Field of Science

Formaldehyde: not just for dead things

Next spring I'm teaching a course on the physical chemistry of food while a colleague is teaching a course on the analytical chemistry of foodstuffs.  Among other science texts we'll be using John Coupland's Introduction to the Physical Chemistry of Food, but I'm also collecting short pieces to put some of the work into a historical and social context.

These aren't actual biological specimens preserved
in formaldehyde, but Halloween decorations.  
Though these days we tend to think of chemists as the untrustworthy creators of toxic, artificial everything, the systematic training of chemists was driven in part by the desire for the public to know what was in their food and water.  In 19th century Britain, hundreds of chemists made their living testing the purity of everything from butter to well water.  So when the Food Babe tells you there is something "yucky" in your food, the reason we know it is there is some chemist developed a careful protocol for its analysis, and other chemists tested the material.
Molecular structure
of formaldehyde

I've been thinking about formaldehyde, one of the simplest organic molecules (to a chemist, organic means made up mostly of carbon and hydrogen atoms, and has nothing to do with whether the molecule is synthetic or natural or...). Last year, formaldehyde, which is a preservative, was in the news because Johnson & Johnson had agreed to remove it from baby shampoo, though as Matt Hartings and Tara Haelle clearly pointed out in a piece at Slate, it was in such low concentrations that it posed no risk to babies (who, they point out, themselves contain substantial amounts of formaldehyde.)

Pepsi is reformulating Diet Pepsi to take out the artificial sweetener aspartame. The Food Babe is crowing that she and her army have forced Kraft to remove the so-called coal tar dyes (e.g. tartrazine/FD&C Yellow 5), to be replaced by natural colorings from spices.  What does all this have do do with formaldehyde?

From the Food Babe's 'campaign' literature.

To start with those natural colorings - at least one of them used in the UK version of mac and cheese, beta-carotene, isn't extracted from natural sources but synthesized from petroleum feedstocks (just like those coal-tar dyes).  One of the starting materials:  formaldehyde. The other natural colorings on the table — annatto, turmeric and paprika — are not quite what you might think either.  While you might imagine shaking in some spices from a quaint bottle, the spices themselves are not used as colorants, the colorants are extracted using organic (not that kind of organic, the chemist's kind of organic) solvents, such as ethyl acetate.  It's unclear to me why these colorants, particularly beta-carotene pass muster with the Food Babe.

Aspartame is sometimes vilified because it is metabolized into methanol and formaldehyde in the body.  Which it is.  You already contain a lot of formaldehyde, about 12 milligrams per liter of fluid in your cells.  One source is metabolism of the amino acids, particularly, serine and glycine (in naturally occurring proteins), from which your body scavenges methyl groups (CH3) to pop on to various structures.  Aspartame is a very tiny protein, so the same pathways that produce methanol and formaldehyde from natural sources, dismantle aspartame to yield methanol and formaldehyde, though the amounts produced are tens of times lower than what comes from eating apples and fish.

Because formaldehyde occurs naturally in foods (about 5 mg per serving in some fruits, fish is also high, pectin containing fruits such as apples add significantly to the amount of formaldehyde ingested), our bodies have a mechanism for dealing with it, we process about 60 to 100 grams of formaldehyde a day and do so quickly.  Formaldehyde has a half-life of about 1 to 2 minutes in the body.

Why are those spices colored?  What does it have to do with quantum mechanics, flamingos and canaries?  Read this post, the very first one written for the blog,  to find out.

EFSA report on endogenous versus exogenous sources of formaldehyde.
EFSA review of curcurmin, a component of turmeric, which had been suspected of being genotoxic.

Feeding the pseudoscience rumor mill

LA Times columnist Michael Hiltzik has a piece this week considering how (or whether) journalists should address pseudoscience and its purveyors.  He, along with others — Keith Kloor/Discover and Julia Belluz/Vox most recently —  have worried whether reporting on pseudoscience gives it more credibility and visibility than it deserves, particularly when the people involved are not otherwise newsworthy. And since most of the information about new science reaches people through the mass media, journalists play an enormous role in the ecosystem by which the public, that is to say all of us, scientists included, learn about and then use, information about science.

There is a growing body of social science research suggesting that effective science communication needs to be more than just filling in facts.  The notion that simply pushing out correct facts is unhelfpful isn't new.  Andrew Noymer modeled the spread of misinformation using epidemiological methods, and in 2001 showed that the persistence of information in the public sphere is improved if you have people trying to debunk the myths.  (Op-ed here, full paper here.)

