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Separating Sense from Nonsense
Updated: 12 min 38 sec ago

A sour lawsuit

Thu, 2014-06-12 11:14

I don’t know who Debbie Banafsheha is, but she is abusing the legal system for personal gain through spreading twaddle. Debbie has sued Heinz for what she claims is false advertising because the label on its vinegar states “all natural.” A sour argument.

The plaintiff states that the vinegar is likely made by fermenting genetically modified corn and therefore is not “natural.” The term “natural” is not regulated and indeed is often recklessly used as a marketing feature but there is a common understanding that it should refer to products that contain no additives and have not undergone processing that would have been unfamiliar to our grandparents. GMOs are in a nebulous category because of course sophisticated biotechnology may be involved, but the finished product is no different from the conventional variety. So, while Heinz vinegar may be fermented from GM corn, which in fact may or may not be the case, the final product is indistinguishable from any other vinegar.

This is where this lady’s folly enters the picture with her claim that Heinz’s “representations are false, deceptive, misleading, and unfair to consumers, who are injured in fact by purchasing products that Defendant claims are 'all natural' when in fact they are not." “Injured?” What a load of nonsense. There is zero evidence that anyone has ever been “injured” by any GM component, never mind that there is no remnant of any form of genetic modification in the vinegar.

What we have here is ridiculous fear-mongering with the goal of a cash reward. I will, however, agree that the term “natural” should not be used until it is clearly defined by the courts. Not only is it undefined, but there is the implication that “nature knows best” and that you shouldn’t fool with Mother Nature. Of course Mother Nature has no hesitation fooling with us, unleashing pests, fungi, bacteria, viruses, lightning, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes and a host of venomous animals and toxic plants. Debbie should be suing Mother Nature. That would make about as much sense as suing Heinz for its “natural” vinegar label.

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Aspirin and breast cancer

Tue, 2014-06-10 02:26
An article that poses the alluring question “Cancer Treatment in Your Medicine Cabinet?” by Michelle Holmes and Wendy Chen, both Harvard physicians, has been getting a lot of traction. That’s understandable because of their premise that the common drug aspirin may be effective in reducing the death rate from breast cancer. Several observational studies, including one of their own, document that women who take aspirin for various reasons are about 50% less likely to die of breast cancer. Observational studies are notoriously difficult to interpret because other factors may be involved. For example, are women taking aspirin less likely to die of breast cancer because they succumb from some other condition for which they were taking aspirin? Low dose aspirin is commonly taken by people who are at increased risk for heart disease because of family history, prior heart attacks or atrial fibrillation. So are women who take aspirin dying from heart disease before breast cancer exerts its fatal effect, or perhaps of an aspirin side effect such as a stroke or gastrointestinal bleed? Aspirin is not a benign drug. The usual calculation is that there are about 3 major gastrointestinal bleeds and one hemorrhagic stroke for every 1000 individuals taking low dose aspirin over a five year period. Of course it is possible that aspirin really does have an effect on breast cancer. After all, there is very good evidence that it does offer protection against colon cancer and less robust evidence for prevention of esophageal, stomach, prostate and ovarian cancer. Unfortunately, none of the studies that suggest protection are randomized trials, the most reliable type of study in which people are randomly assigned to take either aspirin or a placebo. Currently aspirin is not being recommended for prophylaxis against these cancers in healthy people because the risk-benefit profile is unclear. Furthermore effects may be different depending on age. People under 50 are less likely to see benefits, and side effects are more likely in people over the age of 75. The story is different for people who have had colon cancer, have a family history or who have had a large number of precancerous polyps removed. In such cases the benefits likely outweigh the risks. For breast cancer, supposing that there is an effect, nobody knows how long it takes for it to “kick in” and what the appropriate dosage is. This being said, there are some encouraging laboratory studies with cell cultures and with mice that show a slowing of the growth of cancer cells and shrinkage of tumors, as well as stopping tumour cells from spreading to new sites. A theory has been advanced that aspirin interferes with the formation of stem cells that are believed to fuel the growth and spread of tumors. Indeed, experiments with mice have shown that cancer cells treated with aspirin are less likely to form stem cells. But it is also possible that aspirin’s anti-inflammatory effect or anti-clotting effect is responsible. Some evidence indicates that drugs that interfere with platelet function prevent breast cancer from spreading in mice. Basically at this point there just isn’t enough evidence to determine if and to what extent aspirin may reduce cancer risk. But what we do know is that cancer risk can be cut by up to 50% by not smoking, drinking only in moderation, eating healthy foods and avoiding obesity. Read more

