The gold standard in science is the randomized, controlled, double-blind trial. If you want to know whether Garcinia cambogia causes weight loss, or whether glucosamine helps with arthritic pain, there is only one way to find out. You have an experimental group that is given the substance and a control group that is given a placebo, with every other variable being held constant. These are difficult, expensive studies to carry out because you need a large enough group of subjects for statistical weight, you have to ensure compliance and you have to monitor what is going on. Almost always some questions remain unanswered. Could results have been different with a different dose? Perhaps a longer experimental time is needed. Were all variables properly controlled for?
While randomized controlled trials are important, they are not always necessary. Science has accumulated a great deal of knowledge over the years making it possible to make evaluations based on scientific plausibility. Let’s take an extreme example. You see a picture on the web that purportedly shows a man floating over the country side being held aloft by a couple of dozen helium balloons. We do not need to design a trial to determine if this is possible. It is not. Why? Because of the law of buoyancy. A balloon filled with helium rises because the helium in it weighs less than the amount of air it displaces. Using this difference in weight, one can calculate the weight a balloon can lift. A liter of air weighs roughly 1 gram more than a liter of helium, so that’s what the balloon can lift. A 50 kilo man would need at least 3500 balloons to experience any lift at all. There is no need to carry out any experiment to know that the picture on the web is a fake.
Similarly no randomized trials are needed to determine that oxygenated water, despite its advertisers’ claims, cannot increase energy or improve physical stamina. The amount of oxygen dissolved in the water can be calculated and it is insignificant in comparison to what the body uses. Furthermore, we breathe through our lungs, not through our stomach, so that whatever oxygen is dissolved in the water is not going to make it into the blood to combine with hemoglobin. In addition, blood is normally saturated with oxygen anyway.
Neither do we have to carry out studies to determine if the newly approved artificial sweetener advantame should be required to carry a warning about a risk for people afflicted with phenylketonurea (PKU), a genetic inability to metabolize the amino acid phenylalanine. Advantame has a chemical similarity to aspartame, and like its cousin, can release phenylalanine. Why does it not need a warning? Because it is one hundred times sweeter than aspartame, so only one, one hundredth as much is needed to sweeten a beverage. This cannot release enough phenylalanine to cause a problem.
There is no need to mount experiments to determine whether tuning forks can restore the human body’s natural vibration of 60-65 Hz and thereby alleviate all sorts of health issues, as is claimed by the promoters of “Sound Therapy.” There is no such thing as the body having a natural vibrational frequency, and talk of tuning forks being able to restore al frequency that has gone out of tune due to illness is plain nonsense. Claims that tuning forks can address specific diseases like cancer or multiple sclerosis are just out of tune with what we know about how the body works. The idea that cancer can be cured with a tuning form is totally implausible and does not require an experiment to prove that it is not sound.
Carmine went over big in Europe. Wool and silk were dyed with it, but perhaps the most memorable use of cochineal red was in the brilliant scarlet colors for which the Gobelin tapestries of Paris became famous. Producing the dye was not an easy business. It is the female insects that feed on the red cactus berries and concentrate the dye in their bodies and in that of their unhatched larvae. They are scraped off the cactus and are dumped into hot water where they instantly die. Their corpses are then dried in the sun and crushed into a powder. This can then be added to water or to a water-alcohol mixture to produce “bug juice” for dying purposes. A mordant such as alum, which binds the color to fabrics is often used.
Carminic acid, the active coloring agent, is one of the safest dyes that exist and is commonly used in foods and cosmetics. Candies, ice cream, beverages, yogurt, lipstick and eye shadow can all be colored with cochineal. Allergies are possible but are rare. There have been reports about reactions to Campari, pink popsicles, maraschino cherries or red lipstick, but these are less frequent than reactions to other components in foods and cosmetics. In one instance, a little boy’s face swelled after being kissed by his loving grandmother. It seems he had been sensitized to carmine, probably through food or candies, and reacted to the coloring in the lipstick. Obviously, he will have to be careful in the future when he becomes involved in romantic escapades. Reactions to carmine tend to be in the form of hives and swelling although one case of anaphylactic reaction to Campari-Orange has been reported.
The cochineal insects are very small. It takes about 70,000 females to produce a pound of dye. The males are quite useless in this respect. They are also rare and live for only a week, just long enough to mate with as many females as possible. And how are they separated? The males can fly but the wingless females cannot. When the cactus is disturbed, the males scoot, but the females cannot escape. They are scraped off, destined to color our cherry or strawberry ice cream. Some people may not find the prospect of ice cream colored with bug juice appetizing, but cochineal red is an effective and safe dye…most of the time.
Joe Schwarcz PhD