Category Archives: pseudo-science

Take Two Glasses of Wine and Call me in the Morning

Yes, same name. I'm not quite as saintly.

Yes, same name. I’m not quite as saintly.

“Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities.” (1 Timothy 5:23)

If even the Bible backs up the health benefits of wine, is it really true that wine isn’t just harmless, but might actually do your health some good? That’s a common suggestion among wine-lovers, and there appear to be some studies that back up the idea. And for a while at least, wine was suspected as a primary cause of the French Paradox.

Those lucky French people, despite a diet that features a high amount of saturated fats, are known to have a lower prevalence of coronary disease than people in other places. When scientists first realized that, one of the most popular suggested explanations for this health benefit was all the red wine the French drink. You can imagine how sales of red wine increased in North America after that theory came out. But despite the known good effects of certain ingredients in the wine, there just didn’t seem to be enough of those ingredients to create such a drastic health effect. And when you realize that on average, a French person drinks only a couple of bottles more per year than a North American, well, there goes that theory. Darn it anyway.

But don’t throw the health effects out with the wine bottle! All is not yet lost. Because despite the crash and burn of red wine as a theoretical cause of the French Paradox, there is still some evidence suggesting health benefits to moderate alcohol intake. And yes, those benefits relate to cardiovascular health. So red wine may be back on the menu after all–maybe.

What you really have to watch is overenthusiastic endorsements of the current scientific studies. Online media outlets have been touting an outrageous headline lately: Is Drinking Wine Better Than Going To The Gym? According To Scientists, Yes! These stories all quote a Unversity of Alberta study that says a glass of red wine is as good as an hour at the gym.

Except, actually: no. According to Jason Dyck, lead author of that study,

Dyck’s study was published more than two years ago. It examined whether resveratrol, a compound found in grapes and other foods, can increase exercise capacity for those already exercising. 

“We didn’t use any red wine in our study nor did we recommend not going to the gym,” said Dyck.

The study did conclude that resveratrol could help maximize exercise benefits for people with restricted exercise capacity, like heart failure patients.

To be effective, the compound would need to be used like a performance-enhancing supplement, with concentrations far beyond a glass of wine.

“To get the same amount that we’re giving patients or rodents you’d have to drink anywhere from 100 to a thousand bottles a day,” said Dyck.

Now get all these drank by lunch: 90.000 more bottles to go!

Now get all these drank by lunch: 90,000 more bottles to go!

In most studies done so far, even taking into account the possibility of moderate drinkers having a better income and healthier lifestyle, and factoring out non-drinkers who had quit because they had already ruined their health with alcoholism, there seems to be a correlation between improved health outcomes for moderate drinkers. They are less prone to heart disease.

Red wine will not solve your problems, kitty.

Red wine will not solve your problems, kitty.

Pay attention to that word, “moderate,” though, and don’t rush out and buy or make an excess of wine or other alcohol “for your health.” Too much of a good thing can reverse all those good effects. And we all know that excessive drinking leads to liver disease, heart failure, and even certain cancers, not to mention accidents and injuries caused by drunkenness. When the biblical writer says “a little wine” rather than “jugs and jugs of the stuff,” he knows what he’s talking about. It’s fine to have a large, well-stocked cellar, but you don’t have to drink the whole thing by next Wednesday.

The effects of moderate amounts of alcohol on the body are many: it helps reduce blood pressure and reduces insulin levels. It increases the levels of good cholesterol (HDL) while reducing the levels of the bad kind (LDL). It contains antioxidants that fight cancer, and it helps prevent blood clotting. But what about that reference to the stomach in the Bible verse? Does wine help the digestive system too?

Studies seem to support that idea also. Wine apparently combats certain food-borne pathogens quite well, either because of the acidity or because of the alcohol itself going to work directly on the bacteria. It even works against the bugs that cause ulcers.

But it’s important not to read too much into the health benefits. After all, something as fun and  delicious as wine shouldn’t be completely perfect.

Send Lawyers, Guns, and Wine

arsenic

Arsenic, old Ace

I’m the innocent bystander
Somehow I got stuck
Between the rock
And a hard place
And I’m down on my luck
Yes I’m down on my luck
Well I’m down on my luck

Warren Zevon, Lawyers, Guns and Money

Warren definitely put his finger on it: in the face of intransigent problems sometimes strong solutions are required, like legal advice, firearms, or piles of cash. On the other hand, if you’re on the receiving end of such a solution, sometimes a bit of critical thinking is the best cure you could hope for.

