Episode 90: “Resonance: Beings of Frequency”

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Gem, Ashlyn, Ian, and Laura discuss some terrible films (and one that’s pretty good), including “Resonance: Beings of Frequency”, a YouTube film that rivals “Thrive” in the contest for most misleading documentary.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism that is produced by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Links: Resonance: Beings of Frequency | Schumann resonances (Wikipedia) | Alpha wave (Wikipedia) | Electroencephalography (Wikipedia) | Electromagnetic fields and public health (WHO) | WiFi and Cell Phones: Should You Really Be Worried? (The Winnipeg Skeptics) | Investigation of Anti-WiFi Activism in Canada (Bad Science Watch) | Bees, CCD, and Cell phones: Still no Link. (Bug Girl’s Blog) | Guest Post: Honey bees, CCD, and the Elephant in the Room (Bug Girl’s Blog) | The Coming Beepocalypse (Bug Girl’s Blog) | SkeptiCamp Winnipeg: Self-Proclaimed Diet Gurus and the Shams They Peddle (The Winnipeg Skeptics) | An Honest Liar (2014) (IMDb) | Hungry for Change (2012) (IMDb) | Left Behind (2014) (IMDb)

Contact Us: Facebook | Twitter | Email

Listen: Direct Link | iTunes | Stitcher | RSS Feed

SkeptiCamp Winnipeg: Self-Proclaimed Diet Gurus and the Shams They Peddle

Image of Dr. Oz via CNN.
Image of Dr. Oz via CNN.
Embedded below is Laura Creek Newman’s talk from SkeptiCamp Winnipeg 2014. Laura is a Registered Dietitian and lover of all things edible. Her skeptical focus is on empowering patients and society to make healthy, informed choices and rid the world of dubious nutritional advice.

SkeptiCamp Winnipeg is a conference for the sharing of ideas. It is free and open to the public: anyone can attend and participate! Presentations and discussions focus on science and free inquiry, and the audience is encouraged to challenge presenters to defend their ideas. You can visit our SkeptiCamp page for information about upcoming events and links to past SkeptiCamp talks.

SkeptiCamp is on Saturday!

This marks the Winnipeg Skeptics’ fifth annual SkeptiCamp conference!

SkeptiCamp Winnipeg is all about sharing ideas. Anyone and everyone is welcome to attend and participate, and best of all, it’s free! Presentations and discussions focus on science and critical thinking, and the audience is encouraged to challenge presenters to defend their ideas.

SkeptiCamp Winnipeg 2013

Date: 27 September 2014
Time: 12:00–5:00 pm
Venue: St. Boniface Library, 100-131 Provencher Boulevard

No registration required. All are welcome!

SkeptiCamp Winnipeg 2013

In addition to our usual presentations, this year we will be recording a live episode of the Life, the Universe & Everything Else podcast. There will also be a bake sale and coffee and tea available. (All proceeds go to pay for Winnipeg Skeptics costs, such as website hosting, Meetup fees, and event bookings.)

Here are some of the presentations you can look forward to!

Presentations

Time Talk Speaker
12:00 Life, the Universe & Everything Else Live!
Logical Fallacies Round Table
Ashlyn Noble, Gem Newman, Lauren Bailey
1:30 Short Break
1:40 Did 9/11 Change Everything?
A Brief History of Terrorism
Brendan Curran-Johnson
2:10 Mediums Sharene Gilchrist
2:40 Species and Speciation:
Fun with Fish and Other Animals
Erin Spice
3:10 Victim Blaming Gaz Black
3:40 The Politics of Ebola Lauren Bailey
4:10 Self-proclaimed Diet Gurus and the Shams They Peddle Laura Creek Newman

Please note that our Community Guidelines and Anti-Harassment Policy are in effect at every Winnipeg Skeptics event.

There’s Nothing Sinister Lurking in That Baby Formula

This is a guest post by Laura Creek Newman, RD, critically examining health claims about infant formula made by Meghan Telpner, “Nutritionista”, in her recent article What’s Lurking In That Baby Formula?


I am going to preface this with my background. I am a registered dietitian practicing for four years, largely in all areas of adult health. I am not an infant feeding expert, though I have recently been working in pediatrics and did have significant and evidence-based training in the area through my schooling and internship. I am also a mom of a 17-month-old; a mom who breastfed exclusively for six month and continued past a year. I am also a mom who had trouble breastfeeding and could not pump enough to bottle feed once I went back to work. I’m a mom who used formula. From my training and my own experiences feeding my daughter I do not belong to any particular camp: I believe breast is great when you can, but ultimately a baby needs to eat and baby formulas are the next best thing.

