive oil. And one of the most bizarre pieces of advice given to men was that if they valued their lives, they must preserve their chastity. Apparently no such advice was given to women.
The belief that pleasant smells were of some help persisted through the 17th century, when the Great Plague once again terrified Londoners. The classic children’s rhyme about a “pocketful of posies” dates back to that time. Posies were flowers, but as the lyrics indicate, they did not do much good against the “ring of rosies,” the rose-coloured rash in the form of a ring around flea bites. The outcome of the disease was clear: “Atishoo, atishoo, we all fall down.” And some 100,000 citizens of London did.
Holding garlic in the mouth, swishing vinegar or burning sulphur to get rid of the “bad air” did no good. Smoking was also thought to be protective, and even children were forced to smoke tobacco, with threats of being whipped if they didn’t.
Cases of the plague still occur today, but they are rare. The first effective treatment appeared in 1932 with the advent of the sulphonamide drugs, but today the standard treatment is in the form of such antibiotics as streptomycin, chloramphenicol, tetracycline and the fluoroquinolones.
Unfortunately, the possibility of using the bacterium as a form of biological warfare exists. Indeed, recognition of the contagious nature of the plague resulted in the first example of biological warfare in 1347, when in an attack on the Crimean city of Caffa, the Mongols catapulted the bodies of plague victims over the city walls. More recently, in 1940, a Japanese plane dropped a load of infected rat fleas over a Chinese town, causing a local plague. Today, stories circulate about various countries having developed strains of the bacterium that are resistant to all drugs as bacterial warfare agents.
But for now, our major worry is the Ebola virus, and quarantine is the most effective way to halt its spread. In this case, about 21 days after exposure to an infected person is sufficient, that being the incubation period for the disease. If no symptoms appear after this period, there is no worry about the infection being passed on. It appears that contagion occurs only when symptoms are present. But if quarantine isn’t instituted when appropriate, we may have to confront a scourge that will outdo the Black Death.Read more
Is fish really brain food? P.G. Wodehouse certainly thought so. In his wonderful “Jeeves” stories, Bertie Wooster encourages his brainy butler to eat more fish whenever a particularly challenging problem arises. But to what extent does fiction mirror real life? One can make a theoretical case for fish consumption based on the fact that docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, the famous omega-3 fat in fish, is the main component of brain cell membranes, and that communication between brain cells is a function of the integrity of these membranes.
There is actually some experimental evidence to support a link between fish consumption and brain health. Infants born to mothers who consumed more fish during pregnancy have been shown to have improved verbal intelligence, better fine motor skills and pro-social behavior. A study has also correlated fish intake during pregnancy with IQ in 8-year old children. It is likely that these effects are due to increased blood levels of DHA in the offspring, but as is generally the case, the scenario is complicated. When blood is drawn from umbilical cords, it turns out that the concentration of the various fatty acids depends on the genetics both of the mother and the baby. In other words, depending on genotypes, an infant may benefit more or less from fish in the mom’s diet.
What about brain function at the other extreme of life, senior citizens? To get some insight here, researchers examined MRI brain scans of 260 individuals over the age of 65 who had normal cognitive function looking for differences associated with fish consumption as determined by dietary surveys. Subjects who ate baked or broiled but not fried fish every week had larger grey matter volumes in the areas of the brain responsible for memory and cognition. Interesting, but there was no determination as to whether these increased volumes translated to any change in brain power.
Curiously, no relationship was found with omega-3 fat intake as calculated from the diet surveys, suggesting that eating fish weekly may prevent brain ageing regardless of omega-3 content. But it may also be that eating fish is a marker for some other effect. People who ate fish were more likely to have a university education than those who didn’t. So perhaps it is mental exercise that was responsible for the changes in brain volume. There is also evidence that eating fish reduces the risk of heart disease. Maybe eating fish makes people smarter and more capable of understanding why they should be following the guidelines designed to reduce the risk of heart disease.Read more
A question came up about the risks of chemicals leaching out of those convenient coffee K cups. Yes, chemicals do leach out. That of course is the idea, you want to leach out the hundreds of compounds that contribute to coffee flavour and aroma and you also want a good shot of the stimulant caffeine. However, the likely reason for the question was concern about chemicals leaching out from the plastic. Yes, that happens too.Anytime two surfaces come into contact, especially if one is a liquid, there will be transfer of chemicals. I don't know exactly what plastic is used in these cups since the company maintains that this is proprietary information. By its texture, it seems the plastic is either polystyrene or polypropylene. It certainly is not polycarbonate which would be a source of bisphenol A (BPA). Traces of styrene, the compound from which polystyrene is made, may leach out. But styrene also occurs naturally in coffee beans, so all coffee will have some styrene. This is really not much of an issue because styrene is quickly metabolized and excreted.
