Not if you look at the numbers. Many cosmetics now advertise “no parabens,” as they cater to chemical paranoia. Parabens are very effective preservatives and prevent bacterial growth in creams and lotions. The reason that they have made news is that they have estrogenic activity. But the fact is that this activity by comparison to the body’s natural estrogen is essentially insignificant, some 10,000 times less. Based on studies carried out with animals, the no observed adverse effect level (NOAEL) has been determined to be about 800 mgs per kg of body mass. The NOAEL is the maximum amount that can be given on a regular basis without causing any effect. This means that a 70 kg person would have to apply 55 grams of parabens regularly to have an adverse effect, assuming that it is all absorbed when applied to the skin, which of course is not the case. And how much cream does this translate to? Given that the most parabens used as a preservative makes up about 0.8% of the weight of a lotion, a quick calculation shows that about 70 bottles each containing 100 mL each would have to be applied to the skin every day to approach the NOAEL. Basically, parabens “toxicity” is a non-issue. And not that this is of any relevance, but parabens occur in nature. They are found in blueberries as well as in the secretions female dogs use to attract males.
Drink tea to live longer? Newspaper headlines may have said that, but, that is not exactly what the study they were referring to said. Nevertheless it is an interesting study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a highly respected peer-reviewed publication. The study evaluated intake of flavonoids in an elderly Australian female population through food frequency questionnaires. Flavonoids constitute a huge class of compounds found in plants, members of which are linked through a basic molecular structure they share. The reason for interest in these compounds is that laboratory experiments have shown possible anti-allergenic, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer,-anti-heart disease and antioxidant effects. Although, there is a dearth of studies in people using isolated flavonoids, it is generally assumed that the benefits ascribed to eating fruits and vegetables may be due to their flavonoid content.
One way to get a handle on possible flavonoid benefits is to see if there is any connection between estimated flavonoid intake and health status. The best measure of health status is longevity. Two data bases of flavonoid content of foods were used to estimate intake of these compounds in the diets of over a thousand women with an average age of 80 who were followed for five years. Indeed, subjects who consumed the most flavonoids, 800 mgs or so a day, lived longer than women whose intake was less than 500 mgs whether the eventual cause of death was cancer or heart disease. In this population the major source of flavonoids was tea, about 350 mg for two cups, but there is no reason to believe that flavonoids in tea are in any way different from those found in berries, onions, bananas, cocoa, wine, citrus fruits, parsley or peanut skins. What all these have in common is that they are plant products, so this study reinforces the notion that our diet should be mostly plant based.
There are the usual caveats with such a study, the classic one being that an association cannot prove cause and effect. Although attempts were made to correct for confounders such as body weight and physical activity level, it is still possible that other components of the diet that parallel flavonoid intake are responsible for the noted difference in longevity. Then there is the usual problem that food frequency questionnaires may not accurately reflect food intake because of memory and honesty issues. But if flavonoids are really players in the good health game, which is likely, it is interesting to note that the average North American intake is only about 300 mgs which is considerably less than that of the longest lived subjects in this study. For a ballpark idea, an apple, a cup of blueberries or a cup of tea are all in the 150 mg flavonoid content range. So while tea may not be the elixir of life, a couple of cups a day are an easy way to increase flavonoid intake. There is no downside. Unless you load it up with sugar as is the case with many canned and bottled teas. Make your tea at home, add a dose of lemon juice if you like, but leave out the sugar. It may not make you live longer but it will make life a little more pleasant.
Life comes down to a struggle between risk and benefit. Although not always consciously, we evaluate our diet, our cosmetics, our medications, household chemicals and activity levels on the basis of whether they are good or bad for us. Mention sun exposure, and the conflict comes down to the “bad,” namely skin cancer, and the “good,” usually ascribed to the enhanced production of vitamin D. Skin cancer is bad, but why is vitamin D good? For one, it is required for the proper absorption of calcium and a lack can lead to soft bones, in extreme cases to the characteristic bow legs of rickets. But there may be more to vitamin D.
