Category Archives: Food

Penicillin, cheese allergy, and stomach cancer

penecillin molecule

The penicillin molecule is a product of the penicillin mold

Many people believe they are allergic to penicillin — it’s the most common perceived drug allergy — but several studies have shown that most folks who think they are allergic are not. Perhaps they once were, but when people who thought they were allergic were tested, virtually none showed allergic reaction. In a test of 146 presumably allergic patients at McMaster University, only two had their penicillin allergy confirmed; 98.6% of the patients tested negative. A similar study at the Mayo Clinic tested 384 pre-surgical patients with a history of penicillin allergy; 94% tested negative, and were given clearance to receive penicillin antibiotics before, during, and after surgery. Read a summary here.

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Orange showing three different strains of the penicillin mold; some of these are toxic.

This is very good news. Penicillin is a low-cost, low side-effect antibiotic, effective against many diseases including salmonella, botulism, gonorrhea, and scarlet fever. The penicillin molecule is a common product of nature, produced by a variety of molds, e.g. on the orange at right, and used in cheese making, below. It is thus something most people have been exposed to, whether they realize it or not.

Penicillin allergy is still a deadly danger for the few who really are allergic, and it’s worthwhile to find out if that means you. The good news: that penicillin is found in common cheeses suggests, to me, a simple test for penicillin allergy. Anyone who suspects penicillin allergy and does not have a general dairy allergy can try eating brie, blue, camembert, or Stilton cheese: any of cheeses made with the penicillin mold. If you don’t break out in a rash or suffer stomach cramps, you’re very likely not allergic to penicillin.

There is some difference between cheeses. Some, like brie and camembert, have a white fuzzy mold coat; this is Penicillium camemberti. it exudes penicillin — not in enough to cure gonorrhea, but enough to give taste and avoid spoilage — and to test for allergy. Danish blue and Roquefort, shown below, have a different look and more flavor. They’re made with blue-green, Penicillium roqueforti. Along with penicillin, this mold produces a small amount of neurotoxin, roquefortine C. It’s not enough to harm most people, but it could cause some who are not allergic to penicillin to be allergic to blue cheese. Don’t eat a moldy orange, by the way; some forms of the mold produce a lot of neurotoxin.

For people who are not allergic, a thought I had is that one could, perhaps treat heartburn or ulcers with cheese; perhaps even cancer? H-Pylori, the bacteria associated with heartburn, is effectively treated by amoxicillin, a penicillin variant. If a penicillin variant kills the bacteria, as seems plausible that penicillin cheese might too. Then too, amoxicillin, is found to reduce the risk of gastric cancer. If so, penicillin or penicillin cheese might prove to be a cancer protective. To my knowledge, this has never been studied, but it seems worth considering. The other, standard treatment for heartburn, pantoprazole / Protonix, is known to cause osteoporosis, and increase the risk of cancer.

A culture of Penicillium roqueforti. Most people are not allergic to it.

The blue in blue cheese is Penicillium roqueforti. Most people are not allergic.

Penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming, who noticed that a single spore of the mold killed the bacteria near it on a Petrie dish. He tried to produce significant quantities of the drug from the mold with limited success, but was able to halt disease in patients, and was able to interest others who had more skill in large-scale fungus growing. Kids looking for a good science fair project, might consider penicillin growing, penicillin allergy, treatment of stomach ailments using cheese, or anything else related to the drug. Three Swedish journals declared that penicillin was the most important discovery of the last 1000 years. It would be cool if the dilute form, the one available in your supermarket, could be shown to treat heartburn and/or cancer. Another drug you could study is Lysozyme, a chemical found in tears, in saliva, and in human milk, but not in cow milk. Alexander Fleming found that tears killed bacteria, as did penicillin. Lysozyme, the active ingredient of tears, is currently used to treat animals, but not humans.

Robert Buxbaum, November 9, 2017. Since starting work on this essay I’ve been eating blue cheese. It tastes good and seems to cure heartburn. As a personal note: my first science fair project (4th grade) involved growing molds on moistened bread. For an incubator, I used the underside of our home radiator. The location kept my mom from finding the experiment and throwing it out.

