« Older Entries

Lyrics that convey scientific truths

Screen Shot 2016-11-04 at 5.59.56 PMMary Poppins, starring Julie Andrews, was a big hit for Disney studios in 1964. The film was a musicalized version of the children’s books about a magical English nanny written between 1934 and 1988 by P.L. Travers. The movie featured a number of songs written by Robert and Richard Sherman including the catchy tune sung by Andrews with the line, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

The idea for the lyrics came from a real life situation. Robert Sherman was working on ideas for a song but was drawing a blank until one day he came home and learned from his wife that his children had received a polio vaccine. Thinking that the vaccine had been a shot in the arm, he asked one of his children whether it had hurt. Not at all, the child replied. There had been no jab. A drop of liquid was placed on a sugar cube that had to be swallowed. At that moment the title for the song was born!

The oral vaccine that the Sherman children received had been developed by Albert Sabin and was introduced commercially in 1961. It used a weakened form of the polio virus that triggered the production of antibodies against the active virus. The oral version to a large extent replaced the original injectable vaccine introduced in 1955 by Jonas Salk based on an inactivated form of the virus. Thanks to these vaccines, polio has been largely eliminated from the world.

Of course, every sort of medical intervention is associated with some risk. In very rare cases, the vaccine can cause polio symptoms, but the benefits greatly outweigh any risk. Both vaccines are on the World Health Organization’s Model Lists of Essential Medicines, the most important medications needed in a basic health system. Had the vaccine been available earlier, U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt would not have contracted polio in 1921.

The spoonful of sugar in combination with a medicine may have an impact other than just pleasing our musical appetite. It seems that infants given a little bit of a sugar solution feel less pain during injections. British pediatrician Paul Heaton found that a few drops of sucrose solution put on their tongues before an injection was capable of blocking the pain felt in their arms or bottoms. He theorizes that: “The sweet taste works through nerve channels in the tongue that perceive sweetness in the brain.” The brain reacts by producing endorphins, the body’s natural pain relievers. Furthermore, in babies, sucking releases endocannabinoids that also alleviate pain. Heaton noted that once babies taste the solution, they cried less and recovered more quickly from the jab. He recommends giving babies just enough sugary solution to taste, but not enough to swallow before vaccination. Interestingly, the relationship between sweets and pain relief was first mentioned in historic Jewish texts that document baby boys being given honey before circumcision. What about adults? Well, chocolates, sweet pastries and soft drinks make for a less painful life for many people.

The Sherman brothers also composed the song that has been played more often in the world than any other. It’s a Small World After All is featured at all the Disney theme parks, an adaptation of an attraction introduced at the New York World’s Fair in 1964. The Sherman Brothers wrote the song in the wake of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which influenced the song’s message of peace and brotherhood. They also wrote a song for the Adventure Thru Inner Space attraction that was presented in Disneyland’s Tomorrowland from 1967 to 1985 designed to simulate humans shrinking to a size smaller than an atom. Visitors boarded Atommobiles and began a journey that passed through snowflakes into the inner space of molecules, then atoms. They got an idea of crystal structure, bonding between atoms and the composition of an atom. The journey was accompanied by the song Miracles from Molecules.

From the beginning until 1977, Adventure Thru Inner Space was sponsored by the Monsanto Company, which later transitioned from being a chemical manufacturer to a biotechnology firm. Founded in 1901 by John Francis Queeny and named after his wife’s family, Monsanto initially produced food additives like saccharin and vanillin before expanding into industrial chemicals such as sulphuric acid and PCBs in the 1920s. By the 1940s, it was a major producer of plastics, including polystyrene, as well as a variety of synthetic fibres. Monsanto scientists had a number of notable achievements, like the development of “catalytic asymmetric hydrogenation,” that made possible the production of L-Dopa, the major drug used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. They also laid the foundation for the mass production of the light emitting diodes (LEDs) that have revolutionized the lighting industry.