Photo by Alicia Voorhies, CC BY-ND 2.0
Photo by Alicia Voorhies, CC BY-ND 2.0

First off, I want to clarify something: genetically modified organisms (or GMOs) are everywhere. They are the bread we buy, the animals we eat, the vegetables I planted in my garden. All of them. No, I don’t work for Monsanto. Pretty much every food crop humans have cultivated since humans learned to cultivate crops is genetically modified. This is due to selective breeding at the hands of skilled farmers or gardeners who cross-bred different plants or animals to create new varieties. They breed together organisms that have the same desirable characteristics for many generations until they reliably get a new strain of that organism. For example, say you have red petunias and white petunias, but you want pink. One would breed the red and white together; if some flowers come out pink, you would take those and breed them together, but you wouldn’t breed them with the flowers that turned out white or red. Over time, one will get more and more pink flowers until they’re all pink. And voila! You’ve created a new strain of pink petunia. You can thank these millennia-old techniques for helping produce strawberries, bananas, and the dozens of varieties of peppers and heirloom tomatoes we happily devour today. Our rapid technological advances in the last half century, particularly decoding the genomes of many organisms, have allowed us to speed up this process by picking out and only planting seeds that carry the desired genetic traits while leaving the rest. We have also been able to modify some of the traits in the lab to improve disease resistance, remove toxic substances, and improve the nutritional profile of foods. It is this latter part that has some people scared of “frankenfoods”. Would these plants “naturally” have genes that make them super-resistant to drought, for example? Perhaps not. The important question to ask is: does this change in the genetic structure make the food unsafe? (The answer is no). This article gives a good overview of the subject. Whether you choose “organic” or not, your food definitely has been genetically modified somewhere through its history before arriving on your plate.

This brings me back to the article at hand. It is listed under the category “healthwashing” on the website. The author posits that most of the ingredients in conventional baby formulas, even many organic baby formulas, are unhealthy, thus making these products unfit for baby. While formula companies have used (and may still use) unethical marketing practices, this does not comment on the safety of their products. Infant formulas are some of the most heavily regulated and monitored food products (source, source) in the United States (similarly in Canada). There are several erroneous and potentially harmful comments made in this article and I would like to address them.

Human breast milk is our best way to understand an infant’s nutritional needs. Breast milk contains about 42% carbohydrate as lactose (milk sugar), 50% fat (as a mixture of fatty acids, mainly palmitic acid), and about 7% protein with 67 kcal/100 mL (source: Krause’s Food, Nutrition, and Diet Therapy 11th Edition, Mahan, L.K. & Escott-Stump, S., 2004, 8:221). From this, we assume that this is what infants require to grow properly, so infant formulas are designed to mimic as closely as possible this nutrient profile. In contrast, cow’s milk contains 30% carbohydrate, 50% fat, and 20% protein, and also has 67 kcal/100 mL (ibid.); soy milk contains 21% carbohydrates, 44% fat, and 35% protein with 33 kcal/100 mL (source). Cow’s milk is chosen as the primary base for infant formulas due to its similar nutrient and caloric profile to human milk. However, it requires processing and additional ingredients (particularly carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals) to make it safe and appropriate for human babies.

The author first highlights an ingredient list for a soy-based formula from Similac: the author notes the first ingredient is corn syrup solids, the second is “genetically modified protein”.

This infant formula contains 42.6% corn syrup solids, followed by genetically modified protein. You wouldn’t eat that. If you can choose another option, choose another option!

It is unclear if the protein is in fact genetically modified, but as demonstrated above, this is likely not a safety issue. Soy protein isolate is protein extracted from soy meal that is 90% pure: this means that it is at least 90% soy protein with very little fat and carbohydrate. Infants do not require as much protein as adults and too much can be detrimental, so formula manufacturers use this product to most accurately control the proportion of protein in the final product. As for corn syrup solids, they “are defined by the FDA as dried glucose syrup (in which the reducing sugar content is 20 DE or higher. Corn syrup solids are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) as direct human food ingredients at levels consistent with current good manufacturing practices (21 CFR 184.1865).” (Source.) In essence, it is dehydrated corn syrup where the sugars are glucose and short glucose chains. It has a relatively low sweetness level compared to sucrose (corn syrup solids: 23–28, sucrose: 100). By comparison, lactose (milk sugar) has a sweetness level of about 16 (source), so corn syrup solids are slightly sweeter but comparable. Some type of sugar (short molecules) is needed for the carbohydrate source as it is harder for babies to digest starches (large molecules) and they get the energy too slowly, which can slow down their growth. As this example is of a soy-based formula, the manufacturer has to use a plant-based carbohydrate instead of lactose to make it appropriate for babies with lactose intolerance, galactosemia, and vegan/vegetarian babies*. As for the author’s comment “you wouldn’t eat that”, well, the reader probably wouldn’t eat/drink many things that an infant would, including any infant formula or breast milk. What one adult may or may not eat or find appealing is entirely subjective and not a useful commentary on infant nutritional products.

