Archive Health and Medicine

Energy Drinks in Schools – Let the Propaganda begin Michael Edmonds Jan 23


This morning on Breakfast TV they talked about a recent proposal to ban energy drinks in schools. Having taught for a short period in high schools this seems like a good idea to me – teaching high school students can be hard enough without having some suffering the effects of drinks which are both high in caffeine and sugar.

Katherine Rich, spokesperson for the New Zealand Food and Grocery Council, an industry lobby group, was interviewed and during the interview stated several times that there was less coffee in energy drinks than in tea or coffee. This sounded wrong to me, as in the past I have had my students analyse the caffeine content of various drinks. So I wandered over the the supermarket this morning, checked a few cans of energy then consulted the literature. From this I constructed the following table:

Drink Average serving (mL) Amount of caffeine/serving
Brewed coffee (strong)


140 mg

Instant coffee


98 mg

Brewed Tea


58 mg

V double hit


155   mg

V blue


80 mg

V maximum



80 mg*

160 mg*

Lift + (green)


79 mg

Monster energy


176   mg

Red Bull




80 mg

107 mg

150   mg

Mother energy


160   mg

*contains guarana 300 mg

As you can see that if we were talking about the same serving size then Ms Rich is correct with regards to a strong or medium strength cup of coffee, though not with regards to tea based on the figures I obtained.

However, she has overlooked the fact that many energy drinks are sold in 500 (and one in 550 mL) cans. These deliver a dose higher than  your average cup of coffee, and much higher than tea.

Another oversight is that drinks such as V maximum also contain guarana and it is not clear to me from the labeling whether the stated amount of caffeine takes into account the caffeine which would be present in the 300 mg of guarana they add. If not the caffeine content should be higher than stated!

Of course comparing the amount of caffeine in energy drinks to that in coffee and tea is a bit of a red herring as I don’t think many schools would encourage students to drink tea or coffee. But then maybe this is simply an attempt to “normalise” the idea of caffeine consumption by children by linking it to commonly consumed drinks by adults.

Either way, it would be nice if people didn’t put a spin on the actual facts in such debates.



Fox News and GMO’s Michael Edmonds Dec 31


I saw this clip on TV this morning (I didn’t realise what we see from Fox on Sky is a month old) and was “impressed” with the degree of muddled science and scaremongering they managed to put into such a short clip.

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inaccurate science (confusing viruses, bacteria with genes) – check

oversimplification of the science (“food made in a petri dish”) – check

overhyping/misrepresenting animal studies – check

conspiracy theories (“aren’t these people eating these foods?”) – check

typical poor reporting from Fox – check, check, check.

Sampling a Cell without Killing it – Nanobiopsies Michael Edmonds Dec 31

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I’ve just read a fascinating article in December 16th edition of Chemical & Engineering News* by Louisa Dalton which describes a new technique to sample cell material without killing the cell.

This new method, developed by biomolecular engineer, Nader Pourmand, and colleagues at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is able to withdraw approximately 50 femtolitres from the cell using a computer guided scanning ion conductance microscope. The computer guides a glass nanotube to the cell membrane where it is pushed 1 micrometre into the cell. A negative voltage across the tip of the pipette alters the surface tension between the cytoplasm and a solution in the pipette causing approximately 50 femtolitres of cytoplasm to be withdrawn from the cell.

This method allows cytoplasm to be withdrawn from different parts of a cell, with the cell remaining viable even after 10 punctures. The utility of this technique has been demonstrated by using it to extract and subsequently sequence, cytoplasmic messenger RNA from human cancer cells and mitochondrial DNA from fibroblasts.

This new technique opens the way to dynamic monitoring of cells. According the to the C&EN article “It permits many different types of measurements, such as single cell diagnostic tests or drug testing.”

* unfortunately this article currently appears to be behind a paywall.