Epidemiological investigations have shown that people with high blood levels are generally healthier, particularly when it comes to cardiovascular disease. It is interesting to note that the heart disease rate in Australia is lower than in northern climates, and that in Britain the risk increases as one travels north even when lifestyle factors are taken in to account. But here is a curiosity. Numerous studies have been carried out with vitamin D supplements without noting an effect on cardiovascular disease. Could it be that high blood levels of vitamin D are just a marker for sun exposure and that the cardiovascular benefits are actually due to some other feature of sunlight? British dermatologist Richard Weller makes a case for nitric oxide, a chemical that can be released by the action of ultraviolet light on substances such as nitrates that are stored in the skin.
Nitric oxide is a gas, and lasts only a few seconds after it is produced in the inner lining of blood vessels by the action of enzymes on the amino acid arginine. During its brief existence, though, it acts as an important signalling molecule causing smooth muscles around blood vessels to relax. This results in an increased blood flow and a lowering of blood pressure. Indeed, the classic drug to treat angina, nitroglycerine, works by releasing nitric oxide, and Viagra’s performance is due to its ability to increase signalling and improve blood flow through the nitric oxide pathway.
It was back in 1996 that Weller discovered that sunlight had the ability to convert nitrates in the skin to nitric oxide, a discovery that took on greater meaning with the awarding of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Robert F. Furchgott, Louis J. Ignarro and Ferid Murad “for their discoveries concerning nitric oxide as a signalling molecule in the cardiovascular system.” Weller began to wonder whether nitric oxide produced by sun exposure might explain the lower blood pressure in populations living closer to the equator and why the average blood pressure in the U.K. is lower in summer than in winter.
To investigate, Weller exposed volunteers to ultraviolet light and measured blood pressure and nitric oxide levels. To eliminate the possibility of vitamin D playing a role, he used long wavelength UVA that does not produce vitamin D. Nitric oxide levels increased and blood pressure decreased with an exposure equivalent to about thirty minutes of sunshine in Edinburgh in the summer. The effect wasn’t dramatic, but could be significant in a large population. Just heating the skin had no effect, so UVA is needed to produce nitric oxide.
In another experiment, the performance of cyclists was enhanced in response to irradiation with UVA but only if they took nitrate supplements. The theory is that increased nitric oxide release dilates blood vessels and allows more oxygen to reach the muscles. Nitrates occur naturally, and are particularly high in celery, red beet root, lettuce and spinach, vegetables that have been associated with lower blood pressure. In light of Weller’s studies, this may be a consequence of the combination of nitrates and exposure to sunlight. He also identifies studies that showed Scandinavian women who spent more time sunbathing lived longer. Of course that may also have been due to less stress, different diets or activity levels. And then there is a Danish study that showed that people with non-melanoma skin cancer were much less likely to have a heart attack. Could skin cancer be a marker for a longer life?
As I said, life is a struggle between the good and the bad, but it isn’t easy to identify what is good and what is bad. Maybe someone should investigate if nudists live longer.
This is a tale of two bracelets. One brandishes flagrant nonsense, the other flirts with some clever science. We begin with a perplexing question I was asked while wandering through a mall in Phoenix. “How would you like to experience the benefits of nature captured in holographic frequencies?” Sniffing that some delicious twaddle was coming my way, I answered that I was keen to resonate with nature.
It turned out all I had to do was put on a “Power Balance” bracelet “imprinted with frequencies that would interact in a positive way with my body’s energy field.” I would feel better, aches and pains would resolve, my balance would improve and I would feel stronger. All because the unnatural vibrations produced by the likes of sugar, synthetic chemicals and cell phones would be neutralized by the frequencies embedded in the wristband’s hologram. Would I like proof, I was asked? Naturally!
I was then instructed to raise my right arm parallel to the ground and resist any attempt to push it down. I tried, but the salesman had no problem overcoming my resistance. He then slipped the bracelet on my left hand, and in spite of a convincing struggle on his part, my right arm hardly budged. “Energy is related to frequency,” I was informed.
