Tag Archives: skepticism

“Dog Rocks” & Meaningless Woofle

It’s a disappointment to find Pete Wedderburn, a qualified vet, endorsing “Dog Rocks”. Here’s what he printed in the Telegraph:

“The brown patches caused by dog urine on lawns are a perennial issue (to borrow a gardening term). Some people claim that a daily dollop of tomato ketchup in the dog’s dinner stops this but evidence is lacking. Dog Rocks are the most popular product marketed to help: these are placed in dogs’ water bowls, claiming to filter out excessive nitrogen and urea from the water. A high concentration of nitrates can cause grass to turn yellow or brown: the idea is that if less nitrates go into the dog, less come out the other end. Dog Rocks claim success in 80 per cent of cases when used according to instructions; they are widely available in pet shops and online (dogrocks.co.uk).”

It is amusing that Wedderburn dismisses ketchup as a solution for lawn burns on the basis of a lack of evidence and then recommends dog rocks instead, via an appeal to popularity. One might have thought that, given his science education, he would know that popularity isn’t evidence for efficacy. In his defence, he doesn’t explicitly claim that dog rocks work – he just says that the company does. Perhaps he simply assumed on good faith that a company claiming to have conducted laboratory tests on their product must be selling something legitimate – which is of course what we really ought to be able to assume, in an ideal world. Unfortunately, this world is not ideal.

According to the the company’s website, dog rocks are “an igneous Rock with absorbing & retaining qualities” that will “stop pet urine ruining your lawn, grass, shrubs and hedging”. The site offers no evidence to back up these claims, and is home to a plethora of archetypal pseudoscience – loose ideas arranged clumsily around science jargon like “stable matrix”, “micro porous medium”, “ion exchange” and “trace elements”. The marketers print the word “PROVEN” on their product packaging in big red capital letters and, as mentioned above, claim that their product is “laboratory tested”. But they fail to offer even the vaguest insight into the nature of these tests, providing no reference whatsoever to study design, who did the testing, or whether the research was published (or even written up), let alone quantitative information  like effect sizes, standard deviation, p-values, etc. Even anti-ageing face-cream companies manage to pay enough lip-service to transparency that we can go and see that their effects are based upon the subjective reports of 20 women brought into their own lab and not peer-reviewed.

Lack of peer-reviewed studies and misuse of science words are both pseudoscience red flags. Other red flags exhibited by the website are: a page of testimonials, repetitious appeals to nature (dog rocks are “100% natural!”), appeals to pH woo (dog rocks “do not change the pH balance of dog’s urine so they should not harm your dog at all”), and a sort of variation on the appeal to ancient wisdom – I’ll call it “provincial wisdom” (dog rocks were “discovered in Australia by an Aboriginal Gardener in the 1990s”).

A quick tour around the website confirms that discerning dog-owners most certainly are not this company’s target market, and makes it clear beyond any reasonable doubt that these “lab tests” are either irrelevant to the question of whether the product actually works, or simply non-existent. Here’s the “technical blurb” (that’s their term, by the way).

Dog Rocks are a coherent Rock with a mechanically stable framework meaning no significant mineral particles are released into the pet’s drinking water, in other words, Dog Rocks do not break down or leech anything into the pet’s drinking water. Dog Rocks form a stable matrix and a micro porous medium in which active components are able to act as a water-purifying agent through ion exchange. For this reason, when placed in water, Dog Rocks will help purify the water by removing some harmful trace elements giving your dog a cleaner source of water.

Perhaps it’s crude of me to even say this, but to my mind one of the most reliable indicators of junk science and B/S is simply the quality of writing. It doesn’t take a literary connoisseur to notice that the writing style exhibited on the Dog Rocks website is cringeworthily naff and unsophisticated, and it has what I would describe as an awkwardly ingratiating, cloying tone. Although that isn’t enough to dismiss scientific claims, in my experience, this particular form of prose is a strikingly accurate predictor of pseudoscience. Fortunately for our purposes, however, we have much more to sink our teeth into than that.

You might have noticed that no explanation is offered as to how the removal of “harmful trace elements” should result in a change in urine composition such that lawn burns would be prevented. Such ambiguous conflation of terms is yet another red flag: it’s not “harmful trace elements” that cause lawn burns, it’s urea and nitrates (both nitrogen-containing substances). This irrelevant appeal to TOXINS, TOXINS, EVERYWHERE and the promise to remove them seems to have been thrown in there opportunistically as a bonus selling point. You might also have noticed that ion-exchange is a two-way street, yet according to the distributors, nothing is released from the product into Buster’s water. Which is it, Dog Rocks?

I visited the FAQ section to find out more about how the product is supposed to work. Under the heading “How do DOG ROCKS work?”, the “technical blurb” quoted above is re-printed verbatim, except with a different incarnation of woofle following the phrase, “For this reason”:

For this reason, when placed in water, Dog Rocks will help purify the water by removing some nitrates, ammonia and harmful trace elements thereby giving your dog a cleaner source of water and lowering the amount of nitrates found in their diet thereby lowering the amount that is expelled in their urine. An overload of nitrates in urine will cause lawns to burn. Dogs do produce nitrates as a by-product from the protein in their diet, but the difference between too much nitrate that will kill the grass and the amount of nitrate that will be good for the grass is very small.