Modern Medicine & Family Histories Michael Edmonds Dec 29


Modern medical treatments, including vaccines, have helped extend life expectancies and quality of life through the prevention and treatment of disease. This fact is sometimes missed by those who oppose vaccines, criticise modern medicine and promote dubious “alternative” therapies. One reason for not seeing the benefits of modern medicine is that we take much of it for granted, and seldom see the effects of diseases of the past.

I have recently had the privilege of reading a family history of my great, great, great grandparents, James and Gerinia Ryan, and their descendants, put together by Eleanor Watt. It is fascinating reading, and also sobering when considering the deaths of four of their 15 children who did not make it past the age of 5.

George Edward Ryan died in July 1871 at 15 months of age from bronchitis

John Albert Ryan died in April 1878 at 13 months of age from deutitis (inflammation of the gums) and bronchitis

Jane Isabella Ryan died in June 1884 at 4 years of age from measles and pleurisy

Gerinia Eliza Ethel Ryan died in July 1884 at 9 months of age from measles and bronchitis

Critics of modern medicine often focus on diseases we have yet to find cures for, but in doing so they ignore the many successes – if born today the diseases which took these children’s lives are readily treatable.

I wonder what critics of modern medicine would find if they looked closely their family histories? How many relatives might they have lost to diseases now readily treatable?

Prestigious Award goes to Auckland Chemistry Professor Michael Edmonds Nov 05

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For a small country New Zealand has some impressive, internationally recognised research going on. One example is the work being done by Professor Bill Denny and his colleagues at the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre (ACSRC). Since 1956 this centre has published close to 1000 papers in international  journals and has over 100 patents for new anti-cancer drugs.

Leading the medicinal chemistry side of this research Professor Denny has played a major role in the many successes of this research centre.

As recognition for this work, Professor Denny has just been awarded the American Chemical Society’s Division of Medicinal Chemistry Award for his outstanding contributions to the field. This prestigious award is awarded biennially, and previous awardees include at least one Nobel laureate. It is highly unusual for this award to go to a researcher’s working outside of the USA, which speaks volumes about Professor Denny’s international reputation as a medicinal chemist.

The following clip outlines some the impressive work that the ACSRC has been involved in.

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Congratulations to Professor Denny for this well deserved award.

Scientists & Engineers on Company Boards Michael Edmonds Aug 11


As Fonterra continues to deal with the fall out from the botulinum contamination scare, it has been suggested that New Zealand companies such as Fonterra might benefit from having scientists or engineers on their Boards of Directors.

In an interview on The Nation this weekend Professor Jacqueline Rowarth, Professor of Agribusiness at the University of Waikato, spoke about Fonterra’s recent challenges, and how scientific representation on their Board might have been an advantage – having someone who could quickly understand and explain the difference between bacteria, spores and toxins, for example.

Over the past 5 years, Fonterra have faced a number of science related challenges – the melamine scare, detection of DCD in milk powder and now the botulium spore incident. In the wake of these issues perhaps a little science & engineering at the top, to complement the business and industry knowledge of Boards might be more appealing in the future?

Note – At the time of writing this Professor Rowarth’s interview is not available on line, but I suspect it will appear here in the next few days.

What’s the Difference between Science and Pseudoscience? Part 2 Michael Edmonds Jul 10


In a previous blog I suggested that one difference between science and pseudoscience is that pseudoscience can’t move on when evidence comes along which disproves its’ ideas: science does.

Another difference is that science attempts to, and is usually successful, in working out the underlying mechanism to explain the evidence.

Take for example the field of medicine. Early explanations of disease tended to blame it on vengeful gods, evil spirits or on “bad air”. When various herbal or mineral medicines were found to have some beneficial effects, the treatments were thought to work by either pleasing the gods or repelling the evil spirits or bad air, and were often administered with incantations.

As time progressed, observations seemed to suggest that many diseases resulted from disruptions within the body itself. Using the limited knowledge of the time disease was viewed by the Greeks as an imbalance of the four humours (phlegm, blood, yellow bile and black bile), while in Ayurvedic medicine it was viewed as an imbalance of three elemental substances. Treatments therefore sought to rebalance these humours/elements in various ways, some more harmful than others (e.g. bloodletting to remove “excess” blood).

