Why you can’t read scientific research

Caution: vitriol ahead.

I recently interviewed about fifty winemakers and growers in two countries, and surveyed a few hundred more, about information resources and what they do with them. They didn’t complain about scientific research being a bunch of unreadable scientific gobbledygook. But they did complain about research being unreadable – literally, unreadable – because they can’t access the darn articles.

If you want the guts of someone’s research – exactly what methods they used, the data before they’re sanitized into tidy conclusions – mega-publishing companies* ask you to pay US $30 or more to buy or even rent the full text of an academic article. Abstracts are usually free and give you a summary of the main idea. But abstracts are no help if you want details. If you’re trying to ascertain whether the research relates to your practical work, you probably want details.

Seriously, does anyone ever empty their metaphorical pocket money for a single-article access? Ever? You’re either fortunate enough to work for a university or company that publishers can blackmail into paying extortionist fees for “institutional access,” or you do without.

How did this happen? Scientific publishing started exactly 350 years ago in England and France when the research community became big enough that sending letters to each other wasn’t working any more. Then, (I’m quoting Lyman and Chodorow**),

University presses and disciplinary associations were founded to disseminate research in the original cycle of scholarly communication. The faculty produced the work to be published; non-profit publishers organized the distribution of knowledge; the university library bought the published work at an artificially high price, as a subsidy for learned societies; and the faculty used this literature as the foundation for further research and teaching.”

And then a lot of societies sold their journals to mega-publishers when they couldn’t support the infrastructure to move to digital. And then those mega-publishers could increase their prices because (I’m quoting Lariviere, Haustein, and Mongeon),

Unlike usual suppliers, authors provide their goods without financial compensation and consumers (i.e. readers) are isolated from the purchase. Because purchase and use are not directly linked, price fluctuations do not influence demand. Academic libraries, contributing 68% to 75% of journal publishing revenues [31], are atypical buyers because their purchases are mainly controlled by budgets. Regardless of their information needs, they have to manage with less as prices increase. Due to the publisher’s oligopoly, libraries are more or less helpless, for in scholarly publishing each product represents a unique value and cannot be replaced.”

As an academic, I’m hog-tied. I have to publish in good journals to get a good job, and then to keep it. Most of the best journals are owned by mega-publishers; the smaller, independent, often open-access ones are usually newer, smaller, and not as competitive or high-profile.

We all hate this state of affairs, but most of us are too afraid that we won’t get a job/make tenure/pay off our student loans if we don’t comply. So we comply. I’ve submitted or published six articles in the past two years. Three have been to independent open-access journals, three to mega-pubs. Avoiding the mega-publishers would have been the difference between a top-tier publication and one much further down the pile, not to mention getting feedback from great scholars whose names I recognize from the top journals. As a PhD student going on the job market next year there are only so many risks I’m willing to take. And I’m fortunate to work in a subfield where a few of my top-tier choices are open-access independents.

Academics don’t get paid for the journal articles they submit. We hand over our work for free, and then we review other peoples’ submissions for free, which means hours of reading and providing detailed feedback. This is part of the academic “job,” so we’re paid for it indirectly by our university salaries. Universities have to pay researchers, and universities have to pay incredibly high subscription fees for journal access. Universities get money from student tuition fees, taxpayer funds, and special bequests from rich people. If you’re a taxpayer or have ever paid for someone’s college education, you’ve paid for academic publishing. And the mega-publishers are still asking you to pay $30-40 to read single articles on the internet.

Publisher revenues have doubled since journals moved online. Printing a physical journal is expensive. Putting it online is much, much less expensive. Mega-publishers now turn profits on par with Pfizer and the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China. Scroll down to the discussions and conclusions of this open-access article on “The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era” for a brief but excellent account of more of the details.

The best news is that this supreme state of idiocy is on unsteady ground.

