Tag: Science

Non-GMO oyster crackers: they are really in the soup

Non-GMO oyster crackers: they are really in the soup

We had some delicious clam chowder at one of our favorite restaurants this weekend. Even the oyster crackers were good: until I noticed the label. There was the stupid Non-GMO Project Verified logo with the even less credible butterfly alongside. Look Westminster Bakers, you make a great product, so why sully it with scare tactic marketing?

The funny thing is that Westminster must have just recently added this scary butterfly logo to their packages, because a search for their crackers brings up a lot of pictures without the anti-GMO label. You only find it on their actual company site.

So what does that mean for oyster crackers that only contain 7 ingredients: unbleached wheat flour, water, canola oil, cane sugar, salt, yeast and baking soda? Let’s stipulate upfront that “GMO” is a breeding process for making plants with particular traits. “GMO” is not an ingredient.

The plants: corn, soy, sugar beets, some squash, papaya, alfalfa, and sorghum have traits that allow farmers to grow them more economically and with fewer pesticides. Non-browning apples and potatoes have also been developed. Every major scientific organization worldwide has concluded that these genetic modifications pose no harm. These organizations include the National Academy of Sciences, the AAAS, the World Health Organization, the European Food Safety Association and hundreds of others.

Let’s take a look at the ingredients in these excellent crackers:

  • Wheat – there is no GMO wheat on the market.
  • Salt – Nope
  • Water – Nope
  • Baking soda – Nope
  • Yeast – Nope (there are some genetically modified brewers yeasts, but none used by bakers)

Sugar comes from either sugar cane or sugar beets. Much of the sugar beet crops grown in the northern US are bred to resist herbicides like glyphosate, to reduce the need for plowing and weeding. Further this also reduced the amount of herbicide actually used to less than a soda can full per acre.


GMO sugar  ———–  Non-GMO sugar

But sugar is a simply crystalline compound that is easily purified. Above are drawings of conventional sugar and genetically modified sugar. Can’t tell the difference? That’s because there isn’t any. Sugar doesn’t contain any proteins or any DNA to modify: it is just a simple organic compound that can be extracted from cane or beets. Whether the plant was bred to resist one or more herbicides doesn’t matter: the sugar is exactly the same. The idea that there is such a thing as “GMO sugar” is silly. Either way, it is just sugar. The label “GMO sugar” is what we call an anti-marketing label. It is used to scare you away, when there is just nothing there to be scared of. Fear-based marketing is fundamentally dishonest; this is a prime example of anti-GMO hooey!

Canola oil is another funny story. Rapeseed was grown for many years for its oil, used mostly for lubrication. This was particularly valuable in the UK during World War II. However, rapeseed oil had a bitter taste from a series of mustardy compounds called glucosinolates, which may be tasty in brassicas, but not desirable in cooking oils. In the 1970s, Downey and Steffanson of the Saskatoon Research Laboratory laboriously separated the oil part of rapeseeds from the embryo section, and analyzed the oils by gas chromatography, selecting the seeds with the lowest glucosinolate and erucic acid concentration. They planted and crossed these seeds to produce a new plant that produced Canada Oil, or canola for short.

Soon herbicide resistant versions of canola plants were developed by mutation breeding and natural selection. This was very important, because you didn’t want to include the old rapeseed plants in your oil and if they could be killed while keeping the canola plants unharmed it would make growing canola much more economical.

Later glyphosate and glufosinate resistant plants were developed by the usual biotech means, and were made available. The funny part is that canola plants are absolutely promiscuous, and the pollen can blow for miles. This means that there is a good chance that every canola plant in North America may be resistant to these herbicides and thus, by the lights of the idiotic Non GMO Project, a “GMO plant.” So basically all canola oil in North America is GM. And who cares? There is no protein, no DNA in canola oil so it doesn’t matter.

 It’s just another anti-marketing label. 

Now, there is some canola oil available in the Netherlands that is carefully produced to assure its “non-GMO-ness,” but who cares? Does Westminster buy this? Who knows? Or cares?

Westminster Bakery is almost 200 years old and is justifiably proud of their history and traditions. They claim to be using “the same basic, wholesome ingredients” as their Master Baker devised 200 years ago. Call this marketing hyperbole, though, since canola oil is only about 43 years old.

Organic Consumers Assoc: ‘worst organization in the world’

Organic Consumers Assoc: ‘worst organization in the world’

I received this telemarketing call Friday evening. It came from an 818 number that seemed to be from Pomona, California, and the caller ID said “Organics Fund.” This appears to be the Organic Consumers Fund, a fund-raising arm of the Organic Consumer’s Association. They apparently called to lie to me some more about GMOs.

Alex: “Hello, this is Alex, and I’m calling from the Organic Consumers Fund.  We’d like to thank you for your support [I never gave them a dime].

“We now have a national GMO labeling bill, but it just isn’t enough. Manufacturers only have to put a QR code on the package. We think the information should be spelled out.”

Me: “You mean you want to scare people with some misleading label?”

Alex:  “We think that consumers have a right to know what is in their food.”

Me: “You do know the ‘GMO’ is a breeding process, not an ingredient, don’t you?”

Alex: “Yes, and people deserve to know that this was used on their food.”

Me: “And do you realize that there are thousands of technical papers concluding the GM food poses no harm?”

Alex: “We think people should be able to decide for themselves.”

Me: “So you want to use these labels to scare people into buying overpriced organic foods?”

Alex: “We want people to be able to make up their minds.”

Me: “And decide to spend money on expensive foods? What else have you got?”

Alex: “We also have a campaign to save the declining bee population.”

Me: “You do realize that the bee population has been growing for the last seven years, don’t you?”

