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Shark attack

Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 12.45.09 PMThere’s blood in the water….and the sharks are circling. Myself included. Finally the scientific community is waking up to the outrageous nonsense upon which Vani Hari, the “Food Babe,” has built an empire. The critical articles, prompted to a large extent by SciBabe’s (Yvette d’Entremont) excellent piece in the “Gawker” which has so far had an amazing 4.5 million views, are now flooding newspapers, magazines and the Internet. Today I was having a conversation about the mansion that ignorance built, and I mentioned to a friend that I bet I could open Ms. Hari’s book at any page and find some absurdity. I was challenged to prove it.

So I asked him to open the book at any page. He did. Page 149. I struck gold with the second paragraph. “Did you know that Wendy’s chili contains silicon dioxide (found in sand) or that McDonald’s apple pie contains L-cysteine (derived from poultry feathers)? Are you aware that Jack in the Box puts cellulose (the same ingredient that is in sawdust) in many of its cheeses, sauces and shakes? Or that Wendy’s puts dimethylpolysiloxane (used in Silly Putty) in its Natural-Cut fries?”

Wow. What a treasure trove of nonsense in such few words. Silicon dioxide is commonly added to chili powder in tiny amounts as an anti-caking agent. It is commonly added to salt as well. There isn’t even a hint of toxicity here. You could eat sand by the spoonful. It would not be a gourmet meal but it would not wreak havoc with your health. L-cysteine is an amino acid that we consume routinely every time we eat protein. In the pie, it improves the texture of the dough. The fact that it may be derived from feathers is irrelevant. Any protein can be broken down into its amino acid components,

Once L-cysteine is purified, whether it came from feathers, hair, nail clippings or unicorn horn is immaterial. As far as cellulose goes, well we eat it every time we eat fruits or vegetables. It is a building block of all plant matter and is a component of dietary fiber. Fiber absorbs water, which adds bulk to stool and helps prevent constipation. With her vegetable laden diet, Ms. Hari consumes plenty of cellulose. Unfortunately it doesn’t prevent mental constipation.

Then there is the Silly Putty silliness. Dimethylpolysiloxane is added in tiny amounts to the frying oil to prevent foaming. It is so non-toxic that it is used in far greater doses as a medicine to prevent excessive flatulation. The fact that it is also in Silly Putty is neither here nor there. We don’t shy away from eating starch just because it can be used to lubricate condoms or make glue. Silly Putty is a great toy, and is totally safe. It has to be. Children have been known to make a meal of it. Amazingly, in spite of much effort, nobody has found a really practical use for Silly Putty. Until now. Maybe it can be used to stop the tsunami of nonsense that gushes from scientifically illiterate mouths.

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Kicking at the soapbox

The Madness Of The Food Babe – Is It Time To Stand Up To Bullying Quacks? ShareSubscribeFacebook

The Food Babe is full of….chemicals!

Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 12.45.09 PMYes she is! Thousands and thousands of them. Let’s just do a little experiment. Take a drop of her blood, or of course anyone else’s, and subject it to chemical analysis. Here’s just a small sampling of the compounds detected. They all form naturally as a result of the numerous biochemical processes that are going on in our bodies all the time that constitute life. Acetone,1-butanol, pyridine, 1-methyl-cyclopentanol, cyclopentanone, octanal, lactic acid, 1,6-heptadien-4-ol, 6-methyl-5-hepten-2-one, ethyl (-)-lactate, nonanal, 1-octen-3-ol, acetic acid, decanal, 2,5-hexanedione, propanoic acid, butanoic acid, acetophenone, isovaleric acid, dodecanal, 3-hexen-2,5-diol, dimethylsulphone, phenol, benzothiazole, p-cresol, octanoic acid, 2,6,10,15,19,23-hexamethyl-2,6,10,14,18,22-tetracosahexaene (squalene), heptadecanoic acid, phenylalanine, aspartic acid, urea. There’s acetone, that’s the solvent used in nail polish remover. Acetophenone is an additive in cigarettes. N-butanol finds use in hydraulic brake fluids, degreasers and as a swelling agent in textiles. Octenol disrupts dopamine production and may be involved in Parkinson’s disease. Methanol is the basic ingredient in windshield washer fluid and can cause blindness. Squalene is used to formulate hemorrhoid creams. Propanoic acid is a common bread preservative and butanoic acid is the fragrance of rancid butter. Urea is a widely used fertilizer. Androstenol is found in boar saliva and is an attractant for female pigs. Phenol was first extracted from coal tar and is a component of paint strippers. It is also secreted by male elephants in heat and is found in the exudates of the castor sacs under the butt of the North American beaver. And we have often heard the Food Babe rail against “beaver butt” in ice cream. Skatole is known to cause pulmonary edema in goats and p-cresol attracts female mosquitoes. It has traditionally been extracted from one of the Food Babe’s favourite substances, coal tar, and is used to make another one of her loves, the preservative BHT. It is also a major component of pig odour. Good thing our pal doesn’t know all this. She might want to drain her blood.


