opinion

It’s time science reclaimed health food from the quacks


 

IMG_0189I’m not quite sure what came over me, I’d set out in search of a beer and a burger. But somehow ended up in a juice bar wolfing down falafel, quaffing a cucumber, celery, ginger smoothie and sprinkling sweet potato chips with some strange pink salt.

And it was good. Really, really good. Tasty, satisfying and altogether wholesome.

Whilst I mopped up the last of the beetroot ketchup with my rye bread and slurped the dregs of the green juice, I flicked through the menu, idly wondering why the salt was pink. Tucked away on the back page I found the info I’d been looking for.

Apparently it was Himalayan pink salt.

What I read next pretty much ruined the whole dining experience.

Himalayan Pink Salt

This is a natural salt not like white table salt, which is a drug. Pink salt is extracted from the Himalayan mountains. It is negatively charged helping to draw positive ions out the body.

I sat paralysed. And wondered if this was due to my dinner having been laced with this strange substance that had removed all the ions essential for nerve impulses.

I regained enough movement to flick on my phone and Google the credentials of Himalayan salt. My panicked state subsided. For it is 98%, good old, sodium chloride, 2% polyhalite and a smidgen of rust (hence the pink tinge).

Once my composure had returned, I continued to flick through the menu. It was laced with plenty more pseudo-scientific claptrap.

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At this point I was starting to wonder if the place was run by Food babe. I rapidly made my exit and went in search of a stiff drink.

In the pub down the road, over a nice glass of single malt I got to thinking. The food, service and atmosphere in the juice bar had been great. Their products really were healthy. There was no need for the pseudo-science. Especially since genuine science about their ingredients is actually really interesting.

So I say to you Juice bar (and I will write to them) “Why not redraft your material with real science? I’ll even help you do it.”.

And if that doesn’t work, how about someone out there starts a health food cafe which doesn’t shy away from hard science, where real evidence prevails, where they tell you why the salt is pink, what chlorophyll actually does and how to eat a healthily diet. Wouldn’t such a place be more credible?

By April 18, 2015 7 comments opinion

Is the Coop bank fishing for an anti-science cause?

The Cooperative bank has had its troubles of late, mismanagement, scandal ridden executives and massive debts have seen an the organisation that prided itself on its ethical policy forced to reevaluate its self image.

At the moment it takes a stance, both through its investments and the customers its accepts, that supports communities, tackles povety, encourages responsible financing and protects the environment. One way that the Coop’s reevaluation has manifested is via a poll (aimed largely at its customers, but open to anyone) asking how the ethics of the bank should be manifested. Most of the questions seemed perfectly reasonable, asking participants to rank various activites, such as customer service, responsible lend etc. But when it came to the questions on environmental protections, they highlight chemistry, nanontechnology, GM foods and fracking as particular worthy of a mention.

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Why these subjects in particular and why present them in such a leading fashion? It strikes me as a list of subjects that have been the most contriversial with respect to the environment in the last few years (or decades).

Personally I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Are they fishing for a particular area that they can easily fight? Afterall campaigning against GM or pandering to chemophobia is fairly easy to do without committing to anything in particular. However, making the bank carbon neutral actually requires some action. Or maybe its just a sloppy poll, but either way the bank needs to try a bit harder to come up with a meaningful and evidence based environmental policy.

By June 27, 2014 0 comments opinion, science policy

Who knows reviewers’ identities?

A couple of posts ago I shared a pretty unpleasant experience I had after peer-reviewing a grant application. In short my anonymity appeared to have been breached and I received ,what I took to be, a thinly veiled threat from the grant’s author.

Some of the comments that followed thanked me for bring the case to light but were critical because I hadn’t gone far enough and named names. Therefore what had the post achieved? I take the point, but I’m still not prepared to name the persons or organisations.

However, I did contact the funding body involved who were willing to investigate the matter. They also suggested that I first file a freedom-of-information request asking for details on how anonymity is protected and with whom reviewer identities are shared.

For the sake of completion I asked the main science research councils in the UK (not just the one that was involved in my incident) for the same information (details below).

In short most committees (that’s typically upwards of two dozen people) are aware of the identify of reviewers. This is probably not news to most, but I figure its good to know who knows who you are.

In most cases identities are revealed in the committee meeting. Which made me consider how the reviewer knew my identify before the committee sat. Until I remembered that I had reviewed the grant twice (it had been rejected the first time, but a resubmission was requested). So a panel member from the first meeting must have made a note (mentally or otherwise) of my name and then shared it.

