Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Broccoli: The Other Other Green Menace

Note: This is my actual food research paper which I discussed in the previous blog entry. I’ve included my sources, in case anyone would like to do their own fact checking. This assingment was to only write a paper about the chemical additives in food that were allegedly dangerous, but using only sources that reported negative information.

Broccoli: The Other, Other, Other Green Menace

Once upon a time a social satirist named Bobby Henderson proved that global warming was in fact a direct result of the decrease in pirates that were active in America’s oceans. (Henderson) Henderson proved that anything can be proven, but the point that he was trying to make was bigger than that. Henderson’s point was that statistics, even true ones, can be false.
I had always felt that, as ingenious as Henderson’s demonstration was, it failed to carry the logic far enough. ‘Pirates’ and ‘global warming’ were taken to be known quantities, terms that could be readily recognized and understood by the audience. The question “What would happen if an individual had never heard of pirates or global warming”, was unfortunately never asked. The answer is that the individual would be unable to estimate the plausibility of the relationship implied by Henderson’s statistics. They would simply have to take his word for it… or the word of those who disagreed with his conclusions. It would matter little what side they chose because ultimately the individual would have to chose or reject an argument based entirely on the information the individuals present gave them.
When I first received this assignment pirates and global warming were the first things that sprung to mind. It quickly became clear that this paper was not intended to be a scientific research paper. In a scientific research paper facts are gathered, analyzed, and then conclusions are formed based on all available information. If everyone could draw conclusions and ignore any data that disagreed, then everyone‘s hypothesis would always be correct. This paper was clearly a propaganda assignment. Propaganda is defined by Webster’s Standard Dictionary as “information designed to promote a cause or point of view”. In this assignment, facts are selectively gathered or ignored to prove a designated conclusion, rather than gathering data to reach a conclusion.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with propaganda, but it is essential that it be recognized for what it is, lest it be mistaken for science. That’s why I chose broccoli. Specifically, the toxic ingredients that I will explore are water (including the toxic properties of the elemental components of the compound), nitrogen, and a chemical called dimethyl sulfoxide. My purpose in writing this is to prove, once again, that anything can be proven and that even correct information can be wrong..
I will note, before I begin exploring the “dangerous toxins” in broccoli, that I did have concerns about choosing it as my subject. Precedence had already endorsed my choice of broccoli. The primary requirement being that the substance had to be “ingested”, not that the substance be manmade. Water was encouraged as a topic, and water is a naturally occurring substance. One could argue that, though water is natural, the toxins in the water are not. However, the professor had allowed Therese to cite nitrogen as a toxin in Life cereal. Nitrogen is a components of all living material. It was merely present in the cereal because it was present in the grains necessary to make the product. Hence, it could not be construed as an additive, merely a natural chemical component. Penalizing my choice in subject would constitute nothing less than discrimination against me on the basis of my creed. Creed, of course, is defined in Webster’s as a “statement of belief”. It was then that my research into broccoli began in earnest.
Broccoli belongs to the family Cruciferae and the genus Brassica. The plant has a particularly dense concentration of water- 91% water by volume. (Dehydrated) This water is drawn from the soil into the plant by the plant’s root system. It is in this manner that broccoli plants can be exposed to contaminants within the groundwater. The most common contaminants to the groundwater supply are petroleum-based fuels, and chlorinated solvents. One example of a chlorinated solvent is perchloroethylene, or dry-cleaning fluid. (Pollution) Groundwater is the largest water source employed in crop irrigation. (What is Groundwater?) This creates a real problem for commercial crops like broccoli, and anyone that consumes it. In fact, consuming water from any source can be lethal. A condition called hyponatremia results when water dillutes the delicate balance of sodium within the body. (Water Poisoning)