Colourful conman

Wed, 2014-06-04 20:23

Let me tell you about Dinshah P. Ghadiali and his Spectro-Chrome.  Dinshah, as he like to be called, was born in India in 1873 and at least by his own account was a remarkable man.  He began school at the ripe age of two and a half and by eleven he was an assistant to a professor of mathematics at a college in Bombay.  This prodigy began to study medicine at the age of fourteen, but then we hear no more about his progress in this area.  Probably because he saw no need to pursue these futile studies once he had independently discovered the key to health.  Colour therapy.

Dinshah apparently came upon this discovery when he exposed a young girl “dying of colitis” to light from a lamp fitted with an indigo colored glass filter.  Within three days, the girl was well and a career was launched.  Dinshah opened an Electro-Medical Hall in India where he began to refine his treatment.  By the time he came to America in 1911, he had a theory to go along with his colored lights.  Every element, he said, exhibits a preponderance of one of the seven prismatic colors.  Oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon, the elements that make up 97% of the body, are associated with blue, red, green and yellow.  In health these colors are balanced but fall out of balance in disease.  Therapy is simple; to cure disease administer the lacking colors or reduce colors that have become too brilliant.

Of course, Dinshah had exactly the method to use.  His Spectro-Chrome was a box with a lightbulb and an opening that could be fitted with various colored filters.  It was accompanied by The Spectro-Chrome Therapeutic Sytem guide detailing the appropriate colors to shine on a patient.  Green light, for example, was a pituitary stimulant and germicide while scarlet was a genital stimulant.  Any disease, save broken bones, was amenable to color therapy.  The Spectro-Chrome was especially suited for use by intelligent people, Dinshah said, because “drugs quickly upset the nervo-vital balance of persons of high mental and spiritual development.”  A pretty clever trap.  The gullible, thinking themselves to be intelligent, ate it up.

To many people the argument about the benefit of color therapy seemed convincing.  After all, they knew that premature babies were treated with blue light to cure them of jaundice, that sunlight was needed for the synthesis of vitamin D in the body and that plants absolutely required light for growth. Add to this the notion that chemists had shown that elements when heated emitted different colors of light, and Dinshah’s preposterous notions seemed to make sense.  His slogan of “No diagnosis, No Drugs, No Surgery” also sat well with a public largely unsatisfied with current medical care. The non-invasive therapy and the promise of a cure for virtually any ailment was very appealing.

Iit wasn’t long before Dinshah ran into trouble with the establishment.  He was labeled a fraud and a charlatan by the American Medical Association but managed to cunningly portray himself as a humanitarian who was being persecuted by the money-grabbing, ineffective, jealous physicians.  To protect himself legally, Dinshah came up with some incredible lingo.  He didn’t talk of cures, he spoke of “normalating” the body.  Instead of treating patients he claimed “to restore their Radio-Active and Radio-Emanative Equilibrium.”  This would be done with his light exposures, or “tonations.”  Tonations would be carried out with the patient lying with his head to the north, so as to align the earth’s and the body’s magnetic field, of course.

In 1931 Dinshah had his first run-in with the law over the Spectro-Chrome.  He was arraigned on second degree grand larceny after being charged by a former student who claimed that the Spectro-Chrome did not perform as promised.  Dinshah trotted out numerous satisfied patients in his defense, incredibly including some physicians.  A surgeon, Kate Baldwin, claimed that she had successfully treated glaucoma, tuberculosis, cancer, syphillis and a very serious burn case.  The government countered with experts who testified that the Spectro-Chrome was nothing other than an ordinary lamp and that the successes were all due to the placebo effect.  The prosecution could not prove the intent to defraud and Dinshah was found not guilty.  He went back to selling more Spectro-Chromes, now claiming that he had been vindicated.