The second formula discussed by the author is Nestle Good Start, a standard infant formula and industry leader. The comments are as follows:

Partially hydrolized whey protein: Whey protein comes from cow’s milk, which is one of the most common food allergies in children. Allergic reactions can include diarrhea, hives and swelling of the lips.

See above for why cow’s milk is used as the base for most infant formula. It is true that it is the most common allergen among children, however, it is also one of the most likely allergies to be outgrown by the child’s fifth birthday, unlike peanuts, tree nuts, and shellfish, which also make the list.

Corn maltodextrin: Corn maltodextrin is a food additive often found in snack foods like chips and crackers. Given that 80% of corn grown in Canada is genetically modified, it’s safe to assume that this cheap food additive comes from GMO corn and not the organic kind. It’s also a sweetener.

See above for the issues around GMO foods; there is no evidence to show that GMO-derived ingredients are hazardous to health. Organic maltodextrins are also available. Maltodextrins are short-to-medium starch molecules (up to 20 glucose molecules per chain) made by a similar process to corn syrup solids (source, source). The sweetness varies from no sweetness to mildly sweet; the relative sweetness factor ranges from 6–21 (recall that the sweetness of lactose is 16). For this reason, maltodextrins are not primarily sweeteners and may not impart any sweet taste to a food at all. The primary characteristics of maltodextrins are: high solubility, easy and rapid digestibility (high glycemic index), low sweetness, provision of smooth and full texture to foods (source, source). The author is correct that this ingredient is heavily used in many processed foods, particularly in the “snack foods and beverages” category. She is also correct that this is a “cheap” (inexpensive) ingredient. However, as the skeptics’ mantra states: correlation does not equal causation; the presence of this ingredient in a snack food does not demonize that single ingredient. In the same vein, if water, bananas, or organic rolled oats appear as ingredients in a “junk” food, it does not mean that any of those things are inherently bad or unhealthy. Maltodextrins have found their way into baby formula for several reasons. First, they are inexpensive, and it would be naïve to deny that food manufacturing companies are not continuously looking for lower cost ingredients. Second, and most importantly, the aforementioned characteristics of these starches are very desirable for a baby formula. Their high solubility means that powdered formula will dissolve easily and fully without lumps; this makes it easier and tastier for a baby to drink. The fast and easy digestion is easier on a baby’s developing intestines than regular starches and gives baby the quick energy he or she needs. The low sweetness factor makes the formula taste more like breast milk and helps avoid getting babies hooked on the really sweet flavour that comes from other sweeteners like honey, maltose, and sugar.

Soybean oil: Soybean oil is cheap, which means it’s found in virtually all processed foods. Like corn, unless otherwise noted, it most likely comes from GMO sources. It’s a highly unstable oil, so food manufacturers partially hydrogenate it to raise the melting point and stabilize it so it won’t turn rancid. The result? An altered chemical structure and, in many cases, trans fats.

Again, see above for safety concerns around GMO foods. The author is correct again in noting that, like corn and corn-based ingredients, soy is an inexpensive ingredient, and likely the cheapest source of fat available (partially due to high subsidies to producers). Historically, soybean oil was hydrogenated to make it more stable, and this had the negative side effect of increasing trans-fats (which are known to increase LDL cholesterol, decrease HDL cholesterol, and increase risk for cardiovascular disease). Since label reporting of trans-fats in foods and ingredients became mandatory in 2006, food producers have generally moved to breeding low linolenic acid varieties of soy that produce a more stable oil without hydrogenation (source, source). Further to this, hydrogenated oils are not allowed to be used in infant formulas 14. Similarly to breast milk, infant formula does contain a small amount of trans-fat (around 2–3%; source, source) but a large portion of this is naturally occurring from cow’s milk (gut microbes in cows produce a small amount of trans-fat during digestion that is passed on to cow’s milk). Thus, it is unlikely that infant formulas contain much, if any, commercially hydrogenated trans-fats.

Palm olein: Research has shown that babies can’t properly digest palm oil — in fact, it reacts with calcium, causing the formation of “soaps” in the baby’s intestines, leading to hard stools and lowered bone mass.