As of this coming year, every United States federal government research organization has mandated that all articles published as a result of public funding must by law be made fully and freely available online. To everyone, whether you’re proprietor of a schmancy boutique winery in Napa or a young assistant winemaker at a small place in South Africa or Uruguay or Armenia or are a random curious lady sitting in a living room in Northern Ireland. So there’s the good news. You’ll see fewer articles blocked by stupid paywalls, and if you’re an American taxpayer you’ll stop paying twice for some research.

What can you do to help bring down even more of those paywalls? Support the resistance. Keep finding ways to avoid paying publishers. Share. Contact researchers directly if you have questions about an article you can’t access: an email address is usually sitting next to the abstract, and most researchers are happy to talk about (and share) their work. And pat your friendly local academic on the back when they say they’ve published OA.

* Elsevier, SAGE, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer, Taylor & Francis, John Wiley

**I’m actually “through-quoting” here, which means that I’m using the same quote another article already used and that I didn’t actually read the original source. It’s considered bad academic practice because you don’t know what the original context was (and thus could be misunderstanding the original author), and because the source you’re actually reading could have made a mistake. But this is my blog, and you get the gist.

Is there a difference between Apothic Red and your average Napa cab?

My Palate Press article for July asks whether wine is becoming sweeter, and why. It may seem a stupid question. Of course wine is becoming sweeter. Ask everyone who’s been talking about Meiomi for the past week. But there’s a problem. Sweet wine has always been praised as a good things. Ask the Greeks, or the Romans, or John Locke. Now, their definition of “sweet” and ours might not be the same, and no one’s going to pull out a bottle they’ve been saving from Aristotle’s wine cellar to prove the case one way or the other, but we know that sweet wine isn’t just the new tipple of the undereducated. Syrupy Tokaji isn’t called the wine of kings for nothing.

It earned that name, though, because it was rare, precious, and frightfully expensive, not just because it’s delicious. No question that the various, dubious miracles of modern technology make it possible for everyday wine to be sweeter than ever. Excellent filtration systems keep bugs from lapping up extra sugar and spoiling wines with residual sugar after bottling. A lot of wine without residual sugar tastes sweeter because of riper fruit flavors and higher alcohol (alcohol tastes sweet), thanks to the fashionability of extra “hang time,” warmer climates, and all manner of viticultural improvements. The modern palate has come to expect (and demand, it seems) those flavors in unprecedented ways.

Apothic Red and your average popular Napa cabernet both taste sweet. So, is there a difference? Simon Woolf, who always has something intelligent to say, pointed out in a comment on that Palate Press piece that I could just have easily argued that wine is becoming blander, rather than sweeter, and that the palate of the average consumer has been dumbed down. Are Apothic Red and your average modernly-sweet dry red wine part of the same trend, or do they represent different ones?

Simon calls them different, but I’d say that they’re the same idea taken to different degrees. Mass-market wines, whether $8 grocery store blends, or $22 California pinots, or $60 Napa cabs, are made to sell; sweet sells because it takes so little effort to appreciate, and because it suits the modern ketchup palate. Having more money to spend doesn’t always mean having spent more of it developing your palate.

The counter-argument says super-ripe cabs are a phenomenon of winemakers/growers playing with their new toys. We can make riper wines, so we will make riper wines because they’re new, and novel, and maybe because they demonstrate New World prowess at ripening and our God-given superiority over the French and their inconsistent vintages. Cheap sweet wines, on the other hand, are just pandering to the soda-swilling public, plus covering up for grapes that have nothing else to offer flavor-wise.

The original winemaking motivation behind Apothic and modern cab might be different, though I’d expect that anyone who made high-quality overripe reds for the novelty has gotten bored and moved to something more interesting. The reason why they stick, though? The same. Over-hybridized year-round picked-to-ship grocery store produce, packaged products engineered with sugar and salt for maximum acceptance with minimum effort, and refrigerators (less call for fermented foods, and less spoilage, frankly) haven’t dumbed down everyone’s palates. If you’re an American, you’re more likely to prefer molecular gastronomy to McDonalds if you’re well-off, it’s true. But then you’re also not the person buying sweet-ripe Napa cabs; you’re pouring Assyrtiko with that kimchi (because let’s be honest; you’re eating kimchi, and half the folk eating molecular are only doing it because it’s trendy). Apothic, Meiomi, and high-end fruit bombs are all doing the same thing for people whose palates have more in common than their pocketbooks. Why is Meiomi, a flagrantly sweet red wine, doing so well at $22? Because a lot of ketchup palates have found mid-range PR jobs at dot-coms and the like and don’t want to take $12 bottles to a party. And because our idiotic drinking laws and backward wine-consuming culture meant they never learned about all of the other interesting flavors in wine growing up, but that is a handful of different questions for another day.

