Episode 116: Risk

On this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Ashlyn, Laura, Gem, and Lauren talk about how bad we are at assessing risk. Also on this episode: Do we get more risk averse as we get older? Is margarine going to kill you, or will a hippopotamus get you first? Will the world end not with a bang but a Boolean?

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

Note: Music featured in this episode include samples from “Death from the Skies” by George Hrab (featuring Phil Plait), “Paranoid Android” by Radiohead, and “Binnorie” by Mediæval Bæbes.

Links: Relative risk (Wikipedia) | Spreading disease or spreading deliciousness: the butter vs. margarine debate rages on (dietitian at home) | Global catastrophic risk (Wikipedia) | Death from the Skies! (Wikipedia) | Holocene extinction (Wikipedia) | Existential risk from artificial general intelligence (Wikipedia) | AI Risk Analysts are the Biggest Risk (Singularity Weblog) | There is a blind spot in AI research (Nature News) | Program good ethics into artificial intelligence (Nature News & Comment ) | TRC #429.5: Programming Ethics Into AI (The Reality Check) | Potential Risks from Advanced Artificial Intelligence: The Philanthropic Opportunity (Open Philanthropy Project ) | If Aliens Exist, They May Come to Get Us, Stephen Hawking Says (Space.com) | Risk Preferences and Aging: The “Certainty Effect” in Older Adults’ Decision Making (Journal of Psychology and Aging) | Differences in risk aversion between young and older adults (NAN) | Differences in Risk Aversion between Young and Older Adults (Neuroscience and Neuroeconomics) | Aging and loss decision making: increased risk aversion and decreased use of maximizing information, with correlated rationality and value maximization | It is surprisingly rare for an alligator to kill a person (BBC Earth) | Chart: The animals that are most likely to kill you this summer (The Washington Post) | The Odds of Dying | 25 shocking things more likely to kill you than a shark (WNYY) | Choking Prevention and Rescue Tips | 10 Things More Likely to Kill You than Islamic Terror | List of selfie-related injuries and deaths (Wikipedia) | Animal bites (WHO)

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Episode 109: The Quiz Show Show!

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Ashlyn, Laura, Gem, and Lauren each prepare a quiz to test their fellow panelists’ knowledge in a variety of scientific and pseudoscientific domains.

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

Pregnancy Quiz (Laura): 6 Bizarre Childbirth Myths From Ancient History | 15 Ancient Childbirth Myths | In Search of Human Placentophagy: A Cross-Cultural Survey of Human Placenta Consumption, Disposal Practices, and Cultural Beliefs | Against all odds | Miracle child | Vanishing Twin Syndrome | The effect of late pregnancy consumption of date fruit on labour and delivery

Cat Genetics Quiz (Ashlyn): Genetic Anomalies of Cats | Sphynx Cat | Tortoiseshell cat | Manx cat | Basic Feline Genetics | Basic Genetics as Revealed by Cats | Cat coat genetics | Cat body-type mutation | Strange but True: Cats Cannot Taste Sweets | Inherited deafness in white cats

You Have a Degree in Baloney! (Gem): Institute for Integrative Nutrition: Curriculum Guide | Canadian School for Natural Nutrition: Natural Nutrition Courses | Canadian School for Natural Nutrition: Advanced Holistic Nutritionist Workshops | Toronto School of Traditional Chinese Medicine: Courses | Canadian College of Homeopathic Medicine Post-Graduate Program Outline | Pacific Rim College Community Herbalist Certificate

Peril! (Lauren): Can We Trust Crime Forensics? | Pseudoscience in the Witness Box | The Criminal Profiling Deception | CSI effect | How to Interrogate Suspects | Turkic mythology | List of flood myths | List of Māori deities | Leviathan | Viracocha | Curiosity Sings ‘Happy Birthday’ to Itself On Mars: Video | Planets & Their Moons | Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is Shrinking | Islets of Langerhands | J! Archive

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Going nuts for coconut oil

Cross-posted from Dietitian at Home.


