Category: Science

Why homeopathy is hokum

Why homeopathy is hokum

There are lots of faux drugs on the shelves of many shameless drugstore chains that are labeled “homeopathic.” These are useless nostrums marketed to the gullible.  Usually they are labelled as something like “200C.” This is not a temperature, but the number of dilutions of the original substance.

The completely unsubstantiated hypothesis behind homeopathy is that “like cures like,” and that a very small diluted amount of some “natural substances,” such as plant extracts can stimulate the body to repair itself. There is no evidence that this 18th century idea actually works.

The way homeopaths work is that they select some substance or substances they believe might be helpful and dilute them with shaking, which they call potentization. The word has no actual meaning. Then after many dilutions and shakings, they sell some to you for treatment.

Well now, how much is “some”?

Let’s assume that table salt is a substance that can be used for treatment. It has a molecular weight of (23 + 35.5) of 58.5. We know, from the work of Loschmidt and Avogadro that if you weigh out the molecular weight of any substance in grams (in this case 58.5 g) it contains one  mole of particles, or 6.02 x 1023 molecules.

1 mole saltSo let’s dissolve that mole of salt on one liter of water. Now we have a one molar solution containing those 1023 molecules.  And now, lets dilute 10 ml of that liter by 100, to again make one liter.  This new liter will have 1/100 as many molecules in it, or 1021 molecules.

Well the “C” in that “200C” designation means that has been diluted by 100. And the 200 means that this has been repeated 200 times!

So lets see what happens after each dilution:

  1. 1021 molecules
  2. 1019 molecules
  3. 1017 molecules


  1. 105 molecules
  2. 103 molecules
  3. 101 molecules


After 11 dilutions, you have only 10 molecules of salt left in your solution.  What happens when you dilute it 100:1 another time? If you take 100 10 ml samples of that last liter, 10 of them could have one molecule of salt!

And after that, the chances of there being even one molecule of our “medicine” are vanishingly small. All of the salt (or any other substance) is lost in the dilution process! There isn’t any left after 12 or so dilutions. And by 200 there is absolutely no chance you’ll encounter even one molecule!  It’s gone down the drain, just as the entire homeopathic hypothesis has. There are no active ingredients at all!

Taking homeopathic preparations can act as a placebo, or if they dilute the substance in alcohol instead of water, a quick drunk, but there just can’t be any benefits in the absence of any medicine.

Unfortunately homeopathic preparations are poorly regulated, and some dangerous substances may remain in significant quantities. In some cases, heavy metals have been found.

513minrbq9l._ac_us436_fmwebp_ql65_Studies of the famous quack medicine oscillococcimnum have shown no significant effect. And studies of some 68 treatments have found that they have no effect either.

These are quack medicines that improve the bottom line of unethical pharmacies, but can’t do you any good. Any they may do some harm.

Sifting and measuring flour

Sifting and measuring flour

If you look at nearly any baking recipe, you will see something like “sift together the dry ingredients,” usually flour, baking powder and maybe sure and salt. Why do they do that? Well, because someone clear back to Fanny Merritt Farmer, in her Boston Cooking School Cookbook (you can read a digital copy here) said to. Flour in 1896 was probably much lumpier than today, and she said to sift all ingredients before measuring them.

Nowadays, flour isn’t usually very lumpy and we usually use it right out of the bag.

But we thought we’d try sifting some paprika into flour to see how well it mixes. This is about 1.5 Tb of paprika in 2 cups of flour.



As can see, it doesn’t really mix all that well. In fact, you could do better just using a wire whisk. But, if you are making a batter for baking, the mixing of the dry ingredients with the liquid will distribute them just as well.

Now about that cup

A measuring cup measures 8 fluid ounces: it is really for measuring liquids like milk or water. Flour, not being a liquid can be a little variable about how much fits in a cup. Fanny Farmer said you should scoop out the flour and level off the cup with a knife, and that works for 1 cup of flour. But for 2 ½ cups of flour, it gets messier and it soon becomes easier to weigh out the flour. We have an inexpensive kitchen scale, Ozeri kitchen scale (it cost $15.95), we keep right with our bowls and dishes, and can easily weigh anything we want.  If you don’t have one, ask someone to give it to you for Christmas.

So how do you weigh out flour? We found that 1 cup of King Arthur All Purpose Flour weighs 142 g (see above). We use grams because then there aren’t any pesky decimal pl aces to confuse you.


