« 7 out of 8 Investigating Public Corruption Cases | Main | Flu stories: Pandemic planners urged to tap grass roots »

April 19, 2007


I can't get past the fact that happy cheese comes from happy cows

I Know that psylociben grows in cow manure

so now I'm scared to drink the milk

I still eat the mushrooms though ...

when you think about it, it's all kinda natural

doesn't mean it's all good for you

"Drink up, Socrates, it's all-natural!"

Be thankful it wasnt colored with carmine.

I love that brown stuff that forms naturally when you cook foods. What is that stuff? Heterocyclic amines formed from Maillard reactions? Whatever it is, yum yum! Delicious! And totally natural, too. Much better than those toxic nasties cooked up by men in white lab coats.

Hmm, why do I get the feeling this post was a case of preaching to the choir lecturing to the organic chemistry class?

I think the idea in at least some people's minds is that we evolved with "natural" substances, but we don't know what "artificial" chemicals will do to us. That, of course, in nonsense, as many poisons are "natural."

Taking off from Rick Perlstein's coinage of "e. coli conservatives" (and here), what we really need is not "naturalness" but adequate regulation. What we want to see regulated is not so much science itself, but the capitalist impulse that causes companies to cut corners and mislead consumers about their products' safety.

If I could be sure that the food supply was adequately regulated and inspected, so that additives that are harmful couldn't be put in food, I might not have to spend extra for no-hormone beef, chicken, eggs and milk from known suppliers.

What we really need to rehabilitqate is the notion of government oversight and regulation, because absent regulation, "market forces" favor the unscrupulous.

Why I prefer Golden Grain mac-and-cheese to Kraft. (It isn't fluorescent orange. At least not after cooking. But they aren't a cheese-product company.)

Re the molecules - at a guess, the long chain is natural. But I had general chemistry in college.

I break up when people start talking about 'natural' and 'organic' food. 'Natural' also includes poisons and things that are addictive. 'Organic' in food terms is, to me, meaningless. If they mean fertilized by manure and pesticide-free, let them say so.

Mimikatz, I'm certainly not going to argue against better oversight and regulation of industry. But it's worth considering how much of our perception for that need is based on evidence and how much on advertising/campaigning of one form or another.

Let me take just one example, the use of rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone, which is to say a natural hormone from cows that stimulates growth and which has been produced at high quantities in bacteria, the way human insulin is, and then administered to the cows to increase milk production). And to be clear, I'm not going to address ANY of the moral issues about the damage this may cause the cows and limit myself ONLY to its effects on human health. That's not because I don't think the ethical issues are important (they are) but because ultimately that road leads to the conclusion that we really shouldn't be consuming meat or dairy at all (but I do).

I'm not expert in this area at all, but so far I'm unable to find a study showing any poor health effects to humans of milk from rBGH-treated cows. There is a series of articles in Science magazine from 1990 and 1991 about a study concluding there were no health effects from the milk for humans compared to regular milk. Even the anti-rBGH sites I just looked at don't seem to cite any studies, focusing instead on the treatment of the cows and the profit motives of Monsanto. There is potentially an issue relating to increased infection of the cows' udders due to the heightened milk production, and possible indirect effects of antibiotics used to treat the cows, but again I'm not finding any study that's actually shown an effect on people (or mice, or anything) consuming milk from rBGH-treated cows compared to control milk.

The ethical issues are a good enough reason to buy hormone-free product, but the health concerns (and again, I'm not expert here) are not something I can find evidence for, and I suspect they are another example of anti-science ideology trumping evidence. And by evidence, obviously, I mean controlled studies, not anecdotes, and associative epidemiological studies only if they're really well controlled.

Heh, the biochem geek in me immediately started looking for the isoprene groups in those compounds, and then wait, oh yeah, they both have them, so they both must be natural. That was a question on an orgo exam once.

In any case, I like the mad scientist frame you point out. I'd also like to say that anyone who's ever took organic chem before immediately recognizes the fallacy of the "natural" argument given that vitalism was discredited in the early 19th century. Otherwise, I have a sneaking suspicion that Dow, Monsanto, and Big Pharma wouldn't be making so much money these days.