Palm olein is a fat that is high in palmitic acid as well as a source of oleic acid (source). It is often used to mimic the fat profile of human milk, of which the primary fat is also palmitic acid. Here the author’s concerns regarding the addition of palm-based fats to infant formulas are not entirely unfounded. There is some controversy over the use of this ingredient as several published studies (source, source, source) have demonstrated lower fat absorption and lower bone mineral density in infants up to 6 months of age who are fed palm olein-containing formula compared to peers not fed this formula. On the flip side, several other studies note that these differences are still within normal range for normal term infants (source, source) and that these differences likely do not persist once infants start solids and/or become toddlers (source), source). In a nutshell, some differences may exist, but they do not appear to affect a child’s long-term bone mass.

High oleic safflower oil or high oleic sunflower oil: Safflower/sunflower oils are extremely common in packaged foods (read: cheap) are very high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. If these oils are harmful for adults, why would we feed them to babies just after birth?

Similarly to palm olein, high oleic sunflower/safflower oils are added to formula to provide oleic acid, a mono-unsaturated fatty acid present in human milk. Standard versions of these oils are high in omega-6 fatty acids which can be pro-inflammatory and may have an impact on health (though this is generally in context of inadequate omega-3 fatty acid intake, combined with excessive calorie consumption, etc). The high oleic versions are actually quite low in omega-6 fatty acids; 100 mL of standard oil contains 65.7 g poly-unsaturated fat (mostly omega-6), while the high oleic version contains 3.8 g poly-unsaturates per 100 mL (source). The author’s argument here is void. Finally, I would like to return to my much earlier statement that there are many things that adults would not care to ingest, but that does not necessarily make them unsafe for infants.

Choosing the right milk/formula for one’s infant can be stressful and challenging as all parents, including myself, want to do right by our kids and give them the best possible start to life. I do believe that breast milk is fantastic and should be treated as the first choice; I applaud people who go to great lengths to try to give their infants breast milk (through lactation consultants, medications, or milk donors) but these options can be stressful, terribly time consuming, and often expensive, and milk donors are frequently unavailable in most parts of the country. Given this, there are so many reasons why parents may need and/or want to use formula. When it comes to making decisions about infant nutrition, make sure you are consulting qualified sources, including registered dietitians practicing in the area of pediatrics, pediatricians, and infant feeding experts (hint: look for an MD, RD, RN and/or PhD behind the person’s name; if it’s not there, be wary). Infant nutrition is a totally different ball-game from adult nutrition so you want to make sure your sources are truly informed in this area; please exercise caution when taking advice from articles like the one I have referenced.

The infant formulas available today in Canada are safe and proven to produce healthy babies. There is no “healthwashing” about it, and do not let an unqualified person convince you otherwise.


* It should be noted that in cases of cow’s milk protein allergy, soy formulas are not recommended as a standard formula replacement due to the high rate of soy allergy among cow’s milk allergic children. Instead, extensively hydrolyzed cow’s milk formulas (where the protein is highly broken down to the point where it no longer produces allergy symptoms) are recommended.


Sources:

  1. http://www.popsci.com/article/science/core-truths-10-common-gmo-claims-debunked
  2. http://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/Transparency/Basics/ucm336546.htm
  3. http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm048694.htm
  4. Krause’s Food, Nutrition, and Diet Therapy 11th Edition, Mahan, L.K. & Escott-Stump, S., 2004, 8:221
  5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soy_milk#Health_and_nutrition
  6. http://www.grainprocessing.com/food/maltodextrins-corn-syrup-solids.html
  7. http://owlsoft.com/pdf_docs/WhitePaper/Rel_Sweet.pdf
  8. http://www.althealth.co.uk/help-and-advice/nutrition/maltodextrin/
  9. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maltodextrin
  10. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agricultural_subsidy#United_States
  11. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans_fat#Health_risks
  12. http://extension.agron.iastate.edu/soybean/uses_lowlinsoy.htm
  13. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soybean_oil
  14. http://www.codexalimentarius.org/input/download/standards/288/CXS_072e.pdf
  15. http://www.issfal.org/statements/pufa-recommendations/statement-2
  16. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16582027
  17. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12728082
  18. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9710840
  19. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15342879
  20. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/106/6/1355.abstract
  21. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15990636
  22. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunflower_oil

Health Freedom and Food Intolerance Testing

I’ve talked about IgG testing previously, but in case you need a refresher, an IgG test is a blood test that proposes to improve your health by identifing food “intolerances” (not necessarily allergies). I’ll leave the rest of the primer to Scott Gavura, a Canadian pharmacist who writes for both Skeptic North and Science Based Medicine:

IgG blood tests like Hemocode and YorkTest are clinically useless for diagnosing food intolerances, yet pharmacies imply otherwise. These tests claim to identify sensitivity to hundreds of products – yet not one has been validated. That’s because there no proven correlation between positive results on an IgG blood test and a true food intolerance. Not only are these tests use to shape dietary modification, they’re also used to sell supplements – another unproven use of IgG testing. Yet despite recent cautions against this testing, it continues to be offered.