But what about sifted flour? The only thing sifting commercial flours does is to aerate them a bit so a cup of sifted flour weighs less. Sifted King Arthur flour weighs 126 grams, or about 8% less.

Cake Flour

Cake flour is made from a mixture of lower protein wheats that will give a light and tender crumb in cakes. According to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, all purpose flour has about 11-12% protein (mostly gluten) and cake flour about 7-8% protein. And U.S. cake flour is bleached as well, which causes “the starch granules to absorb water and swell more readily in high sugar batters.” Need less to say, cake flours weigh less per cup:

 All purposeCake flour
Scooped142 g120 g
Sifted126 g112 g

These weights are useful when you need some off amount of flour. For example, my waffle recipe requires 2 ¼ cups of sifted cake flour. It’s easiest to just quickly weigh about (2.25 x 112g) or 252g in a dish and mix it into the waffle batter. I keep this table posted inside my cupboard door, and write the weights into any recipes I use frequently.

So, get your scale out and you can do your baking quickly without getting a lot of measuring cups dirty. Happy holiday baking!

Tony Buettner pitches the Blue Zone Project in Wilton

Tony Buettner pitches the Blue Zone Project in Wilton

Tony Buettner, who identified himself as the Senior Vice President of the Blue Zones Project gave a polished pitch and review of the Blue Zones Project. Buettner is the brother of Dan Buettner whose book(s) on five pockets of centenarians around the world and their habits and diet was a best seller. (There is third Buettner brother involved as well.)

He started out by asking if every adult in the room had walked to school as a child, and most had. However, when he asked if their children did, almost no one raised their hand. This may sound damning, but is really rather naïve. Wilton has essentially zero sidewalks outside the downtown area, and no real way to maintain such sidewalks even if they could be built. This is common in New England because of the rocky terrain and old property lines and roadways. He might have looked around the town a bit before starting his canned pitch.

Buettner reviewed some of the remote civilizations where there are more than a usual number of long-lived people, including quite a number of centenarians, and followed that up with Dan’s conclusions that there are nine factors involved in extending your lifespan, (and living happily as the members of these civilizations) in Sardinia (Italy), Okinawa (Japan), Nicoya (Cosa Rica), Ikaria (Greece) and the Adventists of Loma Linda, CA.  He named and trademarked these nine factors as the “Power of Nine,” even though some of them are pretty common and obvious, such as “eat more vegetables.”

He suggested that their success in longevity is 80% environment and life-style and only 20% genetic. This is somewhat in conflict with their science advisor Stuart Jay Olshansky, who believes genetics is far more important than that. However, this was a marketing pitch, not a scientific one as we discovered when one of his slide misspelled “Chi-squared” as “Khi square.”

bitter-gourd-2He also suggested that bitter melon, favored by the Okinawans, “kills cancer.” This is utter nonsense, as no human experiments have been performed to validate this folk remedy. And he refers to the Ikarian wine as having 4 times the polyphenols of other red wines. But, unfortunately, there is no scientific evidence that such antioxidants have any health-giving properties. That is mostly a marketing myth.

He also brought up their oft-repeated story about Stamatis Moriatis,  a Greek man from Ikaria who while working in the U.S. “developed terminal lung cancer,” and went back to Ikaria to die, but lived another 30 years, allegedly because of the healthy climate and lifestyle of his home island. Neither his story nor any of the articles I have found provide any validation for this medical fairy tale: no doctors in either the U.S. or Greece are cited. While Buettner, asserted that this story has been validated and published in the New York Times, he is actually referring to a magazine article written by his brother Dan, which contains no references of any kind.

In pitching the services the Blue Zones Project can provide to our town, Buettner continually mentioned “evidence based” and “science backed.” However, at no time did he give examples of such evidence or science. OK, neither Buettner is a scientist. But in describing their work in demonstration city Albert Lea, MN, he talked about replacing candy and junk foods in the supermarket checkout area with 43 “superfoods.” Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a “superfood.”

Switching to some of their current projects, he mentioned the Beach Cities project in California, made up of Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach. He claimed great success, with a 50% reduction of childhood obesity. This would be an amazing accomplishment, but if you go and read about the project, this effort was a years-long project by the Beach Cities Health District starting in 2006. According to Eric Garner, Communications Director of the BCHD, childhood obesity has fallen by 68% since that time.  This is indeed a major accomplishment, but the Blue Zones Project came much later, (2010-11) and only added the Walking Schoolbus to the obesity project. I would call this intentionally misleading, to say the least.