If anyone has concerns about styrene, they had better stay away from cinnamon which can have as much as 39,000 ppb of styrene as opposed to the 5 ppb that may be leached out from polystyrene. They will also have to stay away from beer which has up to 25 ppb of naturally occurring styrene. If the K cup is made of polypropylene, there is no issue whatsoever. No compound of any consequence leaches out of this plastic. Basically what we have here is a tempest in a Kcup. If there is to be a concern, it centers in the environmental unfriendliness of these little cups which may pose a big problem in terms of where they end up.Read more
You may have heard of propylene glycol in several contexts. It is used as a safer alternative to ethylene glycol in antifreeze, as a preservative in foods and cosmetics, as a solvent in some pharmaceuticals and as a carrier of nicotine and flavours in electronic cigarettes. Propylene glycol also appears in the list of substances used by Tom’s of Maine, a company that prides itself on using natural ingredients in the consumer products they sell. According to Tom’s: “We’re always thinking about natural ingredients, where they come from and what they can do for a healthy world. That’s because ingredients derived from nature and handled responsibly tell you something important about a product. Something that feels good. And feeling good is what our ingredients list is all about.”
In that ingredients list the source of propylene glycol is described as “natural gas from the earth.” This is ridiculous on many levels. Propylene glycol is made via standard synthetic methods from propene oxide which in turn is made from propene. It is true that propene does occur in small amounts in natural gas, but that is not from where it is sourced. Propene is made by the catalytic cracking of larger molecules in petroleum. Of course, whether the starting material for the synthesis of propylene glycol comes from natural gas or not is totally irrelevant. Petroleum is no less natural than natural gas.
This is not meant to impugn propylene glycol in any way. It is a safe enough chemical. But trying to build up its image by claiming that it comes from “natural gas in the earth” is pure nonsense. And I won’t even mention that there are all sorts of gases “in the earth,” hydrogen sulphide for example, which will do away with people quite nicely. Basically, the term “natural” which has become so common in marketing has also become meaningless. If one ignores processing, every substance in the world can be described as natural because all raw materials come from nature. Where else would they come from? A car could be described as natural since the metals, leather and plastics used all can somehow be traced back to substances that can be found in nature. We either need some proper definition of the term natural that can be applied to marketing or eliminate its use completely.Read more
Stories about recalls of various consumer products are all too common these days, but one about contaminated children’s sunscreen lotion caught my attention. Not because it posed a significant risk, which it didn’t, but because the report mentioned “glucono delta lactone.” This is a compound I worked with extensively back in my graduate school days, using it as a starting material for the synthesis of various carbohydrates. What was it doing now, in a story about a sunscreen recall?
Cosmetic products, particularly those that are water-based, are prone to contamination by bacteria, moulds and fungi. This is not only a “cosmetic” problem, as it were, it is also a health issue. One would therefore presume that the inclusion of preservatives to ensure a safe product would be seen by consumers as a positive feature, but such is not the case. Preservatives are regarded by many as nasty chemicals that are to be avoided.
This mistrust can be traced back to a 2004 paper by Dr. Philippa Darbre of the University of Reading that described finding traces of parabens, a commonly used class of preservatives, in breast tumours. The study received extensive press coverage, with few accounts pointing out that there had been no control group. Since parabens are widely used in foods and cosmetics, they can conceivably be detected in most everyone.
Although Darbre admitted that the presence of parabens did not prove they caused the tumours, she did alarm women by pointing out that these preservatives have estrogen-like activity and that such activity has been linked to breast cancer. What she failed to mention was that the estrogenic activity of the various parabens is thousands of times less than that of estrogenic substances found in foods such as soybeans, flax, alfalfa and chickpeas, or indeed of the estrogen produced naturally in the body.