After the passage of the Food and Drug Act of 1938 which gave the FDA some teeth in regulating theraputic devices, the government began to assemble evidence against Dinshah.  Finally in 1945 he was charged with introducing a misbranded article into interstate commerce, a violation of the criminal code.  Once again he trotted out his satisfied patients, but this time there were no supporting physicians.  His fate was virtually sealed when one of his star witnesses, whom Dinshah had “cured” of seizures, had a fit on the witness stand.  The jury also heard how patients he had claimed had been cured had actually died.  The prosecution brought a witness who Dinshah had repeatedly profiled in his advertising as having been cured of paralysis.  She could not take a single step when the master urged her.  And finally the court heard how the celebrated burn victim, described as a miracle cure by Dr. Baldwin in the previous trial had in fact died of her injuries.  Another witness described how he had called Dinshah after his diabetic father had lapsed into a coma and was told to just shine the yellow light on him.  He did, until the man died.  Dinshah was heavily fined, his books and lamps were seized and he was put on five years probation.

The Dinshah legacy is still with us.  Through the Dinshah Health Society of Malaga you can buy plans to build an inexpensive Spectro-Chrome from a light bulb, cardboard and colored plastic sheets.  They apparently do not sell the finished product, but another company on the Internet does advertise Color Light Therapy Lamps “as recommended by Dinshah.”  These look suspiciously like theater spot lights with colored gels.

It seems that today there is still enough ignorance about what light is, about disease processes and about how the body functions to allow the gullible to be victimized. The colorful Dinshah may have lived in what we think are enlightened times, but his pseudoscientific ideas smacked of the dark ages.

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The connection between breast cancer and dairy consumption-anecdote or science?

Wed, 2014-06-04 19:38

Personal anecdotes of triumph over disease can be very captivating. Professor Jane Plant in her book "The Plant Programme" puts forth an engaging account of her conquest of breast cancer by avoiding dairy products. But anecdote is not evidence.

Plant, a respected British geochemist was struck by the disease at age 42, and while undergoing standard treatment, began a search for other options. She knew that breast cancer rates in China were much lower than in the west, and wondered why.  The rates are indeed lower, but not buy as much as Plant states.  She claims that only one in 100,000 Chinese women are affected by the disease, compared with one in twelve in the West. This is utter nonsense! The breast cancer incidence in China is indeed less than in the West but not by the factor that Plant claims. The age adjusted breast cancer rate in developed countries is about 110 cases per 100,000 women per year, and the rate in China is about half that, but the likelihood of diagnosis in China is not the same as in the western world.

Genetics are not the explanation for the lower rate in China because Asians who migrate to North America eventually take on our cancer patterns. So some lifestyle factor must be involved. Plant explains that while she was musing over this, she experienced an epiphany. She came to the realization that the Chinese consume no dairy products! So she decided to eliminate milk, cheese, yoghurt, and in fact any food that had even a trace of dairy. As she describes it, within days, a lump on her neck, a recurrence of the cancer that had started in the breast, began to shrivel up and eventually disappeared.

A great story, to be sure, but still, an anecdote is an anecdote. I wish I could say that Professor Plant made a great discovery and found the secret, as she in fact implies, for the difference in cancer rates between Asians and westerners. In fact, she seems oblivious of the fact that she was not the first one to formulate such a hypothesis. Not by a long shot. The medical literature is loaded with studies exploring possible dietary connections to breast cancer, including that to dairy products. This is a reasonable assumption to follow up because milk contains saturated fat, estrogens, growth hormones and a protein called insulin like growth factor, all of which potentially may be linked to breast cancer. There have been over fifty excellent studies exploring the breast cancer dairy link and the overall conclusion is that there is no link.

At one time milk fat was thought to be strongly associated with breast cancer but that association disappeared when total caloric intake was taken into account. It is excess calories that are associated with the disease, no matter where they come from. As to the estrogens, growth hormones and insulin-like growth factors in milk, they are found in minute quantities when compared to the amounts of these substances produced naturally in a woman’s body. Actually some studies have even shown that milk products may afford protection from breast cancer. Mongolia makes for an interesting case because of genetic similarities with other Asian countries but a significantly different dietary pattern. Mongolians eat mostly red meat and dairy and yet have a breast cancer rate that is about one third that seen in China. Like elsewhere breast cancer rates rae higher in urban than rural areas implying an environmental connection.