 

The simple chemistry behind removing wine sulfites

There’s something horrifying about our standard reaction to a food label reading “Contains X” being “Is X bad?” That appears to be the standard reaction to sulfite labeling on wines: they had to tell me it’s there, so it must be bad for me. But it would be unfair of me to harp too much on snap judgments when I feel so much instant distrust toward Üllo just because they brand themselves with this horribly stereotyped photo of four young, attractive entrepreneurs smiling broadly at each other over their glasses.

Üllo promises to take any wine that comes with a “contains sulfites” label and turn it into a kinder, gentler, sulfite-free beverage. (Pardon the irony, but I’m still getting over that photo, and their name.) Just to cover my bases, once again, if you react to sulfites, you react to a lot of foods other than wine, you’re probably a severe asthmatic, and you’ll know. There’s nothing wrong with a tool to remove sulfites per se, but it contributes to this whole myth of their being a good reason why the Ordinary Wine Consumer would want to.

The scientific principle at work here is simple, and Üllo is a miniature version of a tool chemists and biochemists use often. In a complex mixture of many different molecules, some molecules will be selectively attracted to each other on account of unique properties related to their electric charge, shape, and atomic composition. If you want to remove one specific molecule or type of molecule from a mixture, you can pour the mixture through a resin loaded with another molecule that attracts it. Your Favorite Molecule (YFM; or least favorite, if we’re talking about sulfites) will remain trapped in the resin while everything else in the mix falls right through.*

What the Üllo folk did was come up with a “food grade polymer” that uses this principle to trap sulfites and put it in this thingamajig that you can sit over your wine glass. Once all of the polymer molecules are loaded up with sulfite molecules they can’t bind to any more, which is why the little filter that sits in the Üllo cup is disposable. They probably needed to do a lot of tinkering to find precisely the right polymer, so kudos to them on that account.

There are two problems with this simple idea. The first is that it’s not perfect. Some of YFM will always miss being bound up and fall through. Üllo marketing deals with that by talking about “returning” wine to it’s “natural” state, and since yeast naturally produce some sulfites, that leaves them about 10 ppm (parts per million) wiggle room. If you’re one of those rare few with a bona fide sulfite problem, that probably isn’t enough to set you off, though individuals’ sensitivities vary.

The second problem is the converse of the first. Inevitably, some stuff other than the target molecule gets stuck on its way through the filter. Üllo is trying to turn this bug into a feature by noting that you’ll remove unwanted sediment as well as sulfites, though I’d hazard that very few people in the target audience for this product are drinking wines with unpleasant sediments in the first place. I’ve not tried Üllo, so I don’t know how wine tastes after being poured through, nor what besides the sulfites changes in its molecular profile. But no matter how good a job those smiling entrepreneurs did with their chemistry, the wine will sustain some collateral damage. Again, probably not a problem if you’re drinking a commercial wine product to have something to hold at a party, but an altogether different issue if you’re expecting to savor the winemaker-crafted nuance of something special.

Üllo is a clever idea: simple, obvious, the kind of thing that makes you wonder why no one’s thought of it before. It might be a great tool for the gluten-avoiding Yellow Tail-sipping crowd that will feel better knowing their wine is virtually sulfite-free. It may even be a real help to some of those very few people who want to drink sulfite-containing wine but can’t breathe when they do. My problem with it is precisely the same as with gluten-free products. Most people don’t need them. Some of those folk are fooled into thinking gluten-free products are healthier anyway (even though they’re often lower in fiber and sometimes higher in fat and sugar). And while some of them are fantastic, most aren’t, and you’re usually losing something else along the way.