Image by Hafiz Issadeen, CC BY 2.0
Image by Hafiz Issadeen, CC BY 2.0

Apparently there is nothing coconut oil cannot do. According to innumerable health and lifestyle sites, it’s good for the body inside and out; you’ll never need another fat again. There’s so much hype and beautiful, flowery language around this food that it is really difficult to know what is true, and what is a bit (or an extreme amount) of exaggeration about the virtues of this wonder fat. This article makes some pretty bold assertions, and always, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

But first, a primer on coconut oil. Despite its name, it is a fat that is solid at room temperature. This is due to the fact that it contains 90% saturated fatty acids, which is more than butter. What sets it apart from most other solid fats is the types of saturated fats in coconut oil. Fatty acids – the components of “fat” – are strings of carbon atoms with a certain number of hydrogen atoms attached, with or without double bonds. Saturated fatty acids have no double bonds; this is what allows them to fit together compactly, making a solid fat. Fatty acids come in many lengths, from 4-carbon chains all the way up to 22 carbons, occasionally more. Most of the saturated fats in butter or animal fats are long-chain, 16 to 20 carbons atoms. Of coconut oil’s 90% saturated fat content, 58% of those fatty acids are medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), 6-12 carbons per chain. These fats are metabolized differently than long fatty acids, and this is a key point to remember when examining the health claims. Interestingly, coconut oil contains no omega-3 fats, the polyunsaturated fats most associated with reduced cardiovascular disease risk. Even butter contains 1% omega-3 fats.

So on to the health claims (paraphrased):

1. Coconut oil has a unique fatty acid composition with medicinal properties.

Yes, it has a unique composition, just like every other fat out there. We wouldn’t expect coconut oil to be exactly like butter, because then it would be butter. The medicinal properties claim comes from the high proportion of MCTs. MCT oil is regularly used in medical nutrition therapy for many conditions including malnutrition, malabsorptive disorders, the ketogenic diet for seizures and other brain disorders, and more. It is a manufactured product, meant to ensure purity, potency, and almost exclusive MCT content. Any health benefits from coconut oil cannot be fairly equated to those of MCT oil because they are very different substances. MCTs do have a beneficial effect on the conditions listed above, however, we cannot extrapolate that people without these conditions would see the same benefits.

2. The people who eat the most coconut oil are the healthiest.

This is another epidemiological finding that cannot imply causation. Both the groups pointed out, the Tokelauans and the Kitavans are small, isolated populations, living largely subsistence lifestyles, with almost no intake of western refined foods. There are so many differences between their genetics predispositions, activity levels, lifestyles, and diet compared to ours in North America that to conclude their apparent reduced incidence of cardiovascular disease is due to coconut oil is unfair at best, deceptive at worst.

3. Coconut oil will help you burn fat, lose weight.

Right now there is not enough evidence to make this assertion. It doesn’t mean it’s not true, or that coconut oil does not have a favourable effcect compared to other fats, it’s just that the research hasn’t been done. A lot of the articles cited in support of this claim, like this one, this one, and this one are very small (12 or fewer subjects each) and completed 20-30 years ago. Small sample size reduces the strength of the evidence, so no big conclusions can be made. And again, some of these studies used MCT oil, not coconut oil; strike two against this claim.

4. Coconut oil has antimicrobial effects.

Most of the studies cited to support this claim are in vitro studies, a.k.a. put-things-in-a-petri-dish-and-see-what-happens study. We learn a lot from this kind of research, it’s what gives us a better understanding and generates many more research hypotheses. But this type of research absolutely cannot be used to make recommendations about human health and interventions. The reason is simple: the human body is not a petri dish. Our bodies are not tightly controlled environments where only one variable is manipulated at a time. Using in vitro studies to make a health claim is like saying that we are made of atoms, atoms are mostly space, thus we are invisible. An interesting idea, but clearly false. Luckily, a better in vivo (in a living being in semi-normal conditions) study was done to test the antimicrobial claims of coconut oil but sadly, the beloved tropical fat didn’t do any better than controls. Please, please, please, if you suspect you have any type of infection, skip the coconut oil and talk to your doctor.