Monsanto has been criticized for once manufacturing such controversial products as the insecticide DDTPCBs used as insulators in electronic equipment and the notorious Agent Orange that was widely deployed as a defoliant during the Vietnam War. At the time, DDT and PCBs solved immediate problems, with DDT saving millions of people from contracting malaria and PCBs in transformers making electricity widely available. The environmental issues that eventually emerged concerning these chemicals were not, and probably could not have been foreseen at the time.

Today, most people associate Monsanto with genetic modification and the company serves as a lightning rod for anti-GMO activists. Indeed Monsanto was among the first to genetically modify a plant cell and one of the first to conduct field trials of genetically modified crops and now markets canola, soy, corn and sugar beet seeds that yield plants capable of resisting herbicides and warding off insects.

Let me end with a stanza from the Sherman brothers’ song Miracles from Molecules that once captivated visitors to Disneyland and which I believe is still meaningful today:

Now Men with dreams are furthering,
What Nature first began,
Making modern miracles,
From molecules, for Man


Dr. Joe Schwarcz

Critter Cuisine

entomophagyWe hear a lot about food these days. Whether it is about healthy choices, food security and feeding the planet, environmental impacts of food production or the science of GMO biotechnologies, hardly a day goes by without food appearing in our headlines.

Curiously, the most readily available source of low-fat animal protein found just about anywhere in the world (outside of Antarctica) is largely ignored by most food cultures. It might be time we start talking about eating insects, or entomophagy.

Putting our icky aversions aside for a moment, there are many good reasons to consider eating insects. Apart from their widespread availability in the wild, they can easily be raised indoors, with a fraction of the footprint (both in terms of land use and carbon emissions) of domestic livestock such as cattle or pork. Also, insect is a lean meat, with up to three times the protein content and with a fraction of the fat, with crickets compared to beef for example. Also, it is a versatile food, which can be eaten raw, cooked or processed, such as being dried and ground into a flour for baking.

Entomophagy is not new or strange to many people around the world, to be sure. One can easily find bulk crickets or woodworms in the markets of Singapore, or termites and grubs in the Ghanaian markets in Accra. Eating insects is also commonplace in cuisines from Brazil, Australia, Japan, China and more. So why is it that entomophagy still carries a taboo in Canadian/American cultures?

The answer may be partly psychological in nature, partly economic and the two are surprisingly linked. Clearly, our western culture carries with it a strongly ingrained entomophobia, or fear of insects, and we don’t tolerate them in our homes, on our lawns, in our crops or even in our thoughts. There is such a widespread phobia of creepy crawlies of any kind that billions of dollars are spent annually on the propaganda of their evil ways and on chemical pesticide solutions to their eradication from every corner of our lives.

This fanatical intolerance of insects was very deliberately fostered and nurtured by post-WWII chemical pesticide companies looking to promote the magical properties of their pesticides (like DDT) and bolstered by an imaginative TV and film media industry that created blockbuster entertainment about killer cockroaches, an attack of the giant ants or tales of mutant wasps that attack human brains via the ear canal. Ouch, scary stuff!

The net effect of this anti-insect campaign has been one in which most of us would rather squish a bug than pop it into our mouths. I am confident, however, that because this is a learned behaviour, it can be unlearned… or better yet, prevented in the first place by reaching out to children and teaching them about the joy and wonders of our critter cousins, before it is stamped out of them by society. Children are naturally curious about all aspects of nature and are particularly intrigued by bugs.

A few weeks ago, I was invited by the teachers at my 3-year old son’s Montessori school to give an insect-related show-and-tell. I managed to borrow several specimen of Stick Insects and Madagascar Cockroaches to bring in for the kids and I was thrilled to see the glee and eagerness from every child who wanted to touch and hold and play with these exotic insects. I kept thinking that the response would have been very different from an adult audience. What a shame it is that this joy of nature is bred out of us as a whole eventually.