Oh, and while you're at it, you should send this post to the FDA. I find it amazing that as long as an ingredient comes from a "natural" source, it can be called a natural flavor or color in the ingredients, but if the EXACT SAME chemical is synthesized in a lab, it becomes an ARTIFICAL flavor or color. Same ridiculousness there too.

Maybe instead of 'natural' or 'synthetic', maybe 'denatured' over 'natural'. As you process foods, they become denatured. Even white sugar is denatured. If we could just put a percent natural, that would tell us in an objective way what we really need to know: processed food is bad because it comes stripped of water, fiber, countless unknown nutrients, taste, etc. For instance, brown sugar is better for you than white sugar. Chewing on sugar cane or sugar beets is probably better.

But synthetic vs denatured is a useless distinction.

Splenda is pure evil. First, get this: the no calorie claim is based upon laboratory digestion. That means they subject the substance to chemical procedures in the laboratory. This works for simple sugars and carbs, it works for fiber, which is also a carb, but we can't digest it. But Splenda is digested by bacteria naturally present in our digestive tract. They extract about 1/3 of the calories for their own use. We absorb the other 2/3. So the lab says zero calories, but in reality, you get about 2/3 the calories of sugar. Oh, and the 1/3 used by the microbes, the release some gas in the process, not that there is anything wrong with that.

Overall, food chemistry is voodoo, even the cultivation of 'large fruit' derivatives. Large fruit are produced by messing with the development of cell division during key steps which result in three or more sets of chromosomes. I'm sure nobody has been funded to look into the potential loss of nutrients due to this process.

i can't help but be reminded of the Bernard Matthews problem. Bernard matthews is a UK turkey firm claiming that they have homegrown products... grown in Hungary, slaughtered and then sent for the final slicing in the UK. That's what made them vulnerable to H5N1 infection.

(Lack of) truth in advertising is as much a problem as the tendency to blame science in order to boost sales.

God I hate framing. Nothing against an otherwise excellent diary. However, as far as I'm concerned, the need for "framing" science arguments derives from the abysmal science education of Americans. For instance, there would be no need to "frame" arguments about teaching evolution or geology in schools if some parents were just dumb as a rock about science. A very marginally educated person will reject Creationism out of hand; the fact the 10s of millions of Americans don't is something of a scandal.
Framing may help communication with ignoramuses, but better education of children is the long term answer.

I have great concerns about estrogen- mimicing hormones in the food supply. Yes it's probably anecdotal, but girls are maturing two years earlier than when I was young. Antibiotics are an even bigger issue, and I get no hormone, no antibiotic meat, eggs and butter. I agree that the bigger issue is processed vs unprocessed. We evolved to eat whole foods, not processed foods, certainly not maximally processed junk, and certainly not tablets of chemicals extracted from plants. We already know the benefits of fiber, but I don't think enough people appreciate that a plant is greater than the sum of its parts, and we don't really understand all of the parts yet, much less the whole.

You eat what you want, 'pockets. I am very, very lucky to live in a food lover's heaven, with fresh, local pesticide-free produce, grass-fed meat and free-range, grain-fed chicken, both no antibiotics or hormones added, and since I can taste the difference, I don't mind putting my money where my mouth is.

tomj, since cooking food denatures it I don't think native vs. denatured is a useful distinction. (Egg whites for example turn opaque when you cook them as the proteins unfold and aggregate; boiled lobster turns red for a similar reason.) I'm not aware of the Splenda studies you cite, so perhaps you could give a link.

As a general comment, simplistic rules of the formula "food that is X is good for you and food that is Y is bad for you" are not going to work. The only way to know the health effects of a food are to do the experiment.

Marky, I appreciate the reluctance to engage in framing although I'd point out this post is about science GETTING framed, not doing the framing. I should point out Matt Nisbet and Chris Mooney's excellent and provocative work this week on science framing that has stirred a big response among science blogs. My own feeling is that politics is the method by which you put into effect the wisest policy -- it doesn't mean you have to do it on the merits, you just have to get it to work. I did not come to this view easily though, so I appreciate where you're at. The most important convincer for me was this exchange with DemFromCT about stem cells a year and a half ago (wow, it's been that long?). I wanted to explain to the public the difference between adult and embryonic stem cells, and he said just to be for stem cells and leave out the details.

