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Cancer Charlatans

photodynamic therapyWhat makes people defend the indefensible? A prime example of this conundrum is the case of Antonella Carpenter, a 71 year old “alternative practitioner” who was convicted of conducting a fraudulent scheme to cure cancer in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is likely looking at spending the rest of her life in prison. She is not a physician but has some training in physics and claims that she can cure cancer by injecting a tumour with a saline solution of food colouring and walnut hull extract followed by heating the area with a laser. She calls her treatment “Light Induced Enhanced Selective Hyperthermia,” for which she claims 100% efficacy without any side effects. Any claim of 100% efficacy is a hallmark of quackery since no drug of any kind works in such a foolproof fashion. Even worse, she sometimes told patients they had been cured. As is often the case, quacks unearth some legitimate process and then twist it out of proportion to hatch a money-making scheme.

In this case, the legitimate process is “photodynamic therapy.” The treatment of cancer involves some process by which cancer cells are destroyed while normal cells suffer less damage. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to avoid collateral damage completely and cancer treatment via radiation or drugs is always burdened with side effects. In photodynamic therapy the idea is to introduce a chemical, known as a photosensitizer, that when activated by light interacts with oxygen to convert it into a very reactive form known as “singlet oxygen” that then attacks any organic compound it encounters with the result being cell death. The photosensitizer can be introduced intravenously followed by the tumour being exposed to long wavelength light via optical fiber. Alternately, the photosensitizer can be injected directly into a tumour and then the area exposed to light. In either case singlet oxygen is produced only within the tumour, minimizing damage to normal tissue. The process is applicable to certain types of tumours and is certainly not a cure-all for cancer.

It is this therapy that has been mentally mangled by Antonella Carpenter, who according to investigators cheated cancer patients out of their money and gave them false hope. In spite of any evidence of her treatment having any efficacy, supporters have sprung to her side, claiming that she was wrongly convicted by a kangaroo court. Here are some of the phrases they are pumping out: “The greedy and vindictive genocidal maggots who control the Cancer Industry and have the FDA and courts in their back pocket”…. “the medical mafia is hard at work twisting the truth and vilifying Dr. Antonella Carpenter and any other non-Allopathic practitioners and natural or alternative treatments as quackery”…. “Dr. Carpenter was vindictively targeted by the Medical Mafia and their Gestapo goons at the FDA for successfully curing dozens of cancer patients.” No. The truth is that she was targeted for subjecting cancer patients to a treatment that had no chance of working and was claiming she had cured them. That is evil.

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antimonyPicture this. You swallow a little pill, wait until it irritates your intestines enough to expel its contents and then hunt through the expelled excrement to retrieve the pill. Why? So you can use it next time to get rid of the bad humours in your body that are making you sick. How can a pill survive passage through the digestive tract? It can, if it is made of metal, in this case, antimony. Now, don’t go asking the pharmacist for antimony pills. The scenario just described isn’t current, it was plucked out of the Middle Ages when the cure for disease was to expel “bad humours” from the body. Actually, that was not unlike the current craze of expelling unnamed toxins from the body with a variety of “cleanses,” many of which have a laxative effect.

Hopefully nobody today would be silly enough to use antimony or its compounds, because here we are talking about real toxicity. Of course they didn’t realize that in the Middle Ages; all they knew was that antimony was pretty good at evacuating the body. And not only through the rear portals. One method involved drinking wine that had been left standing overnight in a cup made of antimony. This resulted in the antimony reacting with tartaric acid in the wine to form antimony tartrate, a compound that induces vomiting. The idea of purging the body to treat illness persisted into the late stages of the 18th century. When Mozart came down with a mysterious illness, he was treated with “tartar emetic,” as antimony tartrate was commonly called. What ailment he suffered from isn’t clear, but he died within two weeks. His symptoms of intense vomiting, fever, swollen abdomen and swollen limbs are consistent with antimony poisoning. Of course, we cannot prove that antimony was responsible for Mozart’s death, he also suffered from rheumatic fever since childhood, a condition that may have led to his demise at a young age.

Mozart had always been sickly and it is well known that he had been often treated with antimony compounds by his physicians and that he even dosed himself when he didn’t feel well. It is interesting that Mozart actually believed he was being poisoned, but not by himself. He thought his musical rival Antonio Salieri was trying to do him in. Although the famous movie “Amadeus” alludes to this possibility, historical facts do not corroborate the poisoning story. Contrary to the portrayal, Salieri did not confess at the end of his life to having tried to kill Mozart.

