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Cherry Picking Cranberry Juice Data

cranberry juiceCranberry 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

pesticideDavid 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”

chemotherapyDo 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

molecule found in spaceIn 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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Antibiotics linked to childhood obesity

obesity & antibioticsA newly published study in JAMA Pediatrics indicates that children who had had four or more courses of antibiotics by age two were at a 10% higher risk of being obese by age five.  Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the Bloomberg School of Public Health examined the records of more than 64,500 children between 2011 and 2013. The children were followed until the age of five. In addition to show a link between antibiotic use and childhood obesity the study also indicated that the type of antibiotic also appeared to make a difference.  Children who were given repeated doses of broad spectrum antibiotics, that target a variety of microbes, were nearly twice as likely to become obese when compared to those who received the narrow spectrum varieties aimed at specific species. The researchers corrected their data to take into account variations in obesity risks associated with ethnic and socioeconomic factors. They also discounted the possibility that other medications given alongside antibiotics might be responsible for the weight gain.

The study confirms that the microbial gut population plays a role in obesity and that antibiotics can alter its composition to foster weight gains. A notion supported by animal studies carried out by Dr Blaser of New York University in New York  and published last August in the prestigious journal Cell. In one study three groups of mice were followed. One group was treated with low doses of penicillin in the womb. A second group received the same dose after weaning. The third did not receive any penicillin. Both groups that received penicillin showed an increase in fat mass when compared to mice not treated with antibiotic. The interesting feature though, was that the increase was higher in the group receiving penicillin stating in the womb. This suggests that mice are more prone to weight gain when receiving antibiotics early in life.

Another experiment was the carried out by determine if the weight gain was caused by the antibiotic or by altered bacterial population in the gut. Bacteria were transferred from penicillin treated mice to specially bred germ-free mice and antibiotic free mice. The researchers discovered that mice receiving bacteria from the antibiotic-treated donors became fatter than the germ-free mice inoculated with bacteria from untreated donors. This showed, according to the researchers, that the altered microbes are driving the obesity effects not the antibiotics.  It also contradicted the theory that antibiotics in farming causes weight gain in animals by reducing total microbial population and therefore the competition for nutrients.

It has been known for decades that over prescription of antibiotics could lead to the growth of resistant bacteria. Now here is another potential health effect to consider. It suggests that doctors should, as much as possible, reduce restrict their prescriptions of antibiotics in children and more specifically of the broad spectrum type.

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Goat Poop in Your Hair?

goatsNow that we’ve got your attention, let’s talk about argan oil. Don’t worry, we will get around to the poop. Surely you’ve heard of corn oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil and canola oil. But unless you’re familiar with Moroccan traditions, or are in the habit of frequenting trendy hair salons, chances are that argan oil has escaped your attention. So what is this oil that most people have never heard of?

Argan is a tree that grows in only one specific region of Morocco and produces a fruit that resembles a large olive. Stripping away the fleshy outside layer exposes a nut that can be dried and cracked open to reveal several kernels. Traditionally these have been roasted, mashed and squeezed to yield an oil with a nutty flavor. Because the trees are rare, and a lot of work is involved in producing the oil, it tends to be expensive. That’s why it is used sparingly, usually to flavor salads and dips. It can also be stirred into couscous. There are even health claims about lowering cholesterol and boosting the immune system, although these have to be taken with a very large grain of salt.

Chemically argan oil is very similar to olive oil, consisting mostly of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat, and linoleic acid, a polyunsaturated fat. While these are deemed to be “healthy,” argan oil would rarely be consumed regularly in significant amounts to have any impact on health. Like olive oil it also contains some vitamin E, along with small quantities of other antioxidants of no practical relevance. There is somewhat more rationale for the use of argan oil in cosmetic products. At least one study suggests that a small amount rubbed on the skin can reduce sebum production and there is some hope that it may have an effect on psoriasis. But even here it is doubtful it would differ from olive oil.

Some hair dressers recommend argan oil as a conditioning agent, often citing that it is the reason why Moroccan women have beautiful hair. Actually there’s no evidence that Moroccan women have particularly beautiful hair, or that significant numbers of them use argan oil. In any case, there’s no theoretical reason to think that argan oil would work better than olive oil as a hair conditioner. But there is also a product called “Moroccan oil” that is available in better hair salons and pharmacies that actually works very well in making hair more manageable and more likely to hold its shape.