A host of professional organisations including the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy, the British Dietetic Association, and many more have all recommended that consumers avoid using these tests to diagnose allergies or intolerances, because the evidence just isn’t there.

IgG

In response to my previous post about Dr. Elaine Chin’s scientifically bankrupt endorsement of IgG testing, a reader going by the pseudonym “Still Searching” had this to say:

Many people suffer from chronic conditions that traditional medical practitioners have been unable to alleviate. [Although] the relationship between chronic health conditions and IgG response and use of IgG test results may not be proven, there is a significant amount of anecdotal evidence of dramatic improvements in health through use of elimination diets and similar. Should we wait decades for medical proof before investing $200 in a simple test that might lead to a change in diet that might significantly reduce chronic depression? Pharmaceutical companies will gladly invest the millions of dollars to fund scientific studies because they stand to make 100′s of millions of dollars in profits from successfully patented drugs. Who is going to fund expensive scientific studies that result in reduced drug use and changes in diet? Such studies will come slowly. Meantime, I think this is a small investment, with much better odds than, say, continuing to seek advice from doctors who have been unable to help for years. It’s important to know this testing is unproven, but we all need to inform ourselves before choosing any course of treatment, and make our own informed choices.

While I’m sympathetic to some of the sentiments that this person has expressed (and I certainly appreciate the courteous and thoughtful manner in which it was done—it’s a rarity hereabouts), I do not share the commenter’s apparent optimism that the results of IgG tests are at all useful in determining intolerance to foods, for reasons that I think are quite clear by now.

Should we wait decades for medical proof before investing $200 in a simple test that might lead to a change in diet that might significantly reduce chronic depression?

The $200 is a reference to the fact that another commenter mentioned that he or she wasted that much money on an IgG test that proved worthless. For many people, $200 is rather a lot to pay, but potentially worse is the fact that any given IgG test is sure to prompt the customer to eliminate certain foods from their diet, probably unnecessarily, which is a major inconvenience at the very least.

And a change in diet might significantly reduce chronic depression? Well, whether it’s worth the $200 depends on how likely it is that you’d see an improvement. And for that, we want to see clinical data. If you disagree, I have a rock for sale that may interest you: it might prevent tiger attacks.

Pharmaceutical companies will gladly invest the millions of dollars to fund scientific studies because they stand to make 100’s of millions of dollars in profits from successfully patented drugs. Who is going to fund expensive scientific studies that result in reduced drug use and changes in diet? Such studies will come slowly.

They’re certainly not going to bother funding such studies when they realise that they can just sell the service to people whether it works or not. That’s why so many companies that sell nutritional supplements are owned by major pharmaceutical corporations: because of the way the these products are regulated (hint: very, very poorly), they don’t have to invest the research dollars before they turn a profit. (Alacer Corporation, the manufacturer of “Emergen-C”, is owned by Pfizer for example.) Which brings up another point: While patented drugs are great for the bottom line, you can still turn a tidy profit on something that is not patentable (or whose patent has expired). Vitamins and supplements aside, Aspirin still makes quite a lot of money for Bayer, despite the fact that Bayer’s patent on acetylsalicylic acid expired 96 years ago.

I find it troubling that while this commenter is quick to point out the profit motive of major pharmaceutical companies, he or she seems to ignore the fact that the companies who provide these testing services are making boatloads of cash from selling these tests, all without bothering to do all of that pesky science to make sure they actually work.

Because the relationship between chronic health conditions and IgG response and use of IgG test results may not be proven, there is a significant amount of anecdotal evidence of dramatic improvements in health through use of elimination diets and similar.

I’m curious as to why this person is so quick to dismiss the many professional associations in relevant medical and nutritional fields (those qualified to assess the state of the evidence) that have determined that IgG tests are worthless. More details are provided by Scott Gavura over at Science Based Medicine.