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You Asked: How much salt is too much?

saltReducing sodium intake has been a nutritional mantra for decades. We have repeatedly been told that cutting back on salt lowers blood pressure which in turn lowers the risk of heart attacks and strokes. But these days it seems to be in vogue to question almost every type of dietary advice that has been dispensed by health authorities, including salt intake. Questioning current dogma of course isn’t a bad thing, after all, that is how science progresses. The truth is that often the evidence for recommendations is not as robust as it is made out to be and we have seen views change about the likes of saturated fats, eggs and sugar in our diet as new data emerge. Today, with studies being cranked out at a frantic pace it is possible to find “evidence” for almost any view that one holds, but conclusive evidence, particularly when it comes to diets, is elusive. When it comes to food, the gold standard, the randomized double-blind trial, is extremely difficult to design and carry out.

In the case of sodium, a meaningful trial would mean following groups of subjects for many years and noting the incidence of cardiovascular disease, with the only difference between groups being the amount of sodium in the diet. It is difficult enough to do this over the short term, but that actually has been done. The famous dietary approaches to fight hypertension (DASH) trial managed to test three different levels of sodium intake by providing subjects with all their meals. They consumed either 1500, 2300 or 3500 mg of sodium a day, with results showing a clear link between blood pressure and sodium intake. The 3500 mg level was chosen because it represents the amount of sodium that is consumed on the average by the population. This translates to about 9 grams of salt (sodium chloride), or one and a half teaspoons, most of which comes from processed foods.

The trial lasted only 16 weeks, too short to note a difference in disease patterns. As critics pointed out, demonstrating a decrease in blood pressure with reduced sodium is not the same as showing a decrease in the risk of a heart attack or stroke. But given that there is overwhelming evidence from population studies that high blood pressure is associated with cardiovascular disease, it is reasonable to recommend a cutback on salt. The question is by how much?

That question arises because some recent studies have suggested an increased risk of adverse health outcomes associated with sodium intake in the 1500 to 2300 mg a day range. This, however, may have nothing to do with sodium. It is possible that people with cardiovascular disease, who have been advised to dramatically reduce their salt intake, fall into this range and suffer problems because of the preexisting condition rather than their low sodium intake. In any case, for the general population, the 2300 mg target is reasonable. Debates about low sodium levels presenting a risk may have academic interest but have little practical value. The 1500 mg target is unattainable for most people, and given that our average intake is in the range of 3500 mg a day, emphasis has to be placed on reducing this rather than worrying about too little sodium.

Cutting back isn’t easy. Producers cater to our fondness for salt by adding it liberally to a wide array of foods. A bowl of cereal contains about 300 mg of sodium, a single hot dog can have 800, a slice of bread 230, a cup of cottage cheese 900, a couple of slices of processed cheese 700, and half a cup of commercial tomato sauce 600 mg. A slice of pizza can weigh in anywhere from 600 to 1500 mg of sodium per slice! Obviously it isn’t hard to surpass 2300 mg. So there really is no worry about consuming too little sodium, that isn’t happening in the real world. There is another reason we can dismiss the naysayers who claim that the evidence to support a low sodium diet is too weak. Cutting back on sodium means a decrease in processed food intake and an increase in fruits and vegetables. And there can be no argument against that.

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When protein is not protein

Screen Shot 2015-03-30 at 11.42.01 AMYou need protein to build muscle. We have all heard that, probably as early as elementary school. And it is true. Muscle is mostly made of protein and its source is protein in the diet. But the route is not direct. Proteins are complex molecules composed of hundreds to thousands of amino acids linked together. When consumed, these chains are broken down into smaller fragments called peptides as well as into individual amino acids. Once absorbed into the bloodstream these are reassembled into proteins that include not only the structural parts of muscles but also enzymes and some hormones such as insulin. Of the twenty amino acids found in the body’s proteins, nine have to be supplied by the diet, the others can be made from other food components. The big question about proteins is how much do we need? Consume too little and the body suffers, consume too much and the extra is converted to fat.

It stands to reason that body size matters as well as level of activity. Muscle builders require more protein than couch potatoes. As a rough guide, people need at least half a gram per pound of body weight, recreational athletes need 0.7 grams and serious athletes about 0.9 grams per pound of body weight. Let’s take as an example a 170 pound male who works out quite regularly. His protein intake should be in the ballpark of 120 grams. That’s achievable by diet. A chicken breast has about 60 grams of protein, a hamburger 30, about the same as a serving of salmon, a couple of eggs 12, and two slices of cheese 15. Now, if someone is into serious body building, the needs can go up to 150-160 grams of protein a day. At this point adding some tofu with about 50 grams of protein per 100 grams might be in order. Or, there is always the possibility of using a protein supplement.