Regulatory agencies around the world have essentially dismissed Darbre’s study and maintain that there is no evidence linking parabens to cancer. Dr. Darbre, undoubtedly disturbed by being rebuffed, has continued to publish research about parabens, attempting to justify her original insinuation of risk. Her latest paper describes the enhanced migration of human breast-cancer cells through a laboratory gel after 20 weeks of exposure to parabens. One is hard pressed to see the relevance of this “in vitro” experiment to the use of 0.8% parabens in a topically applied cosmetic.
Nevertheless, because of the concerns that have been raised about parabens and other synthetic preservatives, the cosmetics industry is turning toward the use of “natural” substances that have an unjustified public image of being safer.
As I have said many times before, the safety and efficacy of a chemical does not depend on whether it was made by a chemist in a lab, or by Mother Nature in a bush.
Its chemical and biological properties depend on its molecular structure and the only way to evaluate these is through appropriate experiments.
It is through such experiments that glucono delta lactone’s ability to impair the multiplication of microbes was determined. In solution, the compound slowly converts to gluconic acid, creating an inhospitable acidic environment for bacteria and fungi. Marketing-wise, glucono delta lactone can be labelled as “natural” because it can be found in honey and various fruits where it is formed from glucose by the action of enzymes released from the Aspergillus niger, a ubiquitous soil fungus that commonly taints plants.
Industrially, glucono delta lactone is produced by fermenting glucose derived from corn or rice with the same fungus. But acidification alone is not enough to eliminate the risk of microbial contamination, so the producers of the children’s sunscreen turned for help to that spicy mix of vegetables known as kimchee.
Korea’s national dish is traditionally made by fermenting cabbage, cucumber and radishes with the bacterium, Leuconostoc kimchii. One of the products secreted by the bacteria during the fermentation process is a peptide (a short chain of amino acids) that has antimicrobial properties.
“Leucidal Liquid” is a commercial extract of the antimicrobial peptide produced by the action of Leuconostoc kimchii on radishes. In combination with glucono delta lactone, it forms an effective preservative system; but as evidenced by the sunscreen recall, not in all cases. The lotions were free of contaminants before being shipped to retailers but some samples on the shelf were later found to contain bacteria and fungi that could have caused a problem if absorbed through cuts or lesions.
Contamination would most likely not have occurred if parabens, a far more effective preservative, had been used. But the label could then not have declared the product to be “natural.”
And here we have a curiosity.
Compounds in the parabens family actually do occur in nature. Methylparaben can be found in blueberries and interestingly, in the secretions of the female dog where it acts as a pheromone notifying the male that its advances are welcome. But since extracting parabens from berries or canine secretions is not commercially viable, the compounds are produced synthetically. This means that even though the final product is identical to that found in nature, it cannot legally be called “natural.”
A further issue, at least in the eyes of the chemically unsophisticated, is that benzene, the starting material for the synthesis, is derived from petroleum. Thanks to activist dogma, labelling any chemical these days as “petroleum-based” is tantamount to calling it toxic.
So far, no manufacturer has tried to counter this assault by describing petroleum as an organic substance formed through the natural decomposition of biological matter by soil-dwelling microbes, but similar seductive innuendo about “natural” ingredients is not uncommon in the cosmetics industry.
Phenoxyethanol is sometimes advertised as a natural alternative to parabens because it occurs in green tea, but in fact is commercially made from petroleum-derived phenol.
Some companies tout sodium hydroxymethylglycinate as a natural preservative, basing on the fact that it is made from glycine, an amino acid abundant in the human body. But glycine has to be put through a series of synthetic modifications to produce the preservative.
The demonization of synthetic preservatives has led not only to the glorification of less-effective natural products but to a host of “preservative-free” ones as well. These should only be trusted if they come in either single-use vials, or if the sterilized contents are sealed in a container with a pump that prevents entry of microbes when it is used.