Around 15 years ago, back when I was a keen Graduate student in an entomology lab at Laval University in Quebec City, I visited the Insectarium in Montreal for an insect-tasting event. In the foyer of the museum, a dozen chefs were set up behind linen-clothed tables and were preparing gastronomic cuisine of one kind or another, all of which involved insect ingredients. I eagerly ate a multi-course meal consisting in part of ginger-glazed scorpions, garlic-fried crickets, beetle flour cookies and angel-food cake garnished with zesty ants.

At some point during my entomological smorgasbord I noticed that I was being observed by a cautious and curious 8-year old boy, who seemed to take delight in the sight of a grown-up (sort-of) hungrily gobbling down some fried crickets, when I offered him a little taste. The boy reached out his hand to try one when he was noticed by his mother, who was standing just a few feet away.

In the blink of an eye, the poor boy was yanked by the arm, with a shriek from his mother, so brusquely that you could almost hear the socket pop! I mistakenly thought that they were here for an insect-tasting event…. apparently not.

Unfortunately, the boy was so traumatized by his mother’s reaction that it is most likely that his interest in insects was cut short on that very day, one in which a trip to the insectarium could have otherwise promoted a long-term fascination. Too often, our developed entomophobia is inherited directly from our parents, passed down from generation to generation.

We’ve got a long way to go as a society before we are collectively comfortable with all that insects may have to offer us in our lives and maybe even more to consider eating them as regular food.

So whether our conversation about food is related to the challenges of feeding 8 billion+ humans with a smaller ecological footprint or simply to explore the diversity of foodstuffs from the almost 1 million species of insects that exist, we need to start by shifting the flavour of the conversation first, from entomophobia to entomophagy.

Obviously, if we are to have any kind of positive conversation about bugs at all, we need to start with the children and to build pro-actively towards a society that can work with insects and not just against them. Maybe there would be a place for a new “Dickie Dee”-style street vending delivery cart for insect foods…. I can see it now: “Doc Brown’s Bugs ‘n Bites” will be the next food craze coming to a neighbourhood near you. Listen for the chimes as they come around the corner, playing something by The Beatles, of course.

Dr. Adam Oliver Brown

Here is a link to my Facebook page, where you can see some pics and videos of the insect visit with the school children: https://www.facebook.com/DrAdamOliverBrown/

Chewing on “Chewpods”

chew podThe dietary supplement market is huge, so it is little surprise that many companies try to get in on the game by torturing data until it succumbs to their desires. An estimated 40 billion dollars are spent each year in North America on vitamins, minerals, herbal products and various esoteric fruit and animal extracts that purport to keep our bodies running smoothly in face of an avalanche of “toxic chemicals” unleashed by Big Pharma, Big Food, Big Agro and Big Beauty. Of course the dietary supplements never contain “chemicals,” they only contain “natural” substances that are portrayed as the secret to health. Advertisements feature trim, attractive bodies brimming with vigour thanks to nature’s gifts. Never mind that those gifts may not contain what the label indicates, that they may be adulterated with real pharmaceuticals, or that the “evidence” provided is on such a shaky platform that a little scientific jiggle leads to its collapse.

Since thousands and thousands of products vie for customers’ attention, producers are keen to find ways to make their supplement stand out. “Chewpods” claim to “provide beneficial effects on energy, concentration and ability to recuperate” with the discriminating feature that the tablets are meant to be chewed. The rationale is that delivery of the active ingredients through the oral mucous membrane bypasses the digestive tract and enables a smaller quantity of active ingredients to be absorbed more quickly for greater effect.