5. Coconut oil can reduce hunger (…thus helping you lose weight).

Just like the previous weight loss claim, the studies cited are old and small, the test diets are very different from typical diet patterns, and once again, they are using MCT oil, not coconut oil. I’m not saying there’s no benefit to coconut oil here, there just isn’t enough good evidence to support that.

6. MCTs in coconut oil are helpful for seizure control, as part of the ketogenic diet.

I feel like we’ve covered this already…but here it goes again. Yes, the high fat ketogenic diet, with or without MCTs, is a very useful treatment for some people with significant neurological disorders. If you do not have a  condition like that, this “benefit” does not apply to you. As always, the claimant is conflating concentrated MCT oil with coconut oil. If you or a loved one do love with a condition for which the ketogenic diet may be prescribed, listen to the advice of your health care team and ignore this claim all together. Ultimately, this claim helps no one and may cause harm to someone who thinks they will get a health “boost” from switching to coconut oil. This is a dangerous path to take.

7. Coconut oil improves blood cholesterol levels, especially the “good” cholesterol HDL.

This is probably one of the best researched topics in the usefulness of coconut oil at present. Coconut oil does seem to show some favourable effects on cholesterol levels and types. What this tells us is that coconut oil is likely safe and can be part of healthy diet. This does not tell us that we should eschew all other oils and use coconut oil exclusively for all of our fat-based needs.

8. Coconut oil can be used as sunscreen and moisturizer.

Sunscreen can also be used as sunscreen. Coconut oil’s impressive-sounding ability to block out 20% of UV rays is no match for your run-of-the-mill SPF 15 sunscreen which blocks 93% of those rays. As for moisturizer, plant-based oils and fats have been used – and continue to be – for centuries as moisturizers. Cocoa butter, shea butter, and coconut oil tend to be favourites because of the nice smells and smooth, not oily textures. This likely has to do with the MCTs and their low melting point, but I can’t be sure and I’m too tired to keep talking about this. Moving on.

9. Coconut oil can improve Alzheimer’s.

False. Hear-say and case-studies do not equal evidence. Next claim.

10. Coconut oil can help you lose dangerous belly fat.

See the items above for weight loss. There is some research showing that coconut oil may in fact have this positive effect, but as usual, no conclusions should be drawn yet.

If you like coconut oil, great. If you don’t, great. Whether you choose to include it or not is up to you. Either way, your best bet is to include a variety of plant-based fats in your diet, and don’t look for any magic effects in a jar.

Milk wars

Cross-posted from Dietitian at Home.


Image by Carsten Schertzer, CC BY 2.0
Image by Carsten Schertzer, via Wikimedia Commons, used under CC BY 2.0

After gluten, dairy, particularly liquid milk, is the new food boogey-man. It’s not hard to find volumes of pages, posts, and rants encouraging the public give up cereal’s companion, either in favour of a plant milk or nothing at all. One such article caught my attention and between the snarky tone and the bold assertions of no counter point to the author’s opinions, I felt a blog post coming on: challenge accepted, my friend. I would like the record to show that I’m not here to cheer on dairy consumption, or even really defend it; I think consumers should not be bullied into changing their consumption habits, particularly by half-truths and statements lacking evidence. So let’s have a look at the reasons adults should not drink milk, shall we?

Point: No other species can digest milk past babyhood.

This is true. Humans are the only animal that continues to drink milk past infancy, and we are the only animals that drink milk from another species (I thought I would cover all the bases of this argument, for simplicity’s sake). However, no other species can raise prize-winning petunias, cook a steak to medium rare, or build a rocket and fly to the moon. There are so many things that no other species can do, that’s part of what sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. So please, can we retire this meaningless assertion? Thanks.