My protagonist, who was a rather muscular young man, was also sporting a Power Balance bracelet which prompted me to ask how it was that its energy did not cancel out that of mine. This did seem to raise a point he had not previously considered, but he managed to mutter something about the benefits being greater if more unnatural frequencies had to be overcome. Do you eat only organic food, he asked? Not only, I answered somewhat ambiguously. His contended nod suggested the matter had been resolved.
Now it was my turn. I didn’t think there was much point in discussing how it was indeed true that energy was proportional to frequency through Planck’s constant, but that the frequency referred to was that of electromagnetic radiation and had nothing to do with the human body which does not have any innate “resonance.” Instead of trying to dam the river of the rapidly flowing pseudoscientific guck with scientific explanations, which I suspected would get us nowhere, I proposed my own experiment. I asked if the position of my left hand mattered, eliciting a chuckle. No, all that mattered was whether I was wearing the wristband or not. Good!
We would follow the same procedure as before, but this time I would put my left hand, which would either be sporting a bracelet or not, behind my back. His task was to determine if I was energized or not! Given our chat, he didn’t have much choice but agree. I suggested ten trials. He guessed right four times. Yes, “guessed” is the right term because there is no science here. But neither is there necessarily fraud. Perhaps in his eagerness to make a sale the young man didn’t realize that he was subconsciously exerting less effort when I was wearing the bracelet.
How then do we explain the legions of athletes and celebrities who claim all sorts of benefits? Mind over matter is the real power in the Power Balance Bracelet! As I subsequently learned, the marketers of the bracelet in Australia actually admitted as much after experiments, much like my ad hoc one, unmasked the product. Sales quickly went belly up. The bracelets are still sold here, but the claims are of the weasel variety: “Power Balance is a favourite among elite competitors, weekend warriors, and everyday fitness enthusiasts. The hologram is designed based on Eastern philosophies. Many Eastern philosophies contain ideas related to energy.”
I’m more in favour of ideas related to science. And a new company, MyExposome, run by real scientists, has a good one. Supported by published proof of principle, the plan is to furnish people with a silicone bracelet that absorbs chemicals with which it comes in contact either from the air or from bodily secretions. Using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, the bracelets will then be analyzed for some 1400 chemicals, including controversial ones like flame retardants and phthalates. The company will not offer any advice on whether a particular chemical has any specific benefit or harm because presently there isn’t enough known to make such judgments. Hopefully, though, the data collected can eventually determine levels of exposure and any possible risks. MyExposome’s scientific approach may give us real “power” to “balance” chemicals in our lives.
Numerous Internet posts attempt to scare dog owners with questions like “Is It a Dog Food Aide or Automotive Antifreeze?” The reference is to propylene glycol, a chemical added to some dog foods to help retain moisture. Of course being an antifreeze component and serving as a food additive are not mutually exclusive. After all nobody worries about eating salt because it is also used in enemas. The potential risk of a substance is determined by studying it, not by making specious associations.
So what do the studies say? Unfortunately when it comes to dogs, not a whole lot. In humans, propylene glycol when ingested is pretty innocuous. Toxicity occurs when blood concentration reach 4 grams per liter, which is unachievable by consuming foods or beverages that contain the chemical. And yes, it is used in human food, mostly to retain moisture, although it also serves as a solvent for flavours. The pharmaceutical industry uses propylene glycol as a solvent in formulations of drugs that are insoluble in water. In beer it can stabilize head foam, in soft drinks and flavoured coffees it carries flavour, it stabilizes whipped cream and prevents the formation of crystals in ice cream.