Incredibly the idea of humours prevailed through to the 19th century, and was only disposed off when scientific discovery revealed the real causes of disease.

In 1747, Scottish Naval surgeon, James Lind carried out the first recorded clinical study to discover that the disease scurvy was a deficiency disease which could be treated by consumption of citrus fruit.

The work of Ignaz Semmelweiss, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Pasteur demonstrated that many diseases were caused by microbes which could be killed through the use of antiseptics such as carbolic acid, while Paul Ehrlich develop stains which allowed some of these microbes to be studied under the microscope. By the end of the 19th century many disease causing microbes had been discovered.

The determination of the structure of DNA in 1953 by Watson and Crick opened the door to a better understanding of genetic based diseases, including various cancers, while the development of fields such as biochemistry and molecular biology has revealed the biochemical pathways which can be targeted for treating various diseases caused by errant genetic instructions or by microbes.

The development of techniques which can monitor the environment around us has also revealed how environmental contamination can cause some diseases. Minamata disease, for example, results from high levels of mercury poisoning.

As we move into the 21st century we now understand that diseases can be caused by microbes, genetic malfunctions, environmental contaminants and sometime by deficiencies in various essential substances. An understanding of the biochemistry/ molecular genetics of the diseases also helps us develop targeted approaches to treatment, particularly in the design of new drugs.

If we compare this to various pseudoscientific therapies, their mechanisms have been disproven (Ayurvedic medicine), are contrary to scientific understanding (homeopathy, astrology based herbalism) or both (reikki, faith healing). Other pseudoscientific beliefs can also arise from ignoring the evidence and claiming one cause while ignoring those supported by the evidence (e.g. suggesting that HIV can be treated by vitamins rather than with antiretroviral drugs).

Medical treatments which are supported by evidence and a clear understanding of the underlying biological mechanisms not only provide a better understanding of the disease, they also provide clues to appropriate cures, a claim that cannot be made by pseudoscientific treatments such as homeopathy, reikki, faith healing and Ayurvedic “medicine”.




What’s the Difference Between Science & Pseudoscience? Michael Edmonds Jun 30


What’s the difference between science and pseudoscience?

Pseudoscience can’t move on when evidence comes along to disprove its ideas; science does.

Consider homeopathy, virtually unchanged over the past 200 years. Homeopathy was developed during a time when medicine was anything but evidence based, when common treatments were to bleed the patient or treat them with toxic metal compounds, treatments which are now also be considered sheer quackery.

Given the choice between pseudoscience which makes you sicker and pseudoscience which does nothing, the later seems the better choice, so homeopathy was able to establish itself as a reasonable treatment.

However, much progress has been made in medicine over the past 200 years. We now know that some diseases are caused by micro-organisms, others by genetic diseases, and yet others by environmental poisoning. And based on our better understanding of disease we now have reliable cures and treatments for many diseases.

Modern medicine has responded to changes in scientific knowledge and created new, potent treatments of disease. Homeopathy has not. It has not provided cures for any diseases of significance but instead lurks in the fringes of self limiting conditions.



The Sad Side of Pseudoscience Michael Edmonds Jun 30


Sometimes pseudoscience frustrates me, sometimes it makes me really angry, and sometimes it just makes me really sad.

An article in the May – August edition of The New Zealand “Journal” of Natural Medicine fits under the sad category. It is copied  from an online posting called How I Gave My Son Autism, written by “Mountain Mama”.

In this piece, “Mountain Mama” lists all the “unforgiveable” things she did during her pregnancy which “gave” her son autism.