Carnivores have particularly high levels of nitrogen in their urine because their diets include so much protein, and the digestion of amino acids (the building blocks of protein) creates nitrogenous waste, primarily in the form of urea. As the above quote alludes to, diluted urine can be used as a fertiliser, precisely because it contains nitrogen – one of the most important macronutrients for plants. However, at high concentrations, it causes chemical burns to roots by sapping water from them as a result of osmotic pressure. Evidence that dog rocks can transform weedkiller-wee into fertilizer, as they claim, however, is entirely absent.

On the website, the manufacturers try to gloss over the fact that the nitrogen in dogs’ urine comes overwhelmingly from the protein that they eat with their assertion (featuring in the last quote) that “the difference between too much nitrate…and the amount…that will be good for the grass is very small”. The amount of urea in canine urine is 3.5 ± 2.4 mg/dl* – like human urine, it already varies quite considerably. The manufacturers are basically admitting that the reduction in nitrogen concentration achieved by dog rocks will be “very small”, but hanging on to the case for efficacy by saying that a very small reduction is all that is needed. Their use of the phrase “very small”, without any quantification or context is entirely unscientific and misleading. Small relative to what? An infinitesimal is “very small”; so is an electron; so is an ant; so is a Falabella pony, all relative to their contexts. 

The company fails to give a threshold concentration value of urinary nitrogen beyond which urine burns plant roots, and below which it doesn’t (which is fishy in and of itself – this would have been one of the most important things to determine in those “lab tests” they say they conducted). If the change in nitrogen concentration effected by dog rocks is “very small”, then the product should only work in the subset of cases in which a dog’s initial urinary nitrogen concentration happens to be just above this undeclared value, and for owners to notice a change would require that individual dogs always produced urine with that same concentration – just a “very small” fraction above the magic value  which they don’t. In reality, urea concentration fluctuates from pee to pee – the ability to vary urine concentration is one of the most important properties of the mammalian kidney. A “very small” change would would be drowned out by the noise of this daily variation. The only way I can see dog rocks working is if they were to effect a “very big” change which, given the relatively enormous amount of protein dogs eat, is physiologically implausible. So, assuming that dog rocks do actually remove nitrates from water (the website gives us no reason to believe that they do, and plenty of red flags to suggest that they probably don’t), the idea that this would translate into prevention of lawn burns in anywhere near 80% of cases is wholly unconvincing.

To summarise, the company has failed on four levels:

1) It provides no demonstration that the nitrates in the water a dog drinks contributes significantly towards its propensity to produce lawn spots.

2) It provides no evidence that dog rocks lower nitrate concentration in drinking water, nor does it describe a plausible mechanism for how they might do so, beyond unspecified “ion exchange”. (Incidentally, if these things really could absorb nitrates, wouldn’t the company be a major seller to people who own expensive aquarium set-ups?)

3) It provides no evidence, if indeed dietary nitrates consumed in water did play a significant role, that their product could significantly reduce nitrate content in dogs’ urine, relative to the nitrates coming from other sources (particularly the meat that they eat).

4) It provides no evidence that, if indeed their product did significantly reduce the nitrate content in dog urine relative to the nitrates coming from other sources, this would translate into an impact on lawn burn.

Any evidence filling in the logical gaps in their sales pitch represented by points 1-4 above would be helpful to Dog Rocks. A demonstration of each stage, along with a functional explanation, would be most convincing. However, demonstration of point 4 alone would be a good start in making their case for efficacy. They could conduct a randomised controlled study, submitted to peer-review, in which a group of, say, a hundred volunteers used dog rocks for a few months, and a hundred used “normal” rocks instead. The outcomes could be quantified by counting the number of lawn burns at the beginning and end of the trial, and then the results statistically analysed to determine whether any significant reduction had been achieved.

Something tells me that Dog Rocks won’t rise to the challenge.

I couldn’t help quoting what one Amazon reviewer of the product said in their concluding paragraph: “The ONLY truly effective solution to brown patches on your lawn is to pour a bucket of water on the exact spot that your dog has just had a wee, as soon as they have done it. If that’s not practical, then your next best solution is to save the money you would be spending on Dog Rocks every two months, and buy 2 rolls of turf. Cut out the dead patches on your lawn, and replace them with new turf. Repeat every two months. Job done.”

*I have been unable to ascertain whether this value of 3.5 +/- 2.4 mg/dl refers to deviation across different dogs, over an individual dogs’ different pees, or a combination of the two ranges. If any vets are reading and can shed light, this would be nice for completeness. 

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I flipping strongly dislike dogma

We’ve had a new round of criticism regarding the name of our FB page, so we thought we’d clarify our terminology.

Why hate

The definition of “hate” that we are using is very simple: “very strongly dislike”. And we didn’t make that definition up to suit our purposes. Check it out in the dictionary. We strongly dislike pseudoscience because it damages people, and we love and care about people. Pseudoscience even kills people, when it diverts them from medicine that works, as in the case of serious illness. See http://whatstheharm.net/ for more on this point.

Pseudoscience also damages people intellectually, in the sense that it fosters a willingness to form beliefs without first subjecting the tenets of those beliefs to critical evaluation. This, in our opinion, is a tragedy in itself, because to get maximum mileage out of the delectable brain-candy that is science, you have first to be able to identify it. Above all other things under the sun, Science is our solace. And it saddens us that so many people don’t know how it works, and are being prevented from experiencing the joy of knowing how it works by the propagation of obscuring-yet-superficially-appealing false information.

