Saturday, June 17, 2006

Splenda is Scary Stuff

Splenda, which comes in those little yellow packages that now reside alongside those red and blue satchels of sugar substitutes at restaurants, has got its fair share of press over the years. There's plenty of opinions on whether this "made from sugar" sugar substitute is safe to eat or not. Some have compared the structure of Splenda (the trade name of sucralose) to DDT, which others compare it to sodium chloride (table salt). You can buy books on how this stuff will kill you, or read about how it was discovered serendipitously by some chemists trying to make better insecticides.

Here's some homework for you: If you know a chemist (preferably an organic chemist, but anyone with a semester or two or organic chemistry will do), show them the structure of sucralose. Ask them if they would eat it. If they don't recognize it as Splenda immediately, I bet they'll give you a disgusted look and say you're crazy. Then tell them what it is. If they are pouring those yellow packages into their lattes, they'll stop. Every single chemist I've run this experiment on has the same reaction: "that stuff can't be good for you." Try it yourself, let me know what responses you get.

Explaining why this molecule is likely not good for you can be a bit complicated, but I'll give it a go. It's those chlorine (Cl) atoms that are so troublesome. First off, the structural comparisons mentioned above are terrible chemical metaphors. There is nothing (aside from it being the same element) at all in common between sucralose and table salt, as FDA Chemist George Pauli would like you to believe. DDT is slightly closer in chemical space to sucralose, but it's still pretty different, and its just irresponsible to try to scare people by making that comparison.

Understanding how those might react in the human body is way beyond the scope of this post, but let me make a much more realistic chemical analogy for you. The potentially harmful portion of Splenda is most like methyl chloride (CH3–Cl). Not in that sucralose is a colorless flammable gas (you knew that), but that methyl chloride and sucralose are both good candidates for substitution reactions. This can lead to the modification of all sorts of molecules in your body, which is hardly ever a good thing.

The short of it is that long-term studies of the effects of eating this miracle sugar have not been done.
Splenda's FAQs might suggest otherwise, but I'm skeptical. If the FDA thinks this is chemically similar to NaCl, then we've got some pretty big problems on our hands. Not only does the FDA ultimately decide what is safe for us to eat, but most people don't know enough chemistry to even think twice about their decisions. That's a failure of our schools and our government.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Sezen Follow-up: Coffee & Espresso

Chemistry & Engineering News wrote a follow-up story on the Sames-Sezen retractions today. Although there is not much more in the way of details past what the New York Times wrote yesterday, I cannot resist including this quote from Bengü Sezen regarding the potential irreproducibility of her experiments:
"It is as simple as this: You can not make espresso without coffee beans. Prof. Sames and coworkers claimed in their retractions that they could not reproduce my recipe for espresso. And later (when I asked which brand of coffee beans they used), they stated that they did not have (and never had) coffee beans. Without having coffee beans, how can one try to reproduce the recipe?"
Maybe I don't take my coffee seriously enough, but what happened to apples and oranges? What a terrible metaphor.

The astute reader will also notice that C&E News referred to C-H activation as "a technique commonly used to functionalize hydrocarbons", whereas the New York Times thinks it is "an esoteric field." Common and esoteric - there's the eye of the beholder for you.

For more on this from the blogosphere, check out Paul Bracher's posts: Bypassing the ASAP System II, 3 + 4 = 7 Sames Retractions, New Sames-Sezen Links.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Four more retractions

The New York Times reported today that Dalibor Sames, a Columbia University chemistry professor, has retracted four more papers after the results could not be reproduced in his labs. Back in March, Sames retracted two other papers published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society for the same reason. All of the results in question was performed by a former graduate student in Dalibor's, Bengü Sezen. She, now listed as a PhD student in the Elmar Schiebel's lab at the University of Heidelberg, maintains that her work is reproducible and has been performed by other members of the group. She's confident in her results, in an email to C&E News she wrote:
I am also prepared to perform the reactions under the supervision of professor Sames if I am given a chance.
In the recent New York Times article, Sezen is now calling into question the procedures used to verify her results:
Dr. Sezen said that other members of Dr. Sames's group had not followed detailed procedures for the experiments and that the catalysts needed to shepherd the chemical reactions had not been made.
In for a penny, in for a pound, Bengü (is she really still a Dr. after all this, Columbia?). No one can reproduce this work. Give it up. Accusing other people as being hacks is not the way to go. Pray that you can salvage some of your reputation in your new field and try to stay out of the press, unless of course you cure cancer or something.

Also see: The Chem Blog, and SezenGate 2006 at Tenderbutton.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Autism linked to heavy metals (again)

New Scientist recently described a study from France regarding the potential that high levels of heavy metal in children can lead to autism. According to this article the researches found that children with autism had increased levels of porphyrins in their urine. Note they are not directly measuring the levels of the heavy metals that they are implicating as a potential cause, but rather are detecting a metabolite that is used in the production of hemoglobin. You may recall that mercury in childhood vaccines was thought to be the culprit in the rise of autism, but this heavy metal was ultimately found innocent.

Let's hope this study is correct. If autism can be linked to the presence of heavy metals, I'm confident that chemists can solve this problem. They figured out how to give people huge doses of gadolinium as a MRI contrast reagent (Gd is very toxic on its own), so removing toxic metals in children to prevent autism is likely a solvable problem.