When I got to ask some questions, (awkwardly, I’ll admit) I wanted to know why this work had never been published or subjected to peer review, and whether this wasn’t just correlation without causation. Buettner’s rather arrogant answer was that they had been featured on 3 magazine covers and been asked to present at the Davos Economic Forum, and they didn’t need to deal with causation, (which he clearly didn’t understand).

I also mentioned Professor Stuart Jay Olshansky’s objection:

He exaggerates the importance of diet as genetics is critical in these folks, and I was not happy early on that they were selling items from the various locations as longevity boosters, which supposedly they stopped doing…

He immediately interrupted to me to assert that the BZP has never sold anything. This is patently untrue: here is a link to their “store,”   where they sell turmeric from Okinawa, bean soup with beans from almost very Blue Zone region, and even cases of Blue Zones Water. They also have offered “Longevity Tea,” and Caracolillo Coffee from the Nicoyan region, but these are sold out.

He was not interested in discussing the criticism in Eric Carter’s paper, which I enumerated in my previous article, and quickly moved to shut me down.

I found Buettner’s attitude and mendacity very troubling and am not enthusiastic about our working with this group.

Thinkpad and Surface: choosing a new laptop

Thinkpad and Surface: choosing a new laptop


When my old Thinkpad finally went south, a friend of mine suggested I consider the Microsoft Surface laptop instead of another Thinkpad. After a bit of messing around, I finally ended up with two laptops on my desk to choose from and a large (but temporary) bill on my credit card. One was going to be sent back off the island.  How to choose among these two tremendous laptops?

Since I have a number of compute-intensive applications, I chose a pretty high end model (16 Gb of memory of 1 Tb of solid state disk space), but many of the criteria apply to lower priced systems as well.

The Surface laptop screen is a touch screen in all models, and you can buy a stylus to do actual drawing on it if you want. Any place you’d want to click your mouse, you can just touch the screen. This is integrated with Windows 10, which supports and encourages your using touch, including the otherwise baffling Edge browser that supplants Internet Explorer. But, after having used a mouse in Windows for many years, I just didn’t see why I needed this. If you are working in graphics, you might find it helpful.

Both laptops come with Windows 10, which has its own learning curve, but the Surface Laptop gave you a choice of installing Windows 10 Home or Windows 10 Pro. The Thinkpad just gave you Windows 10 Pro right out of the box. Windows 10 comes with the new Edge browser that replaces Internet Explorer, although IE is still supplied for diehards. The Internet scuttlebutt is that the main use of the Edge browser is to download another browser, such as Chrome, and I did that immediately, because Chrome has all my bookmarks and passwords stored in my account. As soon as you try to download it, Edge scolds you, saying that Edge is much faster than Chrome.

On the Thinkpad, it seems a perfectly capable browser, and it can import your bookmarks from Chrome after you install it. On the Surface, all of your bookmarks seem to turn into big squares at the top of the window, wasting a ton of browser screen real estate. This feature is presumably for touch screen users, but I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off. So, on the Surface, I used Chrome exclusively.

The ThinkPad beautiful display comes with Dolby Vision, which allows each individual pixel to have a wider range of color and contrast. This is primarily for entertainment apps, but the screen is really impressive to work with.

front dark

As soon as I set the two laptops side by side, it was obvious that the Thinkpad screen was wider. It’s almost an inch wider than the surface, and this makes a significant difference when you need to switch between app windows. Since the Surface is a bit taller, you probably get about the same amount of screen, but the width is what makes to different to me. When you first boot up the Surface, it comes up with a tiny font: much too small to do actual writing with. So I had to find the control panel settings that increased the system font. This also affected the fonts in the browser, and I found that I had to enlarge it using Ctrl/Shift/+.

The Surface immediately found and connected to my wireless printer. On the Thinkpad, I had to tell it to scan for printers, and it found it right away.  Neither Windows 10 machine allowed me to share files with my Windows 7 server upstairs without some screwing around I still haven’t completely solved.

On the Surface, I seemed to be making more typing mistakes, and when the measured the two keyboards, the Surface keyboard was 10.75” from the outside of the left shift key to the outside of the right shift key. The Thinkpad was 11.12” and that 3/8” difference made a significant different in my typing accuracy.