*The point of this exercise is often that you want to recapture a purified version of Your Favorite Molecule (YFM), so separation columns are often designed to be reversible: if you pour a solution of something that binds to the resin even better than YFM, YFM will fall off and come out the other side. When I spent time in a biochem lab working on HIV proteins, we used this technique to isolate specific viral proteins so that we could subject them to more testing.

Why oak is like pie, and the problems with that

Granted that I actually made a cherry clafoutis for Independence Day, not a cherry pie, but the holiday brings pies to mind. Pie is about as uniquely American as oak is, which is to say, not at all: both were invented and widely used in Europe long before the continent across the ocean was a concern, but Americans nonetheless took them to new and overblown heights (butter-baked-in-butter crack pie/butter pie, anyone?)

Historic pie makes sense. Modern pie is an enigma. And that brings us to oak barrels for wine aging, because the same can be said of both.

It’s hard to say, but pie was probably invented as a stand-in for owning cookware. In a time of communal village ovens (and Romans), a sturdy paste of flour and fat could encase your stew for baking even if you didn’t have a pan to spare. You cracked open the pie, ate the insides, and fed the crust to the dog or the servants. At some point, cooks began to make the crust with human consumption in mind, and pie segued from helpful and decorative (think the 4-and-20 blackbirds song) packaging to food.

A scene in the Laura Ingalls Wilder book Farmer Boy sticks in my head as an example of what pie became. The country fair brings a generous table of fruit and custard and mince pies in spades, and the farm boy wants to have a slice of everything. By the time pie made it to the 19th c. farm family, it was clearly a good way to get plenty of calories into people, many of whom probably needed them.

We don’t. Everyone* making pie owns bakeware. Anything that makes sense as pie filling is even better sans crust (save for fillings that don’t make sense inside the pie in the first place; crack pie/butter pie, anyone?) Sweetened berries? Stewed apples? Pumpkin custard? Chocolate pudding? The crust is superfluous. Crusts are time-consuming to make. They’re calorically expensive. But, they look nice and some people are attached to the way they taste.

Replace “crust” with “barrels.” Barrels are very expensive. They’re heavy and hard to handle, subject to toppling in earthquakes, very hard to clean, and prone to contaminating good wines with bad yeast. We have plenty of other storage options. We’ve moved well, well past barrels for storing everything else, from nails to flour to pickles (hipsters excepted) that we once put in them. But, they look nice and a lot of folk have become attached to the way they taste, and so we keep rolling them out, like pie crust.

Yes, oak aging contributes more than flavor. Yes, oak’s breathable qualities, allowing wine to interact with oxygen in a minute and gradual way, are valuable and a royal pain in the engineering to mimic minus the barrel. But imagine that oak barrels were a new innovation instead of an old holdover. “New scientific innovation promises microoxygenation for better tannin integration, but costs thousands of dollars every year, adds days to your annual workload, and increases Brettanomyces contamination.” Would anyone buy it?

I appreciate the rounding and softening influence of oak in my reds as much as the next oenophile. I even like a wave of perceptible oak over the surface of a big-bodied chardonnay now and then. But I don’t like pie**. I think I hear the hypocrisy bell ringing in my ears, and I think it’s time to take oak alternatives more seriously.

 

*Impromptu midnight college bakers excepted. And me, when I first came to New Zealand and made pumpkin galette instead of pie for Thanksgiving because I’d been in the country three weeks and didn’t own a pie plate yet.

**Really. Ask my poor pie-starved husband who very patiently puts up with crisps, cobblers, and clafoutis.

 

New research: Wine allergies exist. You probably don’t have them.