It strikes me that its rather too easy for reviewer anonymity to be breached. So what’s to be done? In the short term maybe its worth checking who is on a panel. Then if you know of a relationship between a member and the proposal’s author, that might result in a leak,  refuse to review the grant. In the longer term, should the system change so that reviewers are truly anonymous? And as for me, my next step is to take up the offer of that investigation.

And in case you are interested here are the more detailed responses from the research councils.

The BBSRC website provides a document called “Peer review and freedom of information’. Part of which states that the identify of reviewers is

‘…available to the members of the peer review body.’

I asked for clarification on what constitutes a ‘peer review body’. To which they responded

‘.. peer review body refers to Research Committees and any other ad hoc panels that assess grant applications.’

they added that

Their identity [of reviewers] is revealed to the peer review body only as part of normal business meeting

The other research councils have similar freedom of information documents to the BBSRC, however they are less clear on the policies with regards to reviewer identities. So I asked them directly if identities are revealed to panels/committees and how anonymity is assured.

NERC replied :

Panels see the reviewer names but they are required to keep all the business of the meeting confidential including reviewers names and which members of the panel introduce the proposal and we rely on them to do that. That confidentiality is set out in the Reviewer Protocols. These are available on the NERC website and part of signing up to the Peer Review College. Access to proposal information is via Je-S [ grant submission/review system] and panel members are required to sign up to the Reviewer Protocols before they can see the proposal information in order to review it. Details of the Reviewer Protocols can be found at:

http://www.nerc.ac.uk/funding/application/peerreview/members-details/PRC-reviewer-protocols.pdf

The EPSRC‘s statement was:

Each reviewer has an anonymised reference for each proposal they are sent, but their identity is indicated in the meeting schedule provided to the panel members. Each schedule is customised so that if the panel member has a conflict of interest the reviewers remain anonymous for the affected proposal.

All panel members are sent guidance which includes our code of practice based on the Nolan Committee’s seven principles of public life – for further details please refer to the link below.

http://www.epsrc.ac.uk/funding/peerrev/panels/Pages/protocols.aspx

And from the MRC I received:

At the board/panel meeting itself the names of the reviewers are projected onto a screen for each application in turn.  This information is not provided in hard copy to any of the board/panel members.

At Fellowship panels, the information is provided to the chair of the meeting and the information is securely destroyed immediately following the meeting.  Other panel members may request the information at the meeting and may be provided with this information verbally at the meeting to enable better decision making.

The Biomedical catalyst panel meeting is currently the only exception to this as information is revealed to panel members prior to the meeting. This is because the meeting is jointly run with the Technology Strategy Board.

 

By May 15, 2014 0 comments opinion, science policy

The advance of the chemical-free sciences

Chemist have long complained about the use of the term ‘chemical-free’ in marketing, particularly when used to promote organic produce. To bolster our standing, and to sure up the chemical industry, we go one about everything containing chemicals and hence  how ‘chemical-free’ is a meaningless term.

The veracity of the anti-chemical-free movement is highlighted by continuing complaints to the advertising standard agency on the grounds that ‘chemical-free’ is a misleading term. None of these have not been upheld. Meanwhile campaigners have continued the fight by produced numerous posters detailing the chemical composition of natural products, apparently to highlight the absurdity of the term.

However, there is a growing group of dissenters on the other side of the fence. They believe it is perfectly possible to manufacture a ‘chemical-free’ product. Not only have they long been developing such materials, but they have been slowly drip feeding their findings into the scientific literature. The result is that  there is now a significant amount of material that can no longer be ignored by the mainstream. Almost 4,000 peer-review papers exist reporting the existence of chemical free products and these include publications from the American Chemical Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry.  Furthermore technical advances have lead to many patents describing chemical-free methods, thus demonstrating practical applications of the science and how it can be turned into workable technologies, all without the need of chemicals.

These findings must now surely lead the  Royal Society of Chemistry to deliberate on now it is going to distribute the  £1 million it offered  for a verifiable chemical free product. Used wisely the money could fund research into further chemical-free technologies.

Clearly the chemical-free sciences are growing, and there are claims that it may well be the scene of future groundbreaking technologies. Its bound to represent the next big idea or buzz word, to sit alongside nanotechnology, synthetic biology and homeopathy in newspaper columns and grant applications alike. So maybe the RSC should consider using its £1 million to fund a new Journal of Chemical-Free Chemistry, plus related conferences so that this up-and-coming field can blossom out in the open.

 

By April 1, 2014 10 comments fun, general chemistry, opinion