Alex: “Well, thanks anyway.”

The Organic Consumer’s Association

This group, led by crackpot food-scare activist Ronnie Cummins has been spreading misinformation about biotechnology for years, and sends wildly inaccurate newsletters almost weekly making unjustified claims about the dangers of GM foods and scary nonsense about Roundup. You would not be surprised to discover that the preponderance of their budget comes from contributions from organic food companies such as Stonyfield Farms, Horizon Organic, and Organic Valley. Their sole purpose is to promote organic food sales by slandering biotechnology and anything else not organic.

While the OCA continues to hammer away about the “dangers of GMOs,” the overall scientific consensus is that they pose no harm. That is the position of every major scientific organization in the world, including the WHO, the AMA, and the EFSA. And for more on who funds GMO denialism, read Michelle Miller’s excellent piece here.

On honeybees

They OCA does have a crazy 2014 position paper claiming that “GMOs are killing birds, bees and butterflies,” but it is complete nonsense. Colony collapse disorder peaked in 2006, but as this Washington Post article explains, bee populations have risen each year since then. The article conflates GM seeds with neonicotinoid seed coatings, and while neonicotinoid insecticides can harm bees, they are not a significant contributor to bee deaths, according to the USDA. The major causes of bee deaths are parasites like varroa mites, pathogens like nosema and European foulbrood, and poor nutrition when bees are moved from one monocrop area to another. Data showed no consistent relations between pesticides and CCD-affected colonies.

The worst organization in the world

In addition, the OCA has taken a consistent and utterly unscientific position toward vaccination, it is an accomplice in persuading immigrants to avoid vaccination.

As reported in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, a cluster of Somali immigrants near Minneapolis became concerned about the apparent incidence of autism in their population. Some asked discredited (and disbarred former doctor) Andrew Wakefield to speak to the Somalis about his entirely debunked idea that vaccines could cause autism. This theory was thoroughly debunked in a 2004 report by the National Academies of Medicine and by the Center for Disease Control.

However, a weekend misinformation session attacking vaccines including speakers from the Organic Consumers Association who have absolutely no qualifications to speak on this topic, but are very good at scare tactics.

Statistically, it turned out that the autism rate among Somali children was no different than anywhere else in the world, but because of these scare tactics, nearly 60% of Somali 2-year olds have not had their MMR vaccine, and so far 68 cases of measles have been reported in Minnesota, (58 of them in Hennepin County). Measles is one of the most contagious childhood diseases, and about 1 in 20 children with measles get pneumonia and this can lead to death.

Any organization that spews this antivaccine nonsense to a vulnerable population with less access to good medical facts, deserves the epithet of “Worst Organization in the World.”

And an organization that consistently lies about food safety is no better.



Gary Taubes says sugar is poison

Gary Taubes says sugar is poison

Science writer Gary Taubes has been writing columns everywhere promoting his new book The Case Against Sugar. He has written columns in The Guardian, and  The New York TImes among other places, and has been reviewed somewhat critically in The Guardian, Food Insight and The Atlantic.

Taubes’ central argument is that calories from sugar are not the only reason for obesity, but argues that sugar itself is uniquely toxic.

Taubes: “If the research community had been doing its job and not assuming since the 1920s that a calorie is a calorie, perhaps we would have found such evidence long ago.”

In a nutshell, the flaw in his argument is revealed in the above statement in the Times article. There must be more to sugar’s causing obesity than just calories, but researchers haven’t been doing their job!

And, in fact, despite Taubes’ persuasive writing, this is most of his argument. He cites no research in his articles (I have not read his actual book) or even mentions researchers who agree with him.

His thesis echoes that of Dr Robert Lustig, who makes much the same arguments in his book Fat Chance, and in the movie Fed Up but both Lustig’s and Taubes’ similar ideas have been debunked in articles, such as this one in Science Based Medicine. And Food Insight called this “blind fealty to correlation as causation.” Scientific American pointed out the fallacies in this argument in 2013.

In fact, while obesity continues to increase, sugar intake in the US actually decreased from 1999-2008, mainly because of decreased consumption of sugary soft drinks.

Taubes’ other somewhat distressing argument is that the sugar industry has been influencing research outcomes for years by sponsoring research. This suggests that not only that scientists are unethical but that the journal peer-review process itself is corrupt, and that is hard to swallow. The idea that research funding influences outcomes had been thoroughly debunked in this article by van Eenenaam, who notes that such corrupt research is a sure path to a short academic career.

He cites this PLoS One paper which reviews papers for their findings, correlating them with the source of their support. The authors suggested that papers with no declared “conflict of interest” are more likely(83%) to find that sugar sweetened beverages could be a risk for weight gain, but for those “disclosing some financial conflict of interest” 83% found that there was no such correlation.

The trouble with that paper is that there are only a few such studies: there were only 12 in the first category and 6 in the second category, and only 10/12 and 5/6 supported the author’s conclusions.

There are other reviews of sugar consumption that we need to consider. For example, Weed et al. studied reviews of health outcomes from sugar sweetene beverage (SSB) consumption, and rated the review quality using the AMSTAR review rating scheme, and found that most of them received moderately low quality scores, regardless of the conclusions of the paper. This would mean that the conclusions of these reviews are probably not entirely convincing, and basing Taubes’ sugar conspiracy theory on such weak data is not fully substantiated.

Moreover, this recent paper by Keller et al. reviews papers on sugar sweetened beverage consumption among children and adolescents, reporting that 9 reviews found a correlation between obesity and SSB consumption, while 4 did not. But that the quality scores of the reviews was low to moderate and that the two papers with highest quality scores reported discrepant (inconclusive) results.

