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October 26, 2011


Skepticality

Zombie Poster from Centre for Disease Control (CDC) campaign
Interview with David Daigle

This week on Skepticality, Derek interviews David Daigle, a leading member of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) preparedness team to talk about the CDC’s ‘Be Prepared’ Zombie campaign which has been rolling out since May 2011. Daigle relays information about how the CDC keeps track of upcoming threats to citizens be it a pandemic, food contaminations, and even disastrous massive storms.

MonsterTalk

Donald R. Prothero
Crypt O’ Zoology:
Dinosaurs in Africa!

From The Lost World to Alley Oop to The Flintstones, the idea of dinosaurs and humans living together has captured the imagination of readers across the globe. But there are some who believe that this idea isn’t fictional. Is there a population of sauropod dinosaurs living in Africa in modern times?

In this episode of MonsterTalk, we interview paleontologist Dr. Donald Prothero at TAM9 about his research into the creature known as Mokele Mbembe! Cryptozoology, paleontology and creationism converge in the jungles of the Congo.


NEW ON MICHAELSHERMER.COM
Transhumanism, the Singularity and Skepticism

Michael Shermer is interviewed about his views on the future of Artificial Intelligence, the technological singularity, transhumanism, and skepticism. This is not something that Michael Shermer usually talks about. Michael also spoke at the Singularity Summit in the US this year (2011). Footage was taken at the 2011 Think Inc conference in Melbourne.

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The Decline of Violence

Can anyone seriously argue that violence is in decline? They can, and they do—and they have data, compellingly compiled in a massive 832-page tome by Harvard University social scientist Steven Pinker entitled The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, which Michael Shermer discusses in his October Skeptic column in Scientific American.

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Our next lecturer: Daniel Kahneman

Thinking: Fast and Slow

Sunday, November 6, 2011 at 2 pm
Baxter Lecture Hall

THE IDEAS OF THE PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PSYCHOLOGIST DANIEL KAHNEMAN, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his seminal work that challenged the rational model of judgment and decision making, have had a profound and widely regarded impact on psychology, economics, business, law and philosophy. Until now, however, he has never brought together his many years of research and thinking in one book. In the highly anticipated Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman introduces the “machinery of the mind.” Two systems drive the way we think and make choices: System One is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System Two is slower, more deliberative, and more logical…

READ MORE ABOUT THIS LECTURE

Tickets are first come, first served at the door. Seating is limited. $8 for Skeptics Society members and the JPL/Caltech community, $10 for nonmembers. Your admission fee is a donation that pays for our lecture expenses.


NEW FROM DANIEL LOXTON
ON SKEPTICBLOG.ORG

Ankylosaur Attack Art Demo
from the Vancouver
International Writers Festival

Upon his return from the 2011 Vancouver International Writers Festival, Daniel Loxton shares a peek at the image compositing process used to create the photorealistic dinosaurs in his latest book, Ankylosaur Attack!

READ THE POST

JREF Recruits Zombie Horde to Carry Psychic Challenge

Daniel blogs about a recent protest action by our colleagues over at the James Randi Educational Foundation, who enlisted a group of zombies to make a serious consumer protection point. Led by JREF President D.J. Grothe, the undead brought the JREF’s Million Dollar Challenge to alleged spirit medium James Van Praagh.

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About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, Harriet Hall, M.D. (a.k.a. the SkepDoc) takes a look at antioxidants. What are they? How do they work? How much is enough? What happens when we ingest more antioxidants than we need? Is the excess excreted? Does it just sit there doing nothing? Does it do something we didn’t intend? And, if they’re so good for us, wouldn’t more of them necessarily be better? Unfortunately, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Find out why. This article appeared in Skeptic magazine volume 16, number 4 (2011).

