Rice Risks

In January 2016, the EU imposed a maximum limit of inorganic arsenic on manufacturers in a bid to mitigate associated health risks. Researchers at the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s have found that little has changed since this law was passed and that 50 per cent of baby rice food products still contain an illegal level of inorganic arsenic.

Professor Meharg, lead author of the study and Professor of Plant and Soil Sciences at Queen’s, said: “This research has shown direct evidence that babies are exposed to illegal levels of arsenic despite the EU regulation to specifically address this health challenge. Babies are particularly vulnerable to the damaging effects of arsenic that can prevent the healthy development of a baby’s growth, IQ and immune system to name but a few.”

Rice has typically, ten times more inorganic arsenic than other foods and chronic exposure can cause a range of health problems including developmental problems, heart disease, diabetes and nervous system damage.

As babies are rapidly growing they are at a sensitive stage of development and are known to be more susceptible to the damaging effects of arsenic, which can inhibit their development and cause long-term health problems. Babies and young children under the age of five also eat around three times more food on a body weight basis than adults, which means that relatively, they have three times greater exposures to inorganic arsenic from the same food item.

The research findings, published in the PLOS ONE journal today, compared the level of arsenic in urine samples among infants who were breast-fed or formula-fed before and after weaning. A higher concentration of arsenic was found in formula-fed infants, particularly among those who were fed non-dairy formulas which includes rice-fortified formulas favoured for infants with dietary requirements such as wheat or dairy intolerance. The weaning process further increased infants’ exposure to arsenic, with babies five times more exposed to arsenic after the weaning process, highlighting the clear link between rice-based baby products and exposure to arsenic.

In this new study, researchers at Queen’s also compared baby food products containing rice before and after the law was passed and discovered that higher levels of arsenic were in fact found in the products since the new regulations were implemented. Nearly 75 per cent of the rice-based products specifically marketed for infants and young children contained more than the standard level of arsenic stipulated by the EU law.

Rice and rice-based products are a popular choice for parents, widely used during weaning and to feed young children, due to its availability, nutritional value and relatively low allergic potential.

Professor Meharg explained: “Products such as rice-cakes and rice cereals are common in babies’ diets. This study found that almost three-quarters of baby crackers, specifically marketed for children exceeded the maximum amount of arsenic.”

Previous research led by Professor Meharg highlighted how a simple process of percolating rice could remove up to 85 per cent of arsenic. Professor Meharg adds: “Simple measures can be taken to dramatically reduce the arsenic in these products so there is no excuse for manufacturers to be selling baby food products with such harmful levels of this carcinogenic substance.

“Manufacturers should be held accountable for selling products that are not meeting the required EU standard. Companies should publish the levels of arsenic in their products to prevent those with illegal amounts from being sold. This will enable consumers to make an informed decision, aware of any risks associated before consuming products containing arsenic.”

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Lo No Go

Terms such as no-fat or no-sugar, low-fat or reduced-salt on food packaging may give consumers a sense of confidence before they purchase, but these claims rarely reflect the actual nutritional quality of the food, according to a new study led by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The work, which appears in the  Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, rekindles an ongoing debate on what United States regulators consider healthy labeling, as producers and interest groups grapple over rules on nutrition claims on packaged foods and ready-to-drink beverages and consumers contend with how to rationalise a purchase and make healthier choices.

“In many cases, foods containing low-sugar, low-fat or low-salt claims had a worse nutritional profile than those without claims,” explained lead investigator Lindsey Smith Taillie, a research assistant professor in the department of nutrition at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. “In fact, in some cases, products that tend to be high in calories, sodium, sugar or fat may be more likely to have low- or no-content claims.”

For example, a three-cookie serving of reduced-fat Oreos contains four-and-a-half grams of fat compared to seven grams in a serving of full-fat Oreos, but both still contain 14 grams of sugar per serving, which could provide the appearance that the low-fat version is “healthy.” Chocolate low-fat milk is another example. It has the lower fat content but it is higher in sugar relative to plain milk and higher in sugar and fat relative to other beverages.

The issue stems, in part, from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allowing packaged food and beverage manufacturers to assign labels in different ways for different foods.

As with the examples above, if you are a consumer trying to make a healthy choice, you assume reduced means a healthier product. But that product only has to be reduced in reference to the original food of the same product for that specific nutrient, a reduced-fat cookie, for example. That cookie could also contain higher sugar or sodium, so if consumers are only relying on the reduced claim, they could potentially end up with a less healthy cookie. “Essentially, reduced claims are confusing because they are relative and only about one nutrient,” said Taillie.