Fat people live longer, show less dementia

Life expectancy is hardly affected by weight in the normal - overweight- obese range. BMI 30-34.9 = obese.

Life expectancy is hardly affected by weight in the normal – overweight – obese range. BMI 30-34.9 = obese.

Lets imagine you are a 5’10” man and you weigh 140 lbs. In that case, you have a BMI of 20, and you probably think you’re pretty healthy, or perhaps you think you’re a bit overweight. Our institutes of health will say that you are an “average-wight” or “normal-weight” American, and then claim that the average-weight American is overweight. What they don’t tell you, is that low weight, and so-called average weight people in the US live shorter lives. Other things being equal, the morbidity (chance of death) for a thin American, BMI 18.5 is nearly triple that of someone who’s obese, BMI 32. The morbidity of the normal-weight American is better, but is still nearly double that of the obese fellow whose BMI is 32.

Our NIH has created a crisis of overweight Americans, that is not based on health. They work hard to solve this obesity crisis by telling people to jog to work, and by creating ever-more complicated food pyramids. Those who listen live shorter lives. A prime example is Jim Fixx, author of several running books including “The complete Book of Running.” He was 52 when he died of a heart attack while running. Similar to this is the diet-expert, Adelle Davis, author of “Let’s eat right to keep fit”. She died at 70 of cancer — somewhat younger than the average American woman. She attributed her cancer to having eaten junk food as a youth. I would attribute it to being thin. Not only do thin people live shorter lives, but their chances of recovering from cancer, or living with it, seem to improve if you start with some fat.

The same patter exists where age-related dementia is concerned. If you divide the population into quartiles of weight, the heaviest has the least likelihood of dementia, the second heaviest has the second-least, the third has the third-least, and the lightest Americans have the highest likelihood of dementia. Here are two studies to that effect, “Association between late-life body mass index and dementia”, The Kame Project, Neurology. 2009 May 19; 72(20): 1741–1746. And “BMI and risk of dementia in two million people over two decades: a retrospective cohort study” The Lancet, Volume 3, No. 6, p431–436, June 2015.

Morbidity and weight, uncorrected data, and corrected by removing the demented.

Morbidity and weight, uncorrected data, and corrected by removing the demented. The likelihood of dementia decreases with weight.

Now you may think that there is a confounding, cause and effect here: that crazy old people don’t live as long. You’d be right there, crazy people don’t live as long. Still, if you correct the BMI-mortality data to remove those with dementia, you still find that in terms of life-span, for men and women, it pays to be overweight or obese but not morbidly so. The study concludes as follows: “Weight loss was related to a higher mortality risk (HR = 1.5; 95% CI: 1.2,1.9) but this association was attenuated when persons with short follow-up or persons with dementia were excluded.” As advice to those who are planning a weight loss program, you might go crazy and reduce your life-span a lot, but if you don’t go crazy, you’re only reducing your life-span a little.

In terms of health food, I’ve noticed that many non-health foods, like alcohol and chocolate are associated with longevity and mental health. And while low-impact exercise helps increase life-span, that exercise is only minimally associated with weight loss. Mostly weight loss involves changing the amount you eat and changing your clothes choices to maximize radiant heat loss.

Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, October 26, 2017. A joke: Last week I was mugged by a vegan. You may ask how I know it was a vegan. He told be before running off with my wallet.

State bird suggestion: the turkey

state bird stamps; robin cardinal

three US states use the (american) robin as their state bird, and 7 more use the (northern) cardinal. None use the turkey

As things now stand, three states of the union, including Michigan have the robin as their state bird. Another seven have the cardinal. Not that they have different species of robin or cardinal, they use the same species: the American robin, and the Northern cardinal respectively.

A thought I’ve had is that Michigan should change to have a unique bird symbol, and I propose the turkey, in particular the eastern wild turkey shown below. The robin is found in every state of the union except for Hawaii, and is found in several countries, it’s associated with Robin Hood, and with Batman’s side-kick. By contrast, the eastern wild turkey could be a unique state symbol. It’s basically found in no other country besides the US, and found in only a few US states including Michigan.

Eastern Wild Turkey. A majestic bird, and brave Maximum height: 4 foot.

Eastern Wild Turkey. A majestic bird, and brave. Maximum height: 4 foot.