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Antioxidants? It’s a Bit More Complicated

by Harriet Hall, M.D. (a.k.a. the SkepDoc)

I am getting very annoyed with antioxidants. Like Pavlov’s dogs, I’m becoming conditioned to flinch when I hear the word “antioxidant” because it is so often followed by oversimplifications, distortions, and partial truths. The hype is everywhere, in magazines, on the Internet, on the radio, in books, in stores. Antioxidants promise to prevent heart disease, cancer, cataracts, Alzheimer’s, and even wrinkles; they will make you live longer and keep your mind sharp, along with making you feel young again. Well who wouldn’t want that? Every day I am bombarded with recommendations for foods, supplements, and skin creams that are “a good source of antioxidants,” “high in antioxidants,” or “anti-aging” products. Everyone knows antioxidants are wonderful. Everyone except for skeptical scientists who realize it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Antioxidants prevent oxidation. Oxidation is the process whereby oxygen atoms combine with other substances. When oxygen combines with iron, we call it rust. So what is “rusting” in our bodies? Free radicals or reactive oxygen species (ROS) are molecules or ions that have an unpaired electron that is desperately seeking to complete a pair. Normal metabolism creates free radicals like superoxide and hydroxyl radicals. They are necessary for life; we need them for killing bacteria, for cell signaling processes, and other functions. But since free radicals will react indiscriminately with anything, they can also cause damage, for instance by reacting with DNA to cause mutations. Oxidative stress (an excess of free radicals) has been linked to cancer, heart disease, and many other disorders; but it’s not always entirely clear whether it is a cause, a result, or an innocent bystander that just came along for the ride. Some people think it is accumulated damage from free radicals that makes us grow old and die prematurely; they assume that suppressing the damage with antioxidants would increase our life span.

We need a few free radicals to function properly, but an excess of them can wreak havoc. Our bodies know better than to let havoc reign unchecked. They produce neutralizing enzymes like superoxide dismutase, catalase, and peroxidases to keep the free radical population under control. They make use of the antioxidant vitamins A, C, and E in our food, and they produce metabolites like bilirubin and uric acid with antioxidant properties.

We can do our part to maintain our bodies’ defenses by insuring an adequate dietary intake of nutrients. But can we, should we, do more? How much is enough? Should we take supplements? It’s seductive to think we could improve on nature and prolong our lives. If antioxidants are good, wouldn’t more antioxidants necessarily be better?

Unfortunately, it’s a bit more complicated than that. As Ben Goldacre explains in his book Bad Science,

Human biochemistry is a vast interlocking web. An intervention in one place can have quite unexpected consequences; there are feedback mechanisms, compensatory mechanisms. Rates of change in one localized area can be limited by quite unexpected factors that are entirely remote from what you are altering, and excesses of one thing in one place can distort the usual pathways and flows, to give counterintuitive results.

Darn! Pseudoscience and marketing are so easy and straightforward and black and white; why does real science have to be so difficult?

What happens when we ingest more antioxidants than we need? Is the excess excreted? Does it just sit there doing nothing? Does it do something we didn’t intend? It would be nice to know.

There is good evidence that people who eat more fruits and vegetables are less likely to develop cancer, heart disease, and other ailments—and are likely to live longer. It’s easy to assume that the antioxidants in fruits and vegetables are responsible, but that might not be true. Other components of these foods (such as flavonoids) or the mixture of components in the diet might be responsible. Or maybe people who eat less fruit and vegetables are eating more of something else that causes those diseases.

If antioxidants in food do reduce the incidence of those diseases, it’s only logical to think that antioxidant supplements would reduce the incidence even more. Unfortunately, controlled studies have consistently shown that they either have no effect or make things worse. It’s not the first time reality has rudely intervened to spoil a great idea. Study after study has shown no benefit of antioxidants for heart disease, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, or longevity. One study did show that an antioxidant combination slowed the progression of established moderate-to-severe macular degeneration, but more research is needed to confirm those results.

Early observational studies suggested that vitamin E supplements reduced the risk of heart disease. I remember reading a report from a cardiologist back when the enthusiasm was at its height. He and his partners had been blithely prescribing high doses of vitamin E for their patients and taking it themselves. After they and many of their patients developed flu-like symptoms, it finally dawned on them that they were experiencing toxic effects from vitamin E overdose. They cut back on the dosage, but kept using it. Subsequently, better studies showed harm rather than benefit. Subjects taking vitamin E supplements were more likely to develop heart failure.

Antioxidant supplements can cause damage. They can be toxic in high doses, can bind to minerals in the diet and prevent their absorption, and can increase the risk of lung cancer. One study was terminated early because of a 46% higher rate of lung cancer deaths in those taking beta-carotene. Post-menopausal women who took vitamin A supplements had more fractures. Some studies have shown an increase in colorectal adenomas. There are reasons to think antioxidants might interfere with some cancer treatments.