Foods with a low claim are equally, if not more, confusing, but for different reasons. The FDA allows a low-fat label on food if that food has less than three grams per reference amount customarily consumed, or RACC. However, that reference point varies across product categories. For example, the RACC for brownies is 40 grams, whereas the RACC for cheesecake is 125 grams.

“A low-fat brownie could have three grams of fat per 40 grams, whereas a low-fat cheesecake” would have to have three grams of fat per 125 grams. So if a consumer were trying to find a lower-fat option for a dessert, the low-fat brownie would have relatively higher fat than the low-fat cheesecake.”

After looking at data that included more than 80 million food and beverage purchases from more than 40,000 households from 2008 to 2012, Taillie and her colleagues at the UNC-Duke USDA Center for Behavioral Economics and Healthy Food Choice Research found that 13 percent of food and 35 percent of beverage purchases had a low-content claim (including no, free, low or reduced) and that low-fat was the most common claim, followed by low-calorie, low-sugar and low-sodium.

Investigators also looked at the groups who were more likely to purchase foods that made these statements. While differences in purchasing patterns by race/ethnicity were not statistically significant, non-Hispanic white households were most likely to buy products with a low-calorie claim and Asian households purchased more foods with low-fat or low-sodium claims. Non-Hispanic black households were the least likely to purchase food groups with any low-content claim.

There was also a connection between socio-economic status and food purchases. Researchers found that high-and middle-income level households were more likely to purchase food and beverages with low-content claims.

A key question for future research, said Taillie, will address how these claims affect consumer choice and how claims interact with other common strategies, such as sales or price promotions, to influence purchasing behaviour and ultimately, dietary quality.

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Secret Ingredients

Many herbal supplements contain hidden pharmaceutical ingredients that could be causing serious health risks, according to a team of experts from Queen’s University Belfast, Kingston University London and LGC.

Emeritus Professor Duncan Burns, a forensically experienced analytical chemist from the Queen’s University Belfast’s Institute for Global Food Security, has been working with a team of specialists on a peer-reviewed paper to examine the detection of illegal ingredients in the supplements.

The experts included Dr Michael Walker from the Government Chemist Programme at LGC and Professor Declan Naughton from Kingston University.

The research found that over-the-counter supplements, commonly advertised to treat obesity and erectile dysfunction problems, are labelled as fully herbal but often include potentially dangerous pharmaceutical ingredients, which are not listed on the label.

Professor Burns from Queen’s University, who is working to advance knowledge in this area explained: “Our review looked at research from right across the globe and questioned the purity of herbal food supplements. We have found that these supplements are often not what customers think they are; they are being deceived into thinking they are getting health benefits from a natural product when actually they are taking a hidden drug.

“These products are unlicensed medicines and many people are consuming large quantities without knowing the interactions with other supplements or medicines they may be taking. This is very dangerous and there can be severe side effects.”

The survey raises serious questions about the safety of slimming supplements containing Sibutramine. Sibutramine was licensed as the medicine Reductil until 2010, when it was withdrawn across Europe and the US due to an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes associated with the use of the drug.

Tadalfil and sulfoaildenafil were among the most frequently undeclared ingredients in products for erectile dysfunction. When taken with other medicines containing nitrates, they can lower blood pressure drastically and cause serious health problems.

Professor Burns noted: “This is a real issue as people suffering from conditions like diabetes, hyperlipidemia and hypertension are frequently prescribed nitrate containing medicines. If they are also taking a herbal supplement to treat erectile dysfunction, they could become very ill.

“People who take these products will not be aware they have taken these substances and so when they visit their doctor they may not declare this and it can be difficult to determine what is causing the side effects. It is a very dangerous situation.”

Professor Declan Naughton explained: “This work highlights the vital role research, and in particular, techniques like datamining, can play in informing regulators about current trends in supplement contamination. This is very important to ensure effective testing strategies and, ultimately, to help keep the public safe.”

Dr Michael Walker commented: “The laboratory tests we describe in our paper will assist regulators to tackle this problem proactively to protect consumers and responsible businesses.”

Find the report online here.

 

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Not IT

“Most digital learning tools used in schools are unsatisfactory and only test the knowledge the pupils already have,” says Björn Sjödén, who has reviewed a large number of computer programs in his doctoral thesis “What Makes Good Educational Software?”