But the main difference turned out to be the number of USB ports. Since I habitually use a wireless mouse, I needed a port for this and another port to connect USB flash drives to so I could transfer data from the old computer and from my camera. Without a second port, this meant giving up your mouse every time I needed to copy data from my camera or the old computer.  By contrast, the Thinkpad had 4 USB ports, two full size and two micro ports. This one feature turned out to be the deal breaker. My friend told me this must have been a recent change, as her Surface had two USB ports. If that had been true of mine, I might have kept the Surface, because it is quite a slick  machine, but in fact I am typing this article on my new Thinkpad, and the Surface has left the island.

Oh, and the Thinkpad turned out to be $400 cheaper, too!


  Thinkpad X1 6th gen Surface Laptop
Display 2560 x 1440 pixels 2736 x 1824 pixels
Display size 12.25 x 6.93” 11.38 x 7.5”
Memory 16 Gb 16 Gb
SSD storage 1 Tb 1 Tb
Weight 35.9 oz 45.6 oz
Keyboard width 11.125” 10.75”
Processor Intel Core i7 (8th gen) Intel Core i7
USB connectors 2 full, 2 micro 1 full
Touch screen No (but they sell one) yes
Price $2089 $2499



We try Nueske’s Premium Bacon

We try Nueske’s Premium Bacon

We recently received a catalog offering s number of Nueske’s premium pork products, starting with their 5 types of bacon, and going on to offer sausages, ham, smoke pork chops and other products.  The photos and descriptions were so beguiling, we had to try the bacon. We ordered their Gourmet Bacon Assortment, of Applewood Smoked Bacon, Applewood Smoked Peppered Bacon and Cherrywood Smoked Bacon, which is uncured.

AssortmentThe assortment cost $34.99 plus shipping, which made this bacon pretty expensive, probably twice what you pay for supermarket bacon, but this bacon itself was of superior quality and quite delicious. They also have a thick sliced version that you can cook on a grill. We’ll have to try that, too.

Nueske’s is located in Wittenberg, Wisconsin, west of Green Bay, where they have been making their smoked meats since 1933. However, the family has there since 1882, making smoked meats for themselves. Today, they use imported spices and still use the original Nueske recipes. They smoke their bacon for 24 hours over applewood embers, which gives is quite a distinctive, delicious taste. It also is much less fatty than mass-market bacons, although, of course, it does render some fat when you cook it.

Their Applewood Smoked Bacon is cured with water, salt, sugar, sodium phosphate, sodium erythorbate and sodium nitrite, while their Wild Cherrywood smoked bacon is uncured, but treated with sea salt, raw sugar and cultured celery juice (which provides the nitrite preservatives).

We tried all three types, and loved all of them.

The Applewood Smoked bacon has the strongest flavor, but it is in no way objectionable, and the bacon goes very well with traditional bacon and eggs breakfasts. While there is some fat rendered as you cook it, the bacon shrinks much less than commercial bacons, but there is enough fat to fry eggs in.

The Peppered Bacon, is the same type of bacon as the Applewood Smokes, but with coarse pepper along the edges. You might think this would overwhelm the bacon, but it really doesn’t. After cooking, the Peppered Bacon has a mild, peppery taste not unlike what you’d get if you added salt and pepper to your eggs.

Finally, the Wild Cherrywood Smoked Bacon is uncured, and you have to keep it refrigerated (or frozen). The smoky flavor is milder than in the applewood smoked bacon, but it has just as little shrinkage, and we cooked eggs in the fat from 5 slices and had plenty to work with. We really like this one the best.

Yes, it costs more, but this is really excellent bacon, and we’ll probably order some more and try out their smoked pork chops and hams, too.



Roundup verdict in California: nothing to do with science

Roundup verdict in California: nothing to do with science

You have probably read about the verdict in California where a jury awarded the plaintiff, Dewayne Johnson $280 million in damages because he developed non-Hodgkins lymphoma while working as a groundskeeper and using Roundup.

You never know how juries make their decisions, as attorney and farmer, Amanda Zaluckyj explains. But we can be sure, that science had nothing to do with it. Maybe they chose to disregard the science because they sympathized with Mr Johnson’s severe lymphoma. But, as Monsanto pointed out in the trial, Johnson’s lymphoma was diagnosed some 10 years before he began using Roundup.

johnsons cancer monsanto

Maybe they didn’t  like Monsanto. The Organic Consumers Association, and US Right To Know have been pushing this anti-biotechnology line for years in order to scare people into using their pricier organic products. Henry Miller has even connected these attacks to the Russian government.