However, it is a tragedy in another, more sinister sense, too. In the absence of evidence as a proviso for taking on new beliefs, people can potentially believe anything. History gives testament to the diversity of malevolence to which such a relaxation of constraints on belief-formation can give rise. To reel off a few familiar examples: some beliefs result in hundreds of thousands of girls having their clitorises gouged out (without anaesthesia) every year. Other beliefs have resulted in people being tied up and burned alive. As we speak, some beliefs are causing people to miss out on their one shot at surviving cancer, or getting to age 40 before dying of AIDS-related illness. Some beliefs lead people to kill their own children. One of them led to Peter Andre eating so many bananas that he nearly died of a potassium overdose.*

We hate pseudoscience in a comparable way to that in which we hate poverty or racism and indeed all exploitative or otherwise harmful practises, creeds and phenomena. We feel, passionately, that making concrete claims without evidence to back those claims up is unethical, and we want it to stop.

It’s evident that some of you will have different mental representations of the lexical category “hate” from the one we do, because “strongly disliking” something is clearly a very good and quite uncontroversial place to start if you want that thing to stop. If you have no problem with strongly disliking then, under our definition, you automatically have no problem with the word “hate”. If you do have a problem with strongly disliking, then you won’t be one of those people who has expressed a strong dislike of our use of the word “hate”. Will you.

It is absolutely fine if you don’t want to be associated with a word that, in your brain, means something specifically more nasty than “strongly dislike”. Nonetheless, we are very comfortable with the term indeed, and would like it henceforth to be known that accusing us, in loud capital letters, of being guilty of anything more than “strongly disliking”, will be an example of your committing an informal logical fallacy. (Can anyone identify it?)

We could have called ourselves “I fucking strongly dislike pseudoscience”, but 1) it sounds shit, and 2) I doubt we would have been featured on “I fucking love science”, the exposure resulting from which has been instrumental in the growth of our readership over the last year.

As one final point here, we do NOT hate believers. We see believers as victims of dangerous and unsavoury yet very catchy beliefs. (The author of this note would even go so far as to say that, in a philosophical sense, she doesn’t even hate the fat-cats who make millions peddling “treatments” that they know to be ineffective. She feels deep pity for them in their tragic loss of compassion – the worst and deepest kind of impoverishment of which she can conceive.) In other words, IFHP hates pseudoscience, not pseudoscientists.

Why pseudoscience?

Every time we post about religion, we get a few people saying, “This is nothing to do with pseudoscience. What is it doing here?”, usually in much less civil terms. So, here’s our defence: as activists against pseudoscience, we feel at liberty to comment on topics related to pseudoscience. Religions (and mysticism) are very closely related to pseudoscience (indeed, the author would go as far as to argue that religion is really the mother of all pseudosciences), in that they “make concrete claims about things without evidence to back those claims up“, as per the “Why hate” section of this note. They also have a tendency to threaten eternal torment if you fail to believe these claims. Yuck!!

To be clear, the phrase in italics doesn’t represent a watertight definition of pseudoscience. Defining pseudsocience is known as the demarcation problem, and it boasts a distinguished history. There is no clear-cut rule that can determine whether something’s properties are necessary and sufficient for categorisation as pseudoscience (bear in mind that categorisation in general tends to have this property), so we use checklists, or red flags. The major monotheistic religions would fail on all 9 of Carl Sagan’s “baloney detection kit“, and fly all the major pseudoscience red flags (which are generally derived from it).

I guess we could have called the page “I fucking hate dogma”, which would have saved us having constantly to justify our discussions of religion (to people who haven’t spent two years making the page what it is…). But leaving aside our feeling that religion *is* pseudoscience, “I fucking hate pseudoscience” worked better as a mirror page for “I fucking love science”, which, as we have already alluded to (and are not ashamed to admit), we thought we’d see if we could use as a piggyback to get our page out there.

Why fucking?

Three words: “get”, “over”, and “it”.

The first edition of this note, written last year, left it at that. We still feel that three words says it all, but the author is one year older than she was last year and her more mature self tells her that she should pay at least some lip-service to the argument from vulgarity.

Swearing, for reasons I can’t quite get behind (…the author can’t get behind? Gosh, referring to oneself in third-person gets tiring) upsets some people. In her, my and our view, as long as you’re not swearing all the fucking time (whoops), in such a way that it starts to prevent you from articulating yourself properly, there really is no problem. (Incidentally, the author massively prefers compulsive, chronic swearing to compulsive, chronic use of “like”, a language virus that afflicts most young Anglophones today and whose effects require constant monitoring by the host to quash.) However, if swearing, even in small and measured doses, really does offend you (one can only imagine the toils and tribulations you must face at the cinema/in front of the TV/during life in general), then there are plenty of other “family-friendly” skeptical pages out there. Once again, and for reasons already given, we deliberately named our page using the same format as IFLS. This necessitated our embrace of that most vile and filthy of all ‘F’ words.

Bottom line? Like it or leave it, but please don’t accuse us of being hateful** people, because in actual fact this page would not exist were it not for the fact that our compassion and our concern for people veritably spilleth o’er. 


* OK, OK. So I can’t verify this rumour and perhaps it’s an urban legend. However, if it were true, it would help explain this bizarre behaviour. There’s this, too.

** Adjective

  1. Arousing, deserving of, or filled with hatred: “hateful letters of abuse”.
  2. Very unpleasant: “this hateful place”.