Case in point: a class-action lawsuit has been launched, alleging that “There are very high levels of arsenic in top-selling wine”. According to the CBS news story, BeverageGrades, a company that performs laboratory analysis of wine,

(Hicks) tested more than 1,300 bottles of wine. Almost a quarter of them had levels higher than the EPA’s maximum allowable amount of arsenic in drinking water: 10 parts per billion. No one can say for sure why, but Hicks noticed a pattern.

“The lower the price of wine on a per-liter basis, the higher the amount of arsenic,” he said.

This sounds terribly alarming. And, it gets worse:

CBS News took those results to epidemiologist Allan Smith, associate director of the Arsenic Health Effects research program at U.C. Berkeley.

“These are about two to three times in this particular sample, the drinking water standard, and they vary, they fluctuated, but some of them were up to three, four or five times the drinking water standard,” Smith said.

Smith said 50 parts per billion of arsenic — the highest level found in one of the bottles Hicks tested — can be deadly over time.

Even though “parts per billion” seems like a very small amount, Smith said “Arsenic is highly toxic; it’s astonishing.”

“It has as many effects inside the body as cigarette smoking does,” Smith said.

The obvious conclusion that Hicks and CBS want you to draw is WINE WILL KILL YOU AND EVERYTHING YOU LOVE! PANIC! HURRY UP AND PANIC ABOUT WINE! 

It sounds terrible. And it’s meant to, because the guy who helped gin up the lawsuit stands to profit from it. You see, BeverageGrades doesn’t offer lab services for wineries based on their need to make biochemically correct wine. It’s business model is one of ‘certification’. For a fee, they’ll test your wine and reassure consumers that it’s ‘safe’. From their website:

BeverageGrades is a private company offering lab testing, quality assurance and certification of alcoholic beverages for suppliers, restaurants, retailers and ultimately, the end consumer.

But you can’t ask the consumer to pay for the testing–it’s too expensive on an ad hoc basis. So it’s up to BeverageGrades to get money out of wineries. Unfortunately, according to the CBS report

He took the test results to some of those wine companies.

“Most wine companies, when I mention arsenic and wine in the same sentence, literally almost hung up the phone on me,” he said.

The next step, he said, was to supply the data to a law firm.

“He was trying to get their attention; he was trying to blow the whistle on them,” attorney Brian Kabateck said.

Initially this sounds horrifying, and smacks of coverups, shady deals and would seem to suggest a scenario of a crusading laboratory saving the public from a campaign to poison them. But this doesn’t hold up when you start looking at the facts. The first is that BeverageGrades will profit from increased testing using their certification, which amounts to a strong-arm job, or it will profit as a paid expert witness in the lawsuit on behalf of ‘consumers’.  To the point, BeverageGrades issued a press release:

BeverageGrades believes that retailers need a screening and certification model that allows them to assure their customers of the purity of all of the alcoholic beverages they sell, and particularly their control or private label brands.

And that is what Hicks sells: relief from fear. If it happens to be the relief of fear caused by an irresponsible and valueless lawsuit that he ginned up with a bent premise, then all the more power to him for a creative way to increase business.

There is some question, however, if he was actually the discreet and altruistic consumer advocate he makes himself out to be. From the very good article by Snopes on this:

Wine Spectator contacted some of the wine brands named in the lawsuit, many of whom stated that Hicks had made no effort to contact them before filing the class action, although he did send out a press release to some wine vendors offering his company’s testing services to them:

[A wine company] spokesman said he had not heard of any named winery contacted by Hicks before the lawsuit was filed. The same day the suit was filed, BeverageGrades sent a press release to certain retailers offering its services for a “screening and certification model that allows them to assure their customers of the purity of all the alcoholic beverages they sell.”

Well, well, well.

A very troubling issue is the conflation of safe standards for arsenic for water and for wine. There is no federally mandated standard for wine. Sure, drinking water is set at 10 PPB, and the average adult drinks two litres of water per day, and furthermore uses the water to cook, make other beverages, and to wash and bathe. It makes sense to set drinking water standards very low.

However, anybody drinking two litres of wine per day, and using it exclusively to cook, make coffee and bathe is living a very odd lifestyle. They’ll be dead of acute alcohol poisoning or the effects of chronic overconsumption of alcohol before there are any measurable effects from arsenic on their system, so comparing water to wine is a waste of time.