But the science is very clear and has been for years. Glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup has about the same toxicity as salt or aspirin. It has been in use since 1974 and is incredible effective and incredibly safe.  Here’s one review on toxicity and here’s another on carcinogenicity.

Probably the only actual report of Roundup causing cancer was made by the IARC, a small French research unit, who when they lost their budget, joined the WHO as a small research division. The trouble with that group is that they were not scientifically driven, but politically driven, considering only a few cherry-picked papers out of the hundreds of papers available on Roundup. And their conclusion was driven by lobbyist Christopher Portier, who formerly worked for the Environmental Defense Fund. Portier is not, however, a toxicologist.  So, when the IARC declared that  Roundup was “probably carcinogenic” they were not considering scientific data, but driven by politics.  I wrote about this in detail here.

Soon after this, the WHO overrode the IARC, and, along with the UN, declared that Roundup was NOT carcinogenic, based on available scientific data. The EFSA quickly agreed.

Courtrooms are not a good place for science,  because juries do not try to understand the scientific method or scientific findings, and instead try to connect with the emotions of the case: poor, sick groundskeeper versus large agricultural company. Who would you predict would prevail?

Fortunately, Monsanto is appealing and we hope will prevail against these preposterous claims. You might also read Cameron English’s excellent analysis of this case here.

Wilton Continuing Ed promotes scams

Wilton Continuing Ed promotes scams

It’s always fun to look through the Wilton Continuing Ed catalog (Wilton, CT) and see if there might be some classes worth taking. The first entry is one that might be helpful for the gullible: Avoiding Scams. Of course you have to pay $15 for consumer information that should be free. Or $25 for non-residents.

  1. Well, right at the top of the list, about 4 entries down from the scam class is one on Digital Astrology. This is a double scam, because they are just going to teach where on the web you can find astrology information. No mention of the fact that astrology is a set of prescientific superstitions with no scientific backing whatever. Or as Phil Plait says in his Bad Astronomy column, “pure bunkum.”
  2. But there is more hooey, to come, starting with “Ancient Grains Meet Modern Palates,” a class on old grains from which most of our current useful grains were developed. But selling these grains is mainly a marketing technique (are you listening, Whole Foods?): they have no special nutritional value.
  3. The next scam is the Fire Cider Infusion Workshop. If you haven’t heard about Fire Cider, it is apple cider vinegar with garlic, horseradish, cayenne pepper and honey added. Apparently this is suppose to treat colds, but there is absolutely no evidence that it does anything at all. This workshops teaches you how to mix these ingredients and sends you home with a quart of spiced vinegar for $55. You can also buy some on Amazon for about $25, but again, there is no evidence it does anything. We wrote about the underlying apple cider vinegar scam a couple of years ago, It doesn’t work, either. And, if that isn’t enough, you can read “I used to be a Holistic Nutritionist.
  4. You can’t get through these sorts of catalogs without finding Benefits of Essential Oils, today’s most popular scam. We wrote about these oils in our old Examiner column:

The idea of essential oils simply means the extraction of scented components from plants, and has been criticized on Quackwatch as having no real value. These scented oils, which are not inexpensive, may make your house smell nice, and may even help you relax, but they are regulated by the FDA as cosmetics and have no established medical uses, for the most part.

All of these essential oils are made by doTerra, a multi-level marketing company (anyone can become a dealer) a company that has been severely criticized for both their claims and their marketing in Science Based Medicine. Specifically, they imply a number of health benefits for these oils, but do not offer any evidence nor cite any clinical studies. Prices for these oils range from $20 to over $90 for 15 ml!

  1. And, right under that is a class in Chakradance. Never heard of it? Well, apparently chakras are 7 “energy centers” within your body, and Chakradance is a “holistic, healing and well-being practice.” Apparently, you should “allow Chakradance, through its intimate guided meditation and varying vibrational tones of its carefully composed music, to provoke spontaneous movement, images, and healing as each of your energy chakras are rebalanced.” If you see all those pseudo-science buzzwords in a single sentence, your scam meter should already be pinned! It’s difficult to imagine anyone taking this hokum seriously.


