The ABC’s Catalyst and Dodgy Science

Catalyst, a science digest program on the ABC, for the last three weeks has been running stories on the evils of sugar. I suspect a recent push by some nutritionists is the root cause. Not having the program constantly run stories about climate change is a nice change though – there is far much more science going on in the world than studies into humans increasing the mean global temperature over time.

Here’s a summary:

  • 3 weeks ago – diet and tooth decay
  • 2 weeks ago – how sugar is the new evil
  • 1 week ago – how energy drinks are dangerous

Diet and tooth decay

The story discussed how prior to developing farming and increasing the amount of sugars in their diets, human had pretty much no tooth decay. Their mouths are now in a constant state of decay as their oral bioload has shifted from one dominated primarily by a microflora similar to that seen in present day cattle to one where the little nasties are geared towards sugar consumption. Theses microbes produce acids as a byproduct. These acids weaken tooth enamel and result in fillings. All fairly sound science from the looks of things. I found it interesting that scientists can extract details of prehistorical mouth bacteria from tartar. Go you mineralized biofilm!

This is a great example of how technology current is outpacing the ability of humans to evolve. A major environmental change has resulted in holes in teeth. The following week there was a story on how fluoride added to water helps to strengthen enamel. A great example of how technology and scientific knowledge has found a solution to a problem humans have created for themselves due to technological advancement.

On a side note, I find it crazy that fluoride is not mandated at the Federal level. The main argument (besides the conspiracy nuts) is the fluoride is a poison. What about chlorine then? That’s even more toxic and we love to gobble it down. Even water is toxic is an average sized human drinks over 7L in an hour or two. Try breathing the stuff – about as toxic as chlorine if administered via the lungs.


This is the scale which details how much of a substance is needed to kill 50% of the test subjects. I present some data here for reference. Botulinum (a naturally occurring chemical) is the most toxic. Water (another naturally occurring chemical compound) is the least toxic.

  • LD50 botulinim toxin – 1 ng/kg (0.001 mg)
  • LD50 caffeine – 0.192 mg/kg
  • LD50 sodium fluoride (one of the forms of fluoride in drinking water) – 52 mg/kg
  • LD50 calcium hypochlorite (the chlorine in drinking water) – 850 mg/kg
  • LD50 sodium chloride (table salt)- 38 000 mg/kg
  • LD50 water – 90 000 mg/kg

Ancient Teeth Transcript

Water Fluoridation Transcript

Sugar and Diet

Here is where dodgy or incorrect science is presented to the masses.

Last week there was a story where Professor Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist was used as the “expert” nutritionist. His specialty is the variations in physical growth and sexual development in childhood, as well as disorders of the endocrine glands. He proceeded to talk about age related illnesses. His view was that everyone being a big fat arse in recent years must be due to diet, and not environmental factors. He stated that sugar was the likely cause of everyone being fat and energy in did not equal energy out. He than made statements that sugar caused organs to brown in the same manner as a steak when it is cooked. That threw me. I am pretty sure browning is due to caramelisation of cooked items.  To suggest that metabolic processes cause such action sounds a bit far-fetched to me.

I eat my fair share of sugar, in the form of lollies and chocolate and have no trouble losing or maintaining weight. I also exercise on average, 7-12 hours a week. In my experience, it is energy in/energy out. The environmental factor that has lead to “everyone getting fat at once” is due to lifestyles becoming more sedentary since the 1950’s. From what I read in the literature and press, my opinion is valid and informed. Sure, diet is a component, but only in so far as the obese people eating too much relative to their energy requirements.

There were even calls by the program to regulate sugar in the same was as alcohol and tobacco. That is just nuts. This would mean nobody would be able to grow any fruits or veges as they contain sugars – that is as restrictive as tobacco growing. Want your kiddies to buy some fruit? Show some ID please!

Besides all of this, what concerned me most about this story was how sugar was described. According to Catalyst, sugar is a dimer of fructose and glucose. Pardon? The last thing I checked, sugars were simple molecules with the basic formula CnH2nOn. A fructose/glucose dimer is a simple carbohydrate, not a simple sugar. On checking what I knew, I discovered that sucrose is the fructose/glucose dimer and the term “sugar” is used loosely to apply to a bunch of small sized carbohydrate molecules. No no no I say! Science has to be specific in its application and terminology as otherwise, error, misinterpretation and misunderstanding creeps in.

Once the statement about what sugar is was made, the article launched into how fructose is a bad sugar. A certain group of scientists led by a David Gillespie have a thing against fructose. Here I refer you this article by Nutrition Australia, which refutes such claims – Fructose – Nutrition Australia.  I suspect Catalyst is taking shortcuts and basing stories on press releases.

The one thing I do agree about the story was it was a bad idea to make everything low fat. Sausages have never tasted as good as they did before they went gluten free and low fat. With diet, everything should be eaten in moderation.

Toxic Sugar Transcript

Energy Drinks

First up, this came across as very Today Tonighish. A group of 16 year olds were out drinking. They got stuck into an energy drink or two mixed with alcohol. One died due to cardiac arrest. Insert shoddy imagery and wot not. What are 16 year olds doing drinking more than 2 energy drinks a day and how did they get their hands on alcohol, a chemical restricted to those over 18?

In my opinion, this story contained little if any science (unless it was a bunch of hypotheses yet to be tested).

  • The deceased’s father, “an analytical chemist, blamed the energy drinks”. Not an expert.
  • “We need to be very wary of anything that may trigger rhythm problems of the heart.” That’s nearly anything.Salt, exercise, drugs, too much or not enough nutrients.
  • Associate Professor Naren Gunja stated “Over a five-year period, we had a fivefold increase in the number of people who called a poisons centre annually who’d had adverse effects from energy drinks.  Which centre? What did the adverse event investigations conclude regarding each incident?
  • “Let’s have a look at the warning labels – they’re very minor. You’ll struggle to find them on the can.” I drink Mother. It has quite prominent warning labels. Browsing a selection in the supermarket last night, I had no trouble finding warnings on other products. Far easier than seeing a “drink responsibly” text on alcohol products.

More on how sugar is bad. Some reference to how caffeine is potentially bad. Calls for regulation (or banning of “a potentially lethal cocktail”) of the drinks. It is really disappointing that in Australia (and elsewhere) the masses tend get penalized for the actions of one or two idiots.

Ok, back to the hypotheses discussed. The main one that stuck in my mind was that all the extra goodies put into energy drinks (taurine, guanine etc) may have unknown interactions with caffeine, cardiac muscle or other. This was one justification used to propose regulation of the drinks. Another “that’s just nuts” idea. Taken further, if a few people dropped from having a wine with dinner, while eating a lobster basted with chilli and basil, this combination of food would be banned/regulated. Given the vast range of chemicals ingested daily by everyone, there is no way each and every interaction can be examined for toxicity.

Part of the story talked about changed in blood stickiness when drinking energy drinks. There was no comparison with the physiological changes resulting from drinking other drinks or even eating a bacon and egg breakfast or downing a litre of water. It should have been brought to the viewer’s attention that short term blood changes occur after eating any food!

Energy Drinks Transcript