Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween & the Chemist


It's Halloween and I thought a little bit about sulphur would be fitting as sulphur is the basis of brimstone and supposedly the smell of Hades is burning brimstone.

I have never seen as pretty a piece of sulphur as that above, apparently it grew in a volcano. Usually, sulphur is a yellow powder. Dull.

Sulphur is the basis of one of the most common food additives, the preservative sulphur dioxide. Which used to be created by burning sulphur.

Still is in Hell, we are told.

Below is a small video on sulphur put out by the University of Nottingham. Like all good chemistry videos, it has explosions in it.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

Done to a tea.


Interesting story about tea recently:

A 44-year-old man presented in May, 2001, with muscle cramps. He had recently switched to drinking Earl Grey tea in preference to his regular black tea.

One week after the change, he noticed repeated muscle cramps for some seconds in his right foot. The longer he drank Earl Grey tea, the more intense the muscle cramps became. After 3 weeks, they also occurred in the left foot...

Earl Grey tea is composed of black tea and the essence of bergamot oil, an extract from the rind of bergamot orange (Citrus aurantium ssp bergamia), which has a pleasant, refreshing scent.

(You can skip this paragraph, if you wish)
The adverse effects of bergamot oil in this patient are explained by the effect of bergapten as a largely selective axolemmal potassium channel blocker, reducing potassium permeability at the nodes of Ranvier in a time-dependent manner. This may lead to hyperexcitability of the axonal membrane and phasic alterations of potassium currents, causing fasciculations and muscle cramps.

In other words, it disrupts the way chemicals flow through the membrane of the nerve fibres, causing the neurons that connect to the muscles to malfunction.
I should add he was drinking four litres (a gallon, say) a day.

But it plays into my constant refrain: too much of anything is bad for you.

Food-wise, at least.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Hot and cold on Cayenne

medavinci asks "Is it true cayenne pepper can lower blood pressure and open arteries? Can you just sprinkle it on your food or should it be cooked like curry to avoid salmonella? "

OK, a two part question:

Part 1. Is it true cayenne pepper can lower blood pressure and open arteries?

Maybe. Certainly many foods have physiological effects. A peek on the internet finds a squillion and one sites selling the benefits of cayenne pepper (as well as selling the cayenne pepper) but I couldn't find any mainstream sites, just the herbal fringe. This always makes me suspicious. But I have no reason to doubt that it MAY affect blood pressure. In either direction.

Opening arteries is a little more serious. Certainly people can get flushed in the face after eating peppers, chillies and such like. Is the the same as 'opening arteries'? Maybe. Is it desirable to look flushed? Possibly not. Is it the same as unclogging arteries from too many fries over a lifetime? No.

Maybe it works, maybe it doesn't. By the time you find out, the purveyors of fine herbal remedies will be telling you to eat, drink, roll in something else. But, if you feel that it is good for you, then it is. Isn't it?

Do be aware of the possible risks associated with cancers, especially mouth cancers, from excessive and prolonged consumption of irritants like chilli and pepper.

A rule of thumb that I always have with herbal remedies (like the one in this morning's paper that said magnolia flower tea cures hayfever) is a very simple question: if this cure, cayenne pepper, is so good and so effective, why are the major pharmaceutical companies not growing broad-acres of the stuff? These guys are pretty keen to corner the consumer dollar and never slow to see an opportunity.

Could it be that the efficacy of cayenne hasn't been proved to the level of certainty required by good science and the auditors of the Therapeutic Goods Act?

Remember: Alternative medicine that works is called... medicine.

Part 2: Can you just sprinkle it on your food or should it be cooked like curry to avoid salmonella?

If you are consuming it immediately it will be safe to take 'raw' as it were. If you are putting it into something warm, moist and nutritious and not planning to eat it for a few hours, cook it first.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Monosodium Glutamate


MSG gets a bad press. Not entirely sure why, as the stories about it are largely unproven.

No uncommonly you will see products claiming 'no MSG'.

Or restaurants with the same sign. No MSG.

They are misleading you folks. What they mean is 'No Added MSG'.

You see, for all its bad press, MSG is naturally occurring in most foods, especially the following:

Cheeses, especially hard cheeses like parmesan
Tomatoes and tomato juices, concentrates and sauces
Stocks cubes and concentrates
Sauces such as soy, fish, oyster etc
Spreads such as Vegemite®, Promite®, Marmite® etc.
Foods containing added Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein (HVP)

And Human breast milk.

Glutamate is produced by the human body and is vital for metabolism and brain function.