The most important conclusion we can draw from reading Taubes’ many opinion pieces is we eat too much sugar, but that studies so far have not shown that sugar is more to blame than calories from any other source. No such research seems yet to exist.

Are GMO producers covering up ‘just like’ Big Tobacco?

corntassels2016One of the popular slogans of anti-GMO protesters has been that there is a “cover-up” going on by GMO seed companies about the actual harm of GMO crops, just like the kind of cover-up that Big Tobacco carried out for 40 years on the dangers of smoking. You will hear this sort of talk from Dave Murphy from Food Democracy Now, who can sound pretty extreme in print (see this article in the Huffington Post) but when interviewed on MSNBC sounds somewhat more reasonable, even while talking through his hat. (Recently the Huffington Post was rated the worst anti-science web site by Skeptoid.)

However, in that interview, he does mention that the GMO companies are engaged in “cigarette science,” and not telling the “real truth.” The trope that a science cover-up on GMO crops is going on just like Big Tobacco carried out is common in anti-GMO protest signs and literature.

Tobacco history

We went back and looked at some of the history of the science on tobacco smoking and lung and heart disease. Surprisingly, the research goes back to at least 1950 (1), where the authors found that smokers were substantially more likely to develop lung carcinoma. This was one of only two papers on this subject in PubMed in 1950, but the number grew in subsequent years to hundreds and then thousands of papers per year, all pointing to the same conclusions.

So, in fact, the carcinogenicity of cigarettes was well known over 60 years ago, while it may have been discounted publicly by tobacco companies, there was no cover-up at that time.

However, when people began to ask questions about the dangers of second hand smoke (“passive smoking”), tobacco companies took an aggressive approach to neutralize the impact of this research. While Schmidt (2) indicated that the carcinogens in passive smoke were a serious problem, Grandjean et. al. suggested that there was unlikely to be a problem, but by 1981 researchers were pointing towards benzo(a)pyrene as a prime culprit in tobacco smoke. (4)

In 1998, as part of the resolution of a lawsuit by various attorneys-general against tobacco companies, the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement resulted in significant funds being transferred to the states and the tobacco companies ceasing various marketing practices. At the time, the entire archives of the Tobacco Institute and related front organizations became available to researchers.

Because of these documents and the many papers that have been published about them, we now know that the tobacco companies conspired to cover up the harm they knew was being caused by second hand smoke. They also used their law firms and advertising agencies to recruit apparently unbiased scientists to tout their points of view expressing skepticism about the dangers of second hand smoke.

In 2000, Ong and Glanz (5) described the tobacco industry’s efforts to discredit second hand smoke studies, and Drope and Chapman(6) described how this was done by reviewing tobacco industry documents. And the tobacco companies’ law firms and agencies constructed the term “junk science” to try to refute some of these studies as Ong and Glanz noted in 2001 (7).

Perhaps most disturbing was the industry’s attempts to recruit (and pay) independent scientists to repeat industry talking points. The scientists’ papers would still indicate that they were being supported by tobacco industry groups, but as Bero, Glanz and Hong revealed, this wasn’t that hard to get around, as they show by detailing payments to one scientist who published such papers. (8)

A complete history of the tobacco industry’s second hand smoke cove-up was published online by PR Watch.

Development of GM Crops

There are two major types of GM crops in wide use in the US and other countries: Bt maize (corn), cotton, potatoes and tobacco and Roundup resistant soy, corn, sorghum, canola, squash, alfalfa and sugar beets. Roundup-resistant wheat has been developed and found to be safe, but is not being marketed.

In addition, there are ringspot-resistant GM papayas, non-browning Arctic apples and the non-browning Simplot potato, as well as Golden Rice with Vitamin A bred into the plant to combat blindness in vulnerable populations.

Bt insecticides

The bacillus we now know as Bacillus thuringiensis was, according to a review by Je et. al. (9) discovered originally in Japan in 1901 by Ishiwati and rediscovered in Germany by Berliner in 1911 (10), when he isolated it from flour moths.

Bt was found to be toxic to various Lepidoptera that were known to be crop pests and it began to be used in France in 1938, (11) and interest in its use as an insecticide more broadly was due primarily to Steinhaus.(12). There are now a large number of varieties of the Bt, specific to a number of different insect pests. It was found by Angus (13) that during sporulation, it forms a crystalline protein that creates the toxicity.

The important breakthrough in Bt research was when Gonzalez (14) reported that the genes that coded for the crystal proteins were located on separate cell sections called plasmids, paving the way for the cloning of these genes and eventually for insertion of these genes into plant material. The first genes isolated coded Bt toxic to the tobacco hornworm (15), and soon several groups began creating transgenic plants with various Cry genes inserted. The first to reach the market was Bt cotton (16).

Koziel (17) and a dozen coworkers from Ciba-Geigy described the field performance of transgenic maize in 1993, and commercial Bt corn followed soon after the cotton.

Once the Cry genes which coded for various strains of Bt were inserted into foodstuffs, concern was expressed regarding their safety. Numerous independent short and long term studies have shown these foods to be completely safe, however (18, 19).


Roundup or glyphosate herbicide was discovered and patented by Monsanto chemist John E Franz in 1970 (20). It’s effectively made by combination of glycine and phosphonic acid, hence the name shortened from glycine phosphonate. It is a contact herbicide, used to kill emerging weeds and is not used as a pre-emergent weed killer. Duke and Powles, in a mini-review (21) have called it a “once in a lifetime herbicide.” Franz received the National Medal of Technology (1987) and the Perkin Medal (1990) for this work.