Misinformation in anti-milk propaganda

March-24-2013-19-20-10-GotMilk

A piece of anti-milk propaganda featured on the appropriately-named website “iwastesomuchtime.com” has started cropping up here and there. Its basic message is: don’t drink milk – it’s unneeded, unnatural, and bad for you. Naturalistic fallacy aside, the author(s) bring to bear on this message that a large proportion of the world is actually lactose intolerant. But in actual fact, when you look at the evolutionary history of lactose intolerance, this fact actually starts to sound like an argument from the other side of the fence.

Lactose tolerance is overwhelmingly more common in people who have pastoral (cattle-rearing) ancestry; for example, those of north-central European descent. It is rare in people who have non-pastoral ancestry, for example the Chinese. Population genetic studies tell us that the oldest genetic mutations associated with lactase persistence (the retaining of the enzymes necessary for digestion of lactose into adulthood) only reached appreciable levels in human populations in the last ten thousand years – in some populations, the frequency of the genes conferring lactase persistence have taken only 3,000 years to increase from negligible frequency to near-ubiquity. This rapidity, seen alongside other lines of evidence point to strong selection for an ability to digest lactose, and significant survival benefits for those who could do so, compared with those who couldn’t, when milk was available, in recent human evolutionary history. Most Westerners now live in a time of consistent nutritional plenty, so for this sample of the world’s population, generally the ability to digest lactose is no longer a matter of life-or-death. But seen in the light of evolution, the idea that drinking milk is “NOT NATURAL” falls through. And it renders the bulletin’s stats about China vs. Asian-Americans silly, because they correspond exactly to what genes and ancestry predict. Please do take a moment to read about the evolution of lactase persistance, if you are unfamiliar with it. It is a lovely demonstration of gene-culture co-evolution and a striking example of “niche-construction”. See, for example: http://lalandlab.st-andrews.ac.uk/niche/HumanSciences.html

One section in the bulletin reads: “cow’s milk is also the number one cause of food allergies among infants and children.” I’ve been to the source cited as a reference for this fact, and the maker of the anti-milk poster has in my opinion been fairly sneaky in its paraphrasing. The actual stat in the referenced document reads, “eight foods account for 90 percent of all (allergic) reactions: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish”. It doesn’t say that these foods “cause food allergies” in the sense of triggering allergies to other foods, which is what statement printed on the bulletin implies, I would say.

I’ve followed all of the cited references at the bottom of the bulletin and can’t find any source to back up their assertion that 62,200,000 Americans are drinking milk even though they can’t digest it. Perhaps I’m not looking hard enough, or perhaps they got that figure using dodgy calculations. If anyone can shed any light, please do. In any case, it sounds unlikely.

The really irresponsible feature of this meme is the clear-cut picture it presents of milk and disease. It implies that higher milk consumption is known to increase risk of ovarian cancer when in fact the picture is not clear, with some studies finding an association between high milk-(and meat- and cheese-) consumption and increased risk of some cancers, and other studies finding the opposite effect. With complex diseases involving so many variables, it is notoriously difficult to single out individual causal relationships, and it is common for different studies to find conflicting results. A meta-analysis in 2005, which looked at epidemiological studies of ovarian cancer and milk consumption, did not find an association. High milk and/or calcium consumption may increase the risk of prostate cancer, but then, it is also seems to lower the risk of colon cancer. The relationship between diet, lifestyle and cancer is a crucial area of active research. See:http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/cancer-help/about-cancer/cancer-questions/does-milk-cause-cancer

The blue and white poster also implies that high milk consumption is known to increase your risk of type 1 diabetes and heart disease. It has been proposed that early exposure (in infancy) to cow’s milk (or lack of breastfeeding) may increase a child’s risk of developing type 1 diabetes – a disease which in most cases is inherited. But it’s not clear that this extra risk accrues to people without a family history of diabetes.

Various studies have looked at dairy and its relation to heart disease and type 2 diabetes. An overview of the available evidence in 2010 found a *reduced* risk of all-cause deaths, heart disease, stroke and T2D associated with increased consumption of milk and dairy foods.  The picture is complicated, unlike the one painted in the bulletin.

Going by the allusions to maltreatment of cows, it seems that really this is an agenda-driven campaign, whose net its author(s) have sought to widen by drawing from nutritional science, being willing to give an unchecked and distorted picture of what the science actually says in the process.

Notice, also, the complete vagueness of equating the saturated fat in “one serving” of milk to “one serving” of fries. How big’s a serving? And is it really all that surprising, and all that worrying, that ounce-for-ounce, milk has “about the same calorie-load as soda”? “Saturated fat” and “calories” are not terms synonymous with “bad”. This poster doesn’t centre around a solid stance or case. Its miscellaneous and dubious contents testify to a lack of quality control in its putting-together. The author(s) have clearly scanned the web for anything that can be framed to fit the anti-milk agenda, and ignored everything else.

Just for the record, I (the UK admin), can really get behind veganism (though this is not necessarily the agenda behind the bulletin) – I think it’s a very worth cause. But the broadcasting of misinformation for promotion purposes it is something that shouldn’t be accepted.

Heal Your Dental Cavities…Naturally?