The eastern wild turkey is a far more impressive bird than the cardinal or robin. Full grown, it stands 4 foot tall. Benjamin Franklin claimed to have preferred the turkey (likely the eastern wild turkey) to the eagle as the national bird of the US. In this wonderful letter to his daughter, Sarah, he says that it is a noble bird, useful and the source of sustenance. He also claims it is unafraid to attack a British regimen, claims that also appears in this song, “the egg” in the play/movie 1776. The turkey most definitely provided food for the Indians, for the early European settlers, and still provides for Michigan hunters to this day. Further, turkey feathers are the preferred choice for quill pens. They are used for scribes writing holy works, like copies of the Torah, and it is likely they were used for the declaration of Independence. The same history and associations can not be claimed for the robins or the cardinal. Those birds are basically attractive, and nothing else.

Not that attractive is bad, nor is it bd to have a state bird associated with Batman’s side-kick, or with a Saint Louis baseball team, but I don’t think either is particularly appropriate for Michigan. Not that there are no disadvantages to the name turkey: (1) it might suggest a slow individual or project, and (2) Wild Turkey is the name of a Tennessee bourbon whiskey. Neither of these are quite a bad as being a sidekick to the bat, or to the batman, and I think both are addressed by specifying that the state bird is the eastern wild turkey, and not just some random variety. What say ye, citizens of Michigan? Let’s do it before someone else takes the turkey.

Robert Buxbaum, December 16, 2015.

Chinese jokes

At college, my chinese room-mate wanted to make a surprise birthday dinner for his girlfriend.

….. But someone let the cat out of the bag.

 

Then there was the fellow who broke into the Fortune Cookie Factory with a hammer and broke virtually all the fortune cookies — as many as he could find — in an act of wonton destruction.

 

And finally,

 

I don’t believe racial jokes are evil, but suppose it all comes down on your idea of good humor. Comedy always involves odd people, or people doing things differently. The difference doesn’t have to be insulting, just different, and all good jokes provide some new insight.

Robert E. Buxbaum, October 29, 2015. Every now and again I post jokes– and then I analyze them to death (it’s funny because ….). Recent ones include an Italian Funeral joke, a fetish lawyer joke, and things on, engineers, dentists, piratessurrealism. Just click the “jokes” tab at right for the whole, unsightly assortment.

you are what you eat?

The simplest understanding of this phrase is that you should eat good, healthy foods to be healthy, and that this will make you healthy in body and mind.

The author of the study published this book against GM foods simultaneously with release of his paper.

The author of this book against unhealthy foods faked his analysis to support the book.

Clearly there is some truth to this. Crazy people look crazy and often eat crazy. Even ‘normal’ people, if they eat too much are likely to become fat, lazy, and sick. There is a socio- economic effect (fat people earn less), and a physiological evidence that gut bacteria affects anxiety and depression (at least in rats). My sense here is at the diet extremes though. There is little, or no evidence to suggest you can make yourself more intelligent (or kind or good) by eating more of the right stuff, or just the right foods in just the right amounts. A better diet can make you look better, but there is a core lie at work when you extend this to imply that the real you is your body, or so tied to your body that a healthy mind can not be found in a sickly body. But most evidence is that the mind is the real you, and (following Socrates) that beautiful minds are found in sickly bodies. I’ve seen few (basically, no) healthy poets, writers, or great artists. Neither are there scientists of note (that I can recall) who lived without smoking, drinking, and any bad habits. Many creative people did drugs. George Orwell smoked cigarette, and died of TB, but wrote well to the end. There is no evidence that bad writing or thinking can be improved by health foods. Stupid is as stupid does, and many healthy people are clearly dolts.

Not that it’s always clear what constitutes good health, or what constitutes good food for health, or what constitutes a good mind. Skinny people may be admired and may earn more, but it is not clear they are healthy. Yule Gibbons, the natural food guru died young of stomach cancer. Adele Davis, another the author of “eat right to be healthy,” died of brain cancer. And Jim Fix, “the running doctor” died young of a heat attack while running. Their health foods may have killed them, and that unhealthy foods, like chocolate and coffee can be good for you. It’s likely a question of balance. While a person will feel better who dresses well, the extreme is probably no good. Very often, a person is drawn after his self-image to be the person he pretends. Show me a man who eats only vegetarian, and I’ll show you someone who sees himself as spiritual, or wants to be seen as spiritual. And that man is likely to be drawn to acting spiritual. Among the vegetarians you find Einstein, George B. Shaw, and Gandhi, people who may have been spiritual from the start, but may have been kept to spirituality from their diets. You also find Hitler: spirituality can take all sorts of forms.