Even before the development of Roundup resistant plants, Roundup was used by farmers to clear the fields before planting, obviating the necessity of tilling. Glyphosate is of extremely low human toxicity, comparable to aspirin or baking soda, and binds to the soil while it decomposes, so water supplies are not at risk. All the commercial patents have now expired, and it is made by a large number of companies.

Steinrucken and Amrhein (22) reported in 1980 that glyphosate killed plants by inhibiting synthesis of the enzyme 5-enolpyruvylshikimic acid-3-phosphate synthase, (ESPS) which is critical for the synthesis of the  aromatic amino acids phenylalaninetyrosine and tryptophan. If researchers could interfere with this process, they could create plants that could resist glyphosate.

After several years of experimentation in a number of groups, Klee, Muskopf and Gasser at Monsanto reported the creation of a glyphosate resistant petunia (23). This technique resulted in a general method for creating glyphosate resistant plants by cloning a gene that encodes ESPS and inserting it to various plants. Patents on this were filed in 1990 by Shah, Rogers, Horsch and Fraley (24). Fraley recently received the World Food Prize for leading this work.

Related approaches continued for some years and the first glyphosate tolerant soybeans were introduced to the market in 1996.

Research on Safety of Transgenic Plants

Substantial research on the safety of each of the genetically modified plants has been conducted and published by research groups inside and outside the various seed companies. A complete list of nearly 6oo peer-reviewed papers attesting to the safety of transgenic crops has been compiled and published by the Biofortified web site (25).

All of these papers are published in major peer-reviewed journals and thus as an aggregate represent the best scientific knowledge on these systems. Among these hundreds of papers representing thousands of experiments, there are really only two papers reporting health problems from genetically modified crops.

One of these, the paper by Giles-Eric Seralini (26) is the paper most frequently referenced in this regard. While Seralini and coworkers claimed to find that rats fed transgenic maize developed tumors, the Sprague-Dawley rats they used all develop tumors at the same rate as they observed. The paper has been denounced by dozens of scientists for poor experimental design and statistics. The European Food Safety Authority (27) published a final assessment, calling the study of “insufficient scientific quality for a safety assessment.”

Forbes contributor and molecular biologist Henry Miller and biochemist Bruce Chassey published a critical article of Seralini’s work as well (28).

The other recent paper purporting to find dangers in feeding transgenic crops to animals was published by Judy Carman, et. al, (29). Published in a low level on-line journal supported by the Organic Federation of Australia, and not even indexed in PubMed, it is of little scientific validity, and was immediately criticized by scores of scientists.

Carman’s study fed pigs either transgenic or conventional maize for 23 months and then examined their stomachs after slaughter. They claimed that GM-fed pigs had more inflammation, but their own tables show the opposite. Critics (30) also noted the visual inspection of stomachs is not the same as an actual histology study, and probably was meaningless. But most significant, FSANZ, the Food Standards Agency of Australia and New Zealand concluded (31) that the data “are not convincing of adverse effects due to the GM diet and provide no grounds for revising FSANZ’s conclusions.”

Comparison with Tobacco Cover-ups

In the case of tobacco companies, the cover-up was clear, because independent research had established and continued to establish the dangers of smoking and of second hand smoke, while at the same time, tobacco sponsored research was attempting to suggest alternate explanations for the observed diseases associated with such smoke.

By contrast, there are not really any credible studies from any source showing any damage to animals (or people) from any current transgenic crop. There is no sign of any coverup of evidence or papers adopting alternate hypotheses, because no negative results have been found. Nor are there conflicting conclusions presented by independent studies versus industry funded studies.

Consequently, there is no analogy between the near-criminal behavior of the tobacco companies and the relatively open research environment in which transgenic crops have been developed. There just doesn’t seem to be any evidence of a conspiracy.

The only evidence we find of mendacity and conspiracy is in Seralini’s and Carman’s papers, which have been found to be wanting of solid, believable science. And strangely enough, the web site gmoseralini.org and gmojudycarman.org have an identical design and style. And as Byrne and Miller noted (32), the organic industry is spending upwards of $2 1/2 billion opposing transgenic crops.