An analysis of 68 trials with a total of nearly a quarter of a million subjects found that antioxidant supplements increased the mortality rate. Some experts think that antioxidant supplements have been adequately tested and found not to help; believers argue that the studies may not have tested the right substances or used the optimal doses.

The “superfood” industry has capitalized on the antioxidant craze. The recipe is simple: Pick a fruit, preferably something exotic and tropical. Claim it is a superfood with unique benefits. Develop a concentrate, a pill, or a mixture with other special ingredients. Advertise it with claims that can sneak by FDA restrictions. Solicit testimonials; make them up if necessary. Get several of your friends to try it so you can claim it is “clinically tested.” Start a multilevel marketing company. Charge exorbitantly high prices. Make big bucks. Noni juice, açaí berry, mangosteen, goji, camu camu; even the less exotic green tea, blueberries and pomegranates have generated fortunes. The superfoods concept involves a fallacy. These fruits don’t offer any benefits that you can’t get from components of a normal healthy diet. The fact that they contain high levels of a nutrient is meaningless, since you can get the same amount by eating more of other foods that contain lower levels. One 650mg Tylenol doesn’t work any better than two 325mg pills.

All kinds of antioxidant supplement mixtures are sold. Each claims unique benefits but supports those claims with testimonials rather than with real evidence. Some depend on a gimmick such as a unique proprietary manufacturing process or better absorption. They may claim a synergistic effect from a certain combination of ingredients, but these claims are never supported by published studies. How did they decide to combine those specific ingredients? Did someone in the company employ intuition or use a dartboard?

One anti-aging product, Protandim, claims to act by a different approach. It “persuades your body to increase its own production of antioxidants” and is alleged to “help prevent free radical damage to your cells thousands of times more effectively than any conventional antioxidant therapy… slowing down the rate of cell aging to the level of a 20 year old.” What’s in it? Milk thistle, bacopa, ashwagandha, green tea extract and turmeric. Hmm…and how exactly does this particular combination persuade your body to increase its production of antioxidants?

How do they know it works? They have a grand total of one study in humans: it showed an increase in a TBARS (ThioBarbituric Acid Reactive Substances) blood test. They have one study showing that it reduced the incidence of skin cancers in mice. They have a couple of other studies in mice and in test tubes. They have zero evidence of clinical effects in humans, much less of extended life span. But they have lots of testimonials and you can sign up to become a distributor.

Be wary of claims based on improvements in lab tests. There are many of these, like TBARS and ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) scores; you can even buy a home urine test to measure lipid peroxide levels. The same substance may show either pro-oxidant or anti-oxidant effects, depending on which test you choose. The human body is a more complicated environment than a test tube. None of these in vitro tests have been validated as corresponding to in vivo antioxidant effects or to any clinical benefit. Products with high TBARS levels have not been shown to improve patient outcome by any objective measurements. Vitamin E, which we know is a powerful antioxidant in the body, has a very low ORAC score.

Antioxidants are important for health, but so are free radicals. We need to know a lot more before we can confidently recommend increased antioxidant intake for everyone. The American Heart Association doesn’t recommend taking antioxidant supplements; they’re waiting until better evidence becomes available. For now, they say what Mom said: “Eat your vegetables.” That’s prudent advice for other health reasons too; it’s a slam-dunk.END

Skeptical perspectives on alternative and experimental medicine …
cover Flavor of the Month: Why Smart People
Fall for Fads

by Joel Best

Sociologist Best dissects the dangerous hula hoops of business, medicine, science and education in this exposition on institutional fads. According to Best, American attitudes toward progress (colored by optimism, competitiveness, a belief in positive change and a fear of being seen as old-fashioned) serve as kindling to the fire of the next big cure, technological revolution, business management secret or teaching method… Order the book.

cover Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts About Alternative Medicine
by Simon Singh & Edzard Ernst

An excellent guide to the confusions and contradictions of alternative medicine written with clarity, integrity and authority. What works? Who can you trust? What alternative cures have positive results? What medical authorities are included in their “Top ten culprits in the promotion of unproven and disproven medicine?” Includes extensive information on the big four: acupuncture, homeopathy, herbs, and chiropractic, plus a “Rapid guide to Alternative Therapies.” Order the book.

cover Science Friction: Where the Known
Meets the Unknown

by Michael Shermer

In each of the essays in Science Friction, Shermer explores the very personal barriers and biases that plague and propel science, especially when scientists push against the unknown. What do we know, and what do we not know? How does science respond to controversy, attack, and uncertainty? When does theory become accepted fact? Order the book.