As for there being “significant anecdotal evidence” for the efficacy of IgG tests, I’ll simply point out that there also seems to be “significant anecdotal evidence” against the efficacy of IgG tests. (Not to mention actual, non-anecdotal evidence to that effect.) While anecdotes are certainly useful in pointing research in new and potentially fruitful directions, they are not in and of themselves especially useful in determining efficacy.

When you get right down to it, this is an argument about health freedom and informed consent, but everyone isn’t going to be well-informed on every topic all the time. For this reason, I’m of the opinion that health products should be subjected to robust regulation, with emphasis placed on both safety and efficacy (and without dubious exemptions for products marketed as “natural”). There will always be Kevin Trudeaus* and Leonard Coldwells trying to sell nonsense disguised as medicine, and we should be trying to make it as difficult as possible for them to do it.

It’s important to know this testing is unproven, but we all need to inform ourselves before choosing any course of treatment, and make our own informed choices.

I could not agree more.


* Or would the proper plural of “Kevin Trudeau” be “Kevin Trudeaux”? Perhaps “Kevins Trudeau”?

SkeptiCamp Winnipeg 2012: Do This, Lose Weight (Fast)

On Saturday, 29 September 2012, the Winnipeg Skeptics held their third annual SkeptiCamp event. SkeptiCamp Winnipeg is a conference for the sharing of ideas. It is free and open to the public: anyone can attend and participate! Presentations and discussions focus on science and free inquiry, and the audience is encouraged to challenge presenters to defend their ideas.

Laura Creek Newman is a registered dietitian in Winnipeg who has a passion for everything involving food and nutrition. Her favourite skeptical topics are health, wellness, and the latest “miracle foods”. She is an active member of the Winnipeg Skeptics with a particular interest in building community ties through volunteering events.

SkeptiCamp is an open conference celebrating science and critical thinking. For more information please visit SkeptiCamp.org.

Episode 38: Nutritional Myths and Misconceptions

Episode 38: Nutritional Myths and Misconceptions

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Laura Creek Newman and Richelle McCullough discuss myths related to diet and nutrition with Gem Newman.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Links: Skepticon | End of the World Party (Facebook Event, Meetup Event) | Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar | Nutrient | Vitamin | Linus Pauling | Food Guides (Canada’s Food Guide, Harvard’s Healthy Eating Pyramid, Vegetarian Diet Pyramid) | Dr. Oz Recommends Coconut Sugar | n–3 Fatty Acids and Cardiovascular Events after Myocardial Infarction | John “Cat’s Eyes” Cunningham (BBC News, eHow)

Contact Us: Facebook | Twitter | Email

Listen: Direct Link | iTunes | RSS Feed

The Dangerous Truth Behind Cooked Food

Brevity is not one of my strengths. For this reason, what often begins as a minor correction or a response to a question in the comments section often becomes its own blog post (the character limits imposed by various blogging platforms also plays a role).

This is a follow-up to a post from several months ago, in which I discuss the shortcomings of an article from the hilarious TruthTheory.com: The Not-So-Dangerous Truth Behind Microwaves. Here, I respond to some criticism that I received.

This blog is no more an authority than the ones you mocked.

Excellent.

Seriously, that’s great! I’m just some beardy dude who likes science and occasionally has the opportunity to do science, but my specialty is in artificial intelligence (although recently I’ve been helping out with research in robotics and psychology). I make no claim to either authority (something that’s pretty much worthless in matters of science) or expertise (something that’s a little more relevant) in this (or any) subject. I’m trying to instill in people an appreciation for science and critical thinking generally. If you think that I want people to consider me an authority on matters scientific in any domain, either I’m not getting a properly skeptical message across (certainly debatable) or you’re not paying attention.

Firstly, lets define “harmful”: carcinogens are harmful…

Granted.

…as well as, destroying phytonutrients that the body needs to sustain itself and strengthen defenses.

I do not grant that the reduction of phytochemicals in food is harmful. Stipulating that the compounds in question are healthful, it does not stand to reason that reducing the phytochemical content of a given food is harmful unless it is also established that the subject has a deficiency.

To illustrate by example: I would not consider a carton of pasteurized orange juice to be “harmful” (although its high sugar content may be problemmatic for some), despite the fact that the pasteurization process destroys much of the vitamin C content in the juice (and not all manufacterers add supplemental vitamin C to their juices)—unless, of course, the person consuming the product were deficient in vitamin C and counting on the orange juice in this regard.

Returning to the point about carcinogenicity, I’ll remind the commenter that many common methods of cooking are implicated as cancer-causing, to some degree or other, including pan-frying, grilling, or barbecuing meat (source), smoking meats, roasting coffee beans, or even cooking with vegetable oils (source), or simply heating carbohydrate-rich food by means other than boiling (source).