That said, it is true that not all, or even most humans can properly digest milk sugar (lactose). However, it does not at all follow that this food should be off limits for those who can. A better argument that the article could have made is that milk should not be pushed as a necessary food for human health when only a minority can digest it. To figure out whether dairy milk works for you or not, watch your own symptoms. If you think it is causing you some stomach upset, cut back and see what happens. If you’re like me, 30 years old and able to drink as much milk as I want, you’re probably fine, so enjoy your milk. Lactose intolerance can increase as we age, so check your symptoms once in a while, but no need for preemptive elimination.

Point: Babies drink milk because they can’t digest anything else and they need to fatten up and get nutrition somehow.

Yes, milk is meant for helping calves grow into cows, yes it provides a lot of calories and saturated fats. The important points this article is missing are portion and frequency of consumption. Drinking one cup of milk a day (at around 130 kcal) is not likely to cause weight gain, particularly in the context of an energy balanced diet. Drinking several cups a day, or drinking milk in an excessive energy diet may result in unintended weight gain. To put this into perspective, chocolate also provides a lot of calories and saturated fats. Small amounts of chocolate occasionally will have very little effect on your health and clothing size while eating the entire gift box of Ferrero Rochers is quite a different story.

The article also mentions that Asian countries, typically the lowest dairy consumers, tend to have the longest lifespans. While this may be true, these findings are based on population studies and let’s all remember, with population-based research, correlation does not equal causation. There are many, many, many other factors that differ between North America and Asia that would impact life expectancy, including overall diet, lifestyle, physical activity, stress level, emotional health, and more.

Point: You can get calcium from plenty of other foods

Yes, we can. See my point above about not pushing dairy on the public. Next point, please.

Point: It’s gross

When it comes to food, gross is relative. It depends on our tastes, our heritage, our positive and negative experiences and emotional surrounding food. I’ve never tried hakarl, balut, or kiviak, but, my vegetarianism aside, there is really nothing that makes we want to try them. But I know for many others, these foods are a delightful, warming taste of home, and my personal opinion about what is “gross” should have no bearing on whether these foods should be consumed or not. Get over yourself and your own icky feelings, and let someone else enjoy their foods.

Apparently there are a lot of counterpoints to this ostensibly irrefutable points against milk consumption. We probably don’t need milk to live, but humans being the adaptable creatures we are, we can probably live healthy lives while consuming milk as adults.

Worth its weight in (pink) salt

Cross-posted from Dietitian at Home.


Pink Salt
Image by Inquisitive Eye, via Flickr, used under CC BY 2.0

Salt is bad, right? Refined foods are bad, right? So it must follow that the refined, ubiquitous condiment table salt must pose a health risk to humans greater than mercury, werewolves, and bears combined. At least so says this article. It’s another iteration of a health claim that has been around for several years: table salt=bad, sea salt/Himalayan salt/exotic, expensive salt of your choice=good. As always, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, so let’s see how the claims for salt stack up against the evidence.

First, the claim that table salt is not real salt. For most of us, salt refers to sodium chloride, an edible crystalline product that provides most of our sodium intake. Table salt contains 97% or more sodium chloride; I find it hard to see how table salt does not then qualify as “real” salt (other salts contain 90-97% sodium chloride). I will note, now, that the term salt has very broad usage in chemistry; many things can be considered a salt. But I digress. True, the salt in our shakers does not emerge from the earth in such pure white and uniform crystals, but that does not make it less salt. This claim is an appeal to the naturalistic fallacy, of which I am no fan. Avoiding refined foods is a good rule of thumb when planning your diet, but salt (whatever type you like) is not a food. It is a mineral compound, an ingredient. It affects our health and nutrition but is not, nor was it ever, a significant source of nutrition. Hence, it is not fair to liken salt that has been refined into table salt to corn kernels that have been refined into cheese puffs.

