Thursday, May 24, 2012

8-Methyl-N-vanillyl-trans-6-nonenamide: My Favorite Toxic Chemical


Note: This is my contribution to the "Our Favorite Toxic Chemicals" blog carnival organized over at Sciencegeist.


Amanita muscaria: Naturally
delicious deadly
photo:
 Pato Novoa
For some time, and not for the first time, there has been a war of words going on between chemists and environmentalists/organic food proponents/hippies/etc.  Both "sides" are right in a lot of ways, but--as is so much the case in public discourse, both are blinded by prejudice.  Chemists: you're not helping by implying that anyone who has concerns about something an idiot (often in so many words--see comments on any number of blog posts regarding Nick Kristoff's recent chemophobia).  Non-chemists: you're not helping either when you use "chemical" as a dirty word.

With the exception, apparently, of some Dow-manufactured products, everything is a chemical, from the water you drink to the air you breathe.  "Organic" (itself another bone of contention between chemists and non-chemists) or natural also doesn't mean better.  Certainly no one would argue that ricin, one of the most toxic compounds known to man, is "better" than aspartame simply because it's a natural product.

On the other hand, synthetic is not always better, either.  Organic farming practices have been proven to produce vegetables with higher nutritional content than those grown with chemical fertilizers and pest control; the tradeoff has always been considered to be a reduced yield per acre.  Recently, however, long term studies have suggested this is not the case.

Get it? Close to my heart.  Ha!
As a chemist, food geek, and gardener, I had to choose a food toxin for my favorite.  I settled on something near and dear to my heart: capsaicin.  Capsaicin is the most abundant active alkaloid found in chili peppers--it's the stuff that gives them the "heat."  I love the stuff so much I had it inked on my ribs (chemists--I kept the "C"s and "H"s because I thought it looked better, stylistically).

Chemical toxicity is generally expressed as LD50; simply, the dose of a substance required to kill 50% of a test population.  In rats, the LD50 for water is around 90 milliliters per kilogram of body weight; capsaicin's LD50 is 47.2 milligrams per kilogram.  To make that a little more clear, the average American male weight approximately 87 kilograms, and naga jolokia chili contains at most about 62000 mg/kg capsaicin.  This means one would need to eat about 70 grams of naga to die, or about 60 dried pods (very approximate numbers used here).  That is, if you could keep them down; as far as I can tell, there has never been a documented death from capsaicin overdose, from chilis or otherwise.  Note: The two gallons of water you might be tempted to drink after attempting such a feat would likely kill you if the peppers didn't.

So why do I love capsaicin so?  For one, capsaicin stimulates the release of adrenaline.  For starters, unlike many folks, I love the intense feeling of heat, racing heart, and mild dizziness--eating entire chilis is like taking a drug (not that I would know anything about that).  So very many of my favorite foods would be bland, boring dishes without this wonderful molecule.  Imagine Mexican or Thai food without the heat.  Boring.

In ur garden, synthesizin' ur cancer medz
photo by woodleywonderworks
Capsaicin and chili peppers are extremely useful outside of the kitchen, as well.  I've personally used a topical application for nerve pain, and it is often used for all sorts of back, muscle, joint and arthritis pain.  Ointments are also used as a treatment for psoriasis; it reduces itching and inflammation.  Recently, capsaicin is under investigation as a diabetes treatment and a cancer treatment--it induces apoptosis, a form of programmed cell death, in several cancer types.

There are myriad other uses; in the garden spray hot pepper wax to keep away pesky rodentsand deer (it won't keep birds away, they don't respond to it, and are the primary way pepper seeds are dispersed).  Police and military forces us capsaicin--from chili peppers--for less-lethal force applications (India announced they would be using naga jolokia for this purpose).

An old saw is that the dose makes the poison, and it is certainly the case with capsaicin and many other compounds.  The mainstream press would do well to keep this in mind--maybe hire some editors with a science background to at least check facts before rushing to press with another article screaming chemophobia.  The science press (and twittersphere, blogosphere, etc.) would do well to keep in mind that not everyone has as deep an understanding of chemistry as they do, and attempt to educate without mocking.  Remember: natural is not always good, and synthetic is not always better.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

WBC Winners: San Diego Kicks Ass Again!

The 2012 World Beer Cup award winners were recently announced (full winner list here), and California, specifically San Diego, raked in some serious honors.  Local winners include Pizza Port with a gold in (surprise!) the Imperial IPA category (Green Flash took the bronze), and a new favorite of mine, Manzanita Brewing winning the gold in the "experimental" category.  In Northern California, a great new seasonal from Sierra Nevada, Ruthless Rye, took top honors for rye beer.

San Diego-based companies took home a total of six gold medals, five silvers, and eight bronzes--Pizza Port grabbed eight total medals!  Stay hoppy, San Diego.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Corzine's "Push" for a Senate Seat

Credit: www.callcentrehelper.com
In 2000, I was a college student in Melbourne, FL, working part time at a not-so-reputable market research company doing telephone surveys.  Truly thankless work.  That year, John Corzine would win a very close race against Bob Franks, spending $62 million of his own money in what would be the most expensive Senate campaign in history.