“In a pilot study, we examined the top 100 apps within math and Swedish, and barely half of them could be considered digital learning tools according to our standards, only 17% of which provided some sort of informative feedback. Some were so bad that we, as researchers, would never even consider to test them in class,” says Björn Sjödén.

One example is the computer program to teach parts of speech, where illiterate 5 year olds do better than those who can read. A 5 year old who quickly guesses multiple times performs better than someone who tries to read and spell correctly.

“Probably more than 90% of the learning tools available online are simply test tools. They provide no explanatory information in addition to the correct answer. The pupils often compete against time, but not towards greater understanding,” says cognitive scientist Björn Sjödén.

Björn Sjödén has a background in the computer games industry and is part of the interdisciplinary research group ETG (Educational Technology Group) at the universities of Lund and Linköping in Sweden. In his doctoral thesis, Björn Sjödén defines ‘digital learning tools’ as “subject-specific, interactive computer programs that provide feedback to achieve a specific learning objective.”

In the last 15 years, Sweden has invested heavily in iPads and laptops for pupils, and compared to other European countries, we are far ahead in terms of IT technology in schools. But the latest report from the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) showed that the students who use the internet the most, both in and outside of school, also perform the worst on the PISA tests (standardized testing).

“However, digital learning tools can provide great educational benefits, as long as they do not become books on a screen, but use their digital advantages. This involves providing good feedback, showing that there are different ways of thinking to reach a goal, and presenting consequences that that cannot be demonstrated in a book,” says Björn Sjödén.

For example, when calculating how long it will take you to get to the train station, a miscalculation of 13 minutes will result in the train leaving 13 minutes before you get there, or you having to wait x number of minutes. In chemistry, it is possible to show what happens if you combine different substances, it may begin to bubble or explode.

Björn Sjödén has had two groups of pupils play a math game for eight weeks. Both groups were to help a computer character, a digital pupil, throughout the game. Then one group was to take a digital math test where the same character was featured. The other group took the same math test without their digital friend.

“The pupils that were helping their digital friend were more engaged. They wanted to solve more and harder math problems to help their digital character. Especially low-performing pupils became more motivated. This knowledge should be utilised in digital learning tools,” says Björn Sjödén.

The research group ETG collaborates with Stanford University and others, to develop and study three digital learning tools, two in math and one in history. The software is non-commercially developed, and will be free.

“However, researchers cannot be the only ones leading the way in the development of digital learning tools. If none of the large, well-established companies will, I hope that one of the new enterprises will succeed. The developer who makes the first real digital learning tool will have control of that entire market,” says Björn Sjödén.


 

Not So Smart

 

After talking to your car infotainment system or smartphone while driving or even when stopped at a red light, it takes up to 27 seconds to regain full attention after issuing voice commands, University of Utah researchers found in a pair of new studies for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

 

One of the studies showed that it is highly distracting to use hands-free voice commands to dial phone numbers, call contacts, change music and send texts with Microsoft Cortana, Apple Siri and Google Now smartphone personal assistants, though Google Now was a bit less distracting than the others.

 

The other study examined voice-dialing, voice-contact calling and music selection using in-vehicle information or “infotainment” systems in 10 model-year 2015 vehicles. Three were rated as moderately distracting, six as highly distracting and the system in the 2015 Mazda 6 as very highly distracting.

 

“Just because these systems are in the car doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to use them while you are driving,” says University of Utah psychology professor David Strayer, senior author of the two new studies. “They are very distracting, very error prone and very frustrating to use. Far too many people are dying because of distraction on the roadway, and putting another source of distraction at the fingertips of drivers is not a good idea. It’s better not to use them when you are driving.”

 

The research also found that, contrary to what some may believe, practice with voice-recognition systems doesn’t eliminate distraction. The studies also showed older drivers, those most likely to buy autos with infotainment systems, are much more distracted than younger drivers when giving voice commands.

 

But the most surprising finding was that a driver traveling only 25 mph continues to be distracted for up to 27 seconds after disconnecting from highly distracting phone and car voice-command systems, and up to 15 seconds after disconnecting from the moderately distracting systems.

 

The 27 seconds means a driver travelling 25 mph would cover the length of three football fields before regaining full attention.

 

“Most people think, ‘I hang up and I’m good to go,'” Strayer says. “But that’s just not the case. We see it takes a surprisingly long time to come back to full attention. Even sending a short text message can cause almost another 30 seconds of impaired attention.”