Back in the 1990s a volatile compound of antimony known as stibine (SbH3) was accused of being responsible for crib death. The theory was that it was produced from antimony oxide added as a flame retardant to polyvinylchloride sheets. A fungus found in mattresses supposedly made this conversion possible, at least under laboratory conditions. The theory has now been dismissed because neither the fungus, nor levels of antimony in babies’ blood could be correlated with crib death.

More recently Greenpeace created a stir with a booklet entitled “A Little Story About The Monsters In Your Closet.” What sort of “monsters?” The subtitle brings them out of the closet: “Study finds hazardous chemicals in children’s clothing.” Yup, the monsters are chemicals. One that the Greenpeace study detected was antimony trioxide, present in all fabrics that have polyester as a component. No great surprise here since antimony trioxide is used as a catalyst in the production of polyester as well as a flame retardant. And it is true that antimony trioxide can be described as presenting a hazard. But hazard is not the same as risk.

Hazard is the innate potential of a substance to cause harm without taking into account extent or type of exposure. Inhalation of antimony compounds in an occupational setting can be a problem, and it is correct that antimony trioxide has been classified as “suspected of causing cancer via inhalation.” But this is not relevant for the trace amounts found in fabrics. Here the issue would be migration out of the fabric and subsequent absorption. This has been extensively investigated and the amounts that are encountered are well below the established migration limits. The same applies to the trace amounts that leach out of the polyester bottles that are widely used for water and other beverages. Concentrations are less than the 5 parts per billion safety limit.

Antimony does not occur in nature in its metallic form, so where did Middle Age physicians get it? Like most metals, antimony has to be smelted from its ore, in this case antimony sulfide, also known as stibnite, a substance that has been known for thousands of years. Jezebel, the Biblical temptress is said to have used it to darken her eyebrows and stibnite was the main ingredient in “kohl” used by ancient Egyptian women in a type of mascara. Exactly who figured out that heating antimony sulfide converts it to antimony oxide, which yields metallic antimony when fired with carbon, is unknown, but if you visit the Louvre, you can see a 5000 year old vase that is made of almost pure antimony.

Today, neither metallic antimony nor its compounds have a medical use, although up to the 1970s, antimony compounds were used to treat parasitic infections like schistosomiasis. These preparations did kill the parasites, but sometimes they also dispatched the patient. Up to the early twentieth century, tartar emetic was used as a remedy, albeit an ineffective one, for alcohol abuse. The New England Journal of Medicine once reported a case of a man whose wife tried to cure him of his alcoholic habit by secretly putting tartar emetic into his orange juice. The result was a trip to the hospital with chest pains and liver toxicity. Two years later the man reported complete abstinence from alcohol. Seems antimony had taught him a lesson.

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The Secret World Inside Us

gut microbiomeRecently, there’s been an influx of media attention on guts. More specifically, the microbes that live in your gut. Extensive research is being done on these little guys as they seem to be having a real impact on our health. These gut microbes may be miniscule but their function is major. And I learnt all about them at “The Secret World Inside You” exhibit now on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Before I begin walking you through the exhibit, first a brief explanation as to what microbes even are. Microbes are microscopic living organisms that can only be seen with the help of a microscope. And they are everywhere – in every fold and lining of our bodies, including our inside. They literally govern the world inside us and are responsible for much of how we function.

Our skin is the first point of contact for microbes, which is most probably why it’s the first section you get to in this exhibit. There is not one individual whose microbiome is like that of another. However, what came as a real shocker was the fact that people living together – families, roommates, and yup, pets too –share certain microbe make-up. So much so, that when one person leaves the nest for a few days, the microbiome of the house shifts until they return home again. Pretty sweet, no? Everyone sharing the same types of microbes…(It could also be slightly gross if you think about it too much, so just don’t). It was also pointed out how certain microbes, as distant as they may seem, are actually closely linked. Let’s take cheese, for example. The holes in Swiss cheese are made from a bacterium that is similar to one located on the skin, which is why (some) feet take on a cheesy-like smell. On feet, the Brevibacterium linens bacteria converts amino acids into smelly sweat, but in the world of dairy, it serves to ripen Limburger cheese. Delicious? Depends.