We’ve had numerous requests for a post on the idea that dental cavities can be cured through diet. It’s a popular theme at Natural News, and Wellness Mama, along with many other websites offering “wake-up calls” and extolling the virtues of living “naturally”. From what I can gather, the enthusiasm with which the notion of “healing” cavities at home is currently being promulgated seems to be owed in large part to a book with the amusingly imperative title, Cure Tooth Decay, published in 2010 by Ramiel Nagel. It is loosely based on the work of Weston A. Price (on whom more later). All of the holistically-flavoured articles I’ve come to read on this subject mention Price, and most of them also draw from studies conducted by dentists Edward and May Mellanby. IFHP has received two or three messages from readers directing us to Natural News’  take on the subject (repeated verbatim at many other online locations). The sources it cites are: itself (twice), Wellness Mama and the Weston A. Price Foundation. Incidentally, regarding ‘wellness’, John E. Dodes, D.D.S., a dentist and outspoken critic of ‘holistic dentistry’, has noted that this is “something for which quacks can get paid when there is nothing wrong with the patient.” This note deals mostly with the claims made by NN, but also touches on some of those found elsewhere, on websites of the same bent.

So, first things first: I am not a dentist. While I have done everything I can to make this as accurate and comprehensive as possible within a reasonable amount of time, I would like to make it very clear from the outset that suggestions for improvement, particularly by dentists, are very much welcomed. First, here’s a brief word on the theory of tooth decay accepted by mainstream dentistry.

Tooth enamel is a dense tissue made mostly of hydroxyapatite, a molecule comprising calcium, phosphorus, carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Being a-cellular, it is in fact a dead tissue, as is dentin – found directly beneath the enamel – which is also a-cellular.Enamel is is 96% minerals. (Dentin is 70%.) In the mouth, enamel is subject to constant cycles of softening and hardening. After eating foods containing fermentable carbohydrates such as sucrose, glucose and fructose, residues left in the mouth are broken down by oral bacteria, which produce lactic acid as a waste product. This local reduction in pH increases the solubility of hydroxyapatite, which begins to dissolve, in a process calleddemineralisation. However, once the sugar has gone and the pH has risen again, mineral ions suspended in the saliva are reuptaken by the tooth enamel. This part of the cycle is called remineralisation. Nowadays, the remineralisation process is enhanced by water fluoridation. Here is a useful article discussing fluoride’s multifaceted role in remineralisation: http://www.accessscience.com/studycenter.aspx?main=13&questionID=4858

The more frequently teeth are exposed to fermentable carbohydrates (particularly sucrose, see later) and acidic food, the less time the teeth have for remineralisation before they are subjected to the next round of demineralisation. As such, tooth decay (also known as ‘dental caries’) occurs when the rate of the latter exceeds that of the former, and lesions of softened, pitted enamel start to form. These weak areas represent the first stages of decay, and are sometimes known as ‘microcavities’. The good news (and herein lies our kernal of truth) is that, if treated properly with remineralising pastes, the development of these lesions can be reversed. However, once tooth decay has penetrated all the way through the enamel, forming a ‘true cavity’, this is irreversible. Why? because since enamel is a-cellular, it cannot grow. It is formed early in development by the ‘enamel organ’, which recedes by the time teeth erupt. Filling a true cavity is particularly urgent because, since the dentin is less mineralised (and therefore less resistant to the acid produced by oral bacteria), the decay process typically mushrooms out rapidly once it reaches the dentin, in a way that is sometimes described by dentists as a “cavity bomb going off inside the tooth”.

It should be borne in mind, then, that there is an important, qualitative difference between microcavities and the kind of cavities shown in this very popular picture (http://www.healthy-holistic-living.com/images/healcavities.gif), which accompanies many of the online articles in question. Later in this note, we’ll investigate the (misrepresented) source that has been exploited to gloss over this difference and promote the slap-dash notion that “cavities” can be “healed” at home.

Now for some direct quotations from Natural News:

 The world is slowly waking up to the fact that, when you give the body what it needs, it can heal things we previously thought were impossible. A fine example of what is often deemed as an incurable health problem is dental cavities, but extensive research is now becoming more public about the true nature of tooth decay and the fact that there are proven remedies that can remedy it.

Starting with a sweeping statement that implies all illnesses result from not giving the body “what it needs”, is an obvious red flag. Even if it were theoretically true that all disease could be prevented by feeding the body in such a way as to match supply perfectly with demand, with the ingestion of nutrients in exactly the right measurements, at exactly the right times, not enough is known about minute-to-minute body chemistry to put such a regime into action. And that’s before considering that every human body is different. This attitude, moreover, is implicitly dismissive of congenital diseases such as cystic fibrosis, a very serious condition caused by the unlucky pairing of two dodgy mutations from mother and father, and which requires an arduous daily schedule of treatment with drugs and mechanical intervention to prevent childhood death. This opening statement is redolent of willful ignorance and unconditional distrust in medicine, and we should probably expect what follows it to be flavoured with an antiscience bias, even if it originated somewhere other than Natural News.

 The lies perpetrated about tooth decay:

According to the American Dental Association, the reason we have tooth decay is as follows:

“[Tooth decay] occurs when foods containing carbohydrates (sugars and starches) such as milk, pop, raisins, cakes or candy are frequently left on the teeth. Bacteria that live in the mouth thrive on these foods, producing acids as a result. Over a period of time, these acids destroy tooth enamel, resulting in tooth decay.”

There are a few problems with this theory, including:

  • Groups of indigenous people who had fermentable carbohydrates stuck on their teeth all the timethat did not brush or floss were mostly or completely free of tooth decay.

This is a reference to the work of Weston A. Price, a dentist who has inspired a lot of praise, particularly in ‘holistic’ circles (see http://www.westonaprice.org/) and a fair bit of criticism, too. See, for example:

The Quackwatch article is arguably a little harsh, and it is important to note that Price’s work has often been pilfered and warped by others to promote dodgy theories that actually bear little resemblance to his own research. The Wiki articles on him (and the dubious foundation inaugurated in his name) are worth a read.

