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Separating Sense from Nonsense
Updated: 18 min 7 sec ago

You Asked: What is Rooibos tea?

Fri, 12/19/2014 - 14:10

I had a feeling that doing a PubMed search for Dr. Annique Theron would not yield much.  In fact it yielded zero results.  I can’t even find a biography of Dr. Theron, so I have no idea what sort of doctor she is.  But she does exist.  Pictures of the lady are not hard to find.  After all, she founded a company, modestly named Annique, that sells a line of teas and cosmetics based on her “amazing” discovery.  That discovery occurred back in 1968 when, according to the company’s promotional material, Theron stumbled on the natural healing powers of South African Rooibos tea.  She was struggling to calm down her allergenic baby, and for some reason decided to dope her with a concoction made by steeping the leaves of the Asphalatus linearis plant in hot water.  It worked!  So she claims anyway.  In fact it worked so well that Theron decided to investigate its potential in other conditions and found it to have anti-allergenic properties.

She began to spread the word in a book entitled “Allergies: An Amazing Discovery.”  The book appears to be out of print and there is nothing published in the scientific literature by any Annique Theron, so it is hard to know what evidence she had for her amazing discovery.  But it wasn’t long before people were attributing all sorts of miraculous effects to Rooibos tea.  Not only was it anti-allergenic, it was was anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-aging.  Dr. Theron sure saw its potential, and not being anti-profit she founded the “Annique” company that quickly developed an inventory of all sorts of products based on Rooibos tea.  There were digestive aids, detox teas, happy teas along with a whole line of cosmetic products.

Truth be told, Rooibos tea was around long before Theron’s supposed discovery.  Dutch settlers in South Africa brewed the needle-like leaves as an alternative to expensive tea which had to be imported.  It was enjoyed mostly for its sweet taste until Theron put it on the world map with her undocumented discovery.  Researchers, wondering if the plant contained any compounds that could substantiate the folkloric stories, began to study its chemistry.  And they isolated a number of compounds with biological effects, including some antioxidants such as aspalathin and nothofagin. One substance they did not find was caffeine.  Advertisers tout the antioxidant capacity of Rooibos, pointing out that it surpasses that of green tea.  This is a laboratory finding that doesn’t have much meaning for consumers.  What about all the other research that Rooibos tea boosters tout?  Well, if you are interested in whether Rooibos tea prevents the breakdown of red blood cells in Japanese quail, the answer is yes, to a moderate extent.  Or if you want to know if it can suppress the age-related accumulation of lipid peroxides in rat brain, you’ll find a slight effect there too.  Interested in whether the leaves of the plant contain estrogenic compounds? They do.

The fact is that while academically interesting, such research is marginal in terms of any meaning for humans.  And there are no controlled trials showing any benefit for people.  The taste, though, may be interesting.  The newest incarnation of Rooibos is as so-called “red espresso.”  It’s made in an espresso machine using the powdered leaves instead of coffee.  This is what the ad for the world’s first tea espresso sounds like: “With its unique combination of health properties, plus delicious taste and style, red espresso revolutionizes the café space by making it something never thought possible: healthy.  Loaded with antioxidants and 100% natural.  Of course you can say the same for coffee.

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How can a pharmacist believe the unbelievable?

Fri, 12/19/2014 - 13:43

How can anyone trained as a pharmacist, with courses in chemistry, biology, and physiology believe that ghostly impressions of molecules imprinted onto sugar can cure disease? Michelle Boisvert, a Quebec pharmacist, not only believes in the power of non-existent molecules, she runs HomeoCan, a company dedicated to selling "drugs" that contain no active ingredient. She has now had a run-in with the Quebec Order of Pharmacists resulting in her being fined $17,000 and being kicked out of the Order. This has a troublesome angle. She wasn't kicked out because she is dispensing nonsense, but because she was using her position as a pharmacist to promote a commercial product.

Truth be told, you cannot be kicked out of the Order for selling homeopathic products because they are legal in Canada. But any pharmacist who dabbles in this medical oddity is either unethical or frighteningly scientifically illiterate. I know that many people defend homeopathy justifying it based on its popularity. Well, science is not a popularity contest, it is evidence-based. And the evidence is that "drugs" that contain no active ingredients cannot have any efficacy. Unfortunately many people are confused about what homeopathy is and think that it is just an umbrella term for "natural" or "alternative" practices. It is not that. Please do take a few minutes to read this excellent article that clarifies the practice of homeopathy by colleague Dr. Harriet Hall. http://www.csicop.org/si/show/an_introduction_to_homeopathy

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Seedy business in grape seed extracts

Sat, 12/13/2014 - 11:56

A modest amount of red wine reduces the risk of heart disease, possibly because of the polyphenols it contains. Grape seed extract contains the same polyphenols as found in wine and has therefore been widely marketed as a dietary supplement with claims of having a beneficial effect on the human cardiovascular system. The problem here, though, is that the studies that have explored the effects of grape seed extract on human subjects have shown either none or minimal benefits. One study showed a slight increase in the resting diameter of the brachial artery in the arm, a finding of unknown clinical significance.