This is complicated by the fact that several foods contain both compounds found to be carcinogenic and anticarcinogenic compounds.

What’s worse, these phenomena are much better established both epidemeologically and from a basic science standpoint than the carcinogenicity of some microwaved foods. So why the outcry over microwaves? If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say it’s because they’re scary and new and complicated, and people tend to distrust things that they don’t understand. Luckily, I’m under no obligation to hazard such a guess, so I won’t.

Name the evidence that would be good enough to convince you there is “proof”?

The word “proof” is in scare quotes, as though to imply I’m asking for proof. I’m not. Science doesn’t deal in “proofs”: it deals in evidence, and no level of evidence constitutes “proof” in any sense but the colloquial.

But here’s what I think would qualify as good evidence that microwaved foods are harmfully carcinogenic (for example): Replicable (and replicated), peer-reviewed studies establishing from a basic science standpoint that carcinogenic compounds are formed in foods heated or cooked in microwave ovens (and that these compounds are not formed in foods heated by other conventional methods), followed by epidemiological studies showing both statistically and clinically significant correlations between microwave use and cancer incidence.

That’s a lot to ask for, of course, but I’d be happy to give my provisional assent to the proposition if it looks like a consensus is forming in the literature. It would also help if the IARC recognised microwaved foodstuffs as even potentially carcinogenic (Group 2B); but, as it stands, microwaved foods don’t even make the list of things that the IARC can’t rule out.

Is it possible that some foods are less nutritious when microwaved? Of course! I’d say that it’s likely! But the same could be said for boiling, for frying, or for just about any other method of cooking, depending on the food.

Is it possible that some foods are carcinogenic when microwaved? Again, of course! But let’s look at the specifics, and let’s not forget (while we make sweeping generalizations), that the same is also already well established for many popular methods of cooking.

Do these admissions run contrary to my previous article on the safety of microwaves? Hardly. Even if it were (somehow) conclusively “proven” that microwaved food was harmful, that would not make the article I was critiquing “true” in any meaningful sense!

As I’ve said several times now, my problem with the original article had nothing to do with its conclusions and everything to do with the fact that it put ideology first and evidence second. It was horrendously sourced, made sweeping generalizations, got the basic science wrong, and cited as sources sites that were (to put it very mildly) disreputable and dishonest.

IgG and “Food Sensitivities”

Cross-posted from Startled Disbelief.

A physician of my acquaintance recently brought this article to my attention. Written by Elaine Chin, a Toronto GP “with a holistic approach to health and wellness management”, it responds to a Globe and Mail article entitled “Tests for food allergies, sensitivities a ‘waste of money,’ doctor says”.

The Globe and Mail article is a good one, and I recommend that you read it, but I’ll summarize it for you here: Naturopaths and other “alternative” medical practitioners are sending their patients to be tested for immunoglobulin G, and suggesting extremely restricted diets based on the results of these tests. But according to allergist Dr. Elana Lavine, these practitioners haven’t established that IgG is indicative of food allergy or sensitivity of any sort: a positive test may be indicative of nothing more than repeated exposure to the food in question, which may mean that your favourite foods are more likely to find themselves on your stomach’s No Fly list.

My wife, who is a dietitian, has been seeing increasing numbers of patients come in with IgG panels, often showing “sensitivities” to just about every dietary staple. She also noted that at least one of the labs that sells IgG testing to the public describes immunoglobulin G as a “cell”, which is a disturbingly elementary error: immunoglobulins are proteins. For more background on IgG testing, I recommend this article by Scott Gavura of Science-Based Pharmacy.

But back to Dr. Chin, who was evidently unimpressed with the Globe and Mail article. On her blog, she writes:

Many of my professional colleagues have a contrasting position. Dr. Shelley Burns (a naturopathic doctor) and I use food testing to detect allergies, intolerances, sensitivities in our practice. We believe that such testing should be done under the supervision of professionals who understand the appropriate use of and know how to interpret the report. As well, the results are critically dependent on the source of lab testing. Only 3 labs in North America have been shown to have reliable and reproducible results – one of them is Rocky Mountain Analytical and their lab partner, US Biotek.

Dr. Chin works with a naturopath. I see.

I have along with Dr. Burns completed more than 100 Food IgG, IgE, and IgA tests in our practices for at least 5 years. I’m not at all certain that Dr. Lavine has worked with these tests and yet she is weighing in.

That’s right: Dr. Lavine, an allergy specialist, may have the necessary medical expertise, but does she have the appropriate personal experience? I think not!