A lot of people seem to think that they’re allergic to wine. Most probably aren’t. Our current best evidence on sulfites says that only people with severe asthma have any real cause to worry and, given the presence of sulfites in many other common foods – most dried fruit, many cured meats, salad bars – it’s something they surely know before ever meeting their first glass of wine. I’m one of a subset of people who react dramatically to biogenic amines, molecules produced by some yeast and bacteria that mimic human hormones and cause me to go hot and red in the face and sprout a bad headache after only a few sips of an affected wine (embarrassing when people think I’m tipsy after half a glass). Another subset (including many Asian people) honest-to-goodness doesn’t metabolize alcohol well, thanks to a genetically encoded difference in an important enzyme, and turns hot, red, and otherwise uncomfortable in response to any alcohol. None of these are actually allergies.

So, do wine allergies actually exist? Yes.

Back in 2012, a group of German epidemiologists sent out a survey asking random adult residents of Mainz whether they had experienced symptoms of “wine intolerance.” 7.2% of people who responded to the survey attested to some form of wine intolerance. I wrote about some problems with the study on Palate Press: the possibility that respondents might have confused “intolerance” symptoms with a hangover, the likelihood that the survey overestimated people with problems because they’re the most likely to respond (and three-quarters of people sent the survey didn’t respond), the power of suggestion. Still, the study begs the question. How many people really are allergic to wine?

The same group has followed up with more research aimed at answering that question. Of the 68 people marked as “wine intolerant” by the original survey, they convinced 19 to sit down, along with ten non-intolerant controls (mostly women), for a battery of allergy testing. In addition to the familiar skin prick test – inject a bit of potential allergen X under your skin to see if you come up red and swollen – they also used several blood tests all looking for the release of inflammatory molecules in response to wine and grape products, including riesling, pinot gris, pinot noir, and dornfelder wine. All of these tests measure reactions to grape proteins. These are true allergies, proteins that set off an immune response, not reactions to alcohol, biogenic amines, sulfites, or allergies to processing agents such as egg whites or milk proteins.

Seven of the 26 people prick-tested developed swelling in response to at least one of the wine or grape samples, four to wine and three just to grapes. 13 developed antibodies in response to grapes, but only nine of them had reported symptoms; the other four were in the asymptomatic control group. Only one person was wine allergy-positive in all four different types of tests.

The conclusion? People can be allergic to specific kinds of grapes, wines, or both, just as people can be allergic to citrus fruit, tomatoes, or olives. It’s probably not very common. This study was small, far too small to say anything about how common wine allergies are in Germany let alone amongst other ethnic groups. Knowing how to respond to discrepancies among the tests, and between the tests and people’s reported symptoms, is an issue, too. Writing up their results for publication, the researchers ignored it. But again, no matter what exactly is going on there, we’re back at the first conclusion. Grapes, and wine, seem to be like other foods as far as allergies go. You might well have a wine allergy, or an allergy to red or white wine, or to a specific variety. You probably don’t.

Standardized tasting: Could wine be like Thai food?

Wine tasting is astonishingly non-standardized. In an era in which kids’ writing on high-stakes tests is routinely being graded by computer algorithms*, computerized tongues still have a pretty limited use in grading wine. Sensory scientists try to standardize their human tasting panels as much as possible by training people to recognize standard smells and tastes and by using various statistical maneuvers to filter out individual variation. But wine tasting in nearly every important and interesting way involves everyone’s palates being a bit different. The question is: are we tolerating that difference or celebrating it? If we could really standardize wine tasting, would we want to?

My June piece for Palate Press is about a phenomenon, mostly marvelous but also a bit frightening, that could help a standardization agenda. Wine changes in our mouths, thanks to salivary enzymes and bacteria with more enzymes that create aromatic compounds from previously unaromatic ones. Because both the bacteria and the enzymes are different for different people, it’s likely that we’re each tasting the same wine a bit differently, not just because our physical apparatus for tasting is different — different numbers of taste buds and so on — but because the molecules we’re smelling are actually a bit different.

This is, on the one hand, fantastic. Not only is the science just plain interesting, but it’s one more part of an explanation for a common but peculiar and sometimes frustrating experience: multiple people taste the same wine, but taste different things. On the other hand, it opens up some frightening prospects. If we have individual variations, then we’re likely to find some way to judge those differences and make some better or worse or ideal or unacceptable. Will prospective judges for strenuous wine competitions need to spit into a sample cup for the sake of enzymatic analysis and be eliminated if they don’t meet the standard protocol?