 

“The voice-command technology isn’t ready,” says Joel Cooper, a University of Utah research assistant professor of psychology and a co-author of the new studies. “It’s in the cars and is billed as a safe alternative to manual interactions with your car, but the voice systems simply don’t work well enough.”

 

“Many of these systems have been put into cars with a voice-recognition system to control entertainment: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Facetime, etc. We now are trying to entertain the driver rather than keep the driver’s attention on the road.”

 

In 2013, 3,154 people died and 424,000 others were injured in motor vehicle crashes on U.S. roads involving driver distraction, says the U.S. Department of Transportation.

 

The new AAA reports urge that voice activated, in-vehicle information systems “ought not to be used indiscriminately” while driving, and advise that “caution is warranted” in smart-phone use while driving.

 

The studies are fifth and sixth since 2013 by University of Utah psychologists and funded by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. AAA formerly was known as the American Automobile Association. Strayer and Cooper ran the studies with Utah psychology doctoral students Joanna Turrill, James Coleman and Rachel Hopman.

 

 

The previous Utah-AAA studies devised a five-point scale: 1 mild distraction, 2 moderate distraction, 3 high distraction, 4 very high distraction and 5 maximum distraction. Those studies showed cellphone calls were moderately distracting, with scores of 2.5 for hand-held calls and 2.3 for hands-free calls. Listening to a book on tape rated mild distraction at 1.7. Listening to the radio rated 1.2.

 

One of the new studies found mild distraction for in-vehicle information systems in the Chevy Equinox with MyLink (2.4), Buick Lacrosse with IntelliLink (2.4) and Toyota 4Runner with Entune (2.9).

 

High distraction systems were the Ford Taurus with Sync MyFord Touch (3.1), Chevy Malibu with MyLink (3.4), Volkswagen Passat with Car-Net (3.5), Nissan Altima with Nissan Connect (3.7), Chrysler 200c with Uconnect (3.8) and Hyundai Sonata with Blue Link (3.8). The Mazda 6’s Connect system rated very highly distracting (4.6).

 

In some cases, the same voice-command system (like Chevy MyLink) got different distraction scores in different models — something the researchers speculate is due to varying amounts of road noise and use of different in-vehicle microphones.

 

The second new study found all three major smartphone personal assistants either highly or very highly distracting. Two scores were given to each voice-based system: A lower number for using voice commands only to make calls or change music when driving — the same tasks done with the in-car systems — and a higher number that also included using smartphones to send texts by voice commands.

 

Google Now rated highly distracting (3.0, 3.3), as did Apple Siri (3.4, 3.7), while Microsoft Cortana rated highly to very highly distracting (3.8, 4.1).

 

Strayer says of both in-car information systems and smartphone personal assistants: “These systems are often very difficult to use, especially if you’re just trying to entertain yourself. … The vast majority of people we tested ended up being frustrated by the complexity and error-prone nature of the systems.”

 

 

The new studies were conducted with participants driving the various cars at 25 mph or less around a 2.7-mile route in Salt Lake City’s Avenues neighborhood as they used voice-commands to dial numbers, call contacts and tune the radio using in-car systems, and to dial numbers, call contacts, choose music and text using smartphones.

 

With researchers in the car, the drivers were tested for the extent of their distraction, even as they kept their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel after hitting a voice-command system button. A head-mounted LED light flashed red every three to five seconds at the edge of a driver’s left eye. Drivers pressed a switch attached to a thumb when they saw the light. The researchers measured how voice interactions with a car or smartphone reduced drivers’ reaction times and accuracy at seeing the flashing lights. The drivers also completed surveys about their perceived level of distraction, and videos measured how much of the time they kept their eyes on the road, mirrors or dashboard.

 

The in-vehicle information system study included 257 people and the smartphone personal assistant study had 65 participants, all with no at-fault accidents during the past five years. Unlike the 2013 and 2014 studies, which included primarily people in their 20s, subjects in the new studies ranged in age from 21 to 70.

 

In the in-car information system study, the researchers did an initial test on the subjects, then let them take the cars home for five days to practice using the systems. Then they returned for reassessment of the mental workload from using the systems.

 

Strayer personally doesn’t even make hands-free cellphone calls while driving. He advises against using voice commands system while driving for purposes such as voice dialing, voice contact calling, surfing the Internet, sending email and text messages, reading email, tweeting or updating Facebook.