I would also like to note that IgG, IgE, and IgA tests are not at all the same thing, and lumping them all together like that (especially when the article Dr. Chin is discussing was critical of only IgG testing) is indicative of sloppiness unbecoming a physician. Immunoglobulin E is closely associated with type I hypersensitivity (allergy), while immunoglobulin A has been linked to celiac disease.

By contrast, here’s what the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology has to say about IgG testing: “IgG and IgG subclass antibody tests for food allergy do not have clinical relevance, are not validated, lack sufficient quality control, and should not be performed.”

The Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy adds:

There is no credible evidence that measuring IgG antibodies is useful for diagnosing food allergy or intolerance, nor that IgG antibodies cause symptoms. In fact, IgG antibodies reflect exposure to allergen but not the presence of disease. The exception is that gliadin IgG antibodies are sometimes useful in monitoring adherence to a gluten-free diet patients with histologically confirmed coeliac disease. Otherwise, inappropriate use of food allergy testing (or misinterpretation of results) in patients with inhalant allergy, for example, may lead to inappropriate and unnecessary dietary restrictions, with particular nutritional implications in children. Despite studies showing the uselessness of this technique, it continues to be promoted in the community, even for diagnosing disorders for which no evidence of immune system involvement exists. [Emphasis added.]

Back to Chin:

I would be willing at any time to challenge my colleague Dr. Lavine as to our experience with a series of case studies where the testing results have in fact made a difference and reduced the chronic symptoms of migraines, irritable bowel syndrome and asthma.

Case studies to demonstrate efficacy? Really? You wouldn’t want to, I don’t know, use any sort of controls or blinding or anything?

The first two cases to be reviewed will begin with my son and me.

You have got to be kidding. Remind me again: When conducting medical research, are we trying to maximize researcher bias, or eliminate it? Because I’ve lost all confidence that Dr. Chin even knows what bias is.

And then, there are dozens of my clients and their children whose lives have improved as a result of their testing and subsequent appropriate dietary changes.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc. It’s a good thing that there are no well-documented medical effects that may cause inert interventions to be confused for effective ones.

In fact, what is a waste of money are tons and tons of imaging tests which do not diagnose the cause of irritable bowel, the chronic use of steroids medications for unknown triggers for asthma (creating issues such as bone thinning), and loss of work productivity hours due to migraines.

And here is my warning to my physician colleagues. Before you comment in our medical journal, take the time to use the test before providing a professional opinion. Do your homework and due diligence as a scientist. I have done so.

Sure. Because “due diligence” means trying the test for yourself, rather than reviewing the medical literature and the best available scientific evidence. I’m honestly surprised that Dr. Chin didn’t make the “you’re just closed minded” gambit.

This article is almost a parody of itself.

There are legitimate allergies (and other hypersensitivities) that may require extremely restricted diets, and for those experiencing chronic symptoms of unknown origin it can be very heartening to think that they may have found the cause. But don’t waste hundreds of dollars on these tests and turn your diet on its head until IgG proponents have demonstrated that the results of these tests are medically useful.


Addendum: The fine folks at Bad Science Watch have pointed out a few other links of note.

First, the British Dietetic Association does not recommend IgG tests for food intolerance, based on the dearth of evidence:

This blood test looks at IgG antibodies present in the blood. It’s claimed that an increase in IgG to a certain food indicates an intolerance to that food. At present there is no convincing evidence to support this test, and it’s not recommended as a diagnostic tool.

Second, you can find an in-depth discussion of food intolerance (and IgG in specific) in the January 2008 issue of Today’s Dietitian.

Episode 19: The “Obesity Epidemic”

Episode 19: The “Obesity Epidemic”

Life, the Universe & Everything ElseIn this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Laura Targownik, Richelle McCullough, Laura Creek Newman, and Donna Harris discuss the rise in obesity rates and the links between weight and health.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Links: Are Your Kids’ Snacks Full of Fruit or Sugar? | Vaccine to Prevent Heart Attacks (Vancouver Sun, European Society of Cardiology) | Obesity in Canada: Snapshot | Making the Case for Primary Prevention: An Economic Analysis of Risk Factors in Manitoba | Bariatric Surgery versus Intensive Medical Therapy in Obese Patients with Diabetes (NEJM) | Bariatric Surgery versus Conventional Medical Therapy for Type 2 Diabetes (NEJM) | Etiology and Natural History of Obesity* | Overview of Therapy for Obesity in Adults* | Definition, Epidemiology, and Etiology of Obesity in Children and Adolescents*

* Requires a subscription to UpToDate.com for full access.

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