Next, the article claims that the negative health effects of salt intake, most notably high blood pressure (though there is the evidence is unclear regarding the link between salt/sodium intake and cardiac event risk) are due to the high sodium content of table salt without adequate magnesium to balance it (the magnesium having been stripped away during refining). Inadequate magnesium intake does appear to play a role in high blood pressure, among other health conditions. Adult humans require 320-400 mg magnesium daily; typical intake from the western diet appears to be declining. Table salt is almost completely devoid of magnesium, while sea salt and Himalayan salt do contain some. These salts also contain some amount of various other minerals, the exact compositions varying based on where the salt originated. However, it is the dose that makes the cure or the poison. Per teaspoon, sea salt contains approximately 20 mg magnesium and Himalayan salt provides approximately 0.00092 mg magnesium. Even if you did consume 1 teaspoon of sea salt a day, you would only get 5% of the RDA; that one teaspoon also provides almost the entire day’s allotment of sodium. Compare that to 1 oz dry roasted almonds that provide 20% of the RDA with minimal added sodium. Increasing magnesium in the diet is probably a good idea for most of us; the type of salt we choose will have a negligible effect on our overall intake. The same goes for all the other trace minerals found in unrefined salts.

Third, the author starts discussing the dangers of inadequate sodium intake. It’s not clear what this has to do with the type of salt we choose; if we are concerned about not getting enough, then it seems that table salt would be the most reasonable choice as it typically has the most sodium (as noted above). But of course, outside of severely sodium-restricted diets, water intoxication, and a few rarely disorders, low sodium intake is of no concern: we typically consume about 3400 mg sodium daily while our needs are only 1500 mg. The author correctly points out that sodium is vital for proper nerve conduction and hydration, but what is not made clear is that, because of the importance of this nutrient, sodium regulation is a tightly controlled process . Our sodium levels are largely independent of intake; you could eat 10,000 mg sodium a day without raising your blood sodium levels.

The article goes on to fear-monger about the bleaching process and additives in table salt like anti-caking agents which contain aluminum or ferrocyanide (both of which a regulated and found to be safe for human consumption). The important point here is that these additives are in minute amounts and are unlikely to cause harm. We have far better things to worry about than this.

There are lots of salts on the market, but the biggest differences are the look, taste, and cost. Choose the one you like best, use the least amount you need for flavour, and don’t for a minute think that you are getting a hefty dose of any minerals other than sodium and chloride.

Or you could just eat them…

Crossposted from Dietitian at Home.


Food fads are one of my pet peeves. I fully admit I get my back up when I hear about most new “health” food trends, probably sooner and more often than I should. Each one comes in like a saviour on a steed claiming to cure us of our unhealthy ways, then slowly fades away, only to be resurrected the following decade.

Public domain image of orange juice via Wikimedia Commons.
Public domain image of orange juice via Wikimedia Commons.
Juicing is the trend du jour, purporting to provide mega doses of vitamins and to enable said nutrients to be absorbed more effectively than through the traditional chew-and-swallow method. This article did some great investigation and discusses the truths and fallacies of these claims. In a nut shell, higher doses of vitamins, be it through juice or supplements, are only effective if you’re deficient. Once you’ve got enough, you pee out the rest. To put it another way, if your body’s stores of vitamin C are at 100%, it doesn’t matter whether your orange-cucumber-kale-beet-arugula juice has 100%, 200%, or 1000% of the DRI (daily recommended intake) of vitamin C, you will pee it all out. So, for the people privileged enough to have a huge supply of vegetables and a juicer, nutrient deficiency is incredibly unlikely and juicing couldn’t plausibly realize the claims made in its favour.

This actually brings up a few bigger issues I have with the juicing trend. The first is that for each serving of juice made, frequently 5 or more whole vegetables and/or fruits are used, with some recommendations as high as several pounds of juiced vegetables daily. By most standards, that is a LOT of vegetables. Look, I’m all for encouraging fruit and vegetable intake since fewer than half of Canadians meet the recommended minimum intake. We should fill our plates and fill up on vegetables, but we still don’t need to over consume. This also makes juicing a costly endeavour, making it effectively inaccessible to the large number of people who struggle to afford enough food on a regular basis.