Now perhaps it’s my age and the fact that my ovaries now twitch on a regular basis thanks to all the babies on my FB feed, but the next section of the exhibit was hands down my favourite. “Before Birth”, the world of the baby and the microbiome of the mama. Now one would think that the two are inextricably linked since the fetus is totally reliant upon the mother; however, to my surprise, the mother’s microbiome does not mix with the fetus at all. In fact, if the microbiome of the mother interacts at all with the fetus, it could be very risky. And it’s thanks to the placenta, the gatekeeper in this whole process, why the two don’t mix. After visiting this exhibit, I really developed a whole newfound respect for the placenta since it serves a pivotal function, allowing nutrients and oxygen to enter the amniotic sac and preventing any other materials from doing so.

Now once a woman’s water breaks all rules are off. The baby is now cooked enough to not only mingle with the microbes of its’ mother but to start developing a microbiome of their own. And the birth canal is where this all happens. When the baby travels through the canal, the mother’s microbes get pressed into the skin, nose and eyes, and even swallowed by the little one before being delivered to the baby’s gut where they can then start their own gut microbiome. This process is crucial in the development of a baby’s healthy immune and digestive system. (How awesome!) But you may be wondering (as was I), about those C-section deliveries since these babies do not go through the birth canal picking up the mother’s microbes along the way. Instead, these babies pick up microbes from the doctor’s hands and the environment. They end up lining the baby’s digestive tract and in turn have an impact on their immune system, causing C-section babies to be at a higher risk of a variety of conditions, such as asthma and allergies. To test this, studies are now being done where the baby, immediately post-C-section delivery is slathered with a gauze pad that soaked up the microbes in their mother’s birth canal right before birth. Time will tell whether this can benefit the baby but most signs point to yes, which is good news since about one mother in three now gives birth by C-section in the United States.

As life goes on, microbes live, grow and multiply based on what we feed them. Meaning, the food we eat and the choices we make influence our gut bacteria. This has spawned a huge new area of research looking at individual variation when it comes to weight gain and loss, which was another section of the exhibit that I found fascinating, since like the majority of people on the planet I have a few pounds that just won’t relent.

Different people react to different foods in different ways. This is not a novel idea. I mean, just look at allergies and adverse food reactions. Some people have them, some people don’t. But what if this can be attributed to the type of microbes living in your gut? Let’s take a “healthy” food like a tomato, for example. Could you imagine if someone’s blood sugar spiked after eating tomatoes the same way it would after eating a donut? And research has shown, that this is the case! And yet in another individual, tomatoes can have zero spike effect. This whole new line of research could be a breakthrough in terms of weight control. Costly, but important. I know I’d be among the first to sign up to find out just what type of bacteria I have going on in my gut. Of course, as the exhibit suggests, one cannot know whether obese people are obese due to their microbiome or if there are external factors that caused their microbiome to be as such in the first place. It’s the chicken or the egg debate and we shall leave it to science to continue the research.

After leaving the exhibit, I realized that the microbiome is truly a hotbed of scientific research. We know so much but at the same time there are so many question marks about how we can use, manipulate, and alter our microbiome to enhance our health. And I am confident that science will, at one point or another, provide us with these answers; but until then, I’m just going to hope that my gut bacteria interact favourably with tomatoes.

You can visit “The Secret World Inside You” exhibit at the American Natural History Museum in New York where it will be on display until August 2016.

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National Bunsen Burner Day

bunsen burnerMarch 31st was National Bunsen Burner Day. Bunsen (1811-1899) should be remembered. After all, the “Bunsen Burner” is a typical symbol of chemistry. But there is more to Bunsen than just a burner.

Laboratory workers had long been plagued by sooty, hard-to-control flames and Bunsen of course knew that oxygen was necessary for combustion and that soot was the product of incomplete combustion. He therefore concluded that the secret to a clean flame lay in mixing the combustible gas with air in just the right proportion.

The prototype Bunsen burner consisted of a metal tube with strategically drilled holes through which air could enter and mix with the combustible gas flowing through the tube. A sliding metal cover allowed the operator to vary the number of open holes and thus control the character of the flame. Bunsen, however, never patented his invention. He did not believe that scientists should profit financially from their work; research was to be done for its own sake.
Why was Bunsen so interested in developing a clean flame? Because he had a passion for studying the diverse brilliant colors produced by sprinkling various substances into a fire. He had noted that throwing sodium chloride (ordinary salt) into a flame always resulted in a bright orange-yellow glow. The same color appeared if sodium bromide, or indeed any compound of sodium was cast into the flame. Other elements also produced characteristic colors. In fact Bunsen discovered the existence of the elements rubidium and cesium through the colors they produced.