If that’s not enough, the same instructor also teaches similar hokum under the label of Tai Chi.

  1. And, to round out the scam catalog, we can’t help but note they are offering a class in Mindfulness Medtation. “Mindfulness” is the buzzword of last year, and it is difficult to avoid. However, a look at the article in Science-Based Medicine suggests it has little scientific basis, and Newsweek suggested last year that Mindfulness is a meaningless word with shoddy science behind it. Bingo! The scam meter pins again!



No, cell phones do not cause cancer!

No, cell phones do not cause cancer!

Let’s start with a homely example. If a friend comes to you claiming to have a wonderful new pudding recipe, made only from grass clippings, your first response would be “how would that work?” You know that grass is really fibrous and doesn’t have a lot of flavor.

So, if another wacky friend comes to you claiming that cell phones cause cancer, you could ask the same question: “how would that work?” Because you know that the microwaves used in cell phones are so low in energy that they cannot disrupt any chemical bonds.  Prominent physicist and educator Bob Park dealt with this in 2001, in the journal article “Cell phones and cancer: how should science respond?

As Park points out, all known cancer causing agents work by breaking chemical bonds, producing mutant strands of DNA. The energy of such elector magnetic radiation runs from low energy microwaves through the visible spectrum, up to ultraviolet and eventually to X-rays, with the energy is determined by the wavelength, with the shorter wavelengths being more energetic. Only at the ultraviolet wavelengths and beyond do the photns that make up such radiation have enough energy to break bonds. Microwaves, infrared, and visible radiation just can’t do it, and thus, cannot cause cancer.

Knowing that one simple fact makes it easy to question alarmist articles like the one in last week’s issue of The Nation, on a conspiracy theory on how Big Wireless made us think cell phones are safe.  The report, by Mark Hertsgaard and Mark Dowie details a conspiracy to shut up cell phone critics, which even if true does not establish the cell phones are dangerous. It is simply another example of The Nation reporting outside its political specialty, but ignoring established science.

But why believe Park and me? The American Cancer Society has a high readable report:  Cellular Phones that comes to the same conclusion.

But what about if you are in a room full of cell phones and make hundreds of calls a day? Is that any more dangerous? What about Michael Cohen’s 16 cell phones? To answer, consider the following thought experiment, which, I think, came originally from Bob Park.

Suppose that Napoleon stands at the Strait of Dover with his soldiers and orders them to throw rocks towards England. No one can throw a rock 21 miles, so nothing much happens. So, thinking he just needs more force, Napoleon brings in several more divisions of soldiers and has them all throw rocks towards England.

What happens? A lot of rocks fall into the water, but none get to England, because none of the soldiers is strong enough to throw a rock 21 miles. The same applies to all those cell phones. None can break a bond so even the whole group can’t cause cancer.

Hertsgaard and Dowie cite a well-designed 2016 experiment by the National Toxicology Program in which rats are raised in specially designed crates where they were irradiated with 2 different levels of cell phone radiation (or none for the control group)  for 10 minutes on and 10 minutes off for 9 hours a day, from birth to 2 years. Some rats got CDMA modulated radiation and some got GSM modulation. The original 2016 report was described in Scientific American, and it raised some concerns.

The final revised 2018 result, after adjusting for litter effects, was that there was no positive association between cell phones and brain neoplasms for female rats, male mice, or female mice. They found an association for male rate and only for CDMA modulation. Further, the irradiated male rates lived longer than the controls. In other words, this appeared to be a random effect of no significance. All of this is explained in detail in an article on Science Based Medicine.

While earlier 2016 preliminary analyses seemed to indicate an actual effect, it disappeared when the statistics were adjusted for litter effects (animals from the same litter would be expected to have similar responses).

So, physics is still true, and alarmism has lost out again. Your cell phones are safe.

Sweet potatoes were naturally made using GMO techniques

sweet-potato-fries-with-sea-56276If you look at the packaging for Alexia Sweet Potato Fries (which are actually very good) you will see “Non-GMO” and that annoying GMO Free butterfly label.  This is called fear-based marketing. We don’t use that scary GMO stuff (whatever that is) in our potatoes. But in the case of sweet potatoes, nature beat them to the punch.