A meta analysis of nine randomized controlled trials concluded that grape seed extract had no effect on blood cholesterol, inflammation as determined by C-reactive protein levels, or triglycerides. There was a slight decrease of 1.5 mm Hg in systolic blood pressure, which is minimal when compared with what can be achieved with medication.

Overall there does not seem to be much evidence for taking grape seed extract supplements, although given that there is a great variety in supplement composition, it is possible that some specific supplements may be more effective than others. Unfortunately there are no quality control standards, as is clearly demonstrated by a recent analysis of 21 extracts purchased from a variety of outlets. Compared with authentic grape seed extract, there was great variability in chemical composition of the commercial extracts, but on average they all contained significantly less polyphenols than the authentic samples.

That, though, was not the only problem. Six of the samples contained no detectable quantities of grape seed extract, but were instead composed of peanut skin extract. Peanut skin does contain a variety of polyphenols similar to that found in grape seeds but the presence of peanut extract raises the issue of allergenicity. It is certainly possible that people with a peanut allergy may react to the adulterated extract. The motivation for such adulteration is financial, since peanut skin extract is much cheaper than authentic grape seed extract. Adulteration and lack of reliable data about composition is not the only problem. Let’s remember that even with authentic grape seed extract there is no compelling evidence of health benefits. And what about that glass of red wine with dinner? Drink it because you like it, not because of the polyphenols it contains. And we won’t even mention that ethanol is a carcinogen.

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Strange Treatments

Sat, 12/06/2014 - 15:45

Today we have a pretty good grasp of what causes illness. We know about infections, carcinogens, pollution, genetics, anatomical abnormalities and the consequences of a poor diet. We also have effective pharmaceutical and surgical treatments, albeit not always as effective as we would like. But at least they are based upon science. But that has only been the case since we’ve had a good grasp on how the body functions, which is basically the last hundred or so years. Before that desperate people resorted to some pretty wacky treatments, at least wacky in retrospect. At the time I suppose they seemed rational. The ancient Greeks introduced the idea of “like cures like,” later adopted by homeopaths. A poisonous snake was unaffected by its own poison, so Greek physicians believed snakebite should be treated by applying the flesh of a snake, or a concoction made by boiling a snake, to the wound.

This same principle was used in the fourteenth century when Europe was struck by the Black Death. This plague which killed about a million and a half people in Britain alone was believed to be spread by bad smells. That of course was not the case. The plague is a bacterial infection that is spread by fleas which live on rodents such as rats. Rodents are more likely to inhabit filthy areas which smell so there may actually be an association between the plague and smells but the smell does not cause the disease. Nevertheless, the belief was that the disease was caused by deadly vapors, and in the spirit of like cures like, the foul vapors could be warded off by other evil smells. Some physicians even recommended keeping goats inside homes to produce a therapeutic stink. Even more bizarre was the suggestion of using human flatus which was supposed to be stored in a jar and inhaled when the plague struck. How people were supposed to make the collection isn’t clear.

The flatus treatment sounds just about as crazy as a doctor’s recommendation in 1728 for curing coughs with snail syrup. Take garden snails, early in the morning while the dew is upon them, he said, take off their shells; slit them; and with half a pound of sugar, put them in a bag and hang them in a cellar and the syrup will melt and drop through, ready to be swallowed when a cough appears. That recommendation is about as hard to swallow as the snail juice. Modern science hasn’t wiped out all outlandish therapies. In Hong Kong snake soup remains the remedy for a cold with venomous snakes like the king cobra being the most highly prized ingredient. Sometimes a living snake is skinned and the gall bladder removed to be used as a cure-all. The treatment does have a dangerous side effect. Escape of snakes from shops is a problem.

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You Asked: Blueberries and Milk