So how did he spend all of that money?  I certainly can't account for all of it, but I know that he sent a good chunk of it to Florida, funding political "poll" calls, most of which were anything but.  These "push polls" go something like this:  a few legitimate questions to make it feel like a true poll, followed by questions that are intended to push an idea about a candidate.  One of the most well-known examples of this occurred during the 2000 Republican Presidential primary, when Karl Rove used a push poll with the question "Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?"


"Good evening, I hope I
interrupted your dinner!"
Push polls are dirty politics, to be sure, but with the exception of New Hampshire, they're legal.  But Corzine didn't stop there.  In the few days before the election, we were given a new script.  No more poll questions, just a simple message reminding folks to get out and vote.  What could possibly be wrong with that?  Well, as it turns out, quite a bit.  What we did was target some very close districts with repeated calls.  The kicker?  We said that we were calling on behalf of Corzine's opponent, Franks.  After ten or fifteen of these calls in one evening, it was understandable that many voters were irate, and informed us they'd be voting for Corzine before slamming down the phone.  Only when we got someone to that point did take them off of our call list.


So did all of this chicanery work?  Well, Corzine won the race by just four percentage points (less than 5,000 votes), so you'd have to think so.  Am I proud to have been involved?  No, but I think we all know what it's like to be young and broke. Is anything about Corzine a reason to vote Republican? Not for anyone in the current field.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Kissing Goats and Finding God in Arizona

Yes, she gave me the tongue.
Spring is the perfect time to visit Arizona.  All of the desert flora is in full bloom, and the blistering heat of summer is still months ahead.  With this in mind, Mrs. Pegleg and I took a Friday off and headed to Tucson to visit a college roommate of mine who recently started a PhD program at U of A.  After a very windy Thursday night trip through the Coyote Mountains, we stopped off in Yuma, where we grabbed an excellent (and cheap!) diner breakfast at Brownie's before setting off on our second leg.

Just before Tucson, it's hard to miss an interesting-sounding roadside attraction: Rooster Cogburn's Ostrich Ranch.  We had seen it on some TV program or another, and planned to stop.  Decked out in our favorite tourist t-shirts, we were ready to, well, do some silly tourist stuff.  We ended up having a blast--who knew that feeding goats out of your mouth and getting pecked by gigantic African birds was so much fun?

On to Tucson, we met my friend at a campus pizza spot called Zachary's for some very tasty deep dish pizza.  The place is a dive, but the pizza is as good as the beer selection.  After a quick visit to my friend's lab, we headed to his place to blow off some exam steam with several games of Beirut (not Beer Pong).

Saturday started with a burger from Lindy's on 4th, which had been featured on Man v. Food.  Unfortunately, they were rather underwhelming.  The burger itself was not seasoned at all, and the toppings didn't make up for it.  After a couple more drinks downtown, we headed to Nimbus Brewing Company to taste some Arizona beer.  Nimbus did not disappoint, the Old Monkeyshine is a very nice, malty quaff.

This God is an awesome God
A bit more eating and drinking later, we found God.  Not the deity, the crazy owner of a an even crazier bar, The Meet Rack.  God--his legal name--sits at the bar under a huge amount of bras suspended from the ceiling, regaling all comers with dirty jokes.  Ask for the tour, and you will get to see the bondage room, hear tales of God's unsuccessful mayoral campaigns, and see the greatest thing of all.  The women's restroom has a condom machine.  Buy one, and an alarm rings in the bar, and all patrons will greet you with cries of, "Slut!"  It was truly a bizarre spot; on the patio a woman was in a conversation with two men about her husband's orgasms, the bartender was shirtless on the bar giving body shots.  Have enough to drink, and you might take God up on this offer: get a brand of his face and receive fifty cents off of all drinks for life.

Three-day weekends are all too fast, and Sunday meant the road back to San Diego.  Before hitting the road, we had to try the famous Sonoran hot dog.  How can you possibly go wrong with a bacon-wrapped hot dog?  You can't, and these were every bit as good as you can imaging.  Perfect fuel for a six plus hour drive.

We made great time back to California, so we managed two more brewery stops.  Alpine Beer Company is a tiny place in a tiny town, but they make excellent beer.  Their amazing Exponential Hoppiness has been selling on Ebay at a huge markup, prompting the owner to stop selling growlers and bottles.  I had the duet and enjoyed it immensely, crisp and not overly hopped, it would be a good summer brew.  Final stop was the city-subsidized El Cajon Brewing Company.  The beer was good, not great, but the facility is amazing.  Amazing what you can do with a boatload of redevelopment money.