Otherwise “preservative-free” can quickly become “bacteria-filled.”Read more
I think we are safe in saying that green tea doesn’t make taste buds frolic. So why do people drink it? The same reason for which the Chinese have been consuming it for millennia. Its supposed health benefits. Green tea doesn’t contain the flavourful compounds that form when tea leaves are allowed to ferment. During fermentation enzymes are released that convert the naturally occurring polyphenols in the leaves to a host of tasty compounds. Instead of being fermented, green tea is made by steaming or drying fresh tea leaves in order to prevent oxidation of the polyphenols. It is these polyphenols that in laboratory and animal studies show anti-cancer effects as well as increased rates of metabolism.
But how can on benefit from tea’s polyphenols without having to put up with green tea’s unappealing flavor? Supplement manufacturers have found a way. Just extract the catechins, the main class of polyphenols in tea, and plunk them in a pill. Then promote the pill as a cancer-fighting or fat burning supplement. 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 possibly at a high cost. 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. Doctors feared he may need a liver transplant but luckily his liver, an organ that has regenerative properties, managed to recover. He did, however, have to give up sporting activities and will require regular checkups of his liver function.
Unfortunately this is not an isolated case and such cases are not limited to green tea extracts. Various herbal supplements have been linked with liver damage, some because of undeclared ingredients, such as steroids. These are promoted as bodybuilding supplements and may actually have an effect because of the hidden steroids. People generally assume that herbal products that are sold are tested for safety and efficacy but this is not the case. Until regulations are tightened the incidence of liver damage from dietary supplements is going to continue to increase.Read more
Farmers who are growing herbicide resistant crops such as corn or soy may start to identify with Audrey Jr. in Little Shop of Horrors. In that film, later made into a Broadway musical, a dorky florist’s assistant cultivates a plant he names Audrey Jr. after the co-worker he pines for. This is no ordinary plant, this one craves blood to grow and its constant cry to “feed me” wreaks havoc with human lives. While there are no plants that suck blood, although ones like the Venus fly trap do dine on insects, there are ones which at least figuratively suck farmers’ blood. We are talking about weeds that can no longer be killed by herbicides. Weeds along with insects are farmers’ great enemies. They compete with crops for nutrients in the soil, reducing crop yields. Various herbicides are available to kill weeds but the problem is that they damage crops as well. That’s why farmers welcomed the introduction in the 1990s of soybeans and corn that were genetically engineered to resist the herbicide glyphosate. Fields could be sprayed to wipe out weeds without harming crops. Yields and profits increased. But in the long run, you can’t beat biology. It was no secret from the beginning that eventually weeds would develop resistance to glyphosate.
This is what farmers are now seeing. The lifeblood sucking weed that corn, cotton and soy growers are worried about is called palmer amaranth. It has already devastated cotton fields in the south and is moving into corn and soy fields in the Midwest, probably introduced by manure from cows fed cottonseed contaminated with palmer seeds. Short of pulling out weeds by hand, which is possible but very labour intensive, farmers will have to look for new technologies. On the horizon are crops that have been genetically engineered to resist 2,4-D and glufosinate, two very effective herbicides that traditionally cannot be sprayed on growing crops because they will kill them just like they kill weeds. But 2,4-D will kill weeds that are resistant to glyphosate and will not harm the crops that have been engineered to resist the chemical. Of course this isn’t a long term solution because the weeds will eventually develop a resistance to 2,4-D as well. And 2,4-D doesn’t have quite as good a safety profile as glyphosate. Weeds that cannot be destroyed by herbicides are a farmer’s bane, and eventually, like Audrey Jr. they come out on top.Read more
If you have eaten curry, you have probably tasted fenugreek. The seeds of this plant as well as its fresh leaves are commonly used as ingredients in curries. They are added for taste but they also impart a smell that is due to sotalone, a compound that at low concentrations has a distinct maple syrup-like odour. Since sotalone passes through the body unchanged, it can impart a scent both to the urine and sweat. The compound is actually used as one of the flavor components in artificial maple syrup and can be isolated from fenugreek seeds. Facilities that process the seeds often smell strongly of maple syrup and the scent can be carried quite some ways by the wind. Back in 2005 Manhattanites began to complain of a strong maple syrup odour and rumours circulated about it being some sort of chemical warfare. It took a while but eventually the smell was traced to a company in New Jersey that was processing fenugreek seeds. That rumor even made it on to an episode of 30 Rock, the popular sit com.