  1. Smoking and Carcinoma of the Lung, R. Doll and A. Bradford Hill, British Medical Journal, 739, Sept 30, 1950
  2. Health Damage by Means of Forced Smoking, F. Schmidt, Med, 1979, 97(42) 1920.
  3. Passive Smoking, E. Grandjean, A Weber, T. Fischer, Schweiz. Akad. Med. Wiss. 1979 Mar;35(1-3):99-109.
  4. Carcinogenicity of airborne fine particulate benzo(a)pyrene: an appraisal of the evidence and the need for control. F Perera, Environ Health Perspect. 1981 Dec;42:163-85.
  5. Tobacco industry efforts subverting International Agency for Research on Cancer’s second-hand smoke study, Elisa K Ong, Stanton A Glantz, The Lancet, 355 , April 8, 2000.
  6. Tobacco industry efforts at discrediting scientific knowledge of environmental tobacco smoke: a review of internal industry documents, J Drope and S Chapman, J Epidemiol Community Health 2001;55:588-594.
  7. Constructing “Sound Science” and “Good Epidemiology”: Tobacco, Lawyers, and Public Relations Firms. E. Ong and S. Glanz, Am J Public Health.2001 November; 91(11): 1749–1757.
  8. The limits of competing interest disclosures, L.A. Bero, S. Glanz and M-K Hong, Tob Control2005;14:118-126
  9. Bacillus Thuringiensis as a Specific, Safe, and Effective Tool for Insect Pest Control. Yeo Ho Je al. J. Microbiol. Biotechnol. (2007), 17(4), 547–559.
  10. Berliner, E. 1911. Uber de schlaffsucht der Mehlmottenraupe. Zeitschrift fur das Gesamstadt 252: 3160-3162
  11. Lambert, B. and M. Peferoen. 1992. Insecticidal promise of Bacillus thuringiensis. Facts and mysteries about a successful biopesticide. BioScience 42: 112-122.
  12. Steinhaus, E. A. 1951. Possible use of B. t. berliner as an aid in the control of alfalfa caterpillar. Hilgardia 20: 359-381.
  13. Angus, T. A. 1956. Association of toxicity with proteincrystalline inclusions of Bacillus sotto Ishiwata. J. Microbiol. 2: 122-131.
  14. Gonzalez, J. M. Jr., B. J. Brown, and B. C. Carlton. 1982. Transfer of Bacillus thuringiensis plasmids coding for δ-endotoxin among strains of B. thuringiensis and B. cereus. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 79: 6951-6955.
  15. Schnepf, H. E. and H. R. Whiteley. 1981. Cloning and expression of the Bacillus thuringiensis crystal protein gene in Escherichia coli. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 78: 2893-2897.
  16. Shelton, A. M., J. Z. Zhao, and R. T. Roush. 2002. Economic, ecological, food safety, and social consequences of the deployment of Bt transgenic plants. Rev. Entomol. 47: 845-881
  17. Koziel, al. Field Performance of Elite Transgenic Maize Plants Expressing an Insecticidal Protein Derived from Bacillus thuringiensis. Nature Biotechnology11, 194 – 200 (1993).
  18. G Flachowsky, K Aulrich, H. Bohme , I. Halle. Studies on feeds from Genetically Modified Plants (GMP), Contributions to nutritional and safety assessment. Animal Feed and Science Technology, 133 (2007) 2-30.
  19. G Flachowsky, K Aulrich, Halle. Long-term feeding of Bt-corn– a ten generation study with quails. Arch Anim Nutr. 2005 Dec;59(6):449-51.
  20. US Patent 3799758.
  21. O. Duke and S.B. Powles, Glyphosate: a once in a lifetime herbicide. Pest Manag Sci 64:319–325 (2008).
  22. Steinrücken, H.C.; Amrhein, N. (1980). “The herbicide glyphosate is a potent inhibitor of 5-enolpyruvylshikimic acid-3-phosphate synthase”.Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications94 (4): 1207–12.
  23. J. Klee, Y.M. Mushopf and C.S. Gasser, Cloning of an Arabidopsis thaliana gene encoding 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase: sequence analysis and manipulation to obtainglyphosate-tolerant plants. Mol Gen Genet. 1987 Dec;210(3):437-42.
  24. US Patent 4940835.
  25. See http://biofortified.org/genera/studies-for-genera/
  26. G-E Seralini al., Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize, Food Chem Toxic., 50(11), 2012, 4221-4231.
  27. European Commission, Final Review of Seralini al…, EFSA Journal 2012,10(100, 2985.
  28. Henry Miller and Bruce Chassey, Scientists Smell a Rat in Fraudulent Genetic Engineering Study, Forbes 8/25/12.
  29. J Carman, al, A long term toxicology study on pigs fed a combined GM soy and GM maize diet, J Organic Systems, 8(1) 2013, 38-54.
  30. David Gorski, More bad science in the service of anti-GMO activism, Science Based Medicine, June 17, 2013.
  31. Response to a feeding study by Carman et. al., FSANZ, July, 2013.
  32. Byrne and Henry Miller, The roots of the anti-genetic engineering movement: Follow the money, Forbes, 1022/2012




EWG and Erin Brockovich recycle discredited chromium claims

waterThe ill-informed Environmental Working Group has been engaged in a blizzard of press releases and E-mails claiming that nearly everyone’s drinking water is contaminated with chromium-6 (hexavalent chromium).  Consisting mainly of lawyers, PR people and self-promoters like Brockovich, the EWG has little scientific expertise, but loves to issue scary broadsides about evil chemicals. Their board members and staff contain almost no actual scientists. Their yearly press releases on the “Dirty Dozen,” have been widely discredited for failing to recognize that all the residues they report on fall far below USDA safety levels.

Comes now Erin Brockovich, mostly known by having been portrayed by Julia Roberts, recycling her claims from 25 years ago about Cr+6 in our water supplies. In fact she and the EWG have sent out regional alerts with lists of the chromium levels in water supplies for that region, conning naïve local papers into publishing these data with little contextual explanation.

Well, as McGill chemistry professor and science writer Dr Joe Schwarcz explained some years ago, there was actually little cause for concern in the town of Hinkley, CA where Brockovich made her name, and little cause for alarm now. Learning that trace amounts of chromium were in the Hinkley water supply caused by PG&E using it as a corrosion inhibitor, she quickly connected it to every conceivable malady, including miscarriages, Crohn’s disease, lupus and cancer, without any actual evidence. She eventually got PG&E to pay a $333 million settlement to Hinkley.

Now the trouble is, as Schwarz points out, chromium exists in two ionic forms trivalent or Cr+3 and hexavalent, or Cr+6. The trivalent state is pretty benign and an essential nutrient. It also sometimes appears in nutritional supplements (where it probably does little good). The hexavalent form is actually rather toxic, but Brockovich disregarded the chemistry, much as the EWG always has. The small amounts of hexavalent chromium would quickly react with chemicals in the soil and groundwater, reducing to the safer trivalent chromium.

And, in fact, exhaustive, repeated studies have shown no toxic effects on any residents either in Hinkley or other sites of contamination, as reported by The Wall Street Journal, and by ABC News.  While hexavalent chromium may be carcinogenic to some chemical plant workers, there is no evidence at all that ingestion of trace amounts of chromium in drinking water poses any sort of harm.