Altogether a great trip.  Good weather, good friends, and good beer.  What more can you ask for?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Farmers' Market Goodness

Awesomely fractal romanesco
I always tell people to hit the farmers' market in the last half hour; they always look at me like I'm crazy.  "Won't all of the good stuff be gone?"  Well, I suppose it's possible you'll miss a gem or two, something someone just managed to harvest a few of.  But you get some great deals when you show up at the end--some of these folks won't have another market this week, and they'd rather give their produce to you than throw it out.

My finds this week included a free pile of amazing, juicy, tangelos, a basket of enormous, juicy strawberries, some slender, beautiful sweet carrots, and some heavily discounted romanesco, which the geek in me just loves. Sunday night, I put the carrots and tangelos together to come up with a very nice braised carrot recipe.

Tangelo-braised sweet carrots
1 bunch of fresh sweet carrots, washed and trimmed, but with some greens left
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
~1 tbsp fresh chopped oregano or rosemary
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
1 cup beef broth
juice of one tangelo

Melt butter in oil over medium heat, toss in garlic and sautee with frequent stirring until just brown.  Add carrots and cook, stirring occasionally, until carrots begin to soften, about seven to ten minutes.  Add herbs, cook a minute or two longer, then add broth and juice.  Season with salt and pepper, and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat and simmer until nearly all of the water has evaporated, about ten more minutes.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Scientific Argument Against GM Foods

xkcd.com
Sustainability.  Quite the buzz word these days.  We want sustainable energy, sustainable agriculture, sustainable everything.  So is the world's largest agribusiness working toward sustainability?  Monsanto certainly likes to say so; a Google search of their site brings up 1,260 instances of the word "sustainability" on their site.  The Union of Concerned Scientists takes a different view:

“Monsanto talks about ‘producing more, conserving more, improving lives,’ but its products are largely not living up to those aspirations,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist with UCS’s Food and Environment Program. “In reality, the company is producing more engineered seeds and herbicide and improving its bottom line, but at the expense of conservation and long-term sustainability.”
So which is closer to the truth?  The UCS breaks down their argument into eight "failures" they feel Monsanto is guilty of.  Let's look at a few.

Monsanto's RoundupReady and Bt technologies lead to resistant weeds and insects that can make farming harder and reduce sustainability.
This is the big one for me.  Overuse of pesticides and herbicides (particularly reliance on a single one, as recommended by Monsanto) leads to resistant weeds, much in the same way that overuse of penicillin led to resistant bacteria, and overuse of antibiotics in general has led us to superbugs like MRSA.  This is causing an overall increase in herbicide/pesticide use, effectively erasing one of RoundupReady's sustainability claims.

Engineered genes have a bad habit of turning up in non-GE crops. And when this happens, sustainable farmers—and their customers—pay a high price.
Is Monsanto the Devil?
Credit: http://livebeyondorganic.files.wordpress.com/  
This is really a two-tiered problem.  First, niche farmers/producers that sell certified organic products could be devastated by inadvertent contamination.  The people who buy organic will likely never accept GM food.  In addition, Monsanto likes to sue farmers.  Last year, a consortium of organic farmers sued Monsanto in federal court, hoping to block them from using patents to sue farmers whose crops are contaminated by GM pollen.  A decision on whether the lawsuit will proceed is due by March 31st.
So does all of this mean that genetically-modified plants, Monsanto, or the entire biotech industry are evil?  The industry?  Certainly not.  GM plants?  The jury is still out.  Monsanto?  Google sure seems to think so.  Considering their history, Google might be right.  What do you think?

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Southern BBQ in North County

Update 3/20/12:  As of a few weeks ago, ApeHangers is no more.  Unfortunately, the city wouldn't permit their smoker.

After spending college in the South, I love me some Southern BBQ.  Slow smoked, tender, juicy, meaty goodness.  But where to find non-barbacoa BBQ in San Diego?  Some will no doubt say Phil's, but once you've had real Southern barbecue, Phil's not-so-tender pulled pork and ketchupy sauce does not cut it.  Well last year Randy and Charli Brown filled the void, opening ApeHangers Grill in Oceanside.  Randy mans the smoker and Charli--a South Carolina transplant-- serves up some wonderful Southern-style sides and desserts, from fried okra to banana puddin'.

From the smoker, they serve up Carolina pulled pork, Texas-style brisket, Memphis ribs, and (of course) California tri-tip, all finished with a sweet and spicy KC BBQ sauce, which comes in three varieties: sweet, regular, and spicy.  The spicy sauce is perfect--enough kick to make you gasp, but sweet enough to go down smooth.  From the fryer, delicious fired okra and zucchini, awesome hot wings (including the deadly 100 mph wings), and my favorite dish, the fried catfish po' boy with aioili and slaw, which I've had on about 90% of my visits.  Wash it down with a great selection of mostly local craft beer and wine-based cocktails.

The name and decor might lead you to think that ApeHangers is a biker bar.  Though plenty of motorcycles may be parked out front, it is not.  The staff and regulars are a friendly as can be, even a Raiders-Chargers game is a good time.  So next time you're looking for BBQ in North County, do yourself a favor.  Skip the looooong lines at Phil's and give ApeHangers a shot.