It is not only curry eaters who can smell of maple syrup. It can be an issue for lactating mothers who take fenugreek supplements to increase milk production. While there is much anecdotal evidence that this works, the few studies that have been carried out have shown mixed results. There is always a question of just how much to take, which is tough to answer because herbal supplements are difficult to standardize and often there is a mismatch between what is indicated on the label and what is actually in the product.
Herbal remedies are drugs and like any drug can have side effects. As a food fenugreek rarely causes problems but as a supplement it can result in loose stools and intestinal discomfort. Allergy to fenugreek is possible especially in people who have allergies to peanuts and chickpeas which are in the same botanical family. Since fenugreek can lower blood glucose, it can in some cases cause hypoglycemia. This is of special concern in diabetics because fenugreek may enhance the effect of antidiabetic drugs. On the other hand, because it can lower blood glucose, fenugreek may be of some benefit to diabetics, but again there is the problem of knowing how much to take because of lack of standardization.
Since fenugreek can cause uterine contractions, it should not be taken during pregnancy.When taken for lactation, the advice that is often offered is to slowly increase the dosage until the sweat or urine begins to smell like maple syrup. Breast fed babies may also smell of maple syrup if the mom has been ingesting fenugreek and that can lead to false diagnosis of “maple syrup urine disease.” This is a serious genetic disorder characterized by a deficiency in enzymes that metabolize the common amino acids valine, leucine and isoleucine. A buildup of these amino acids and their breakdown products can lead to severe neurological damage and eventually death. One of these breakdown products is sotalone, the odour of which was usually a clue to the diagnosis of maple syrup odour disease. Today, should the condition be suspected based on a baby’s failure to thrive, testing of the blood amino acids can detect the condition even before any scent appears. Serious consequences can then be avoided by adhering to a diet that is based on a special formula free of the problematic amino acids.
Some women take “Blessed Thistle” along with fenugreek because this herb also has a reputation as a lactating agent. In this case there is insufficient evidence for efficacy or about the safety of taking this herb during pregnancy or while breast feeding. Blessed thistle is not the same as “milk thistle” which in spite of its name has nothing to do with encouraging milk production. The plant derives its name from the characteristic white streaks on its leaves. An extract of milk thistle, often called “silymarin” is composed of several compounds that have a protective effect on the liver. Some strudies have shown a benefit in cirrhosis as well as fatty liver disease. One study even claimed effective treatment of poisoning caused by Amanita phalloides, one of the most deadly mushrooms known. It contains compounds that attack the liver.Read more
Gelotophobia can best be defined as the “potentially debilitating fear of being laughed at.” A person suffering from gelotophobia may hear a stranger’s laugh and believe it is aimed at him or her. In extreme cases the response may be palpitations, breaking out in a sweat, or even violence. Some school shootings have apparently been triggered by classmates having made fun of the shooter. Gelotophobes have a fear of being ridiculed and unfortunately often cannot distinguish playful teasing from ridicule. Psychologist Willibald Ruch of the University of Zurich has attempted to put gelotophobia on a scientific footing by surveying over 23,000 people in 73 countries. He found that the condition affects anywhere from two to thirty percent of the population. The highest incidence was in Asia where “saving face” is particularly important.
And how does one find gelotophobes? Ruch did it by devising a questionnaire that gauged agreement with statements such as “I avoid displaying myself in public because I fear that people could become aware of my insecurity and could make fun of me,” or “while dancing I feel uneasy because I am convinced that those watching me assess me as being ridiculous.” I can add a few personal observations here. When I teach organic chemistry I sometimes ask students to come and solve a problem on the blackboard. Usually there is a shortage of volunteers. But then if I say, “don’t worry, nobody is going to laugh at you,” the hands start to go up. Interestingly, if instead I say “why not try it, the worst thing that can happen is that we will laugh at you,” some hands begin to wave wildly. These are the “gelotophiles,” or people who enjoy being laughed at. Maybe they could give some pointers to the gelotophobes.Read more