The EWG could quickly find this out. After all, reviews of the movie even pointed out that this contamination probably was not actually harmful.  But, no, they want to scare you and use the claims to raise their membership levels and raise money. They are not qualified to undertake “research” in this area and should cease these ridiculous claims.

Incidentally, the EWG is also trying to scare us about atrazine. But as evidence, they are using the pronouncements of Tyrone Hayes, the eccentric UC Berkeley professor who claims in entertainingly profane diatribes that atrazine exposure can change the sex of frogs. However, since he refuses to release any of his data after several years of these claims, he has become more of a laughingstock than a credible scientist.


Are USA swimmers really into Cupping?

cuppingI mean really? What lax supervision of the USOC and USA Swimming allowed swimmers to get sucked into cupping? Cupping is an alternative medicine technique where a warmed cup is applied, usually to the back, and as it cools it creates partial vacuum, sucking the skin up and perhaps nearby blood vessels, and usually creating an unattractive bruise.

The swimmers may think it relieves pain or stress, but there is simply no evidence for this. There are no studies showing any benefits for cupping. If you want a solution for all the stress there is kratom powder for sale which come from a natural drug that fights many health issues.
The website cuppingtherapy.org claims it detoxes the body as well.  There is no such thing as detoxification. You liver takes care of it automatically! Cupping is listed on Quackwatch under unnaturalistic methods.

Brian Dunning, writing in Skeptoid wrote about cupping in 2013. Again, no evidence and no studies. And Orac (David Gorski) wrote much the same last month, calling it alternative medicine that had developed in parallel in several regions of the world. And you know what they always say

Alternative medicine is made up of things we don’t know work and things we know don’t work. If it works, we call it “medicine.”

Cupping is just more stupid pseudo science, with the added fillip that Gwyneth Paltrow used it. Because those bruises are really attractive when your whole business is looking good for the media?

The best that you can say is the cupping is usually followed by a massage, and massages sure make tired athletes feel better. Or even Gwyneth.

But why would our finest athletes wander around with big circular bruises? And the above photo came from Swimming World magazine! Because their coaches are uninformed or plain dumb! There is just no evidence it does anything besides leave ugly bruises.

Apple cider vinegar: another huge scam!

bottleLast fall I had a pretty obnoxious cold, and since I was part of a singing group, I soon got advice from a lot of other singers on how to treat it or at least diminish the symptoms. One thing that seemed to come up a lot was various uses of apple cider vinegar.  While this was new to me, there seems to be a large population of vinegar-o-philes who use this folk remedy for treating all kinds of things. Of course, this means it was something to look into and write about.

Vinegar is made in two stages: first you ferment fruit juice (apple or several other fruits) to make alcohol. Various yeasts speed up the fermentation process. Under the right careful conditions you can make wines or apple jack this way. Essentially, the sugars are broken down to make ethanol (ethyl alcohol, CH3CH2OH). However, if you expose that solution to oxidation or let the fermentation proceed further, the ethyl alcohol is oxidized to acetic acid: CH3COOH. It is this acetic acid that gives vinegars their acrid smell and taste.

If you don’t filter the vinegar, it remains somewhat cloudy, and this may add slightly to the flavor. If you do filter it, you are left with a clear, but colored, liquid.  If you distill that vinegar, you are purifying the acetic acid, and this ends up giving the pure white vinegar used in some recipes. You usually use that in sweet-and-sour dishes and the like, but with little subtlety of taste.

Right now our pantry contains white vinegar, cider vinegar, malt vinegar, raspberry vinegar, balsamic and rice wine vinegar, each with different flavors for various kinds of cooking. You could use any of them to make a sour drink, but it really isn’t all that good for you.

Folk remedy claims

You will find a plethora of claims for the health benefits of apple cider vinegar (ACV) in articles like this wildly inaccurate  one in Healthy and Natural World. Here the authors claim you can use it for sore throats (mixed with honey, I think) , joint pain, acid reflux, weight loss, reduced cholesterol and several other completely unsupported claims.

Now, here is why we know they are nuts: they correctly note that ACV (which is mostly acetic acid) is acidic (low pH), so using for heartburn and the like seems silly. But they then claim that when vinegar is consumed, it turns alkaline (high pH). Holy smoke! Is this some sort of magical transmutation? No, it is just plain wrong.  This article also claims that honey is acidic (no it isn’t) but becomes alkaline in the body (no it doesn’t).

In fact ACV can be dangerous, since taking something so acidic, even diluted, it could harm your esophagus and damage your tooth enamel.  WebMD says there is insufficient evidence for any of the claimed uses being effective.

Bragg Apple Cider Vinegar

One of the largest promoters of health effects of ACV is Bragg, a small company founded by two naturopaths, which makes unsupported and downright crazy claims on their cluttered web site, reminiscent of tabloids and the Wretched Mess News. Those claiming to be naturopaths are simply quacks, and are not practicing anything like science-based medicine.  You can read a critical description of naturopathy here, in an article by a former naturopath.

Bragg ACV is organic, which is just a marketing term, gluten free (which apples contain gluten?), un- pasteurized  (why?), and Non GMO (no GMO apples have yet reached the market anyway). They call the cloudy pulp that remains in the vinegar “the Mother,” but it has no particular nutritional value. This is in reference to Kombucha which has a similar culture of bacteria and yeast also called “the Mother.” It doesn’t have any real health benefits either.

As a company, Bragg promotes every kind of pseudo-science you can think of. The web site has links to why cell phones cause cancer (they don’t: microwaves are not energetic enough to break any chemical bonds), dangers of water fluoridation, GMOs, Monsanto’s Terminator seed (which does not exist) and, most disturbingly, a diet for preventing suicide. They also claim MSG is dangerous, while recognizing the glutamates are naturally occurring in our body.