In Nutrition and Physical Degeneration (1939), Price gives an account of his observations of “primitive” peoples from various indigenous populations around the world, reporting that they were remarkably free of diseases afflicting Westerners, including dental caries. One of his conclusions was that Western food preparation methods were stripping away nutrients, resulting in deficiencies which, he proposed, explained tooth decay (and other diseases). During his research, Price observed that these indigenous groups, when they moved towards more Western diets, began to develop dental caries, interpreting this as support for his theory.

Price did in fact believe that sugar was a significant cause of dental caries, but hypothesised (incorrectly) that its cariogenic (tooth decay-inducing) action was to reduce the amount of minerals absorbed by the body. It wasn’t until the 1940s and 50s that the actual role of sugar in tooth decay was discovered, so this was a valid hypothesis at the time. Full appraisal of Price’s work is far beyond the remit of this note but, in short, it seems he did some interesting research which perhaps fell short on scientific and quantitative rigour. Some quick points:

  • Malnourished people, overrepresented in Price’s subjects, get fewer dental cavities, as they experience longer periods of time without dental exposure to food.
  • The serious increases in tooth decay experienced by indigenous people who then gained access to Western foods could be explained by overindulgence, by virtue of sugary foods being a novelty to them.
  • Archaeological evidence tells us that tooth decay is not exclusive to Westernised society. For example, here is recent study finding caries in humans from more than 13,700 years ago. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-24332237
  • Price’s research was conducted before the time of vitamin-fortification of Western processed carbohydrates, before the time of water fluoridation, and during a time when tooth decay in the Western world was almost at its highest in history (it reached a peak during the 50s and 60s). For a full-text review of the history of dental caries, published by Nature,see http://www.nature.com/bdj/journal/v191/n9/full/4801214a.html
  • Despite the controversy surrounding Price’s work, it is actually compatible with a sugar-centric theory of tooth decay.
  • I have not been able to give the time it would take to read Price’s entire book, but after the research I’ve done around this subject, it seems unlikely that he claimed his subjects “had fermentable carbohydrates stuck to their teeth all the time”, as reported by Natural News.

Here is a link to an e-version of Price’s book, which is now in the public domain: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200251h.html#ch1

  • Bacteria do not consume processed sugar or flour because of the lack of nutrients in them

This is a bizarre statement, made, Naturally, without any supporting reference. There is ample evidence that sucrose, the molecule constituting refined sugar, is eaten by bacteria in the mouth. De-germed (processed) flour contains less (though not nothing) in the way of vitamins, minerals and protein, but is full of polysaccarides, which can be digested by oral bacteria. In any case, the mouth contains a multitude of essential nutrients with which bacteria can supplement their diets. Here are a few references to support the role played by sucrose in caries-formation:

Krasse B, Edwardsson S, Svensson I, Trell L. Implantation of caries-inducing streptococci in the human oral cavity. Arch Oral Biol 1967;12:231–6

Minah GE, Lovekin GB, Finney JP. Sucrose-induced ecological response of experimental dental plaques from caries-free and caries-susceptible human volunteers. Infect Immun 1981;34:662–75.

Sheiham A. Sucrose and dental caries. Nutrition Health 1987; 5: 25–29.

Van Houte J, Upeslacis VN, Jordan HV, Skobe Z, Green DB. Role of sucrose in colonization of Streptococcus mutans in conventional Sprague-Dawley rats.J Dent Res 1976;55:202–15.

Another, related angle of attack (not included in the NN article) comes from Cure Tooth Decay by Ramiel Nagen. It is repeated in various online articles similar to the one from Natural News. It goes like this:

[Mainstream theory of tooth decay] further dissolves because white sugar actually has the ability to incapacitate microorganisms since it attracts water. In a 20% sugar solution, bacteria will perish. Yes, bacteria are present as a result of the process of tooth decay, but a lot of sugar at once will destroy them. If dentistry is correct about bacteria, then a high sugar diet should eliminate them.

Nagen clearly reckons he’s delivered a real blow with this one. To somebody who has never studied biology, perhaps it sounds like the kind of simple, razor-sharp idea that seems so obvious when voiced that everyone says, “why didn’t I think of that?” Only, this idea is toosimple. It’s one thing to plonk a blob of bacterial cells into a beaker of sugar solution and leave them there, out on a limb, floating around in an abyss with nowhere to hide. As long as the percentage of solutes in the liquid contained inside the cells is lower than the percentage of solutes contained outside them in the external solution, osmosis will ensure that the cells’ watery insides are sucked out, desiccating the little blighters as molecules strive towards equilibrium from both sides of their outer membranes. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osmosis) But this lab situation is completely different from the one going on in the human mouth, which doesn’t have smooth glassy surfaces, for one thing. The bacteria in the mouth are established residents. They’ve worked their way into all the nookiest nooks and the cranniest crannies, living in gooey bundles, all huddled up together, nice and cosy. They nuzzle between teeth and ensconce themselves under the harbourage of the gum-line. They squelch around in a caggy spread on the rough, grainy surface of the back of the tongue. Most importantly of all, to help them nuzzle and congregate thus, oral bacteria manufacture an extrapolysaccharide (EPS) slime, also known as a biofilm, using broken-down sugar. This EPS acts as a protective sheath against dessication, holds them together, and keeps them glued to their terrain. Biofilms are why dentists stress the importance of mechanical cleaning with brushes and floss – your antibacterial mouthwash might have “kills 99% of oral bacteria” printed on it, but this kill-rate is likely based on tests with bacteria unprotected by biofilms. When a host human chomps up a cake, the sugary, masticated stodge might feasibly break through some patches of bacterial biofilm, in a similar way to a toothbrush, displacing some of the unlucky bacteria on the outskirts of the huddles, and dragging them, stomach-wards, down the oesophagus. But once the cake-eating eating has stopped, the plentiful remaining bacteria will of course begin spreading over the fermentable residue, digesting it and multiplying afresh.