SHUT UP AND KILL ME

SHUT UP AND KILL ME

And the amount of arsenic you could consume in wine isn’t even in the same league as other sources. For instance, the FDA limit for daily inorganic arsenic intake from shellfish (mussels, clams, and oysters) is 30ppm (parts per million) versus 30ppb (parts per billion) in apple or pear juice. That’s right: you can consume one thousand times more arsenic in a bowl of cioppino than you can from a juice box–or a glass of wine.

That is, if going is a thing you want to do, eh

That is, if going is a thing you want to do, eh

Interestingly, Canada has a standard for Arsenic in wine: 100 PPB. I haven’t been able to find out how that level was determined, but for the moment I’m assuming “common sense”, based on levels cited for drinking water extrapolated for wine consumption’. According to Stephen Cater, director of quality assurance for the Liquor Control Board of Ontario:

In the past year alone, the LCBO quality assurance laboratory tested more than 11,900 wines for arsenic levels, including 1543 wines from California. All of the wines from California that the LCBO lab tested and subsequently offered for sale were below the maximum allowable limit for arsenic. We have not observed elevated arsenic levels in US wines compared to what is found in wines from other regions and countries.

11,900, last time I checked, was a much higher number than the 1300 Wicks tested, and the fact that world wines are comparable to US wines is significant, since you’d expect to see a spike if indeed cheap US wines were heavily contaminated.

Which brings us to the bottom line: is this a real story, or is it a health panic induced by an unscrupulous laboratory and a predatory lawyer, for their personal profit? That will have to come out in court because you can bet there will be counter-suits for damages and some serious legal scrapping.

Don't you hurt me baby

Don’t you hurt me baby

What we can tell right now is this: the amount of arsenic in wine won’t materially contribute to the overall levels of arsenic taken in by the average consumer, unless they’re actively trying to kill themselves with wine. Should we be concerned about the food and drink we consume? Always! But there’s a time to panic and a time to use common sense and reason to navigate the world, and this is one of the latter.

Now if I may be excused, I’m going to go drink an entire bottle of wine, because I feel I may be low on important trace elements, like happiness, contentment and joy.

Update, 3/21/15:

Days late yet still contributing to the spread of Hick’s misinformation scaremongering, Mother Jones wrote yet another non-journalistic, click-bait ‘article’ with a terroristic headline. If you’d like to share the disdain, you can read it here.

At least the person who cut and pasted the clickbaitery published an addendum. Here it is:

Wine industry groups have begun to contest the lawsuit’s contentions and motive. The California wine trade group, the Wine Institute, released a statement saying, “While there are no established limits in the U.S., several countries, including the European Union, have established limits of 100 parts per billion or higher for wine. California wine exports are tested by these governments and are below the established limits.” A representative of The Wine Group, one of the defendants, says that the plaintiffs “decided to file a complaint based on misleading and selective information in order to defame responsible California winemakers, create unnecessary fear, and distort and deceive the public for their own financial gain.”

Small mercies.

Beer Gadgeteer and the Fabulous Fizzbuster

File this one under ‘Oh lord, what now?’

scurrilous fake gadget

It looks like it’s designed to rewind DVD’s . . . .

If you’re having trouble guessing what the gadget is, don’t feel bad: other than the strange label (which makes it sound like it’s for shaving cream or perhaps for cartoon hedgehogs) there’s nothing about it that suggests a function. My first thought was that it was for rewinding DVD’s. However,  according to the website,

Using ultrasonic vibrations, the Sonic Foamer excites the gases in your beer for an amazingly creamy head.

Oh. Okay. I can do the same thing by pouring the beer between two glasses, or stirring it with a spoon for a second, but sure, make an expensive gadget for stirring-impaired people, no problem. But why do they think you should stir it up and make a foamy head?

The aroma of a beer is released as the bubbles in the head pop. 

No, that is not how the aroma in a beer is released. The aroma in a beer is released when the low-weight molecular compounds that comprise the bouquet and aroma of the beer travel from the liquid and travel through the air to the receptors in your nose. Bursting bubbles in the head aren’t especially relevant to the process.

Certainly, agitating the liquid helps increase the amount of these compounds released–that’s why wine tasters swirl their glasses. And beer judges do the very same thing, swirling sample glasses to chase out elusive aromas.

moronic foaming gadget

Nobody with hands that smooth drinks beer. I’m just sayin’.