Canada attaches no numerical value to the maximum amount of propylene glycol that can be used as long as it conforms to “good manufacturing practices.” In the U.S., it can be used up to 50 grams per kilogram of food or beverage. Europe allows maximum of 3 grams per kilogram. The reason for the discrepancy is not clear since there is no evidence that amounts greater than the European limit cause any problem. But this difference between amounts allowed in Europe and the U.S. did cause quite a kerfuffle when Fireball Whisky was recalled in Norway, Sweden and Finland. It seems the American version of the product found its way across the ocean with levels of propylene glycol above those acceptable in Europe.
This precipitated a public outcry in Europe where people recalled with horror the 1985 episode when some Austrian wines were adulterated with diethylene glycol, another chemical that can be used in antifreeze, to make the wines sweeter and more full-bodied in the style of late harvest wines. Nobody was hurt except the Austrian wine industry which suffered an almost complete collapse.
The publicity about the Fireball recall in Europe bounced back to the U.S. where this whisky is a popular choice among the college set due to its low cost and relatively high alcohol content. Rumors that a Fireball recall was underway sent ripples of upset across social sites.There was no recall, but as expected the chemophobes rallied around the “they’re putting antifreeze into our food” battle cry. The fact is that someone would perish from alcohol poisoning long before enough alcohol were consumed to cause a problem with propylene glycol.
Exactly why propylene glycol is found in Fireball whisky isn’t clear. The company goes no further than to say that “the secret to Fireball is buried in the depths of our souls and it’s so damn special that we just can’t share it. Although we’d love to talk Fireball, we have a strict policy that we let our whisky speak for itself.” In all likelihood propylene glycol is used as a solvent for some flavour that is added to the whisky.
While there is no issue with propylene glycol in human food, dogs may be a different case. They often eat the same food for all their meals and the continued ingestion of propylene glycol even in small doses may conceivably be a problem. That is just what a class action lawsuit launched by a California pet owner contends. He claims that two of his dogs got sick and one died after he began to feed his pets with “Beneful” produced by Nestle Purina Dog Care. The lawsuit describes over 3000 complaints on line about dogs developing liver problems, kidney failure, seizures and diarrhea due either to propylene glycol or ochratoxin, a fungal metabolite found in the food.
The manufacturer dismisses the notion that Beneful is the cause of the ailments. Dogs get sick, and owners then look for a cause, with food being a prime suspect, they say. And Beneful is not associated with symptoms any more than any other dog food, whether it contains propylene glycol or not. However, whether that is indeed the case is hard to know. Nobody it seems has actually done a study. Given that propylene glycol is known to be toxic to cats, causing “Heinz body anemia,” and since questions have been raised about its effects on dogs, it may be prudent to choose varieties of dog food that do not contain the chemical.
The women’s World Cup provided us with some hot soccer but it also brought the simmering controversy about the safety of playing on artificial turf to a boil. That’s an apt term because these surfaces heat up in the sun much more than natural grass and players complain of greater risk of heat exhaustion. They also complain of carpet burns and blisters on the feet. But the bigger concern is potential toxicity.
The first synthetic playing surface was developed by Monsanto in the 1960s. Named “ChemGrass,” at a time when it was still acceptable to use a chemical connection in a positive way, it was made by melting together nylon pellets and a pigment, and then extruding the hot mix through spinnerets to produce ribbons which could be woven into a fabric. It was durable enough, but falling on it was no fun even though the nylon carpet was supported by a soft foam layer of polyurethane. When it was installed in Houston’s Astrodome as “AstroTurf,” ballplayers had to add “carpet burn” and “turf toe” to their vocabulary.
“Field Turf,” a Canadian company took the complaints to heart and came up with an improved version. Out went the stiff nylon fibers, in came soft, elastic polyethylene fibers lubricated with silicone oil. These were tufted into a rubberized plastic mat, just like a giant shag rug. The “tour de force,” though, was the “infill” composed of sand and granules of “crumb rubber” which kept the fibers upright and provided shock absorbency. Old rubber tires and athletic shoe soles were frozen and ground up to make the pellets that would eventually become the subject of heated debate.
