Courtesy Urban MixerThat's right, vodka is 103%. According. To. Me.
And today, on the birthday of Paul Gauguin, the inventor of vodka*, we learn that that extra 3% is composed largely of science. Possibly.
See, vodka is supposed to be a neutral spirit—pretty much just a tasteless 40% ethyl alcohol, 60% water solution. (Tasteless except for the taste of alcohol, which is very strong.) And yet, when you get to the age where going to a bar is an appropriate thing to do, you will see and hear gentlemen saying things like, "Grey Goose on the rocks!" And then they give the bartender an amount of money they probably worked half an hour or more to earn.
1) Something about filtering. Whatever.
2) Some people are ridiculous. If you ever say something like, "Grey Goose on the rocks!" you're one of them. But that's ok, because it takes all kinds, you know?
In the 40/60 alcohol/water solution we call vodka, groups of molecules called "hydrates" form. Hydrates in vodka consist of a molecule of alcohol sequestered by a bunch of water molecules, bonded together with hydrogen. If the bottle of vodka were a club, say, the alcohol would be like an attractive individual, surrounded by damp gentlemen united by their taste for premium vodka. (Don't think about it too much—it's a dangerously recursive metaphor.)
Scientists carefully analyzed several different popular brands of vodka, and found that the concentration of hydrates differed in each. So a good vodka might be like a happening club, with lots of attractive people surrounded by fellas. Or maybe it'd be like a very exclusive club, with just a few foxy people being ground into sweaty embarrassment on a relatively lonely dance floor.
The scientists didn't go so far as to say what concentration of hydrates was best, only that different concentrations might lend to an individual's brand preference. Instead of actually tasting the difference, though, drinkers might "perceive" the concentration of hydrates through other qualities, like how "watery" the vodka feels (even though all the brands tested had the same concentration of water.)
So there may be something to the practice of ordering specific expensive brands of vodka, and then drinking them straight. That doesn’t mean you should do it, though.
*Not true. Paul Gauguin never invented vodka. He did die of syphilis, though. Happy birthday, Paul!
Food allergy is an abnormal response to a food triggered by the body’s immune system. Symptoms include itching, a rash, vomiting, difficult breathing, and lowered blood pressure.
While almost 30% of Americans think they have food allergies, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) found that
food allergy occurs in 6 to 8 percent of children 4 years of age or under, and in 3.7 percent of adults.
Diagnosing food allergies is described on the Mayo Clinic website. The procedures take time and money and, according to many, yield unreliable results.
"MIT chemical engineer Christopher Love believes he has a better way to diagnose such allergies. His new technology, described in the June 7 issue of the journal Lab on a Chip, can analyze individual immune cells taken from patients, allowing for precise measurement of the cells’ response to allergens such as milk and peanuts.
To perform the test, blood must be drawn from the patient, and white blood cells (which include T cells) are isolated from the sample.
The cells are exposed to a potential allergen and then placed into about 100,000 individual wells arranged in a lattice pattern on a soft rubber surface. Using a technique known as microengraving, the researchers make “prints” of the cytokines produced by each cell onto the surface of a glass slide. The amount of cytokine secreted by each individual cell can be precisely measured. MITnews
Courtesy BBCDorothy Hodgkin had a unique sense of how atoms were structured to form some of the most important molecules of her day. This audio slideshow from the BBC--on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of her birth--highlights how she discovered the structure of Vitamin B12, Penicillin, and Insulin. It's fascinating to see the connection between her childhood drawings of flowers and church mosaics and the complex orientation of the blobs of atoms in these miniscule molecules.
Who wouldn't like to have more hours in a day? Well, now you can -- sort of. A study by Duke University researchers has found that over the last 170 years, life expectancy in advanced countries has increased at a rate of 2.5 years per decade -- or an average of 6 hours a day! Just think -- since you sang Auld Lang Syne last New Year's Eve, medical advances have increased your life expectancy by 29 days. What are you going to do with all that spare time?
Guffaw with a cat? Giggle on a train. Even in the rain. No seriously, I was reading an Associated Press article last week about the topic of laughter and it did include rats that laugh. Science takes laughter very seriously. Just doing a Google search on science+laughing gave me more than 26 million hits! The rat guy intrigued me the most. I found his video available here.
Despite an ethological background of my own, I’m not sure I’m on board yet with Dr. Panksepp and his work. However, not only have researchers tickled rats and listened to them laugh, but other scientists have looked into like behavior in monkeys, dogs, chimpanzees, and possibly even dolphins. Perhaps laughter is a trait more primitive than the lineage of humans. It strikes me that, like humans, all the aforementioned animals would be considered social animals. There clearly is a social aspect to the behavioral benefits of this kind of expression. Some science has even looked at the evoluntionary effects of laughter.