 

“If you are going to use these systems, use them to support the primary task of driving — like for navigation or to change the radio or temperature — and keep the interaction short.”


 

Internet Security

Who Guards The Guard?

New research from Concordia University in Montreal shows security software might actually make online computing less safe.

For the study, Mohammad Mannan, assistant professor in the Concordia Institute for Information Systems Engineering (CIISE), and PhD student Xavier de Carné de Carnavalet examined 14 commonly used software programs that claim to make computers safer by protecting data, blocking out viruses or shielding users from questionable content on the Internet.

Time and again, the researchers found that these programs were doing more harm than good.

“Out of the products we analysed, we found that all of them lower the level of security normally provided by current browsers, and often bring serious security vulnerabilities,” says de Carnavalet, who was surprised by how widespread the problem has become.

“While a couple of fishy ad-related products were known to behave badly in the same set-up, it’s stunning to observe that products intended to bring security and safety to users can fail as badly.”

At the root of the problem is how security applications act as gatekeepers, filtering dangerous or unwanted elements by inspecting secure web pages before they reach the browser.

Normally, browsers themselves have to check the certificate delivered by a website, and verify that it has been issued by a proper entity, called a Certification Authority (CA).

But security products make the computer “think” that they are themselves a fully entitled CA, thus allowing them to fool browsers into trusting any certificate issued by the products.

This research has important implications not only for everyday computer users, but also for the companies producing the software programs themselves.

“We reported our findings to the respective vendors so they can fix their products,” says Mannan. “Not all of them have responded yet, but we hope to bring their attention to these issues.”

“We also hope that our work will bring more awareness among users when choosing a security suite or software to protect their children’s online activities,” says de Carnavalet, who cautions that internet users should not view these security products as a panacea.

“We encourage consumers to keep their browser, operating system and other applications up-to-date, so that they benefit from the latest security patches,” he says.

“Parental control apps exist that do not interfere with secure content, but merely block websites by their domain name, which is probably effective enough.”

This research was supported in part by an NSERC Discovery Grant, a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s Contributions Program. These findings were originally presented at the Network and Distributed System Security Symposium 2016.



 

Politics & Science

On June 24, 1947, private pilot Kenneth Arnold was flying near Mt. Rainier, Washington, when he saw nine objects in a “V” formation with “tail-less” shapes unlike any aircraft he had seen before.

Although Arnold believed he had seen military aircraft conducting a test flight, the U.S. military insisted it had no such operations at the time. The flying objects Arnold thought he had seen, said U.S. Air Force officials, were nothing more than a mirage. The ensuing debate over whether the U.S. government was withholding information from its citizens, launched not only conspiracy theories about UFOs, but contributed to generations of conspiracies involving everything from childhood vaccines to the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

Greg Eghigian, an associate professor of modern history at Pennsylvania State University, believes the sometimes-at-odds relationship between scientists and lay people can be traced back to the flying saucer era of the late 1940s, and he describes the roots of the scepticism in the journal,  Public Understanding of Science.

“One of the things that marks the long history of this movement is the question of mistrust,” Eghigian says in a news release, “and I see this as part and parcel of some of the scepticism we see out there today. The UFO debate was kind of the granddaddy of them all and could be a model for looking at these other controversies.”

Scientists tend to believe that when the general public is either biased or uneducated, it largely doesn’t agree with scientific findings, Eghigian adds. However, it’s often less about a distrust of science than a distrust of scientific or governmental institutions.

“The politicisation of science is driving this distrust now,” says Cassino, pointing to climate change and vaccine safety as two prime examples. “When scientific findings become a partisan issue, there are dramatic shifts in public perception.”

On the other hand, says political scientist Dan Cassino, the paranoia endemic to the Cold War era is the source of today’s distrust, rather than specifically to the UFO phenomenon.

“There was a bunch of stuff going on that the government wasn’t talking about. There were actual conspiracies going on,” says Cassino, associate professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey. “But it was more the start of the Cold War that began the paranoid mindset. And it was more the Kennedy assassination in 1963 and Watergate in 1972 than UFOs that caused distrust of authority figures, including scientists.”

Robert Putnam, a political scientist and professor of public policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, reports the the number of Americans who trust the government in Washington, D.C., only “some of the time” or “almost never” has steadily risen from 30 percent in 1966 to 75 percent in 1992.

“What we need is a decoupling of science from partisanship,” Cassino says.