Over a hundred years earlier, Newton had shown how a prism can be used to separate white light into the colors of the rainbow. Bunsen now applied this principle to separate the colors of a flame into their individual components. The spectroscope, an instrument he developed together with the physicist Kirchoff, allowed unknown substances to be identified purely by the colors they produced when heated in the flame of a Bunsen burner.

So, who cares what colors are produced in a flame? Well, just think of the glorious colors of fireworks. Or the bright red strontium flame of an emergency roadside flare. Or the yellow glow of a sodium vapor highway light. The original studies that led to these applications were painstakingly carried out by Robert Bunsen.
After having long toiled with flames and spectroscopes in the laboratory, the great man spent years writing up his work for publication. The day the manuscript was finished, he left it on his desk and went out to celebrate. When he returned, Bunsen was horrified to see a smoldering pile of ashes where his treasured treatise had been.

A flask filled with water had been next to the papers and had acted as a magnifying glass, focussing the sun’s rays and igniting the manuscript. A lesser man would have surrendered to fate at this point. But Bunsen, even at an advanced age, doggedly repeated the work and eventually published the results of his spectroscopic research so that all the world finally became aware of his burner.

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To Know or Not to Know?

question markLast week, we heard in the news about a shocking admission from the execs at the National Football League in the USA that they may finally admit to believing that there is a link between football-related head trauma and chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, a degenerative brain disease that is well known to be caused by repeated trauma to the head, such as from concussions. The reason that I find that news headline to be shocking is not because there was an admission of the link, but rather because the NFL was able to deny the existence of that link up until now by simply choosing not to believe that one was there.

A little closer to home, the news over the past few days has contained stories of email conversations among the top brass at the NHL that would show them debating the merits of fighting in hockey by exchanging their beliefs over whether or not repeated concussions during one’s life may lead to mental illness, brain injury or addictions later on. As if these corporate jocks have any knowledge of the medical information required to understand this concept well enough to be qualified to decide upon it. When the medical experts have made pronouncements on this issue, they unambiguously say that getting punched in the head repeatedly over one’s career is very likely to cause brain damage of one kind or another.

How is it that scientific specialists, like the medical researchers in these previous examples, are so easily discounted as being irrelevant in the face of someone else’s belief in something else? This ability to whimsically discount science in favour of a more convenient belief is not restricted to sporting organizations. In fact, we well know that it can be observed at a larger scale, both geographically and destructively speaking, in the anti-scientific dismissal of climate change. How many times have you heard of an online poll or a talk-show pundit that asks whether or not we should believe in climate change? Unfortunately for those pollsters, brain injuries and climate change are real, whether you believe in them or not.

The thing is that the medical knowledge of brain injuries or the vast expanses of knowledge on the earth and its climate are not based on beliefs at all, but rather on thousands upon thousands of accumulated and inter-supportive facts that have not been able to be falsified. These notions form the basis of the scientific method, which is simply a process of seeking to observe and describe the universe and to explain its properties and behaviour. Incidentally, it is also the most reliable and robust tool that we have found to date that allows us to work out fact from fiction in the natural world.

One of the most pervasive problems in society today is the mistaken equivalence of a specialist’s knowledge and understanding of facts with a non-specialist’s beliefs in something else. Belief and knowledge are incompatible with one another and only one of those two is a reliable way of understanding truth. ‘So what?’, we may ask. Perhaps, I may be seen to be an academic fuddy-duddy arguing about semantics and that we should just let people live and let live, each with their own thoughts and beliefs. Well no, I say. It is a problem that has real consequences on people, such as those ex-hockey enforcers dying from brain damage or the millions of people already being affected by runaway global warming.

On a very basic level, this important issue often hinges on the flawed equivalence of the nature of beliefs vs. knowledge in society. These two terms are so dissimilar to one another that they are more like opposites than synonyms. This acknowledgement alone would go a long way to guiding society progress towards an improved health, safety and prosperity of its people. As a starting point, it may be helpful to examine the meaning and usefulness of each of these two words as concepts.

Belief is the acceptance that something is true through the acts of trust, faith or confidence. There is no requirement for evidence in order to believe in something, making it a useful option for simplifying otherwise difficult concepts to absurdity or for dismissing inconvenient truths to irrelevance. Knowledge, on the other hand, is the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject. The key word in that sentence is ‘understanding’, because to truly know something, one must be able describe what, how and why it is what it is… and this requires the use of facts as evidence.

Obviously the only reliable path towards an understanding of something is by knowing it, which requires understanding it and knowing so, in some kind of mutually-supportive conceptual symbiosis. There is no place or need for belief in this context. In fact, beliefs are useless in generating knowledge because they offer no power to explain anything.