Finally, if you wonder if there is any nutritional advantage to ACV, here is the USDA analysis of apple cider vinegar: there isn’t much to it.

It seems that much of the apple cider vinegar myths are being pushed by two crackpot naturopaths, who have made a successful business out of making up new folk remedy treatments. There is not a shred of evidence they work, and you would do better with conventional and much safer nostrums.

Does MSG cause brain lesions or just improve taste?

foods with msg
Tomatoes, broccoli, soy sauce, bleu cheese and Marmite all contain MSG

MSG (monosodium glutamate) is a flavor enhancer that has been used in Japanese and Chinese cooking since about 1908. Dr Kikunae Ikeda recognized that seaweed broth had been used as a flavor enhancer and set about to isolate the substance that caused this brothy flavor that he called umami. He published this work in the Journal of the Chemical Society of Tokyo in 1909 and it was translated and republished in English in 2002 in the journal Chemical Senses. The paper is a fascinating little piece of detective work in which he eventually concluded that the umami flavor was caused by glutamate, the sodium salt of glutamic acid. He later developed and patented a process for extracting MSG from seaweed. Today, MSG is produced by fermenting starch, sugar cane, sugar beets and molasses. It is also an integral part of soy sauce(1090 mg.ml), also made from fermented vegetable protein.

Once isolated, MSG became a popular additive in Japanese and Chinese cooking and more recently has come under scrutiny as being the cause of all sorts of disorders from “Chinese restaurant syndrome” to brain lesions and various behavioral and physical disabilities. People have called it an “evil chemical” that is added to poison us and our children and other similar epithets. Always ready to spout nonsense, the redoubtable Joseph Mercola has called it a “silent killer lurking in your kitchen cabinets.”

Around 1968, reports of Chinese Restaurant Syndrome (CRS) began to appear, where a cluster of symptoms were described including flushing, headache and dry mouth. However numerous double blind studies have failed to confirm any relation between MSG and these symptoms.  In one such study volunteers were given either MSG or a placebo. Symptoms attributed to CRS did not appear more frequently in the MSG group than in the placebo group, and most subjects had no responses at all.

Another recent review article noted that while there have been reports of an MSG sensitive subset of the population, this has not been confirmed in placebo-controlled trials.

It is very important to note that this is not an evil chemical additive, but a naturally occurring substance, easily extracted from plants. Just as important, MSG can be found in large quantities in foods such as the bleu cheese in the picture (1280 mg/ml), obtained from Stop and Shop. You will also find it naturally in Parmesan cheese(1200 mg/ml), the British Marmite spread (1960 mg/ml), soy sauce, and in broccoli, peas and tomatoes.

It is also worth noting that the Japanese consume the largest amounts of MSG and they are considered one of the healthiest populations in the world.

Some have tried to argue that MSG as an additive is somehow different than that found naturally in foods. However, since MSG is a single compound and easily purified, it is clear that its source does not matter. This argument is rather like suggesting that the pure MSG from the red bottle is worse than the pure MSG in the green bottle.

In 2005, the journal Nature published a consensus following a meeting on the current state of MSG research, concluding that “the general use of glutamate salts (monosodium-l-glutamate and others) as food additive can, thus, be regarded as harmless for the whole population. Even in unphysiologically high doses GLU will not trespass into fetal circulation.”

In conclusion, the scientific consensus after years of study is that MSG is harmless and that no cluster of allergic symptoms has been observed. MSG is extracted from fermented plant products and occurs naturally in a wide variety of foods: it is not a synthetic additive.

Nonetheless, there are a variety of hoax sites that call into question the safety of MSG, such as truthinlabeling.org, msgtruth.org and probably any of a number of others. They can and should be ignored.

The safety of MSG is firmly established and need not trouble us further.

Related articles

  1. Science is so inconvenient to food scares – Sandy Swarc, JunkfoodScience
  2. New Seasonings – K. Ikeda
  3. Reconsidering the effects of monosodium glutamate – M Freeman, J Am Acad Nurse Proc.
  4. Monosodium L-glutamate: a double blind study and review – L Tarasoff and MF Kelley, Food Chem Toxicol
  5. What’s the story on MSG? – Marion Nestle Foodpolitics
  6. Consensus meeting – monosodium glutamate: an update – P Stehle, Nature
  7. If MSG is bad for you why doesn’t everyone in Asia have a headache? Alex Renton, The Guardian


ConnFACT lies about fluoridation

ConnFACT lies about fluoridation

We hadn’t heard of anyone actually opposed to water fluoridation since Colonel Jack D Ripper (Sterling Hayden) complained to Colonel Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) in his famous “precious bodily fluids” rant in Dr. Strangelove.

But we heard a great deal in a talk given last spring by members of ConnFACT about the dangers of mandatory water fluoridation. We had already interviewed the speakers, Carol Peringer and Christine O’Day, noting that ConnFACT stands for Connecticut Families Against Chemical Trespass, a group that seems to specialize in taking positions contrary to all accepted science. In fact, you have to wonder what rational group would talk about “chemical trespass.” What chemicals? How about water or salt?

The sparsely attended meeting featured a half-hour film “Professional Perspectives on Water Fluoridation,” full of quotes from marginal and fringe scientists decrying the use of fluoridation. A few were actually qualified, but many, like the Earl Baldwin of Bewley were just spouting nonsense. Also in attendance were representatives of Professional Water Systems, who subsidized the printing of the slick handouts.