He said, "Half the country isn't paying attention at all to stem cell discussions. That half woudn't know the distinction between being for stem cells, stem cell research, government-funded stem cell research, government-funded stem cell research involving pre-2001 cell lines, etc. I'm for stem cell research and Bush is against it. Details available on request." I still didn't like the idea of not being accurate. He said, "on this one, they ain't never gonna understand it like you do... ;-) " -- and I think that's pretty much all I can tell you, now. If they knew the science, we wouldn't need to think about framing. They don't; we do.

Mimikatz, I haven't read about artificially added estrogen in the food supply (most literature I've seen about hormones in dairy deals with rBGH). I see some sites concerned with the levels of estrogen normally found in milk (no matter how the animals are raised, even if it says "hormone free" -- it's just part of milk) and that may be related to the earlier onset of puberty you mentioned. But again that's another case of this bogus frame that "all-natural" and "organic" automatically means "good for you": there are plenty of things in milk, at equal levels in hormone-treated and grass-fed, free-range milk, that a child should not be consuming at high levels. Yet the parents think that if they buy "good" milk then it is healthy to drink it in large quantities. But perhaps this is chicken, and I haven't looked into the poultry discussions yet.

(I'm also confused on a more basic level about the early-onset puberty argument, as my understanding is that both boys and girls are maturing faster yet I would expect estrogen in the food to make boys hit puberty later. So I'm not sure how this hypothesis explains what we're seeing.)

By all means, if it tastes better to you then enjoy it -- in the end, I think moderation is healthy and enjoying life while we can is wise. Unfortunately for me, I don't have much choice anymore as local stores begin to carry ONLY higher-priced "organic" produce, and (since most food sits around quite a bit between the farm and NYC, and the organic stuff doesn't seem to preserve as well) this is often not only more expensive but lower quality. (We invented pesticides and antibiotics for a reason!)


Obviously cooking food changes it. This is not what I mean by denature, but if I were to include cooking, I would also have to include the regular digestive process. In fact cooking changes some foods so that they are food for us. I don't think you can eat a potato before it is cooked. OTOH, besides extra virgin olive oil, I can't think of many foods which are denatured but not cooked. So by denatured I mean separated into chemically similar components: cargs, fats, protein, fiber. Inherent in the separation is the loss of components which are associated with the other major fractions.

I don't have a link on a study to Splenda, this is common knowledge in nutrition science. Which leads into another major error with media coverage: reporting single studies. You don't need links to prove this illogic. Just visit a chemistry library and look at the number of scientific studies reported in Chemical Abstracts every two weeks. Tens of thousands or more. News reporting on a single study is usually meaningless.

Hi emptypockets. Ok, I'll be contrarian... maybe evolution has selected against the metabolic production of harmful chemicals, while the chemical industry hasn't benefited from these millions of years of natural toxicity screening. So, while both 'natural' and industrial chemicals probably both have trace contaminants the natural products would be safer - at least before cooking.

If one of the two compounds is more natural I'd guess it's the one on the left, the rings on the right look funny to me (translation - I really have no idea which one is more natural).

We get our pasta from Italy or make it ourselves. Never eat anything that comes in a box. Never.

Follow-up on estrogen in dairy and poultry: I was way off. It is widely used. The studies have simply not been done (at least as of 2003) to know if it has an effect on humans. It seems clearly to be an area where research is lacking, and as far as it is the obligation of the FDA to drive that research it is a failure of regulatory oversight.

Good fact sheet on hormones (incl. estrogen) in food products and what's known about effects on humans is here

tomj, I'm not sure what you mean by denatured then. Your argument is that denatured ingredients are unhealthy even though you understand they will be denatured once you cook them? Also, I have no idea what you mean by "denatured" with respect to non-protein foods, as it's a word I only know how to use for proteins which have a definite conformation that is unfolded upon heating (or exposure to acid, as in some ceviche and carpaccio recipes).