Historically, belief has been used as a means by which to attempt to explain the unknown, arguing such baseless statements as the earth is flat or that humans didn’t evolve but instead magically appeared through divine intervention. In many ways, belief continues to have significant influence today. However, over time our scientific advances have allowed us to replace most beliefs of things with knowledge of things, eventually making faith and belief entirely unnecessary.

Furthermore, when knowledge is not currently available due to a lack in our understanding of something, there is no shame in admitting that we don’t know it. It certainly is a more noble approach than to invent a belief-based explanation for which we have no supporting evidence. In fact, the ability to acknowledge what we do not know is arguably the most important component to having knowledge.  Socrates famously pondered the nature of knowledge by stating that it may only come with an admission that one must know that they do not know what they do not know, or something along those lines.

Perhaps it was paraphrased more effectively by then US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld when justifying the attack on a country, despite the lack of evidence that it may actually have posed a threat, when he said that “there are known knowns, there are things we know we know; there are known unknowns, that is to say there are things we know that we do not know; but there are also unknown unknowns, the ones that we don’t know that we don’t know”.

I couldn’t agree more with Rummy! However, the solution to the conundrum of both the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns is not to invent a friendly fact that may likely be untrue (and often is). The right thing to do is to say that we don’t know but will try to find out. This is the only honest path to the truth and one that is built into the scientific method of knowledge building.

Whenever someone asks me what I may believe about something or other, I always answer that I don’t believe anything at all; I either know something or I don’t. That fact also applies to everyone else as well, believe it or not! Personally, I like to think that Yoda would have said it best: “Know or do not know, there is no belief”.

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Microwaves and Blood

RBCThere is a lot of nonsense that goes around about microwaves. I’m sure you heard many of them. They destroy nutrients in food. They cause cancer if you stand next to a microwave oven. Microwaved water kills plants. All poppycock. And then there is the story about a woman who died because the blood she received in a transfusion had been warmed up in a microwave oven? The case of Norma Levitt is an interesting one and is often used by anti-microwave activists to prove that microwaves are dangerous. This case proves nothing of the sort. Here are the facts.

Norma Levitt had successful hip surgery at the Hillcrest Medical Center in Tulsa in 1989, but unfortunately died on the operating table after the procedure. She received blood during the operation which had been warmed in a kitchen microwave oven. After her death, the family launched a lawsuit claiming negligence because the blood had been warmed in a non-standard fashion. The defendants, the doctors involved in the operation, asserted that the patient had died of a blood clot, a complication of surgery. The court found for the defendants, whereupon they launched a successful lawsuit against the plaintiff’s attorneys for wrongful accusation. Each defendant was awarded $12,500.

Whenever blood is used for a transfusion it is warmed to body temperature. Heaters especially designed for this process are available in order to guard against overheating which can result in hemolysis, or destruction of the red blood cells. This in turn causes release of potassium from the cells and excess potassium can be lethal. The issue is one of overheating the blood, not of the method used. Microwave ovens heat very quickly and temperature control is difficult. That’s why they are not appropriate for warming blood. Nothing to do with microwaves being “dangerous!”

The allegations on the anti-microwave websites suggest that somehow exposure to microwaves produced some dangerous substance in the blood which killed Norma Levitt. This is nonsense. Overheating blood by any method produces the same result. No, blood should not be heated in a kitchen microwave before a transfusion, but this has absolutely no bearing on cooking with microwaves. This is a classic case of taking a smidgen of truth and twisting it out of proportion. And incidentally, the court did not find that the transfused blood was the cause of death.

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Golden Marketing

golden marketingMarketing these days is often based not on what is in a product, but rather on what it doesn’t contain. Labels scream no cholesterol, no trans fats, no gluten, no BPA, no phthalates, no parabens and the ultimate absurdity, no chemicals. Smirnoff vodka, however, is going against this trend with the introduction of Smirnoff Gold that has a hint of cinnamon flavouring and floating flakes of pure gold. The thin slivers of gold stay dispersed through the beverage, give the product a luxurious image and draw attention to the bottle on the shelf. No health claim of any kind is made but Smirnoff promises that the cinnamon flavor is all the better due to the edible gold leaf. That is highly questionable since gold has no taste and is essentially insoluble in alcohol. It adds glitter but nothing else.