The next issue I have with juicing is the claim that putting all the nutrients in liquid form is somehow needed due to poor digestion (N.B. not likely a real phenomenon for most healthy people) and that this liquid form allows for super-fast absorption for nutrients. Let’s be clear, unless you are seriously dehydrated or have literally swallowed a whole cucumber, standard vegetables WILL be liquid once they reach your small intestines as they have been chewed, mixed with saliva, churned, and mixed with stomach acid. This is basic ingestion and digestion. The real issue with turning solid food into juice is the assumption that we only need vegetables for the vitamins within (like a leafy, green vitamin pill), but this is simply not the case. Health benefits come from eating WHOLE vegetables, including the fibrous parts. The interactions or nutrients within our foods and within our bodies is incredibly complex, and there are undoubtedly many compounds within our veggies and fruits with beneficial effects we have yet to discover. Removing a large fraction of these foods may actually result in us losing nutrients.

My last issue with the juicing trend is that it turns fibre-rich plants into fibre-less juice. Given that most North Americans need more fibre, this seems like a poor nutritional strategy. Luckily (and hilariously) it seems that others have picked up on this and offer suggestions on how to deal with all that vegetable pulp. So this food trend is effectively take all the fibre out and then find ways to put it back in. Which is better than nothing, I suppose.

This whole scenario begs the question: given all the work and expense it takes to make juice, then the additional work to manipulate vegetable pulp into your regular recipes, wouldn’t it just be simpler (and cheaper, and faster) to just eat your vegetables?

Unsexy Nutrition Advice

Crossposted from Dieitian at Home.


Green Tea
Green tea image CC BY 3.0 by user USAGI-WRP from Wikimedia Commons.

In my professional practice I try hard to avoid hyped-up buzz words and phrases like “loaded”, “super-food”, “tonnes of”, “packed with”, “breakthough”, “incredible powers”, etc. These are attention-getters, they draw in the audience. They try to make healthy eating sexy and exciting. The thing is, I don’t feel they have much of a place in the world of nutrition.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the science of health and nutrition is fascinating, and I love teaching people about it. There is always something new and interesting being tested and everyday we learn new things about how our bodies interact with the foods we consume. The problem is that nutrition science is relatively new (we only discovered the first vitamin about 100 years ago) and it is notoriously hard to study accurately and in a way that is meaningful outside of a tightly controlled laboratory setting. These factors necessitate additional scrutiny when new or controversial findings arise and slow, cautious adoption of new guidelines for healthy eating.

Miracle Fruit
Public domain image of miracle fruit image by Hamale Lyman via Wikimedia Commons.

The best nutrition advice you’ll hear is probably the same old things we’ve all be hearing for years: eat lots of plants, drink water, avoid eating out too often, limit or avoid processed foods, get lots of fibre, eat less sugar. There’s really nothing sexy about this, but these are the principles of healthy eating that have stood the test of time and research reproducibility. Stories and claims of “miracle” foods (not to be confused with miracle fruit) generally don’t hold up, and it’s unfair to promote these ideas without sufficient evidence or science-based rationale.

Similarly, labelling foods as being “loaded” with specific nutrients implies that they are automatically healthier than other foods. Foods with less of a specific nutrient are not always worse, and more is not always better; it all depends on the context and an individual’s specific needs. This type of information should be interpreted and dispensed by a qualified professional (aka someone with an accredited education who has done more than just read the wikipedia entry for vitamin X).

We fall in love with nutrition trends quickly. We want a fast, passionate, lust-filled romance with every new bit of nutrition advice and research: a spring fling that has us head over heels for each new way of eating. But, just as in love, the passion fades, the whirlwind of desire ends, and what we often need is a steady, stable companion that has proven it’s worth.