Most everyone has heard the phrase, “Laughter is the best medicine”. It turns out that studies have delved into a multitude of health effects from laughter. Proponents tout its benefits. It can relax the muscles of the body, alleviate stress, trigger the release of certain hormones, lower blood pressure, and even protect your heart. This isn’t the first time Buzz has looked into the health effects of laughter. Despite studying its many effects, science still doesn’t quite understand the full mechanism of the physiological process. You can take a look at some of the best works here…
How Laughter Works.
Laughing with your Brain.
How we laugh
There is an interesting take on the scope of laughter from Robert Mankoff.
Courtesy Extra Medium's
While not everyone laughs the same, we all learn to laugh early and often. Children ages 4 to 5 laugh more than 400 times a day. As adults, we manage only 15 times a day to enjoy some humor. Since it is reasonably accepted that laughter is contagious, maybe we only need to promise to pass one good joke a day to bring a smile to a fellows face. If that doesn’t work you can always try this audacious little feline.
Laugh a little!
Not all words hurt, of course. Like, when we make fun of the way you run, or the way you say “caravan,” or the way you let your parakeets perch on your lip and eat out of your mouth… well, I’m sorry that you’re so sensitive about all of that, but the tears are all your fault. Buck up, little cowboy.
But when we say things like, “when the jagged chunk of metal lacerated through the skin and severed the tendon, the resulting sensation was excruciating,” that really does hurt. Or, at the very least, it causes the pain of your lacerated skin and severed tendons to be that much more excruciating.
It turns out that pain-related words or phrases stimulate an area of the brain known as the “pain matrix,” even when there is nothing else causing physical pain in the body. If real pain is on the way (like after you hear, “this will only hurt for a second”), the pain will be intensified, because your brain is ready for it in a bad way.
Researchers think that the response may be an evolved characteristic that reinforces our aversion to things that can hurt us; when you hear a phrase like “this may pinch a little,” an intense pain memory is activated, removing any doubt from your mind that that’s something you should avoid.
Anyway, I thought I’d leave you with a few tried-and-true pain matrix stimulators:
Courtesy Andrew_BAbout a month ago I fell off my bicycle and got a brain injury. Can you imagine? The doctor called it a “corncussion.” I was thinking I would do a Science Buzz post on corncussions, but I couldn’t find any information on the condition. What gives, Google? Did I invent the corncussion? I don’t think so.
What I did find, however, was also pretty interesting: this new research on corn syrup.
Don’t run off! Corn syrup is interesting! And it’s relevant! On my desk, for instance, I see three food-related items: a half-full pack of m&m’s, a Tootsie Roll Pop wrapper, and an apple. Of these items, only the apple doesn’t have any “high-fructose corn syrup” in it. High fructose corn syrup is the sweetener of choice for lots and lots of food in this country (check your kitchen), and it has been for decades. It’s cheap, it’s really sweet, and it’s made from corn (we like making things from corn in these parts), so what’s not to like?
Lots of things, according to some people, and nothing, according to other people. The problem is that the above disagreement usually goes something like this when it is discussed:
“Corn syrup is horrible! Why? Because, like, it’s not like regular sugar, and your body doesn’t… your body treats it, like… it’s different and bad! Chemistry! Biology!”
“Corn syrup isn’t bad, it’s awesome! It’s made from corn, and corn is natural, and when has anything natural been bad for you?”
And both sides, frankly, are pretty dumb. Because in the former’s case, people usually aren’t really saying anything. What you sort of heard from a friend who might have read something about how the body treats corn syrup differently or something doesn’t count as solid scientific backing for your position. Be honest—it’s just your way of saying that you shop at Whole Foods.
On the other hand, it’s not like we’re sprinkling kernels of fresh corn on our food when we’re using high-fructose corn syrup—lots of fancy refining goes into making that sweetener, which may or may not be a good thing. And, in any case, being “natural” doesn’t make something healthy. You know what else is natural? Syphilis, arsenic, and getting punched in the face.
The thing is, there seems to be an association between the rise in obesity rates (and related diseases) and the introduction of high-fructose corn syrup (let’s call it “HFCS” from here on) to American diets about 40 years ago. But that doesn’t mean that there really is a link between the two—we don’t know exactly how HFCS would cause obesity, and we don’t know if it was for sure HFCS that made us all fatter, or if it was some other widespread lifestyle change. Or if it was a combination of things.
The issue is complicated by stuff like research that indicates that drinking too much pop can raise your risk of cancer. Is that because too much of a sweet drink is bad for you? Or is it because lots of soft drinks use HFCS as their sweetener?
It’s confusing, and we’ve never really been able to definitively say, “HFCS is/is not bad for you.”
And we still can’t.
However, yesterday I read an interesting article about a study that seems to reinforce the connection between HFCS and obesity, even if it doesn’t show a causal relationship. (That is, it seems to show that something really is happening, but it can’t say why.)
Researchers at Princeton studied two groups of rats. One group got regular rat-chow, and water sweetened with HFCS. The other group got the same amount of rat-chow, and water sweetened with regular sugar from sugar cane or beets (this sugar is called sucrose). All the rats consumed the same amount of calories each day, no matter what their beverage was.