I feel it’s necessary to devote a separate paragraph to the dangerous elemental components that form the compound H2O. Hydrogen, 1 on the periodic table of elements represented as H in H20, is a highly reactive, colorless gas. It is the lightest and most abundant element in the universe. This dangerous element is used in a wide variety of industrial processes. The most common is in the reduction of metal ores into metals, and in the production of ammonia. Hydrogen is also the primary ingredient in hydrochloric acid (HCI) and Benzene, a toxic liquid derived from petroleum. Oxygen, represented by O on the periodic table of elements, is also a highly reactive element. Oxygen is a necessity for most types of combustion. It is also a component of sulfuric acid (H2SO4), citric acid (C6H8O7), and arsenic trioxide (As2O3), an extremely poisonous compound that is often used as an herbicide, insecticide, and rodenticide.
Nitrogen, 7 on the periodic table of elements represented as N, is also one of the most common elements on the planet. (WebElements) Nitrogen composes 78% of the Earth’s atmosphere and occurs in all living organisms. (Nitrogen) The government scientists who want you to believe broccoli is safe and good to eat want you to believe nitrogen is harmless. It masquerades as an inert, nonreactive, difficult to harness element, but don’t allow it’s innocuous fa├žade to fool you. Nitrogen is the primary component in nitric acid (HNO3), an ingredient in rocket fuels, fertilizers, and the manufacture of explosives. Nitrogen is also found in cyanide (CN), ammonia (NH3), and strychnine (C21H22N2O2), a white poisonous alkaloid that is used as a potent rodenticide and an ingredient in the manufacture of LSD. Nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, light bulbs, and refrigerants are more common places to look for nitrogen.
The final component I will discuss is the chemical compound called dimethyl sulfoxide, or (CH3)2SO. dimethyl sulfoxide is one of the primary active components of broccoli. (Broccoli Sprouts) It was synthesized in 1866 by a Russian scientist named Alexander Saytzeff. The compound is found in industrial solvents, namely as a paint stripper. Due to it’s high freezing point, DMSO is also employed in cryobiology. One characteristic of DMSO is that it is readily absorbed through the skin. The side effects of DMSO are stomach upset, sensitivity to light, visual disturbances, and headaches. (Wikipedia)
During the composition of this paper a young woman told me that the world was going to end in 2012. I remember y2k in the year 2000, the year I graduated from high school. The only real thing I recall are the twilight seconds that lay somewhere between the old millennium and the new. I half tripped, half pulled my way up the staircase that night like some primordial creature that emerged from the ooze just in time to find its’ land legs. The world moved in and out of focus. The fall to bed was a fall forever. When I landed I lay staring into the darkness, waiting doubtfully for the world to end. It goes without saying that the world didn’t end in 2000. It’s also worth observing that some things never change.
This food project is much like the 2012 doomsayers. There is no way to conclusively prove that their predictions are not accurate, but there is also no way to happily reconcile their ideas with the boundaries of rational thought. Perhaps in the cerebral recessives of the human consciousness lies a holdover from our early days of evolution, a deeply rooted belief that we are constantly in danger and should we ever cease our vigil that danger may consume us. Even science, one of our species’ greatest triumphs, is an imperfect beast. It is endowed with all of humanities frailties and limitations. We can never know perfectly.
I would deem the search for a dietary reason behind America’s suffering a witch hunt. I find that term poetic and ironic because many experts theorize that many of the European witch hunts were caused by a toxin, called ergot, that was found in cereal grains. Ergot poisoning produced hallucinations, loss of equilibrium, impaired speech, and the sensation of flying. It’s ironic because the growth of the parasitic fungus that causes ergot poisoning is prevented by the preservatives found in modern grain products. (Anthropology)
I took a breath and began composing the final sentences of my final paper, and when the thing was finished I went for a walk. I walked the length of the sidewalk to a place where the sidewalk comes to an abrupt termination. The tall apartment buildings bathe the grass in perpetual shadow, and the trees grow gnarled and dwarfed from the lack of sunlight. The wind picked up and the trees’ branches snapped like an old woman’s bones. I plunked myself down in the grass and pulled out a small plastic bag from my purse. Inside the bag were broccoli florets, no longer than my finger. Naturally, I still intend to avidly consume broccoli. I tried to focus on the final statements of my conclusion paragraph, but the clatter of the branches proved too distracting. Instead, I took a bite of my snack and leaned against the spindly trunk of the tiny tree, staring off into the distance and waiting for the world to end. That is, of course, if the broccoli doesn’t kill me first.