Protein supplements are big business, raking in about seven billion dollars a year world wide. They are sourced from milk or soy with a scoop generally containing about 40 grams of protein. But therein lies a problem. And it is a big enough issue to have resulted in law suits against the protein manufacturers. That’s because that protein powder may not be all protein thanks to something called “protein spiking” which involves using cheaper individual amino acids rather than proteins. For example, glycine, taurine and leucine are available at about one fifth the cost of proteins.

Now here is the scoop. A chemical analysis for proteins doesn’t really analyze for proteins but rather for nitrogen content. Since all proteins contain nitrogen, the amount of protein can be calculated from a nitrogen analysis. But the analysis does not distinguish between amino acids linked together in a chain, as in proteins, or individual acids all of which also contain nitrogen. In some cases a supposed 40 gram serving of protein may only deliver 20 grams, the rest being individual amino acids. What that means is that the ratio of amino acids in the supplement is not ideal for supplying what the body needs to build protein. While there is a degree of dishonest marketing here, there is no serious health consequence. Most people who supplement with protein powders, even if these are not everything they are made out to be, are probably taking in more protein than their body can possibly use.

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You Asked: Is there really a “dirty secret” about almonds?

Screen Shot 2015-03-30 at 11.35.07 AMAnytime you see an article that starts off with the heading “The Truth About….,” it’s a pretty safe bet that you will not get the truth. And so it is with an article circulating about almonds. “The Truth About Almonds: Almost No One Knows This Dirty Secret.” What is the “dirty secret?” That the almonds are treated with the fumigant propylene oxide to prevent contamination by salmonella bacteria. Salmonella infection is not pleasant to say the least. But people mostly associate it with contaminated eggs, not almonds. Where do the bacteria come from? Mostly fecal matter. Easy to see how eggs can be contaminated as they are laid. But almonds? Birds and insects can spread the bacterium after contacting fecal matter, but exposure may also be indirect through contaminated irrigation water. Salmonella bacteria can survive a long time even in dry conditions and dry heat treatment is not very effective at killing them. But fumigation with propylene oxide is. The nuts are placed in a chamber with liquid propylene oxide and the pressure is then reduced to allow quick evaporation of the liquid. The vapour destroys bacteria very effectively, preventing the possibility of food poisoning. There is no secret here. And nothing dirty is going on.

So what is the alarm all about? That propylene oxide is an animal carcinogen. That does not mean it is known to cause cancer in humans. And even if a substance is a human carcinogen, dosage still matters. While “carcinogen” is a frightening term, all it means is that the substance is capable of causing cancer in some animal at some dose. But there is a threshold effect. In rats no cancer can be found at any dose less than nine milligrams per kilogram of body weight, which has been established as the No Observed Adverse Effect Level (NOAEL). In other words at that dosage there is absolutely no problem detected.

Canada does not grow almonds so there has not been an application to allow the use of propylene oxide. This is not the same as it having been banned, as some alarmists claim. However, since Canada does import almonds that may have been treated with the chemical, the Pest Management Regulatory Agency has looked at the animal data and concluded that the maximum permissible residue is 300 parts per million. That is way below the NOAEL. And how much are almond eaters actually exposed to? The only way to know is to test for residues. That’s why the Canadian Food Inspection Agency tested over a thousand samples of spices, herbs, cocoa powder and nuts, including almonds. Guess what they found? No residue at all! So there is no reason to be concerned about propylene oxide in almonds because it isn’t there. And that is the truth.

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Want to keep Alzheimer’s disease at bay? Who wouldn’t? So let’s surf the web! Keep in mind that almost every study encountered is riddled with “ifs” and “maybes.”

Screen Shot 2015-03-24 at 9.10.52 PMSticking to the Mediterranean diet – low in meat and dairy products, high in fruits, vegetables, legumes, cereals and fish – would seem to be a good start. A study of close to 500 seniors with mild cognitive impairment showed a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s with adherence to the Mediterranean diet. Eating fish is an important feature, with studies showing that people with higher blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids tend to have larger brain volumes in old age. It seems fish oil protects the brain’s hippocampus region, the area where shrinkage is associated with dementia.

But watch how you cook your meals. Grilling, frying or broiling produces “advanced glycation end products,” which have been linked to inflammation, insulin resistance and Alzheimer’s disease. And watch that sugar intake. A study of some 900 subjects with no cognitive problems found that within four years, 200 began to show mild cognitive impairment. Those with the highest sugar intake were 1.5 times more likely to have memory problems than those with the lowest intake. Diets containing walnuts as well as strawberry or blueberry extracts were found to reverse several parameters of brain aging, as well as age-related motor and cognitive deficits. As long as you are an aging rat.