So it’s a gadget that’s a solution to a problem that exists in the minds of their marketing department. C’est la guerre. But even though their claims are malarkey, I can think of a brilliant use for one of these doohickeys: degassing excessively foamy beer.

This is a pet peeve of mine. Anyone who has gone on a pub crawl with me has had to watch me restlessly pour my beer between two glasses to chase off three-quarters of the carbon dioxide gas before I drink it. I don’t do it to all styles, because some styles like wheat beer, Kolsch and light lager need sufficient volumes of CO2 for proper mouthfeel.

‘Volume’ is the science-word for amount of gas in a liquid solution. The actual sciencey part of beer carbon dioxide saturation is governed by Henry’s Law and a bunch of frightening math. For our purposes, one volume of CO2 is the equivalent of one litre of carbon dioxide gas dissolved in one litre of beer at one atmosphere of pressure (sea-level, more-or-less). If you’re not metric, a litre is about a quart. If you’re having trouble conceptualising what this means, if you drink a litre of one-volume beer, you’re going to belch out one litre of burps, eventually.

A classic Czech Pilsner will have 2.3-2.5 volumes, very appropriate for that style, while Standard Western Industrial Light Lager will have 2.7+ volumes. That’s only fair since it doesn’t generally have any other character to speak of.

Where this all falls apart for me is ales. Classic British pale ales will have 0.75 to 1.3 volumes. If you’re a fan of these beers, they drink smooth and taste wonderful, and you don’t have to belch like a foghorn if you decide to have several pints. American ale styles on the other hand,  have as much CO2 as lagers. American Pale Ale clocks in at up to 2.78 volumes, making the much heavier, more flavourful style of beer as gassy and belch-worthy as lawnmower S.W.I.L.L.

fizzy

I’ll have a glass of greenhouse gas. And can it get it dissolved in fermented corn and rice juice?

For my palate, this destroys the flavour, mouthfeel and enjoyability of the beer. CO2 gas in solution produces carbonic acid, a flat, bitter tasting substance which dulls the bright flavours in the beer, and it makes me feel bloated and belchy after only a couple of pints. I keep questioning brewers as to why they continue to overcarbonate their beer like it’s a practical joke drink but the standard reply is, ‘That’s what consumers expect’.

hop-circle

One of my favourite IPA’s, but I pour it this way on purpose–gotta get the fizzies out.

Some day I’m going to punch those consumers in the snoot, because they just don’t seem to know what’s good for them. If they tried the beer at a proper carbonation level they’d find it much more interesting and drinkable. Maybe some day. Until then I’ll have to content myself with making my own beer and carbonating it to the levels I like, degassing commercial beers right at the bar, and complaining about how everyone is wrong about everything except me.

But I’m thinking I need to order me one o’ those de-foamers to do a little testing . . .

Powdered Alcohol: Some Dry Observations

Tang. It's out of this world.

The powder? It’s Tang. I’m an astronaut.

In my previous life as the go-to technical guy for retailers and consumers, I’ve spent a lot of my time giving answers to questions both simple and complex, about beer and wine making. I’ve spent even more of my time trying to counter misconceptions, folk tales, and outright jiggery-pokery about beverage alcohol. Most of the time it’s a case of imperfect understanding or incomplete information that I’ve dealt with, but every once in a while something perfectly ridiculous shows up. You’d think that the sheer dumbness of an idea would make it easier to debunk, but that isn’t the case. Because clickbait/aggregator sites like Huffington Post, Gawker, Buzzfeed and the like keep sensationalising and promoting dumb ideas with witless, boundless and breathless enthusiasm, it only takes a small number of people not reading critically to keep the very dumbest ideas in circulation, spreading them out like a slick of dumb across the media waters.

Case in point, ‘Powdered Alcohol’. An enterprising self-promoter named Mark Phillips set up a website to promote Palcohol. After as much checking as I can manage, I haven’t found a strong indicator that this is a hoax. There’s a credible-seeming document showing label approval for a distilled spirit under the name Palcohol, and the Lehrman beverage law firm is leading on the story, which has, somewhat predictably, made the aforementioned sensationalist sites go absolutely insane with joy, crowing from both sides of their mouths about the joy of smuggling ‘vodka powder’ into stadiums and the danger of ‘snorting powdered alcohol’. All in all, it’s a fabulously rich tapestry to hang fantasies of danger and intrigue on.