Emotion potentially plays a bigger role than fact.  Katherine Milkman and Jonah Berger have explored what makes online content go viral (full paper here ($), summary here), suggesting that information that tugs at our emotions, particularly ones that run deep — anger or anxiety or awe — is more likely to spread.  Vani Hari, known as The Food Babe, plays off both the anger (can you believe that they put yoga mat in your bread?) and the anxiety (you don't know what you are eating?).

The who, where and how of the presentation matter as much or more (see the Yale Cultural Cognition Project for some well designed work on this), not just about what people conclude about the science, but about what they think scientists believe to be true.  It matters not just what an expert says, but who we think the expert is - in the sense of what are their core values.

What should journalists do?  What should scientists do?  Should both groups ignore pseudoscience entirely?

It has me thinking about how and when I might tackle pseudoscience, either on the blog, or perhaps even more importantly, in my classroom.   Given the knowledge that it may in fact reinforce the circulate myth, doing so is not necessarily benign.  So what are my personal guidelines?

1.  What is the risk of a lack of understanding?  Can it kill you not to know?  (Don't mix bleach with pesticides - it will not only kill more bugs, but more people.)
2.  Is there reliable and understandable information readily available online?
3.  Do I have the expertise to address the issue?
4.  Can I back up any assertion I make from the peer-reviewed literature?  (It's not personal opinion, but careful reading.)
5.  Can I help people develop a stronger conceptual framework, so that they can be usefully skeptical on their own?  In other words, I should not only assert, but communicate basic principles of science.  

Additional questions I might ask myself before approach something about pseudoscience in the classroom:

1.  Does it illustrate a concept this course addresses?
2.  Do my students have the knowledge base and conceptual framework to debunk something themselves, if prompted?  

Food Babe versus the Science Babe: Of Beaver Butts and Bullshit

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece for Slate about the Food Babe's tactics, prompted by the flurry of publicity for her new book, The Food Babe Way.  I pointed out the Food Babe's strategy of "malicious metonymy" whereby she deliberately confuses the source or use of something with the molecules.  So instead of reason you get "because beaver butts," her favorite example being that vanilla ice cream might contain castoreum, a  purportedly vanilla scented natural flavoring extracted from sacs found in beavers (yes, near their butts): "Readers of my blog know that the next time you lick vanilla ice cream from a cone, there’s a good chance you’ll be swirling secretions from a beaver’s anal glands around in your mouth." There is not, and here is why.

"While in low concentrations castoreum reputedly tastes of vanilla with a hint of raspberry, I’ll admit I’ve never tasted it. Not because I’m particularly disgusted by the source—I eat animal products and am inordinately fond of the fermented genitalia of Theobroma cacao—but because of its scarcity and cost. Enough castoreum extract to replace the vanilla in a half-gallon of ice cream would cost $120. Worldwide, less than 500 pounds of castoreum is harvested annually from beaver pelts, compared with the more than 20 million pounds of vanilla extracted from the ovaries of Vanilla planifolia orchids each year. Perfumers, not ice cream manufacturers, are the real market for castoreum. So while beaver secretions just might be in the expensive perfume you dabbed on your pulse points or in the aftershave you splashed on your face—did you just touch that with your hands, yuck—rest easy, there is no chance that the pint of ice cream you picked up at the store contains it. Not at the price you paid for it." -- read the rest at Slate.

The Science Babe took on the Food Babe yesterday in Gawker - neatly taking apart each of her standard tropes, with references to others who have done the same. The Food Babe wasn't happy and shot back.  Her response to the Science Babe, who has a long history of debunking her claims, begins with a nasty ad hominem attack.  But none of Food Babe's rant changes the science, or the history.

No Food Babe, nitrogen is not an additive to air in airplanes mixed in by evil airlines (up to 50% oh dear!), we breathe 80% nitrogen all the time.

No Food Babe, the microwave was not used by the German army in WW II, even Wikipedia knows it was invented after WW II.

Yes, Food Babe, that "MSG free tomato soup" you tout on your blog contains 400 mg of glutamate per serving and a lot of sodium, which makes?  Monosodium glutamate.  MSG.  It exceeds the limits for added MSG in the UK.

And did you know that Food Babe recommends high daily doses of oxidane, laced with 2-methyl-5-(6-methylhept-5-en-2-yl)cyclohexa-1,3-diene?  Write her now and demand that she confess to drinking chemicals with gross and hard to pronounce names.

Eat naturally, but eat knowledgeably.