Shockingly, given Plant’s scientific background, she buys into the theory that an “acidic” diet favours the development of cancer. She explains that if we consume too much acid-generating food, our bodies become acidic — an environment in which cancer cells can flourish. The foods highest in generating acid (not, as might be assumed, citrus fruit) include eggs, meat, fish and dairy — with cheese the most acid generating-food of all. This is plain nonsense. Our blood is a buffered system and its pH does not alter based upon what is eaten.

It would be great if the answer to this scourge of a disease were to be found in something as simple as avoiding dairy products. Professor Plant’s good fortune, though, is more likely to be due to the chemotherapy she received than her dietary changes. Surely if dietary modifications had such marvelous results, at least some of the scientific studies would have shown the link. And while Professor Plant’s book has become a best-seller, breast cancer victims who have had less fortunate outcomes after giving up dairy don’t end up writing about their experience. Read more

The Conundrum of Associations

Tue, 2014-06-03 06:09
Should we reduce our spending on science, space and technology? A curious question, right? Why does it come up? Because the more we spend, the greater the number of suicides by hanging, strangulation and suffocation. Since 1999 the number of such deaths has increased in exact parallel to the increase in spending. Indeed, the correlation factor is an astounding 0.99. We owe this knowledge to Tyler Vigen, a criminology student at Harvard Law School who can best be described as a statistical provocateur. He has developed a website called Spurious Correlations which is dedicated to mining data in order to reveal amazing but meaningless correlations. The point of course is to show that just because two variables track each other closely over time doesn’t mean that one causes the other. Since 1999 we have increased spending on science, as we should have, and we have seen an increase in suicides. But one has nothing to do with the other. The population has increased and suicides are proportional to population. Another interesting correlation is between ice cream consumption and murders. It is most unlikely that ice cream turns people into killers but hot weather may increase aggression and of course it also increases ice cream sales. While coming up with such spurious correlations is amusing, it also serves an important purpose. That’s because associations are commonly used to imply that there may be a causative relationship. In some cases there may be, but one has to be very careful before jumping to such a conclusion. Consider bisphenol A, the chemical used to formulate polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins that line food cans. It has been accused of causing everything from obesity and cancer to heart disease and developmental problems. There is indeed an association between blood levels of BPA and heart disease but that may well be because people with heart disease have consumed more canned foods with high salt and fat content. They would have higher blood levels of BPA leached from cans, but the culprit is the sugar and fat content. In fact the Canadian Food Inspection Agency carried out a survey of BPA in canned foods and concluded that an adult would need to consume approximately 14 kg of canned vegetables each day (approximately 50 servings) to reach an exposure to BPA that may pose a safety concern. On the other hand, there are some associations that may eventually prove to be causative. FDA in the U.S. recently learned of a cluster of acute liver failure cases in Hawaii. It turned out that the cases were associated with having used a dietary supplement called OxyElitePro advertised as an aid to losing weight and building muscles. The product contained aegeline, an alkaloid extract from leaves of the Asian bael tree. Researchers believe this may be the culprit, although genetics likely play a role because most of the victims were of Pacific island ancestry. Although the case is not iron clad, the supplement has been taken off the market. Another association that has recently been publicized is that between the murderous rage of the California mass killer Elliot Rogers and his addiction to creatine which he was taking for body building to make himself more attractive to girls. There is virtually no evidence that creatine can lead to rage like steroids can, but nevertheless the association has been widely publicized. It likely has no greater connection to causation that than that between per capita margarine consumption and the divorce rate in Maine, another spurious association discovered by the clever Harvard statistician. Read more

You Asked: Is “black cumin seed” really a “cure for all things,” as one newsletter purports?