Works Cited

“The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster”. Henderson, Bobby. 2006. Henderson. 15 April 2009. <http://www.verganza.org/>

“Dehydrated Foods- Water Content of Fresh Foods” Waltonfeed. 10 April 2000. Waltonfeed. 5 May 2009.

“Pollution of Groundwater”. Waterencyclopedia.com. 2007. Waterencyclopedia.com 5 May2009.

“What is Groundwater?” Groundwater.org. 2009. Groundwater.org. 5 May 2009.

“What is Water Poisoning?” O. Wallace. 2003. O. Wallace. 6 May 2009. <http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-water-poisoning.html>

“WebElements: the Periodic Table on the World-Wide Web”. Mark J. Winter. 2007. WebElements. 5 May 2009.
<http://www.webelements.com/periodicity.html >

“Nitrogen”. University of California. 20 October 2003. University of California. 6 May 2009.

“Nitrogen-Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.” Wikipedia. 5 May 2009. Wikipedia. 6 May 2009.

“Broccoli Sprouts:An exceptionally rich source of inducers that protect against chemical carcinogens”. Paul Talalay. 16 September 1997. PNAS. 5 May 2009.

Ember, Carol R. Ember, Melvin. Peregrine, Peter. Anthropology. “Religion and Magic”. Prentice Hall. Jan. 2007.

A Word of Warning...

I feel that I need to preempt anything I might say in this blog with an explanation of why I began it in the first place.
In my first semester of my first year of college an event occurred that was profoundly disturbing and upset me to my core. It took place in my English Composition 1 class. It’s an introductory class, the point being to prepare students for composing college level papers. What it actually amounted to was an exercise in silliness- the professor never took attendance despite the fact that she set an eight absence maximum, we were required to purchase two textbooks that we never opened, and the lectures consisted of people talking about fairies living in their backyards or being kissed by Shamu. All of this I endured, with no small amount of stoicism, because the course was required. That and our only assignments were four papers (final drafts only). That wasn’t the problem though.
The final of the four was a food paper- an awful, misguided assignment born from our English professor’s confusion of the difference between scientific research writing and propaganda. That wasn’t the problem though.
For the first time in the history of the class discussions of real things began taking place. The more these discussions took place, the more I realized no one in the room seemed to know anything about anything. The class chattered on about the conspiracy to hide dangerous, poisonous chemicals in our food supply. The teacher asked why some chemicals present in food were similar to chemicals found in solvents. The 40-something-year-old woman who allegedly has fairies living in her garden (and is studying to be a lawyer) said tin cause Alzheimer’s (it doesn’t). She also told us that margarine was created to fattened holiday turkeys (it wasn’t), but it killed them so the government decided to feed it to us. Also, apparently, margarine is one molecule away from plastic. (Even if margarine were one molecule away from plastic, it wouldn’t matter. Many substances are chemically similar, for example, H2O. Sounds great on a hot day right? Yeah. What about H2O2? You wouldn’t want an ice cold glass of that, because that’s hydrogen peroxide folks! That’s merely an atom of difference. Imagine a whole molecule.) One girl, a young woman in her late teens, asked if Taurine was a country, because if it was, then it was on her Monster can.
The never ending parade of ignorance marched forward. People read their papers, and managed to mispronounce every single chemical they wrote about. The professor blithely glossed over their difficulties, assuring everyone that no one actually needs to know what words they’re using. No one, not even the professor who allegedly had her PhD (I found out through research that she lied and did not have a PhD), seemed to understand that a chemical reaction involves changing substances so that in the end one is left with at least one molecularly different substance than one began with. I had to explain it, along with the idea of the periodic table of elements. With only 118 possible components it’s reasonable to expect some overlap, yeah?
I’m qualified to do many things, but teaching basic chemistry to a college English class isn’t one of them. I mean were they kidding me?! After all, I reminded the class, we all took basic chemistry. It’s a requirement for graduation. One of my classmates raised her hand and retaliated with “Just because we took chemistry, doesn’t mean we remember it.” The entire class seemed to except that statement. Certainly no one objected, and the issue seemed settled.
But the girl’s statement disturbed me- haunted me, even. How is it that students pursuing higher education were so lacking in a rudimentary one? How is it that individuals were so indifferent toward their own lack of knowledge? I had always been skeptical about statistics showing America’s scores in science and math were falling behind other nations. Cynical claptrap about how much America sucks seems to flood every available media outlet nowadays. Apparently, however, those reports were dead right.
There is a small possibility that my class simply received a higher concentration of dullards than other classes. It’s possible, but highly improbable. If you want to know a fact that will really scare you: the English class I took wasn’t even the remedial class. I wonder what they were like.
On that note, I present to you, Dumbosity: Adventures in Dumberland.