12 Comments »

12 Comments

  1. Avinash Datadin says:

    Thank you for this article. I have saying the same for the past decade, but the majority believe the pseudoscience and marketing ploys.

  2. Vladislav Dolnik says:

    I like this article except a minor error: The oxidation is a reaction, in which a substance loses electron(s). The reaction with oxygen is only one of them. Implicitly the article says that drinking red wine does not have any proved advantage over drinking white wine.

  3. Luigi Monniri says:

    You might be interested in reading this paper:
    Acute cardioprotective and cardiotoxic effects of bilberry anthocyanins in ischemia-reperfusion injury: beyond concentration-dependent antioxidant activity.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20978867

    Authors show the biphasic concentration-dependent bioactivity of bilberry anthocyanins, strong dietary antioxidants, which results in strong cardioprotective activity in low concentrations and in cardiotoxic activity in high concentrations.

  4. Pete Forrester says:

    Hello:

    I have always wondered about this apparent contradiction. We are told that exercise is good for you. Among other things, exercise increases the body’s consumption of oxygen. We are told that increased oxygen helps boost your metabolism and gets rid of things like toxins. On the other hand, we are told that antioxidants are good for you because they held the body rid itself of nasty things like “free” radicals. So, if we exercise more to make us healthier, doesn’t that also increase the “need” for antioxidants?

    Peter Forrester, Pharm.D.
    skeptic-in-training.

    • Scott Zimmerman says:

      Mr. Forrester,
      Not only does exercise increase the consumption of oxygen and the potential for free radical production, it also stimulates the production of superoxide dismutase and other enzymes responsible for degrading these free radicals as they are produced. So the good continues to outweigh the bad.

  5. Mario says:

    Excellent article right to the point, I wish you did one about organic food, because together with antioxidants and better ways to make your child becomes a genius are in my opinion the biggest source of money for pseudoscience this days.

    • Jay Humphrey says:

      Hi Mario,

      I’m new to this site, but have been an avid listener/reader of Skeptoid Podcast for approximately that last few years. Recently won the 2012 Stitcher Award for Best Science Podcast.

      For many popular myths, including ‘organics’ and plenty of others re: foods/diets and a slew of other topics, you may wish to check it out, or perhaps you’ve already done so. http://skeptoid.com/

      He’s got a couple organic food eps which I’m sure you’ll find informative and reliable.

  6. Roland Sassen says:

    “antioxidants really don’t work” is the plausible answer of Nick Lane, in his book Oxygen and in an article cited in Discover Magazine:

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2011/10/17/the-two-genome-waltz-how-the-threat-of-mismatched-partners-shapes-complex-life/

  7. CLC says:

    I was on chemo for a while, and my oncologist told me not to take anti-oxidants during treatment. I believe he said that chemo’s work was an “oxidative” process, with which anti-oxidants would interfere.

    Thoughts or research on that?

  8. Marko Hamilo says:

    You wrote:

    “It’s easy to assume that the antioxidants in fruits and vegetables are responsible, but that might not be true. Other components of these foods (such as flavonoids) or the mixture of components in the diet might be responsible.”

    But are they not antioxidants?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flavonoid

    Ok, perhaps not in vivo then:

    “Negligible antioxidant properties of flavonoids in vivo

    A research team at the Linus Pauling Institute and the European Food Safety Authority state that flavonoids, inside the human body, are of little or no direct antioxidant value.[11][12][13] Body conditions are unlike controlled test tube conditions, and the flavonoids are poorly absorbed (less than 5%), with most of what is absorbed being quickly metabolized and excreted.”

  9. Patrick says:

    Antioxidants and supplements ARE good for you. BUT just like everything else, moderation is key. DON’T over do it. We don’t get the proper amount of nutrition from our diet or the foods we eat because 1- the ground has been over worked and nutrients haven’t been replenished in the soil, and 2- a lot of us aren’t the biggest fans of healthy food. lol Bottom line is, yes our bodies need vitamins, minerals, omega 3,6 and 9 fatty acids, and some healthy cholesterol, and if you aren’t getting it in your diet, then you need to supplement. JUST DON’T OVER DO IT.

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