These include

  • getting ultrasounds
  • drinking coca cola, containing the “highest levels of mercury due to the HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) in it”
  • using Lortab/acetaminophen to treat her fibromyalgia
  • allowing pitocin to be used to induce labour
  • having a C-section
  • using antibiotics
  • getting her son vaccinated
  • giving her son acetaminophen/paracetamol
  • giving her son fluoridated water

It is sad reading this list because as far as I am aware there is NO reliable evidence supporting a link between many of these claims and autism.

Also there is no consideration of the risks that some of these practices may have avoided. For example, antibiotics treat potentially life threatening infections, paracetamol treats fever, and C-sections can reduce other risks during pregnancy.

With regards to mercury in HFCS, I would be more concerned with the consumption of too much HFCS than of any mercury being present in it. While mercury has been reported as being detectable at 0.062 parts per million in one sample, there is no evidence that this (very low) amount is consistently present as other coca cola samples have shown no detectable levels.

Some of the evidence gathered by “Mountain Mama” appears to have come from an article called Common Obstetrical Practices and their Link to Autism by Jeanne Ohm, a Doctor of Chiropractic. Others from health websites and government lobby groups.

Just as disturbing is the comments section, which in parts, serves as an echo (and amplification) chamber for ideas about causes of autism, where others point out not to forget about mercury in fillings, Lyme disease or electromagnetic radiation, while others dismiss the idea of autism having a genetic contribution.

It’s depressing to see this sort of  guilt and self flagellation based on misinformation.

Paul Offit’s New Book – “Killing us Softly: the Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine Michael Edmonds Jun 30


Last week I downloaded a copy of Paul Offit’s new book, Killing Us Softly: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine. It is a fascinating exploration of pseudoscientific beliefs and the terrible consequences that result when they are embraced. It is a well written, well researched book that explores various areas of pseudoscience, some of which I had not come across before (Chronic Lyme disease, Krebiozen and the surprising origins of the Rife machine to name but a few).

Paul Offit is no stranger to pseudoscience. For years he has argued against those who claim vaccines cause autism, a stand which has resulted in threats against his life and his family. As Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia he is well placed to comment on vaccines (and does so in his books, Vaccinated: One Man’s Quest to Defeat the World’s Deadliest Diseases, Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure, Vaccines and Your Child: Separating Fact from Fiction, and Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All).

In Killing Us Softly (Also sold under the title Do You Believe in Magic), Dr Offit widens his gaze and critique to a  range of “alternative” therapies. Such therapies include a variety of dubious anti-cancer treatments pushed over the past century, the “anti-aging” industry created by Suzanne Somers, coffee enemas, cure all using bleach, and many other outrageous “cures”.

It is a revealing book, and one that has polarised the reviews at Amazon. When I last looked the Killing Me Softly version had received two 5 star reviews and four 1 star reviews with none in between. The Do You Believe in Magic version has nineteen 5 star reviews, sixteen 1 star reviews and a small scattering of 2 and 3 star reviews.

Reading some of the 1 star reviews, several reviewers claim that Dr Offit can’t be trusted because he has made money off of the creation of a rotavirus vaccine. The irony of such claims is palpable if one considers how those in the “alternative” therapy make their money, for example, from the book

“the anti-aging business has profits rivaling those of many pharmaceutical companies, making a fortune for its promoters. Suzanne Somers is an industry. On her website, she promotes only one brand of vitamins, supplements, and minerals: RestoreLife. There’s RestoreLife Formula Essential Mineral Packets, Supplement Starter Kit, Reveratrol, Omega-3, and vitamin D3, as well as RestoreLife Digest Renew, Bone Renew, Calm Renew, Natural Sleep Renew, and Sexy Leg Renew. Somers sells her own brand of foods, cooking utensil, and sweeteners (SomerSweet), as well as skin-care, weightloss, and detoxification products. She sells nanotechnology patches to control appetite. All of these have made Suzanne Somers a multimillionaire.”

I’ve given the book a 5 star review. It is well written and researched, and gives clear examples of the dangers of “alternative” therapies and how they are indeed “killing us softly”.

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