Might not be a bad idea to add a little Indian flavour to the diet in the form of turmeric, a common spice in curry. Curcumin, its major component, has been linked with slower cognitive decline and reduced amyloid beta plaques, one of the major causes of Alzheimer’s disease. Grape seed extract appears to have the same effect, at least in mice. People with Alzheimer’s tend to have lower vitamin D than those without the disease, and better cognitive test results have been linked with higher vitamin D levels. A supplement may be in order.

People who drink three to five cups of coffee a day in their midlife years have a 65-per-cent lower chance of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease compared with those who drink little coffee. Green tea will do as well since its epigallocatechin-3-gallate content has been shown to prevent the buildup of beta-amyloid aggregates, at least in lab experiments. In non-smoking women, moderate alcohol consumption reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s. And consider fruit juices. People drinking them three or more times per week were 76 per cent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s than those who drank less than one serving per week. Pomegranate juice may be particularly beneficial.

Instead of thinking about what to eat or drink, perhaps we should think about infusing protective factors directly into our blood. Studies have shown that a transfusion of young mouse blood into older animals can improve cognition. Focus is on a protein in blood plasma called “growth differentiation factor 11 (GDF11)” that declines with age both in mice and in humans. Drinking young blood won’t do.

You want to make sure you breathe clean air. Women who live in areas with the worst quality air score perform more poorly on tests of memory and thinking than those who live in cleaner areas. On the other hand, there is a correlation between strict hygiene and sanitation methods as practiced in wealthy countries and the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease. The “hygiene hypothesis” is gaining traction when it comes to allergies and asthma, with the theory being that exposure to bacteria, viruses and worms early in life primes the development of a healthy immune system. Some researchers suggest that the deposition of proteins in the nervous system, one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s, is a result of an immune system gone astray.

And remember to brush your teeth. A study that looked at 100 sets of twins, one with Alzheimer’s and the other unaffected, found that the twin with dementia was four times more likely to have had mid-life gum disease. Playing chess, reading newspapers and engaging the brain in other tasks can significantly reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s in later life, as can physical exercise. Be conscientious. Subjects who enthusiastically agreed with statements such as: “I work hard to accomplish my goals,” “I strive for excellence in everything I do,” “I keep my belongings clean and neat” and “I’m pretty good about pacing myself so as to get things done on time,” were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.

Finally, I came across a paper I really liked. A brain scan study at the University of California concluded that surfing the web increases brain activity more than reading a book. What can I say? Maybe.

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Fear of Fries

McDonald'sI’ve been repeatedly asked about the “dangers” of McDonald’s fries. First a couple of disclaimers. I am not particularly fond of McDonald’s French fries, and I am a fan of Michael Pollan’s writings on food and nutrition, particularly his classic book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” in which he summarizes his 400 or so pages with the advice to “eat foods mainly of plant origin and don’t eat too much.” He is also a fan of home cooked meals, which is great, but sometimes his attacks on processed foods are overzealous.

In a widely circulated video Pollan blasts McDonald’s not for any nutritional shortcomings of its fries but for accepting only potatoes of a certain size and shape and shunning any with blemishes caused by aphids. That, Pollan suggests, forces farmers to use pesticides such as Monitor (methamidophos) which he deems to be particularly dangerous. Indeed he points out that this chemical “is so toxic that farmers who grow these potatoes in Idaho won’t venture outside and into their fields for five days after they spray.” He goes on to say that the potatoes have to be stored in giant sheds for six weeks so they have time to off gas all the chemicals in them. The video had quite an impact, triggering headlines like “watch this video and you will never eat McDonald’s French fries again.” The issue needs a closer look.

Yes, McDonald’s likes it’s potatoes to be of a certain size so that the fries are long and reach out in an appealing fashion from their container. It doesn’t mean that other potatoes are wasted. McDonald’s buys its fries from distributors who select the appropriate ones for the company and sell the others elsewhere. It is also true that McDonald’s does not want potatoes that are affected by “net necrosis,” a viral infection spread by aphids. Nobody wants to eat potatoes permeated with black streaks like a net. As far as farmers not wanting to go out into the fields, well, that is standard protocol after spraying with any pesticide. Intervals that have to be respected after spraying any pesticide are established by regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Pollan’s notion about storing the potatoes for sixty days to off gas toxins is pure nonsense. Potatoes are routinely stored in large atmosphere controlled sheds because they have to be available year round. In any case, crops are monitored for pesticide residues and all such found on potatoes are way below established tolerance levels. There may be reasons to stay away from McDonald’s fries, but not because of any highlighted in this unnecessarily alarmist video. The fat content, the high glycemic index, the amount of salt added and maybe some of the compounds formed during high temperature frying are reason enough to make fries an occasional treat. And as a final point, the pesticide being talked about, methamidophos, has not been used since 2009.

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