Farmers breed plants all the time to get new, stronger and tastier varieties by crossing them. This is tricky because you usually then have to “back-cross” your new variety with its parents to make it more like its parent. And this can result in exchanging of over 10,000 genes! This was the way the pioneering plant biologist Norman Borlaug bred the wheat that saved Mexico and later India. For this he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Another way farmers and breeders have used is irradiation of seeds. This is kind of a crude technique, called mutation breeding, but it is how we got the current Ruby Red Grapefruit. You just have to plant the seeds and see what comes up. Then you save the good ones.  You can also perturb the seed using mutagenic chemicals (such as colchicine) to cause it to mutate. This is just as uncertain, but we have gotten a lot of nice flowers and a few vegetables that way.

The last way is using biotechnology to insert just the gene we want for the trait we want. This is the most precise method, but not everyone (except most scientists) is convinced that there aren’t some sort of unknown side effects. They usually use a bacterium called “agro” (for agrobacterium tumefaciens) which is a sort of a ring of DNA called a plasmid. This bacterium can insert genes into plants, and that is where the bulges come from you see on oak trees, called oak galls.

Now if biologists make that ring of DNA longer by including the genes they want in the plant they can persuade agro to do their insertions for them and this is the way most genetically modified crops are made today.

Here’s the news. This wasn’t our idea! That intellectual property belongs to a sweet potato! Virologist Jan Kreuze of the University of Washington in Seattle reported that they examined the genes of some 291 varieties of sweet potatoes from around the world, and found in all of them foreign genes from bacteria. Further, they found genetic sequences analogous to those in agro. And while they found these in sweet potatoes, they did not find them in close relatives.

Now, sweet potatoes are just the swollen parts of the plant’s roots and the authors theorize that this modification is what gives sweet potato plants this bulge; both are lacking from the close relatives. So sweet potatoes did their own “genetic engineering” some 8000 years ago, and farmers selected the plants with the best “bulge” to plant each year. And clearly after 8000 years we can be pretty sure there are no ill effects from eating them.

This is a pretty good indication that such genetic modification is perfectly safe, and every major scientific organization world wide agrees that this is true. You can find declarations from the AAAS, the AMA, and the EFSA.  Every major scientific society and national scientific organization has indicated that GMO foods pose no harm of any kind. Here is a good review in Scientific American by Pamela Ronald. And the position of the American Association for the Advancement of Science is very clear in stating that GMO crops pose no harm.

So, ignore those meaningless “non-GMO” marketing labels, and avoid products making those specious claims when you can. You may actually save money, too.



The Times, detoxing and other pseudo-science

The Times, detoxing and other pseudo-science

In last Sunday’s NY Times “T” section, an article by Kari Molvar asked “creative people to share their homemade recipes they count on to detox, cleanse – and refresh.” This should have been a very short article indeed, because there is no such thing as a detox or cleanse. Your liver is all you need to “cleanse” your system. And it does it very well! (See our article Medical Science says that Cleanses are Bogus.)

In this article, they interview artist Ana Kras about her recipe for a cleansing drink. How about another article on the kinds of sculptures scientists make?

At least that would be based on facts! This one, not so much.  Kras is known for her “modernist furniture, abstract drawings and photography.” But not for her knowledge of science, apparently.

She claims that her recipe (from California friend) is not only tasty but can have “medicinal properties.” NO proof, of course.

Her recipe consists of vegan, organic masala chai spice and ground vanilla powder. Well, both “vegan” and “organic” are more ritualistic concepts than ingredients, and “chai spice” is just a mixture of common household spice like cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg and cardamom, as shown above.

Where she goes off the rails is in adding a mixture of weird, unpronounceable “adaptogenic” spices like “ashwagandha, cordyceps, mucuna pruriens and reishi.” None of these ingredients have been found to be safe and effective for any purpose, and some can be dangerous in quantity.

Adaptogenic” is a pseudo-scientific term implying that the herbs may adapt to your body’s needs. This has never been shown to be true.

Kras claims in the article that this spiked tea drink may improve immunity and mental clarity. Of course, none of those crackpot ingredients do anything of the sort, and same may be dangerous, because they are pretty much unregulated.

Kras serves her chai with cashew cream (with a crushed date) or almond milk. Probably tasty, but of no particular benefit. It looks like she is trying to avoid dairy (for no good reason) but adding cream instead would be easier and cheaper, and still taste very good. Make your chai tea and enjoy it. Leave out the wacko spices, and tell the Times they are full of malarkey!