Ward Sullivan in the New Yorker

Ward Sullivan in the New Yorker. People eat, drink, and dress like who they are. And people become like those they eat drink and dress like.

Choice of diet also helps select the people you run into. If you eat vegetarian, you’re likely to associate with other vegetarians, and you will likely behave like them. If you eat Chinese, Greek, or Mexican food, you’re likely to associate with these communities and behave like them. Similarly, an orthodox Jew or Moslem is tied to his community with every dinner and every purchase from the kosher or halal store.

And now we come to the bizarre science of bio-systems. Each person is a complex bio-system, with more non-human DNA than human, and more non-human cells than human. A person has a vast army of bugs on him, and a similarly vast pool of bugs within him. Recent research suggests that what we eat affects this bio-system, and through it our mental state. For whatever the mechanism, show me someone who drinks only 30 year Scotch or 40-year-old French wine, and I’ll show you a food snob. By contrast, show me someone who eats good, cheap food, and drinks good, cheap wine or Scotch (Lauder’s or Dewar’s), and I’ll show you a decent person very much like myself, a clever man who either is a man of the people or who wants to be known as one.”Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es.” [Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are].

Robert E. Buxbaum, February, 2015. My 16-year-old daughter asked me to write on this topic. Perhaps she didn’t know what it meant, or how true I thought it was, or perhaps she liked my challenges of being 16.

Can you spot the man-made climate change?

As best I can tell, the only constant in climate is change, As an example, the record of northern temperatures for the last 10,000 years, below, shows nothing but major ups and downs following the end of the last ice age 9500 years ago. The only pattern, if you call it a pattern, is fractal chaos. Anti-change politicos like to concentrate on the near-recent 110 years from 1890 to 2000. This is the small up line at the right, but they ignore the previous 10000 or more, ignore the fact that the last 17 years show no change, and ignore the variation within the 100 years (they call it weather). I find I can not spot the part of the change that’s man-made.

10,000 years of climate change based on greenland ice cores. Ole Humlum – Professor, University of Oslo Department of Geosciences.

10,000 years of northern climate temperatures based on Greenland ice cores. Dr. Ole Humlum, Dept. of Geosciences, University of Oslo. Can you spot the part of the climate change that’s man-made?

Jon Stewart makes the case for man-made climate change.

Steven Colbert makes his case for belief: If you don’t believe it you’re stupid.

Steven Colbert makes the claim that man-made climate change is so absolutely apparent that all the experts agree, and that anyone who doubts is crazy, stupid, or politically motivated (he, of course is not). Freeman Dyson, one of the doubters, is normally not considered crazy or stupid. The approach reminds me of “the emperor’s new clothes.” Only the good, smart people see it. The same people used to call it “Global Warming” based on a model prediction of man-made warming. The name was changed to “climate change” since the planet isn’t warming. The model predicted strong warming in the upper atmosphere, but that isn’t happening either; ski areas are about as cold as ever (we’ve got good data from ski areas).

I note that the climate on Jupiter has changed too in the last 100 years. A visible sign of this is that the great red spot has nearly disappeared. But it’s hard to claim that’s man-made. There’s a joke here, somewhere.