Fluoridation works by having fluoride ions replace some of the hydroxyl ions in the mineral making up our teeth: hydroxyapatite becomes fluoroapatite, which is harder and resistant to tooth decay. Fluoride, furthermore is naturally occurring in our soil and in most drinking water: it is only the concentration that is adjusted to a level determined to do the most good. Moreover, water fluoridation is considered the single greatest public health advance of the 20th century.

Erroneous Assertions

However, the overriding problem with their presentation was nearly every statement they made was easily determined to be untrue.

Fluoride causes bone cancer:  Not according to the American Cancer Society

Fluoride increases risk of bone fracture: Not according to the paper in Nature by Thomas.

Fluoride decreases brain function: There is one study of naturally occurring high levels of fluoride in China where there may be some effect, but their control groups had the same level of fluoride as are recommended in the US. Thus standard fluoridation levels are perfectly safe.  And, as Steve Novella pointed out in Science Based Medicine, these were not experiments, but retrospective studies.

Fluoride causes diabetes: The American Diabetes Association recommends brushing twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste, and the CDC finds no problem for diabetics drinking fluoridated water.

Fluoride causes kidney disease: According to reviews by the American Kidney Foundation, there is no evidence that drinking fluoridated water is harmful to or causes kidney disease.

Fluoride is an endocrine disruptor: The WHO’s extensive report on fluoride’s effects on humans specifically says that no endocrine effects are observed in rats at any concentration (pp 95-96).

Fluoride accumulates in the body; the benefit is topical, not systemic. Contradictory and both wrong. The European Scientific Committee on Health and Environmental Risks says that fluoride builds up in the plasma and is eventually excreted. Some ends up in the saliva where it can react to protect the teeth. Some will end up in the bones, but does not stay there.

Dental Fluorosis

By far the biggest objection that anti-fluoridation crowd makes is that fluoride can cause a sort of tooth enamel mottling called fluorosis.  Fluorosis is caused by excess fluoride consumption before the teeth erupt, and is divided into Questionable, Very Mild, Mild, Moderate and Severe. The first three categories are only apparent to a specialist, and while Moderate may involve brown staining, the teeth are still healthy and resistant to decay.  Only about 1-2% of all patients show Moderate and Severe fluorosis, and that is cause by very high dosages of naturally occurring fluoride in the water supply, far higher than would ever occur in water fluoridated for dental health.

According to the CDC: among persons aged 6-49, 16.5% had questionable fluorosis, 16.0% had very mild fluorosis, 4.8% had mild fluorosis, 2.0% had moderate fluorosis, and less than 1% had severe fluorosis. Adding these up gives you the relatively meaningless number of about 39%. And in the teenager sub-category, that number is 41%. However, claiming that 41% of teenagers have dental fluorosis is seriously misleading, because the lower categories aren’t even visible, let aloneharmful. Using this scary number in their literature as ConnFACT has done is intentionally misleading at the very least.

Fertilizer byproduct

One of the most mendacious assertions of the anti-fluoridation crowd is in their description of how water is fluoridated. Fluoride is obtained as a byproduct of fertilizer manufacture mostly in the form of fluorosilicic acid. They claim without any evidence that these byproducts are contaminated with heavy metals and are just “dumped” into the drinking water supply. This is simply false. Any additive to our drinking water must pass safety standards of the American Waterworks Association, the EPA, and NSF International (page 42). Opponents have made up this lie to make fluoridation seem dangerous or contaminated. This is simply untrue.

Misrepresentation of Fluoridation Facts in Europe

Their handout suggests that “most other countries banned fluoridation,” which is demonstrably false. In fact, most European water supplies are not fluoridated because of their size and age, and because of multiple water sources. Instead fluoride is provided in their table salt.

They suggest that Cuba discontinued fluoridation and caries did not increase, but in fact Cuban children receive fluoride mouth rinses regularly  and fluoride varnish treatments several times a year.

They suggest that water fluoridation in Kuopio, Finland was ceased in 1992, but that caries has decreased or remained the same. In fact, virtually all children took advantage of government dental care which included topical fluoride and dental sealant programs.

They suggest that two towns in East Germany, Chemniz and Plauen, saw a significant fall in caries after fluoridation was stopped, but again neglect to mention fluoridated salt, rinses and sealants.

Each of these cases is also summarized (in that same order) in the ADA report Fluoridation Facts, where they may well have drawn their summary from, conveniently leaving out the facts that fluoride treatments of other types replaced fluoridation. In other words, they are lying.

They also mention Landrigan and Grandjean’s discredited Lancet Neurology paper which calls fluoride a neurotoxin. Critics have called the authors “long time toxic terrorists,” who completely ignore dose-response information in order to write papers calculated to scare people. They also confuse correlation and causation.

Finally, the ConnFACT handout asserts that there are studies showing that there is no link between fluoride and cavity reduction. They cite this study by Warrren et. al.  to prove that assertion, but Warren’s study was on the optimum fluoride level to minimize dental fluorosis among caries-free children. But they did note that children with caries had slightly lower fluoride intakes (as you might expect). The ConnFACT handout also claims that Cheng’s study in the British Medical Journal concludes there is a lack of strong evidence for fluoride’s benefits. That isn’t true either. Cheng asserts that the optimum fluoride level is difficult to establish exactly.

They also state that there have never been any randomized clinical trials demonstrating fluoridation effectiveness.  Another fib. Just read the summary of studies on this early CDC page.


No matter how well intended the speakers were, the materials they were working from can best be described as a tissue of lies. And when we discovered that their assertions were cribbed from an ADA Report with critical facts removed, it is clear that this lying was intentional.

  • None of the health assertions they make are true.
  • None of the papers they quote say what they say they do.
  • None of the assertions about dangers of fluoridation are true.

Like Joe Isuzu, knowingly or not, they are lying about every aspect of fluoridation.