The theory of oral absorption is sound, and many medications, with nitroglycerin for angina being a prime example, are designed to enter the bloodstream by this route. Whether transport through the mucous membranes of the mouth is viable depends on a number of factors including the relative solubilities of the substance in oil and water, with a greater oil solubility being a requirement. The potential of the chemical to bind to mucous membranes and the pH of the saliva are also important. Exactly what technology Chewpod employs to enhance absorption through the mucus membrane of the mouth isn’t clear, although there is a claim about “personalized action that balances saliva pH.” Since the normal pH of the saliva is in the 6-7 range, and that is also the range where mucosal absorption is the most effective, there doesn’t seem to be any need for “balancing.” In any case, the evidence provided for faster absorption by means of the technology being used is based on experiments with aspirin and acetaminophen, not the ingredients in Chewpods.

Of course what interests consumers is not the technology involved in active ingredient delivery, but whether the ingredients deliver the goods. One would think that the issuing of a “Natural Products Number (NPN)” by Health Canada would guarantee that efficacy has been demonstrated, but one would be wrong! The evidence required is minimal, and in the case of products that have several ingredients, there is no requirement for any proof that the product as a whole is beneficial. For example, the “Sleep and Restore” version of Chewpods contains the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin as well as 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HTP), a precursor to serotonin, the neurotransmitter associated with mood. But the dosages are way less than those that have shown any efficacy in clinical trials. Nevertheless, just their presence is enough to get an NPN. There is no requirement to show that the supplement itself lives up to the advertising.

The “Focus and Action” version of Chewpods claims “that product helps to temporary relieve symptoms of stress such as mental fatigue and sensation of weakness, that it helps support cognitive function such as mental focus and mental stamina, that it provides antioxidants and that it helps the body to metabolize carbohydrates, proteins and fats.” Justification seems to be based on the supplement containing the stimulant caffeine as well as an extract of rhodiola which, at least according to some studies, reduces fatigue. The thin support for metabolizing carbohydrates, proteins and fat comes from the inclusion of vitamins A and B6, which play a role in numerous biochemical reactions.

But now for some numbers. The amount of caffeine (30 mg) is less than that in a cup of coffee, the vitamin A content at 80 mcg is about one tenth the recommended daily allowance, and the 72 mg of rhodiola extract, also the source of the over-hyped antioxidants, is way less than what has been shown to have any benefit in placebo-controlled trials. There is no harm in trying Chewpods, but remember that Health Canada’s NPN on the label does not mean it has been shown to be effective. And that is something to chew on.


Joe Schwarcz

A Tale of Two Bracelets

braceletThis 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.

Joe Schwarcz

You Asked: Is it true that some baloney is made with ground-up earthworms?

baloneyAbsolutely not. But here is the question I got: “A friend told me that that ground up earthworms are being used as fillers in many meat products like wieners and bologna. The name on the package is sodium erythorbate. I’ve checked packages at stores here and have found only one brand without this ingredient. My little boy loves hot dogs and I hate to think how many I’ve fed him over the past several years with earthworms in them.”

Hard to know how such silly stories arise. Maybe it is the similar sounds of “erythorbate” and “earthworm bait.” Sodium erythorbate is just a form of Vitamin C and is used as a preservative. It also prevents the formation of potentially carcinogenic nitrosamines is meats processed with nitrite.

Erythorbate is a perfectly safe substance and has absolutely nothing to do with earthworms. It makes a lot more sense to minimize hot dog and baloney consumption because of their high fat and salt content than because they contain sodium erythorbate. There is more baloney in the sodium erythorbate story than there is sodium erythorbate in the baloney.


Joe Schwarcz

Hot Dog!

hot dogOtto 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 behaviour I’ve seen, he was right about the law. But sausages are another story. We can actually learn a lot of science from seeing them made. For thousands of years people have been stuffing ground meat along with various spices and other ingredients into casings. 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 developed. 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 by Anton Ludwig Feuchtwanger, A Bavarian peddler who had emigrated to America. In 1904 he set up a booth at the St. Louis World’s Fair and sold frankfurters as snacks. Since these sausages 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? Why not indeed! The new product was an instant success. Everyone wanted to try the new fangled hot “Dachshund sausages,” as the franks were now called because of their resemblence to these lengthy canines. Soon the name was abbreviated to “hot dog,” and a North American staple was born. There were some growing pains. In 1913, the Chamber of Commerce banned hot dogs from Coney Island in New York because of persistent rumours that they were made from dog meat. The ban was rescinded in 1916 when Nathan Handwerker guaranteed that he would make a quality product. He delivered, and Nathan’s, the Mecca of hot dog emporium’s was born.