Jupiter's red spot has shrunk significantly. Here it is now. NASA

Jupiter’s red spot has shrunk significantly. Here it is now. NASA

As a side issue, it seems to me that some global warming could be a good thing. The periods that were warm had peace and relative plenty, while periods of cold, like the little ice age, 500 years ago were times of mass starvation and plague. Similarly, things were a lot better during the medieval warm period (1000 AD) than during the dark ages 500-900 AD. The Roman warm period (100 BC-50 AD) was again warm and (relatively) civilized. Perhaps we owe some of the good food production of today to the warming shown on the chart above. Civilization is good. Robert E. Buxbaum January 14, 2015. (Corrected January 19; I’d originally labeled Steven Colbert as Jon Stewart)

 

Of Scrooge and rising wheat production

The Christmas Carol tells a tale that, for all the magic and fantasy, presents as true an economic picture of a man and his times as any in real-life history. Scrooge is a miserable character at the beginning of the tale, he lives alone in a dark house, without a wife or children, disliked by those around him. Scrooge has an office with a single employee (Bob Cratchit) in a tank-like office heated by a single lump of coal. He doesn’t associate much with friends or family, and one senses that he has few customers. He is poor by any life measure, and is likely poor relative to other bankers. At the end, through giving, he finds he enjoys life, is liked more, and (one has the sense) he may even get more business, and more money.

Scrooge (as best I can read him) believes in Malthus’s economic error of zero-sum wealth: That there is a limited amount of food, clothing, jobs, etc. and therefore Scrooge uses only the minimum, employs only the minimum, and spends only the minimum. Having more people would only mean more mouths to feed. As Scrooge says, “I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned [the workhouses]. They cost enough, and … If they [the poor] would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Scrooge, the poor rich man.

Scrooge, the poor rich man with a tiny carbon footprint.

The teaching of the spirits is the opposite, and neither that of the Democrats or Republicans. Neither that a big government is needed to redistribute the wealth, nor that the free market will do everything. But, as I read it, the spirits bring a spiritual message of personal charity and happiness. That one enriches ones-self when one give of and by ones-self — just from the desire to be good and do good. The spirit of Christmas Present assures Scrooge that no famine will result from the excess population, but tells him of his 1800 brothers and shows him the unending cornucopia of food in the marketplace: spanish onions, oranges, fat chestnuts, grapes, and squab. Christmas future then shows him his funeral, and Tim’s: the dismal end of all men, rich and not:  “Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live.” And Scrooge reforms, learns: gives a smile and a laugh, and employs a young runner to get Cratchit a fat goose. He visits his nephew Fred, a cheerful businessman for dinner, and laughs while watching Tom Topper court Fred’s plump sister-in-law.

The spirits do not redistribute Scrooge’s wealth for him, and certainly don’t present a formula for how much to give whom. Instead they present a picture of the value of joy and societal fellowship (as I read it). The spirits help Scrooge out of his mental rut so he’s sees worthy endeavors everywhere. Both hoarding and redistribution are Malthusian-Scroogian messages, as I read them. Both are based on the idea that there is only so much that the world can provide.

World wheet production

World wheat production tripled from 1960 to 2012 (faostat.fao.org), but acreage remained constant. More and more wheat from the same number of acres.

The history of food production suggests the spirits are right. The population is now three times what it was in Dickens’s day and mass starvation is not here. Instead we live among an “apoplectic opulence” of food. In a sense these are the product of new fertilizers, new tractors, and GMOs (Genetically modified organisms), but I would say it’s more the influence of better people. Plus, perhaps some extra CO2 in the air. Britons now complain about being too fat — and blame free markets for making them so. Over the last 50 years, wheat production has tripled, while the world population doubled, and the production of delicacies, like meat has expanded even faster. Unexpectedly, one sees that the opulence does not come from bringing new fields on-line — a process that would have to stop — but instead from increased production by the same tilled acres.

The opulence is not uniformly distributed, I should note. Countries that believe in Malthus and resort to hoarding or redistribution have been rewarded to see their grim prophesies fulfilled, as was Scrooge. Under Stalin, The Soviet Union redistributed grain from the unworthy farmer to the worth factory worker. The result was famine and Stalin felt vindicated by it. Even after Stalin, production never really grew under Soviet oversight, but remained at 75 Mtons/year from 1960 until the soviet collapse in 1990. Tellingly, nearly half of Soviet production was from the 3% of land under private cultivation. An unintended benefit: it appears the lack of Soviet grain was a major motivation for détente.  England had famine problems too when they enacted Malthusian “corn acts” and when they prevented worker migration Irish ownership during the potato famine. They saw starvation again under Attlee’s managed redistribution. In the US, it’s possible that behaviors like FDR scattering the bonus army may have helped prolong the depression. My sense is that the modern-day Scrooges are those against immigration “the foreigners will take our jobs,” and those who oppose paying folks on time, or nuclear and coal for fear that we will warm the planet. Their vision of America-yet-to-be matches Scrooge’s: a one-man work-force in a tank office heated by a single piece of coal.