The researchers found that some of the rats eating regular sugar gained weight, and that some of them gained no weight. However, all of the rats eating HFCS gained weight (from body fat), and showed an increase in blood fats called “triglycerides.” The researchers pointed out that even rats given a high-fat diet don’t show such consistent weight gain.
The next part of their experiment tracked the long-term effects of a high HFCS diet on the rats. These rats all showed signs of a condition known (in humans) as metabolic syndrome. They had lots of blood fat, and gained lots of weight, especially around the belly. In fact, they gained 48% more weight than rats eating a normal diet.
What about that?
Well, the Corn Refiners Association has something to say about it: They think it was a misleading study. In their response to the research the CFA points out that there was no regular sugar control for the second part of the study—HFCS-eating rats were only compared to rat-chow-eating rats, not to rats eating regular sugar. So it would be like comparing weight gain between someone who just ate candy bars, and someone who just ate granola, instead of between a candy bar-eater and an ice-cream eater. (Does that sentence make any sense?) I don’t know if the original study really did lack that control, or if there was a reason they felt it wasn’t necessary. The CFA calls it a “gross error,” but it could be that it was just outside the intended scope of the research.
The CFA also thinks that the portions of HFCS given to the rats constitute a “gross error.” According to them, a proportional amount given to a human would be about 3000 calories from HFCS a day. They point out that adults eat only 2000 calories a day, from a variety of sources. It’s a good point, but not a great one, I think. That 2000 calorie figure is based on the Food and Drug Administration’s recommended diet (you know, the label you see on the back of everything you eat), and how many people stick exactly to the recommended diet? A 3000-calorie/day diet would definitely not be out of the question for lots and lots of people. And, sure, those calories are supposed to come from many food sources, but, again, go check your kitchen, and see how many items in there us HFCS. (Lots do.)
Keep in mind, though, that just because the people that make HFCS are arguing that it’s safe doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not safe. Of course they want to defend their product. Not everything is a global corporate conspiracy.
But the Princeton study sure does make it look like there’s something about HFCS that causes it to contribute to obesity more than regular sugar. The study just doesn’t show how it might do that. That’s the causal relationship we talked about earlier. They have some ideas, though.
The CFA claims that “a sugar is a sugar, whether it comes from cane, corn or beets. Both sugar and HFCS are handled the same way by the body. Maybe, but sugar and HFCS aren’t totally identical. Both sweeteners are made up of two kinds of sugar molecules, called glucose and fructose. Regular sugar is about 50% glucose and 50% fructose. HFCS, on the other hand, has more fructose (about 55%), less glucose (about 42%), and a small amount of larger sugar molecules called saccharides (3%). The way these molecules are put together in the difference sweeteners differs too: in regular sugar, each fructose molecule is bound to a glucose molecule, but the process of making HFCS causes its fructose molecules to all be “free and unbound.”
Some scientists think that because the fructose in HFCS is free, it is more easily metabolized (used by your body) and is more quickly turned into fat. The extra step needed to separate the fructose from the glucose in regular sugar might cause it to be metabolized differently, with more of it being stored in the liver or muscles as carbohydrates.
But, once more, that part is what people are uncertain about.
It’s a tricky issue, because there are a lot of dogs in the fight—I’m sure the manufacturers of regular sugar are just as defensive about their product (and just as likely to be very selective about which studies the promote) as the corn refiners are. But what about us poor norms? All we want is to sit and eat sweet things all day, while gaining as little weight as possible. I mean, we could just consume sweeteners in moderation until science proves who’s really right, but… where’s the fun in that?
It’s something to consider. Choose wisely, and stuff.
Water affects every aspect of our lives, yet nearly one billion people around the world don't have clean drinking water, and 2.6 billion still lack basic sanitation. World Water Day, celebrated annually on March 22, was established by the United Nations in 1992 and focuses attention on the world's water crisis, as well as the solutions to address it. waterday.org
This week I came across another study showing that Vitamin D is a flu fighter. The study has just been published online, ahead of print, in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
In the study children were asked to swallow six pills a day (25% dropped out). Half of the children's pills were placebos (fake). The pill givers did not know which pills were fake (double blind).
Incidence of influenza A was 10.8 percent among the 167 kids who received vitamin D pills. That's in contrast to a flu rate of 18.6 percent among an equal number of children getting identical looking inert pills. Doctors monitoring the trial confirmed flu cases using a test to assay for the influenza-A germ.
The study also noted that two asthma attacks occurred during the trial among kids getting the vitamin, compared to 12 in the unsupplemented group. The study doesn’t say whether the same number of kids with a history of asthma were in each group so this result may not be valid.
The researchers also stated that it may take almost three months “to reach a steady state of vitamin D concentrations by supplementation". I interpret this to mean that takes our bodies about 90 days to accumulate an effective Vitamin D concentration (less illness after 3 months of taking vitamin D than during initial 3 months).