The issue is that tires are made of a mix of natural and synthetic rubbers and contain an incredibly complex array of chemicals ranging from natural contaminants such as lead to zinc oxide used in the vulcanization process and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the oil blended with the rubber to provide proper texture. There are vulcanization accelerators like benzothiazole, amines added as antioxidants and butadiene and styrene residues from the synthetic rubber component. Many of these are known, probable or possible carcinogens. Carbon black, used as a reinforcing filler, can harbour “nanoparticles” which some researchers claim are carcinogenic and can penetrate cells, even finding their way to the brain. Lead-based pigments, now phased out, but once used to colour the grass, are another worry. There is also concern that dust from the rubber pellets can trigger allergies and asthma.
Of course the major question is extent of exposure. That can come from the inhalation of volatiles or dust released as the crumb rubber crumbles further under stress. There is also the possibility of swallowing any particles that are kicked up by action on the field, a special concern to goalkeepers who often dive to make a save and end up stirring up the rubber pellets. Can this be of any consequence? A preliminary collection of data by a soccer coach in the US suggests an unusual number of cancer cases among athletes who have spent a lot of time playing on artificial surfaces, and in the case of soccer, a greater incidence among goalkeepers than other players. So far this evidence is anecdotal, but science often starts with someone noting such a relationship and saying, “hmmm, isn’t that interesting?”
Given that the sporting landscape is dotted with artificial turf, and that thousands and thousands of children, who are more prone to the effects of toxins, play on such surfaces, further investigation is in order. Solid epidemiological data are needed to determine if there is indeed a link between artificial turf and cancer incidence, and we need experimental data about the extent and effects of exposure. The latter can be addressed by sampling the air above artificial fields for chemicals wafting out and by immersing samples of turf in fluids that simulate sweat, lung mucus and digestive juices. So far, the few experiments that have been carried out along these lines found that the chemicals detected were below what is considered to be hazardous, but there is great variation between turfs produced by different companies, so that small surveys cannot yield conclusive results. Furthermore, such studies do not address the possible cumulative effect that may be proportional to the time spent playing on artificial turf.
At this point it is impossible to quantify the toxicological risk, if any, of playing on artificial turf that may look like grass, and even feel like grass, but doesn’t behave like grass.
I have a confession to make. I like hot dogs. I couldn’t eat 62, like Matt Stonie the winner of the Nathan’s hot dog eating contest on Julky 4, but I could pack away one. Maybe two. In these days of nutritional correctness, that makes me feel as if I’m admitting to some criminal activity. At the risk of riling people devoted to subsisting on alfalfa sprouts, algae, tofu and diverse supplements, let me assure you that it is possible to occasionally indulge in hot dogs and still have a healthy diet. It is also possible to never eat a wienie and have a diet that is a nutritional nightmare. Individual foods should not be vilified or deified; it is the overall diet that determines whether we are eating in a healthy or an unhealthy fashion. In any case, like it or not, sausages in various forms have been with us a long time and are destined to remain part of our nutritional culture for the simple reason that they taste good.
People have been stuffing ground meat along with various spices and other ingredients into casings for thousands of years. Homer sang of sausages in the Odyssey, written around 850 BC. The Romans traditionally made sausages from ground pork and pine nuts for the celebration of Lupercalia, a feast of eating, drinking and wenching. These sausages became so intricately connected to debauchery that Constantine, the first Christian Emperor, actually banned them. Sausage bootlegging became a profitable enterprise.
By the Middle Ages, hundreds of varieties of sausages had been developed. Many of these, like Bologna, were named after the city where they were first made. But the variety that plays the greatest role in our lives originated in the German city of Frankfurt. The frankfurter was made with cured meat and was cooked by smoke.
Legend has it that the frankfurter was introduced into North America in 1904 by Anton Ludwig Feuchtwanger, a Bavarian peddler who set up a booth at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Since the sausages he sold were greasy and hot, he loaned his customers white gloves with which to hold them. So many people absconded with the gloves that he needed another solution. His brother-in-law, a baker, came up with one. Why not put the frankfurter in a bun?