Tue, 12/02/2014 - 21:04

“I put blueberries and milk on my cereal in the morning. Which one should I give up?” That was the question I received via email. A reference was included to a study about the antioxidant activity of blueberries being impaired when consumed with milk, as well as one about milk consumption being linked to greater risk of bone fractures and to earlier mortality. While both these studies appeared in the peer-reviewed literature and are interesting, their practical significance is questionable. The milk study focused on people drinking more than three glasses of milk a day and could not rule out “reverse causation,” namely that some subjects were drinking more milk because they already had risk factors for osteoporosis. As far as earlier mortality goes, the authors suggest it may be linked to an inflammatory effect attributed the galactose, a breakdown product of lactose, the sugar found in milk. But this is pure conjecture. It is also possible that people who drink a lot of milk have a higher calorie intake or a lower vegetable intake, or exercise less, all of which can be confounding factors. Milk may not be as important a dietary component as Canada’s Food Guide suggests, but there is no need to avoid it. Moderation is the key. Blueberries are widely perceived as “healthy” based upon their content of antioxidants. These naturally occurring substances are found in numerous fruits and vegetables and are thought to be responsible for the benefits attributed to a diet that contains lots of plant products. Laboratory investigation can determine the antioxidants present in food but to what extent they are absorbed into the bloodstream is a more difficult question. We don’t eat single food components, we eat food. Studies have shown, for example, that polyphenols, a family of antioxidants found in tea, are more poorly absorbed when milk is added to tea because proteins in milk bind to the polyphenols. The blueberry study aimed to investigate the fate of two particular antioxidants, namely caffeic and ferulic acid when consumed with or without milk. Eleven subjects, a very small number in terms of scientific studies, consumed 200 grams of blueberries either with 200 mL of whole milk or 200 mL of water. For two days prior, the subjects were asked to abstain from foods containing antioxidants including all fresh fruits and vegetables as well as tea, coffee, juices, wine and chocolate. This unrealistic eating pattern already adds confusion to the study. In any case, analysis of the subjects’ plasma indicated a somewhat reduced antioxidant content when the blueberries were consumed with milk. This has little relevance to health. Blueberries are not commonly consumed with milk, except perhaps when they are eaten together with cereal. And there is no compelling evidence that the antioxidant content of plasma is a determinant of health. Furthermore, the plasma’s antioxidant potential is determined by the overall content of the diet and is not going to be affected to any significant extent by the handful of blueberries added to cereal whether consumed with or without milk.

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Let’s preserve rational thinking when it comes to preservatives

Fri, 11/28/2014 - 22:28

Open a box of old crackers or potato chips and a smell emerges. It isn’t pleasant. The same goes for that bottle of oil that’s been sitting in the cupboard for months. It’s the smell of rancid fat. Technically speaking, the smell, which consists of numerous compounds, is the result of oxidation. Simply put, that means fats have reacted with oxygen in the air causing them to break down into smaller molecules. Not only are these malodorous, detectable at an unbelievably low concentration of 1.5 picograms per liter of oil, they can have nasty health consequences. It is not a good idea to eat foods in which the fat has gone rancid. Annoyingly, it is the healthier, polyunsaturated fats, that are more prone to rancidity. These fats have multiple double bonds in their molecular structure, a feature that enhances reaction with oxygen. Initially the fats are converted to hydroperoxides which are unstable and decompose to yield compounds like vinyl ketone, nonadienal and malondialdehyde. On top of having very low odour thresholds, some of these, malondialdehyde specifically, can cross-link proteins and DNA molecules and that is bad news. Such an affront to DNA can trigger cancer.

Knowledge of the mechanism of such oxidation reactions has led to the use of “antioxidants” that react with hydroproxides and prevent their breakdown. The most effective ones have the tongue twisting names of butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) and butylated hydroxyl anisole (BHA) which are added to foods containing solid fats or oils such as shortenings, baked goods and cereals. These chemicals are not just randomly added, like all other food additives, their use is strictly regulated. Manufacturers can add BHA or BHT up to 0.02% of the weight of the fat in a food which is an amount determined by extensive studies on animals.

Of course if you give enough of any chemical to a test animal something will eventually happen. For example, BHA can cause carcinomas in the forestomach of rodents at a dose of 230 mg per kg per day. Internet bloggers can parlay that into scaring consumers who are unaware of the principles of toxicology and species differences. Humans do not have a forestomach and human exposures are actually less than 0.1 mg/kg/day. So while BHA can indeed be declared to be an animal carcinogen, this has no relevance to humans. On the contrary, studies have shown that at concentrations of 125 ppm which is close to food additive levels, both BHA and BHT have anticarcinogenic properties. Not only have there been no studies correlating these additives with human cancer, rates of stomach cancer have ben significantly decreasing possibly due to the use of preservatives.

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A Hot Potato

Sat, 11/22/2014 - 21:52

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

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

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

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

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Seeds of Hope

Fri, 11/21/2014 - 16:30

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

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

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

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Climate Change

Fri, 11/21/2014 - 16:27

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

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

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

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

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The oPhone

Fri, 11/21/2014 - 16:23

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

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

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

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Dr Oz and phthalates

Thu, 11/13/2014 - 22:39

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

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

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

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

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

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The Catholic Church and Science

Fri, 11/07/2014 - 07:34

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Hippocrates Health Institute Dispenses Unhealthy Advice

Sun, 10/26/2014 - 22:09

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

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

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

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

Sun, 10/26/2014 - 22:02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ebola scams are sickening

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 19:57

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Green coffee beans give science a black eye

Thu, 10/23/2014 - 22:29

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

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

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

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

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

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Cherry Picking Cranberry Juice Data

Fri, 10/17/2014 - 10:38

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

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

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

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

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We need rational discussion about pesticides, without rhetoric

Sun, 10/12/2014 - 22:58

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Leukemia Needs Chemotherapy, Not “Live Enzyme Treatment”

Sun, 10/12/2014 - 09:39

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

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

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

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Space molecules are branching out

Tue, 10/07/2014 - 21:29

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

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

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

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

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