Now I must admit that I have no simple formula for the correct charity standard. How does a nation provide enough, but not so much that it removes motivation– and the joy of success. Perhaps all I can say is that there is a best path between hoarding and false generosity. Those pushing the extremes are not helping, but creating a Dickensian world of sadness and gloom. Rejoice with me then, and with the reformed Scrooge. God bless us all, each and every one.

Robert Buxbaum, January 7, 2015. Some ideas here from Jerry Bowyer in last year’s Forbes.

General Tso’s chicken

Self promotion. It's not for everyone.

Self promotion. It’s not for everyone.

Is funny because …. it’s classical metaphysical humor. The lowly chicken becomes the hero and leader, and the troops are following him/it (to victory).

We know that some unlikely leaders are successful, perhaps just because they’ve the pluck to get up and do something (that’s the secret of American success). Presumably the troops are too timid to lead, and are following this chicken because of his determined air, and his hat and horse: clothes make the man. You should not follow every leader with determination, a fancy hat and a horse, by the way. Some leaders will devour their followers, and most do not care for self promoting underlings.

Robert Buxbaum, Nov.12, 2014.

New mixed drink, the R°

Earlier this week, R__ turned 21, the drinking age in most of the USA. As a gift to her, I thought I might invent a new mixed drink that would suit her taste, and make her birthday more special. My requirements: that it should be kosher, that it’s made with widely available ingredients; that it should be relatively sophisticated, that it should be lower in alcohol (a fatherly concern), and that it should taste good to her and the general public.

The R___: gin tonic and grenadine

The R°: gin, tonic , ice, and grenadine

What I came up with, is something I call,The R°. It’s a modification of one of the great drinks of the western world, the gin and tonic. My modification is to use less gin, and to use grenadine instead of the traditional squeeze of lime. As she gets older, she may want to increase the gin content. The recipe: put 2/3 shot gin in a 10 oz straight-sided glass. Fill the glass 2/3 full of ice, near-fill with tonic water, and add a dash of grenadine, 1/4 shot or so (I used Rose’s). Stir slightly so the pink color stays mostly on the bottom. The result is slightly sweeter than the traditional gin and tonic, kosher in almost all places (you’ve got to check, but generally true), fairly sophisticated, good-tasting, and a reminder of Israel, a country where pomegranates grow all over. If you order one at a place with black lights and doesn’t stir much,you’ll discover that the tonic water glows electric-blue.

The verdict: R__ liked it. My hope is that you will enjoy it too. As a literary note, grenade is French for pomegranate; hand grenades got their name because of the shape. This drink is also suitable for talk like a pirate day (September 19).

Sept 14, 2014. My only previous gastronomic post was a recipe to make great lemonade. For a song by my daughter, go here, or here. For a joke about a neutron walking into a bar, go here.

Amazing tornado drought of 2014

At 143 days as of April 10, 2014, the span between major tornadoes (EF3s and stronger) is the 6th longest in the last 60 years, and it isn’t over yet. Even small tornadoes are becoming more scarce. Last year saw few hurricanes and tornadoes, and so far we’ve had only 100 total tornadoes (see below); in a typical year there’d be 323. The good news has gone unreported, I think, because there’s no event, no photo-opportunity; no interviews with survivors, police, and experts.

US tornadoes: typical and year to date, January 1 to April 10 2014,  NOAA

US tornadoes: typical and year to date, January 1 to April 10 2014, from NOAA, storm center

Perhaps this is a bonuses from global warming, or from the very cold winter just passed, or from the chaotic, weatherit’s hard to tell weather from climate. Whatever the reason, it’s happening and good. Here’s how tornadoes lift stuff up, with video (Einstein’s explanation). Here’s an explanation of hurricanes (my explanation).

Robert E. Buxbaum, April 11, 2014. In other good news, the ozone hole is shrinkinggenetically modified foods don’t seem to cause cancer, and many bad things are good for you, like sunlight. Enjoy the good.