Tue, 2014-06-03 05:58

Umm....no. But this “miracle” cure is making the rounds. It is the “foundation for a longer life,” according to one ad. This time it is an extract from the seeds of the nigella sativa plant, also sometimes called black cumin, black sesame, black caraway, black onion or fennel flower seed. The seeds, we are told, have a history of use as a spice and medicine in Africa, India and the Middle East and were even found in the tomb of King Tut. They are reputed to treat skin conditions, respiratory infections, intestinal disorders and parasites, headaches and toothaches. Nigella is also supposed to promote lactation in nursing mothers and uterine contractions during labor. As if that weren’t enough, it is also said to work as an insect repellent and to have anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antioxidant properties. And of course there is the usual claim that adorns almost all such wonder products, it boosts the immune system and inhibits cancer cell progression.

There are two points to note right off the bat here. The more claims made, the more our suspicions should be aroused. The body is a very complex system and different problems require different types of intervention. Asthma is not treated with the same drugs that are used to treat headaches. Then there is the reference to antiquity. Just because some substance has been used for a long time does not mean it has been used effectively. After all, bloodletting went on for a couple of thousand years before we figured out that it really wasn’t very effective. And homeopathic “medicines” have been hoodwinking people for over two hundred years. So the ancient Egyptians supplying a departed King Tut with “black seeds” to use in the afterlife (assuming that the claim they were found in the tomb is true) means absolutely nothing in terms of justifying its use as a medicine. The same goes for stories about Queen Nefertiti supposedly using black seed oil to improve the health of her nails and hair.

Of course the unreasonable reliance on ancient “wisdom” and the plethora of questionable claims do not mean that the seeds do not have therapeutic potential. But the only way that can be ascertained is by proper scientific study. And there have been studies. As any such natural product, “black seeds” contain a large number of compounds, but the one that has intrigued researchers is nigellone and its derivative, thymoquinone.  In laboratory studies thymoquinone has antioxidant effects and anti-cancer effects but there is nothing breathtaking about this, thousands of compounds that have such effects in the test tube. But the human body is not a giant test tube. Neither are we giant rats, so that effects seen in rodents are not directly applicable to humans. There have been a couple of small studies in people that have shown benefit for asthma and high blood pressure, but it takes properly controlled, randomized, double-blind trials before treatment recommendations can be made. Safety has to be ascertained, products have to be standardized and dosages have to be determined. Unfortunately while these are legal requirements for prescription drugs, such is not the case for natural remedies. Wild, unsubstantiated claims abound and money from people desperate for simple solutions to complex problems flows freely into the coffers of marketers.

So what is the bottom line here? Many currently used pharmaceuticals have their origin in plant extracts so it is certainly possible that black cumin seeds contain compounds that may eventually prove to be useful. But when someone is in pain, they are not told to graze in a field of poppies, they are given the right dose of properly purified morphine that is indeed extracted from poppies. Maybe at some time we will have a properly standardized evidence-based extract of black cumin seeds that can be recommended for some condition. But that time is not now.

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You Asked: Instaflex for joint pain?

Sun, 2014-05-25 09:28

Had a question about Instaflex, a widely advertised supplement for arthritic joints that contains a variety of ingredients each of which has potential antinflammatory properties. Although this product has been around for a while, interest was stirred recently because of a discussion on "The Doctors," a CBS TV show. Reference was made to a clinical trial that showed efficacy. Indeed a properly controlled double-blind randomized trial at Appalachian State University showed that those taking Instaflex reported a 37 percent reduction in joint pain. The placebo group reported a 16 percent reduction in pain. This is better than what has been reported for studies using any of the ingredients alone. The study also noted that a 20-pound weight loss has been shown to decrease joint pain by 54 percent. The daily dosage is three capsules taken together in the morning or evening. The total dose contains: Glucosamine Sulfate 1,500 mg Methylsulfonlylmethane (MSM) 500 mg White Willow Bark Extract 250 mg (Standardized to 15% salicin) Ginger Root Concentrate 4:1 250 mg Boswellia Serrata Extract 125 mg (Standardized to 65% boswellic acid) Turmeric Root Extract 50 mg (Standardized to 95% curcumin) Cayenne 40m H.U. 50 mg Hyaluronic Acid 4 mg

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