I see 91 papers in PubMed about sucralose. Glancing through them, I'm unable to find any study with the results you've presented. There is one titled The Influence of Sucralose on Bacterial Metabolism. The results were that bacteria cannot grow on sucralose. I'd also point out that sucralose is orders of magnitude more sweet than sugar, so even if it had equivalent calories per molecule you would be consuming something like one-thousandth to one-millionth as much of it. So, I don't believe your argument.

kim, I can always count on you for devil's advocacy. On the contrary, most creatures don't want to be eaten (fruits are an exception, they need to be eaten to spread the seed) so selection would work to make them toxic to us. I'd go one step further and say that most natural products are more likely to be bioactive (since they come from a biological system) than a purely synthetic compound would be -- and, other than vitamins and essential nutrients, most bioactive compounds only screw up your system, they don't make it better.

knut, indeed I always harvest my own pasta as I'm lucky to have a spaghetti tree in my yard -- unfortunately a recurrence of the spaghetti weevil threatens to do in this year's crop.

I would like to add that the genetic engineering practice of inserting genes from one species into another is very similar to the unintentional distribution of species around the world by man. I was just watching a program about some marine grass from the East Coast showing up here in Puget Sound. Nothing eats the stuff, so it grows without check. It pushes out local species of grass, crowds the river banks, which reduces an important thing called mud, yes mud, regular old mud which provides an important ecosystem, and eventually the loss the ability of salmon to navigate upstream.

The difference is that nobody is investigating the potential problem with gene transplantation. It is almost like a perfect crime.

Thanks emptypockets, great post.

I think a corollary to your fine frame is wrt "technology."

EP, thanks for the response. I would say that the public's basic science illiteracy will have different impacts in different areas. For instance: I think that a person who believes the earth is 6000 years old, or is otherwise similarly ignorant about geology, will be very difficult to convince about global warming. Once a person knows that the earth has a long history, and that very dramatic climate chinages are possible, then it's possible to have an intelligent discussion.
Or, to take biology: an ignoramus who is stuck on the point that an ovum gets a soul at the moment of conception will NEVER accept embryonic stem cell research, if he's true to his principles. Lilkewise, this person will favor an absolute ban on abortion.
In cases of food safety and agriculture, less of a problem exists. Why? Well, obviously because idiotic religious beliefs do not interfere with thinking processes in those cases.
I'm unpopular for saying this, but I think the government should aggressively promote teaching which removes the stupid from religious people. Sure, give people a choice about where they go to church, but don't let their religious beliefs interfere with instruction in facts. Once children are educated about the modern (post-Darwin) world, then they will be capable of being good stewards of the earth. Not before.

vanilla is one of these paradoxical chemicals isn't it? I was informed by a science professor that the process of making real vanilla is actually adding some harmful chemicals to the end product, where the chemical version is harmless.
o that the fda weren't taking money from the big food conglomerates. but then we wouldn't have a bribery oriented form of government, and much would be different. perhaps even education would be valued instead of the ridicule of tv preachers have universities. that such "institutions" could be accredited is the punch line.

Marky, have you read Richard Dawkins on religion? I think you'll find you're not alone in your views.

Re: religion and anti-science politics -- I'm going to borrow heavily here from Chris Mooney's excellent compendium of science politics, "The Republican War on Science." The religious right has made very effective opposition to science funding. But, increasingly, they couch their arguments not in the language of faith but in language that sounds like science, and they provide distorted medical evidence to bolster their ideology. Mimikatz touches on this in her post on the abortion decision the other day. What the public ends up seeing is not a battle of religion vs. science, but a battle of (to the non-expert) equally legitimate yet totally contraditory evidence, each with its own set of "experts" (real scientists in one case, bogus professors and think tank members in the other) to testify to them.

This strategy didn't actually originate with the religious Right, rather Mooney traces its origins mostly to the tobacco industry in the 1970s and to corporations bucking against environmental protection law, also in the 1970s. So, not only does the public not end up seeing a battle of religion vs. science, but in many cases the ones bringing the battle are not the religious Right, but the corporate Right. (Unless you count Free Market Capitalism as a religion, which I suppose a case could be made for!)