  • Foods that bacteria like to eat, such as milk, vegetables, meat, fish and fruit, are not commonly implicated in causes of tooth decay.

 Lactose does not appear to be as cariogenic (decay-inducing) as other mono- and di-saccarides. It also tends to be consumed in the presence of other food components such as proteins, fats, and minerals from milk and other dairy products, which act as a buffer, minimising its carious impact. Milk and other dairy products also contains calcium phosphate and casein, both of which aid in the remineralisation process. Fruit, which contains fructose, glucose and some sucrose, doesn’t seem to be a major player in tooth decay, though its acid content can be a cause of tooth erosion, particularly in juice-form, which can increase susceptibility. Something not acknowledged in the NN statement above is that people who eat lots of fruit also probably tend to eat fewer doughuts, meaning that their overall sucrose-intake may be lower. It’s worth pointing out, also, that there is a staggering diversity of bacterial species, some of which have even evolved to digest radioactive material. The phrase “bacteria like to eat” fails to acknowledge the fact that different species of bacteria have different tastes. A class of bacteria called the mutans streptococci represent the main culprits in tooth decay. Of these species, S. sobrinus and S. mutans are the most highly associated with carious lesions on the teeth. The reason sucrose (not found in high concentrations in milk, vegetables, meat, fish, or even fruit) is the biggest dietary factor in tooth decay is because these bacteria specifically rely on it to manufacture sticky, long-chain molecules called glucans, the main ingredient of EPS, discussed above. Thus, the idea that some “foods that bacteria like to eat” are not implicated in tooth decay is not at odds with the modern theory of tooth decay – none of the foods listed in this bacterial tasting menu, à la Natural News, are particularly high in sucrose. See the following papers for further reading on the cariogenicity of lactose and fruit.

http://www.nature.com/bdj/journal/v193/n10/full/4801628a.html#B18 (free full-text article)

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0958694611002482

 

So if the modern explanation of tooth decay is not accurate, what is actually the cause of tooth decay?

What actually causes tooth decay

Tooth decay, as researched by Dr. Weston Price and other dental pioneers, boiled down to three factors:

  • Not enough minerals in the diet.
  • Not enough fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) in the diet.
  • Nutrients not being readily bioavailable, and your intestinal system not properly absorbing them.The presence of phytic acid largely influences this factor.

Over a period of time, if your diet lacks vitamins and minerals from a poor diet and/or contains high levels of phytates (from grains, seeds, nuts, and legumes), the blood chemistry and the ratio of calcium and phosphorous become out of balance, which results in minerals being pulled from bones, causing tooth and bone loss.

So, the long-standing belief that sugar causes tooth decay is true, but as a result of it depleting nutrients from the body, not because bacteria eat it and produce acid that ruins your teeth.

cavities_in_dietary_groups(2) “Other dental pioneers” appears to be a reference to Dr. May Mellanby and Dr. Edward Mellanby (who discovered vitamin D). These two doctors did a lot of work on the effect of vitamins on tooth structure and decay. The graph, which comes from (http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.co.uk/2009/03/reversing-tooth-decay.html) has been reproduced in a large number of other online articles making claims similar to those made by Natural News. I must have seen it in at least six or seven articles. It is based on the summary of Dr. May Mellanby et al’s series of experiments done on children in hospitals, and, as far as I can tell, seems to be an accurate representation. Except for one crucial ambiguity. The graph uses the word “healing” (unqualified), in the context of “cavities”, neglecting to mention the difference between microcavities (lesions of softened, demineralised enamel) and true cavities – actual holes in the enamel. While softened and weak enamel can remineralise, it cannot grow back, as explained earlier in this note. I will say it again: this crucial difference between the early and late stages of tooth decay is something that is systematically ignored by all the web pages advising readers to ditch the dentist in favour of “natural” cures for “cavities”, a term which they fail to qualify. Some points on the Mellanby studies:

  • Supplementation of vitamin D (which is needed for absorption of calcium, a major component of teeth, as discussed above) was indeed found to have an ameliorative effect on dental caries, and the recommendation is made, in the concluding summary, that sufficient vitamin D and calcium should be consumed by mothers during pregnancy and by offpring from birth.
  • But the amelioration should not be, and was not, described by Mellanby simply as the “healing” of cavities, as it is in all these over-zelous articles. The improvements seen in Mellanby’s experiments were:
  1. hardening of carious lesions on the enamel (ie. remineralisation of microcavities, something accounted for uncontroversially within mainstream dentistry) – the word “healing”, out of context, is misleading, especially when the picture presented at the top of the NN the article (and others) is one of multiple, plainly visible, gaping holes in the enamel surfaces of a set of teeth.
  2. The laying down of tertiary protective dentin (dentin being the calcified tissue just below the enamel) in cavities that had already penetrated the enamel. Again, the observation that this response can occur in teeth, arresting the development of caries, is encompassed by modern dental theory. However, there is still debate surrounding how commonly and under what circumstances this occurs. This ‘laying down’ of new dentin, when it occurs, is achieved by the living pulp (remember, dentin is dead tissue). However, this new dentin does not extend very far, and is irregular in structure and far less dense than primary or secondary dentin*, so extremely vulnerable to further decay.
  • Whereas, across all the other diets studied experimentally by Mellanby, carbohydrate content was kept constant, carbohydrate content was considerably lowered in the cereal-free (low phytic acid) diet. Now that we know about the role of fermentable carbohydrates in tooth decay, this should be flagged up as confounding factor in the experiment’s results and the author’s conclusion regarding the detrimental effect of phytic acid on teeth, an idea which is so popular in current-day articles on natural “healing” of tooth cavities, as well as in “paleo” circles. Phyates are now not considered to have a detrimental effect on teeth. (In fact, when isolated from foods, they have even been found to have an anti-caries effect, though this doesn’t carry through to when they are eaten as an intrinsic component of food.)
  • Mellanby herself was clear in pointing out that, even on a high-vitamin D diet, “caries is not arrested in all children”, saying that it “appeared that there might well be dietic factors apart from vitamin D influencing the carious process”, and recognising “that some local chemico-parasitic condition in the mouth might explain the continued activity of caries at some points”. She was right, of course – “chemico-parasitic” being a rather apt way to describe the condition imposed by the presence of lactic acid-producing bacteria.
  • Again, this work was done during a time before vitamin-fortification of cereals and processed carbohydrates, before sugar was identified as the main causal factor in tooth decay, before water fluoridation, and during a time when, accordingly, tooth decay was rife.

The full text version of the report on all four experiments conducted by Mellanby et al. on tooth decay progression in children, from which the graph is taken, can be found here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2520490/?page=3. In fact, all of the Mellanby articles are available online in full.

 The food remedies that can heal cavities and tooth decay

In order to restore the ratio of calcium and phosphorus in our blood, and to enable minerals to bond to our teeth, it is not enough to just avoid eating too many sweet or processed foods. We must also eat health-building foods, containing copious amounts of minerals and vitamins that will build a glassy hard tooth structure.

Foods to focus on are:

  • Coconut oil, grass-fed organic dairy (especially butter), grass-fed meats, seafood and bone broths.
  • Organic cooked vegetables (soups with bone broth are ideal).
  • Organ and gland meats, like liver.

Limit foods that are high in phytic acid, like grains, beans, nuts and seeds, as well as limiting processed food intake full of processed flours and sugars that upset blood sugar balance.

Supplements to consider are:

  • Fermented cod liver oil – very high in fat soluble vitamins A, D and K.
  • Magnesium – required to use calcium and phosphorous effectively.
  • Gelatin – if you don’t have time to make bone broth, this is a good alternative and is great for gums and digestion.

Now go get your pearly white smile back.

 The idea that every one of us needs to be working to “restore” the ratio of calcium and phosphorus in our blood has no basis. Aside from being the conclusion of an article deliberately based on anachronistic theory from the 1920s and 30s (and loosely, at that), in general, people who eat reasonable diets based on standard dietary recommendations have no reason to believe that they are suffering from nutritional deficiencies or inbalances. Claims that modern dentistry dismisses the importance of nutrition for healthy teeth are false. Evidence points to the importance of nutrition in the pre-eruptive stage, when teeth are forming, and deficiencies in (for example) vitamin D and A, as well as protein energy malnutrition, have all been linked with poor enamel composition (enamel hypoplasia), which increases susceptibility to tooth decay (see following reference). Furthermore, other nutrient deficiencies are recognised to interfere with saliva composition and quantity (http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/78/4/881S.full), minimising its protective effect. But in healthy people who eat a normal, balanced diet, in the post-eruptive stage, by far the most important cause of tooth decay is sugar consumption. The authors of the articles addressed in this note offer dental advice but, in so doing, clearly demonstrate that they are neither qualified nor equipped to do so. When seeking out advice on how to maximise the health of your teeth, be sure to check for accreditation by dentists. If you think you’re at risk of being subjected to unnecessary drilling and filling, ask your dentist whether remineralisation with fluoride therapy is a possible alternative. If you still suspect him/her of ‘over-enthusiasm’, go and get a second opinion. But don’t abandon dental appointments in favour of diet regimes invented in the 1930s, before the era of food fortification, water fluoridation, or an understanding of sugar’s role in tooth decay.

For a full-text read on teeth and nutrition: http://www.nature.com/bdj/journal/v193/n10/full/4801628a.html#B18

See also: http://www.smilesbypayet.com/category/dental-philosophy-of-care/holistic-dentist/

*These experiments were conducted in the 20s and 30s. At that time, what is now called tertiary dentin was then known as secondary dentin. The new category reflects the greater understanding dentists now have of tooth structure and function. Thanks to dentist Adrian Stewart, who provided the following explanation in a comment: Secondary dentin is laid down on the inner wall of the dentin throughout the life of the pulp. Dentin is tubular in structure (diameter of approx. 1 micron) with an ondontoblast (the cell that makes dentin and secondary dentin) at the interface of the pulp and he dentin tubule, with a cell process extending into the tubule. Decay entering the dentin leads to death of this ondontoblast, which is replaced by a prto-ondontoblast from pluripotent stem cells within the dental pulp. These then lay down irregular tertiary dentin, which is nowhere near as dense as primary or secondary dentin but acts as a basic defense against the decay process.