You can't fool an idiot.

Actually, pretty sure.

Thing is, it’s total crap. Hooey. Malarkey.

Physics prevents alcohol from becoming a powder. Ethanol (CH3-CH2-OH, the good alcohol that we know and love) is a volatile liquid. ‘Volatile’ refers to a substance that vaporises (evaporates) readily, and ethanol evaporates extremely quickly, far faster than water (that’s why rubbing alcohol feels cool on the skin: it evaporates rapidly). At room temperature pure alcohol doesn’t last, and can’t be made into or ‘converted’ to powder. It just goes away.

You can, however, stabilise it by mixing it into an appropriate powder and sealing it in a vapour-proof package. You could use sugar, or more likely a polysaccharide like maltodextrin, which bulks like sugar and has similar hygroscopic qualities, but would not taste abominably sweet in the amount needed.

Now the key to why ‘powdered alcohol’ is a load of bovine feces: the putative TTB label to Palcohol declares 100 ml of powder at 12% ABV, (never mind the mock-up labels on the Palcohol site. They declare much higher levels, but they’re not legal and not approved–fake or simply erroneous, take your pick) and also states that the product is 58% ABW (alcohol by weight). Running the numbers a little, 12% of 100ml = 12ml of 100% pure ethanol. That doesn’t sound like much, but most spirits are sold at 80 Proof, or 40% ABV. Divide 12 ml by 0.40 and you get 30, or roughly one fluid ounce worth of 80 Proof alcohol.

And confirming this bit of math, the packet is marketed as the equivalent to one cocktail. However, the 58% ABW number tells us that the alcohol is much denser than the powder it is suspended in, making the packet fairly bulky–100 ml is almost exactly the same volume as three standard ping-pong balls. This bulk means you’d need 26 of the packets to make up an entire vodka bottle’s worth of cocktails, which is 2.6 litres of powder or 7/10ths of a US gallon.

Assuming you do make this damp maltodextrin substrate-with-alcohol mix, where does that leave you? With a product that’s only 12% ABV, probably costs more, and bulks much larger than simple beverage alcohol, is tough to dissolve in cold liquid and doesn’t taste like anything without the addition of lots of extra additives. Additionally you’d be consuming some form of unidentified powder in vastly higher quantities than the alcohol you’re seeking. Peachy.

So yeah, it might be a thing, but it’s not the thing people want it to be, which is a tiny pinch of magic powder that will turn water into hard liquor like magic.

I lit one up and my house drowned to the ground.

Water matches! Keep away from open flame.

And in this, I blame Warner Brothers. Specifically, I blame their employee, Wile E Coyote, and the Acme corporation that he supported so strongly. The technology that was displayed in the cartoons was surreal and magical–holes you could drop things into and then roll up and take away, paintings that you could enter or alternatively smash your face against, gravity that only acted long after you stepped off the cliff, and so on, all examples of magical thinking, where the observed could not always be understood and actions and events had absurd causal relationships.

About as plausible as powdered alcohol anyway

Just like mom used to make

And really, that’s what human beings want: easy answers that make sense on an emotional level–alcohol is bulky, if it were dried out, you could carry lots with little bulk or weight, hurrah! Only no, reality has to intervene with its fancy college learnin’, laws of physics and general fun-spoiling party-pooper attitude.

I’m not immune to the desire for magic answers. When I was a little kid I was promised moon vacations and a jet car. I’m still waiting for those to be practical, but I know they’ll never come my way. It may make me a cynical curmudgeon now, but on the other hand I save space in my brain for things that are physically possible. Powdered alcohol is a pretty strong marketing hook, but snake oil often is.

This is why we cover our nose and mouth when we sneeze. So our cocktails don't fly out.

I’ll have what she’s having!

Oh, and the danger of ‘snorting’ Palcohol (which Phillips’ coquettishly advises against): if you can snort a volume of sugar/maltodextrin the size of three ping-pong balls to get the stinging equivalent of an ounce of booze up your nose, you’re not human, you’re a vacuum cleaner. Plus, ever get alcohol in your sinuses? It doesn’t stay there: your body won’t let it.

Credit to my friend Peter Cargasacchi for letting me clutter up a Facebook post of his with my immoderate ranting on this topic earlier today. Comments there made me do better math (trust me, as bad as my math is, this is better than it was) and think harder about why we want things like this to be true.