Let’s face it, we know that hot dogs are not health food. Babe Ruth can testify to that. He once ate a dozen hot dogs during a ball game. And he was playing! All right, so they had to rush him to the hospital afterwards to pump out his stomach. But the Babe was not one for moderation. A Brooklyn psychiatrist who analyzed the personality differences between hamburger and hot dog eaters would not be surprised by the babe’s antics. Hamburger enthusiasts, he said, were steady, reliable and predictable. Hot dog lovers, on the other hand, were found to be romantics with a flair for adventure. After all, doesn’t it take someone with a bit of a cavalier attitude to enjoy the mysterious ingredients in a wiener? Oh well, once in a while anyone can have a cavalier attitude!


Dr. Joe Schwarcz

Stay Away From Old Goats

goatsThink of a ghastly smell. Skunk? Halitosis? BO? Outhouse? Rotting fish? Rancid butter? Dog flatus? Decomposing flesh? All devastating. But let’s not forget the penetrating fragrance of a billy goat. Especially a wet one. That will horrify any nose. Unless that billy goat, or buck in more scientific terms, happens to be castrated. Along with the loss of manhood comes the loss of smell. Actually “smell” doesn’t do the aroma justice. “Reek” is a better description of the unforgettable stench. And if you handle one of these animals you will learn what “unforgettable” means. The piercing odour sticks to clothes and skin and is very tough to eliminate. You don’t want to be wearing clothes you are fond of when you have an encounter of the male goat kind. And gloves are definitely the order of the day.

Since “wethers,” as males that have been deprived of their testes are known, produce no smell, it stands to reason that the aroma of an intact male has a connection to reproduction. That has actually been demonstrated. When exposed to the scent of a male goat, females will ovulate and become receptive to the advances of the buck. Determining the exact composition of the scent that activates the female is of interest to researchers because it may lead to a way of ensuring that females are in rut for breeding. This could be a more economical and a less invasive way of stimulating ovulation than hormone treatments now used by some breeders. Obviously, the first step in such research is to collect a sample of the scent. Although the identity of the brave scientist who first carried out the pioneering research has been lost to the pages of history, it is known that the scent is wafted out from glands on the billy’s head.

So how do you collect the fragrant compounds? You design a helmet equipped with a material that absorbs volatiles, extract these with a solvent, and subject the solution to analysis by gas chromatography and mass spectrometry. A gas chromatograph separates the components of a mixture and a mass spectrometer can identify the individual compounds. And there are lots! Dozens! Determining which are responsible for stimulating ovulation in the female is a challenge, one that was cleverly met by a group of Japanese researchers. By implanting electrodes in a specific area of the brain of female goats they managed to measure electrical signals associated with the firing of nerve cells that are involved in the release of the hormones that stimulate ovulation. Starting with mixtures of compounds, and then narrowing these down to fewer and fewer components, they eventually managed to determine that 4-ethyloctanal produced the strongest response. It now joins the array of compounds recognized as “pheromones,” namely chemicalssecreted by animals that influences the behavior or physiology of others of the same species. Interestingly, 4-ethyloctanal has a rather pleasant citrus-like odour.

While this compound has not been found in nature before, it has long been familiar to perfumers and artificial flavour manufacturers. A patent back in 2002 was filed for the use of 4-ethyloctanal as a fragrance chemical to enhance the bouquet of perfumes, toilet waters, colognes and other personal products, as well as for its use as a food additive to boost flavour. If 4-ethyloctanal isn’t responsible for the torturous stench of male goats, what is? The chromatographic analysis reveals a number of compounds in the family of carboxylic acids. These are widespread in nature, the simplest ones being formic acid found in ant venom and acetic acid, a dilute solution of which we know as vinegar.