My point here is that while I share your frustration with the mental "compartmentalization" of reality vs faith that religion promotes, even if religion were removed from the scene I think the same basic problems would remain: groups that (for their own reasons) want a policy contrary to what the science recommends, and who therefore attack the science, and a public that is not expert enough in the details (they will never be) to expertly judge whose data is legitimate and left relying on non-evidence-based arguments. Which brings us back to framing.

Macaroni and cheese is really a simple dish to prepare from "scratch". OK, the macaroni noodles will probably come from a box but the milk and cheese are pretty natural except for the rBGH.

You can probably find a recipe on the side of the macaroni box and it's only a little more work than the instant mac and cheese stuff in the box. A lot better flavor too.

Thanks pockets for the post. Much food for thought!

I have always been under the impression that it's possible impurities in the end product that distinguish "natural" chemicals from synthetic.

Or maybe that's just me trying to rationalize the beliefs of others.

How impure are these substances after processing, usually? I mean, if I have an allergy to corn (say) then corn syrup, which is fairly pure glucose, can still cause a reaction, right? So some miscellaneous corn proteins must remain after extraction.

Analogously, couldn't there be a similar thing going on with beta carotene or bixin from natural vs. synthetic sources?

Not that I'm saying that you're wrong about (1) people's naivete or (2) corporate manipulation of perceptions! I just want to be sure I'm not throwing the natural baby out with the bathwater when I go buy my synthetic beta carotene tomorrow.

'Pockets--I did mean the chickens. And, yes, The problem with most beef is antibiotics.

My rule of thumb (from a NYT magazine article): Don't eat anything your grandmother wouldn't recognize. She died in 1972 at the age of 90, so that includes plenty.

For anyone who cares about food chemistry and the effect of cooking and procesing, the classic is "On Food and Cooking" by Harold McGee. Well worth it. I think there are 50 pages on chocolate alone.

EP, Thanks again for the response. I'm aware of the history of the corporate anti-science movement. In my opinion the only correct argument against the bullshit which comes from these lie factories is to point out that anyone who works for the tobacco companies is going to get paid only in proportion to how his results help the tobacco companies.
You can't get bogged down arguing the details of the "science", because you'll never get out. But again, better education helps people have a sense of how science works.
Another specific point: one thing that really floors me when talking to Republican types, or the oil engineer (smart guy) who doesn't believe in global warming---clearly for social reasons---is that if you look at human history, the norm is for civilizations to have a collaplse, often because of an ecological problem. I think the default position of any rational person is that on its current course, humanity is headed for a crash in which the population of the earth will be reduced to a fraction of its current level. I can't tell you the mechanism, but I know that humans will always overutilize resources. Global warming is a pollution issue, and there is a long history of people ignoring pollution until it kills. In the case of global warming, this may be too late.
Look at airplane travel for a very small example. As a human benefit, there's hardly anything in the modern world that compares in value to the ability to visit anyone you know with just a few hours of travel. It's really wonderful. And yet, the resource-intensity of flying is astronomical---or at least aeronautical.
Almost no one is going to reduce their flying hours to help save the environment, and anyway it only matters if there is a consensus to do so. The car is another good example, except that its much easier to plan cities so that people can get around without cars. The only solutions to energy/environment problems will be imposed from the top down; the trick is to formulate policies that people can live with, and generate the public will to support the policies once they are made

I love this paragraph from an organic foods site, talking about cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cabbage:

Booming with vitamins including vitamin C and folate, minerals including potassium and selenium, and also contain fiber, chlorophyll, as well as antioxidants, flavonoids and phytochemicals, carotenoids, lingnans, phytosterols, isothiocyanates, sulforaphane and glucosinolates (the sulfur compound that makes these veggies zing), and indole-3-carbinol, these are nutritious super foods!

How about some truth in advertising laws here -- I think all broccoli should be sold with ingredients labels showing "phytosterols, isothiocyanates, sulforaphane, glucosinolates, and indole-3-carbinol".

Good organic chemicals!


You can see links to several Splenda studies on this page. All peer-reviewed journals.


Hope it's helpful.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Where We Met

Blog powered by Typepad