No worry about consuming the gold though, it is indeed edible and has been eaten since the days of the ancient  Egyptians when it was thought to purify the body, mind and spirit. In Elizabethan England, the wealthy served meals decorated with gold leaf, and in Italy desserts decorated with gold were supposed to ward off heart disease. Alchemists searched for elixirs made of drinkable gold that would supposedly restore youth and rid the body of disease. The hope was that since gold was the eternal metal, not subject to aging in any fashion, it would transfer its anti-aging properties to whoever consumed it. They weren’t totally on the wrong track because in the twentieth century some compounds of gold were shown to have an effect on easing the pain of arthritis. Drinking Smirnoff Gold vodka may ease the pain of arthritis, but not because of the presence of any gold. Alcohol can distract from pain.

This is not the first alcoholic beverage to feature the inclusion of gold. Danziger Goldwasser, a German root and herbal liqueur which has been produced since at least 1598 features gold flakes, as does Goldschläger, a Swiss cinnamon schnapps. The name comes from the German for “gold beater,” referring to the profession of beating bars of gold into micrometer-thin sheets. There is no truth to the rumour that the gold flakes are added to the beverage to make tiny cuts in the throat for quicker absorption of alcohol. The flakes are way too thin to have any such effect. So you don’t have to worry about eating the world’s most expensive pizza at Margo’s Pizzeria in Malta where a pie decorated with gold goes for about $400 U.S.

But if you really want to go on a spending spree, seek out the 666 Burger food truck in New York where for $666 you can purchase a foie gras-stuffed Kobe patty covered in Gruyere cheese that’s been melted with champagne steam and topped with lobster, truffles, caviar, and a BBQ sauce made with Kopi Luwak coffee beans that have been pooped out the Asian palm civet. The whole thing is then served in a gold-leaf wrapper. Basically it is a sarcastic comment on the super expensive burgers available in some restaurants. So far people are not lining up for the golden burger, but the food truck sure got some golden publicity.

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You Asked: What is natamycin?

natamycin“The customer is always right,” is a time-honoured adage in marketing. It holds true even if the customer is wrong. If the customer does not want “artificial” preservatives” in food, industry will comply, whether that move is supported by science or not. Of course no company wants to poison its customers, so eliminating preservatives is a risky business. What’s the answer? Look for a “natural” preservative. That will satisfy the consumer who has a disdain for anything artificial, and at the same time will reduce the worry for the producer about marketing an unsafe product.

Kraft, for example, has announced that, at least in the U.S., it will be replacing artificial preservatives with natural ones in its cheese products. This boils down to not much more than a question of semantics. Sorbic acid and its salts, the “artificial” preservatives that have been used, are to be replaced by natamycin, an antifungal compound produced by soil bacteria. Although many cheeses are actually mould ripened, with blue cheese being the classic example, cheese is also prone to infection by a variety of rogue moulds that can cause spoilage. Sorbic acid and its salts can prevent the growth of moulds, yeast and fungi, even when used at concentrations of less than 0.1%. It was back in 1859 that Professor August Wilhelm Hofmann first isolated sorbic acid by distilling the oil obtained from the berries of the rowan tree. This is the same Professor Hofmann who was enticed to England by Prince Albert to head up the newly created Royal College of Chemistry and who essentially founded the synthetic dye industry.

So, doesn’t the fact that sorbic acid can be isolated from berries make it a “natural” substance? Yes. And I suppose there would be no clamoring to remove it from food if this is how it were produced. But distilling sorbic acid from rowan berries is not an economical process and would not do for the estimated 30,000 tons needed every year by the food industry. But sorbic acid can also be readily produced by a number of synthetic methods, including the reaction of crotonaldehyde with ketene, both of which can be made from compounds isolated from petroleum. This synthesis is economically viable and is the way that sorbic acid is produced. Any chemical is defined by its molecular structure which does not depend on the route by which it was produced. The sorbic acid produced by the rowan berry is identical to the sorbic acid produced by chemical synthesis, but because the latter was not extracted from a natural source, it is termed “artificial,” and therefore in the eyes of some people, suspect. The fact is that sorbic acid, irrelevant of the source, is a food additive that has passed all the regulatory hurdles just like its replacement, natamycin.

Natamycin is an antifungal agent produced by a soil bacterium that was first found in South Africa’s Natal province, hence the name. Since bacteria occur in nature, any of the chemicals they crank out can be classified as “natural.” But curiously a substance that occurs in nature, like sorbic acid, is termed an artificial preservative when it is synthesized in the lab. Natamycin may be natural, but it would not be so appealing to people if they knew they were eating the waste product of dirt bacteria. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

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