“Simple” in this case refers to the number of carbon atoms in the acid’s molecular structure, with putridity increasing with the number of carbons. Propionic acid, which has three carbons, elicits the sensation of body odour, which is not surprising since it is produced by bacteria on the skin. Butyric acid is responsible for the characteristic smell of human vomit. It is also found in goat scent. As disturbing as it is, it pales in comparison with the stabbing odour of the six-carbon, caproic acid, appropriately deriving its name from “caper,” the Latin for goat. Even if you have never been near a goat, you may have encountered its dramatically unpleasant odour if you have ever sniffed the demposing seeds of the ginkgo biloba tree. Two other acids, caprylic and capric, also derive their names from “caper,” for good reason. They also contribute to the fragrance of male goats. Staying away from randy old goats is a good idea. Unless they have been deprived of their privates.

Dr. Joe Schwarcz

When “Mayo” isn’t “mayonnaise”

Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 6.07.59 PMSo, when is mayonnaise not mayonnaise? If you ask Unilever, producers of “Hellman’s Real Mayonnaise”, which is the market leader in the 11.3 billion dollar a year global mayonnaise industry, it’s when the product contains no eggs. The Federal Food and Drug Administration agrees, defining “mayonnaise” as a condiment that must contain a specific amount of vegetable oil and egg yolk. But what if you just shorten the name and call it “Just Mayo?” Does it still have to contain eggs? No, says Josh Tetrick of Hampton Creek, maker of a new-fangled spread that advertises itself as being healthier, more environmentally friendly and more humane than “real mayonnaise” The term “mayo” is not defined, Tetrick maintains, and he says he does not sell his product as mayonnaise. “It’s Just Mayo.” Apparently though, consumers do not see the difference. A marketing professor hired by Unilever to survey consumers found in an online survey that more than half thought Just Mayo was mayonnaise judging by the label.

What about the promotional claims that Hampton Creek makes? The “more humane” refers to the way egg-laying chickens are raised in small cages. True, the peas that are grown to produce the extract used to emulsify the oil and vinegar in Just Mayo have a peaceful life, and presumably do not suffer when their pods are torn limb from limb. The environmental friendliness is based on the ratio of energy input to food energy output for eggs being about 39-to-1, whereas Just mayo’s plant ingredients that replace eggs weigh in at a ratio 2-to-1. That saving seems to have been enough to convince Bill Gates to lend his support to “Just Mayo.”

Hampton Creek may be on firm footing when it comes to promoting the benefits of “no eggs” in terms of environmental foot print, but there is also the implication of health benefits. Here they are trampling in mud. The calorie count in Just Mayo is identical to that in Hellman’s “real mayonnaise,” both containing 90 calories per serving, all of which comes from the 10 grams of fat found in each serving. The 5 milligrams of cholesterol in the real mayo is inconsequential. Curiously, Just Mayo lists its protein content as zero, yet its promotional material describes how the company’s biochemists have investigated numerous plants to come up with a protein that can rival egg yolk as an emulsifier. Obviously not much of this protein is needed in the product since it is not listed on the label.

Another curiosity is the presence of organic sugar in the list of ingredients, yet the carbohydrate count on the label is given as zero. Hampton Creek also makes a big deal out of its non-GMO certification, a reference to the canola oil, its main ingredient. This is a marketing gimmick aimed to please the “organic” crowd. There is no chemical difference between conventional canola oil and that extracted from plants containing a gene that makes them resistant to herbicides. Eventually the success or failure of Just Mayo will rest on its taste. People may talk environmental stewardship, but they eat taste. Whether Just Mayo will turn out to be just as tasty as real mayo remains to be determined. But keep in mind that any food that derives all its calories from fat should be consumed in a limited fashion.

Dr. Joe Schwarcz

« Older Entries
Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.