While this product does contain some argan oil, it is hardly the active ingredient. Basically it is included to allow for some hype about a rare oil. The first three ingredients are actually cyclopentasiloxane, dimethicone and cyclomethicone, three very effective silicones that really can tame troublesome hair. But there are plenty of cheaper silicone products that do as good a job. However, they don’t come with the mythology that surrounds argan oil. And part of that mythology is that traditionally the oil was pressed from nuts that had passed through the digestive tracts of goats that had climbed the tree to satisfy their craving for the argan fruit. Supposedly the nuts processed by the goats were easier to crack and yielded a particularly flavourful oil. Goats do climb the argan trees, that much is true. But collecting their poop to isolate the nuts is a myth. As much a myth as the one about argan oil having magical properties.

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The new meaning of natural vanilla flavor

vanillaVanilla is the most popular flavor in North America. But it is not that often that one gets the chance to taste the “real stuff”. The flavor made from the beans of the vanilla orchid is expensive. This is why 99% of the time what is found in food comes from synthetic vanillin. The compound, which is also present in natural vanilla, can be prepared from wood pulp but today most of it comes from guaiacol a substance extracted from a petroleum derivative. Recently though a Japanese chemist, Mayu Yamamoto prepared the synthetic flavor from cow dung. The process, which won him the Ig Nobel, the humorous alternate to the real prize, involves extracting the pulp from the poop, and converting it to vanillin.

Natural vanilla can cost up to 200 times as much as the synthetic derivative an there is a lot of fake on the market. The easiest way to detect the fraud is using analytical techniques to detect the presence of side products in addition to vanillin. Natural vanilla is a collage of chemicals whereas the synthetic stuff contains only vanillin. The absence of a compound such as 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde would indicate fraud. But as the counterfeiter can simply add the appropriate molecules, another more sophisticated method can be used, carbon-14 dating. Natural vanilla contains a set level of radioactive carbon-14 whose half-life is 5730 years. This means that synthetic vanillin, derived from petroleum that has decayed over millions of years, is not expected to exhibit any radioactivity.

The cost of vanilla flavor from the plant and the desire from consumers for natural ingredients has spurred the industry to search for naturally produced versions of vanillin. Two companies are in the running. A Belgian company Solvay, makes its vanillin by yeast fermentation of ferulic acid, a by-product of rice milling.  Evola, also employs yeast fermentation but begins with sugar and makes use of a genetically modified strain of baker’s yeast.  The two companies argue that their vanillin, derived from natural ingredients, and natural processes, can therefore be labeled as “natural vanilla flavor.” This even though the vanillin does not come from the plant. Also Evola claims that their process yields some of the chemicals naturally present in the plant giving it a more real taste.


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The Healing Code

Screen Shot 2014-09-29 at 12.07.12 PMYou would think it’s a Saturday Night Live skit. And it would be funny if it didn’t have a serious side. Just picture this. Using different fingers, a man points at four specific parts of his body in a seemingly predetermined sequence. Looks like some bizarre ritual. But it’s not. It’s an attempt to rid the body of some disease according to specific instructions embodied in an epic piece of work called the “Healing Code.” Depending on the ailment, a different pattern of finger wagging is indicated. No pills or supplements to take, no scalpel to fear.

The Healing Code is the brain child of one Alex Loyd, who happens to be a naturopath. He is into what he calls the new science of “energy medicine.” I call it bunk. The basic tenet of “energy medicine” is that the human body is surrounded by some sort of energy field that is prone to becoming disturbed. Such disturbances lead to disease. Luckily, though, according to the proponents of energy medicine, these disturbances can be fixed by some sort of external energetic intervention. They are not bothered at all by the fact that nobody has ever shown the existence of such an energy field that is anything other than heat radiating from the body or that wagging fingers do not release energy.

According to Loyd you can even heal other people, and even animals, with these codes. And you don’t even have to do any finger pointing at them. You just have to state in your mind the intention that the dancing fingers are for someone else. Then you just go on and point at your own healing centers. The subjects of the healing can be anywhere, even across the world. Mind boggling. Loyd charges about $700 for a manual and a DVD to learn his system. The only thing his system energizes is his bank account.


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