Everyone wanted to try the new-fanged hot “Dachshund sausages,” as the franks were now called because of their resemblance to these lengthy canines. Soon the name was abbreviated to “hot dog,” and a North American staple was born. Today there are hundreds of manufacturers vying to satisfy the North American craving for some 60 million franks a day!
We obviously eat a lot of hot dogs, but not without trepidation. We’re never really quite sure what they contain. Otto von Bismarck, the celebrated German statesman once remarked that the two things you don’t want to see made are sausages and the law. Judging by some of the parliamentary behavior I’ve seen, he was right about the law. But sausages are not that scary. We can actually learn a lot of science from investigating how they are made.
No matter what you may have heard there are no ears, snouts or genitals in your hot dogs. So what is there? Hot dogs can be made from the edible parts of beef, veal, lamb, pork or poultry. This can include tongue, heart, esophagus and blood. If you find that hard to stomach, I probably shouldn’t tell you that they also sometimes use the stomach. Kosher hot dogs do not contain any of these delicacies; they are made from good quality lean meat mixed with “plate trimmings,” which is essentially a pseudonym for fat.
Whatever the kind of hot dog, the basic process of manufacture is the same. The ingredients are finely chopped and then blended into a smooth paste which is eventually stuffed into a casing and cooked. The taste comes from a mixture of spices including garlic, pepper, paprika, smoke flavoring and MSG. Vitamin C or its chemical cousin, sodium erythorbate are also included in the mix. Why vitamin C? Because it mitigates the action of the curing salts which are added next. The curing salt is a mixture of about 98% regular salt and 2% sodium nitrite.
Nitrites are perhaps the most controversial components of hot dogs. They add flavor, color and prevent the growth of the deadly clostridium botulinum bacteria. But they can also react with other components in meat, called amines, to form nitrosamines. These substances are carcinogenic in test animals, and probably in humans. But their actual risk is very small. The odd study has linked hot dog consumption to some rare childhood cancers, but critics have pointed out that if this is indeed the case, it is so only in vitamin deficient children. Another reason to make sure kids are taking their multivitamins.
In any case, food processors have greatly reduced their use of nitrites since the discovery that vitamin C, potentiates the action of these chemicals. This means that less nitrite can be used if vitamin C is added to the mix. Studies have also shown that the added vitamin C reduces the chance of nitrosamine formation in the body. It is also possible to make nitrite free hot dogs, but these must be kept frozen.
If the nitrite issue isn’t that significant, why should we be concerned about feasting on hot dogs? The major problem is the fat content. By law, the protein content must be at least 11% but the fat content is not regulated. The average hot dog is 23% fat by weight. That’s a lot; a T-bone steak is 12% fat by weight. An average hot dog contains about 10 to 15 grams of fat, most of it saturated, although poultry and veal franks contain somewhat less. This is quite a bit considering that our daily fat intake should not routinely exceed 60-70 grams. Unfortunately, it is the fat in the hot dog that makes it taste so darn good.
Is it possible to have a low fat hot dog? Well, Hormel in the US has come up with “97% Fat Free Franks” which only have 1.3 grams of fat in each hot dog. The replacement of some of the fat by hydrolyzed vegetable protein is certainly a giant step in the right direction, especially when one considers that a panel of tasters found the Hormel product as tasty as regular hot dogs. Incidentally, the label “100% beef” on the packaging is meaningless on nutritional grounds. It just means that all components, including the fat, are derived from cows, steers or bulls. Actually bull meat is very flavorful, but because it is so fibrous, tends to be tough. However when macerated in a blender, it makes for an ideal hot dog. And that’s no bull.
Then of course there are tofu hot dogs. These are getting better, but they still seem to develop those revolting “warts” when grilled. For now, I’ll still take the occasional regular hot dog, especially if you put a good ball game in front of it. But just to be on the safe side, I’ll take it with sauerkraut. Lots of vitamin C in there to take care of any nitrite problems.