Last year, the Thai government released an electronic tongue expressly designed to protect would-be eaters of Thai food from incorrectly prepared culinary monstrosities. (It occurs that the Thai government feels about its food something of the way France has historically felt about its language.) The machine awards a sample a score on a 100-point scale; 80 is the threshold for an “acceptable” version of a dish. The dense politics surrounding who gets to define the standards might be the only reason why a similar internationally distributable box for Bordeaux or Burgundy hasn’t yet been marketed.

Thailand’s authenticity verifier relies on standards generated by Thai university students: the scientists had students rank samples of a dish in terms of which they preferred. That strategy presumably worked well in a fairly homogenous cultural context and when we take it for granted that Thai people are the authorities on how Thai food should taste. Could the same ever be said for wine? I’d hazard that our global wine tasting palates — the way we educate ourselves to expect wine to taste — probably owe more to the oenophilous Brits, not only because they drank lots of wine but because they popularized a particular idea of wine appreciation and wine writing across their empire. Do we get British experts to generate our standards for good taste, or MW students, or some representative sample of global wine drinkers? And then, if your own tastes differ, are you wrong?

It may be that my notions about the validity of personal taste are peculiarly American, where individuality is so much a virtue that it’s hard to remember that the rest of the world doesn’t always feel the same way. But the question isn’t just about individuality, but about who sets the standards. Wine appreciators have spent a lot of energy convincing people who aren’t upper middle-class white British men that wine can be for them, too, and that what matters most is what you like, not what someone tells you you should like. Even if we can standardize wine tasting, actually doing so may work against what wine lovers at large are trying to achieve.

 

 

In transition

This isn’t really the Wineoscope, at least not as it was or as it will be. This is an awkward in-between creature that exists only while I’m getting my act together around a new site. So, please accept my apologies for this pimply adolescent phase, and look forward with me toward something a little less, well, awkward.

Empirical evidence: organic/biodynamic vit = more textured wines

A six-year comparison of organic, biodynamic, and “low-input” and “high-input” viticulture (three years of conversion, three of maintenance) recently came to fruition in South Australia, courtesy of researchers at the University of Adelaide. The full report is freely available here (and three cheers for research freely shared). It’s 73 pages long, but the conclusions are fairly simple. The most worthwhile among them: in blind trials, experienced wine professionals rated the organic and biodynamic wines more interesting than the conventional versions.

  • Soil health (nitrogen, phosphorus, organic carbon, microbe mass) was most strongly improved by compost, not by any particular management system. All four systems were tested with and without compost.
  • Compost had the single most dramatic positive effect on soil health, no matter the underlying management system.
  • Management system had no consistent effect on vine growth, berry weight, or berry composition.
  • Low-input, organic, and biodynamic alternatives yielded at 91%, 79%, and 70%, respectively, of the high-input condition.
  • Organic and biodynamic wines were more “textural, rich, vibrant, and spicy” than their conventional counterparts. (pH, TA, and color held constant; high-input wines were a bit higher in alcohol.)

Improved soil health with organic/biodynamic management has been demonstrated numerous times over, and so have the benefits of compost. This study was unusual in making compost a separate variable, showing that both organics/biodynamics and compost, separately, were beneficial. The upside here is the attitude, across the study, that conventional growers can benefit from organic techniques even without undertaking a full-on organic conversion.

The downside is that the “organic” and “biodynamic” management used in the comparison are weak compared with what many committed non-conventional growers undertake. How can you practice biodynamics without compost? “Biodynamic” here seems to have meant nothing more than adding the core preparations 500 and 501, a far, far cry from anything Demeter would certify as honest biodynamics. Even the organic system is pretty bare bones: weed control with mowing and cultivation instead of herbicides; no insecticides or pesticides other than copper. (The low-input condition pulled back on the insecticides and some of the pesticides.)

Talking about those lower yields, the researchers make an important point. Very little research has been done on organic or biodynamic cultivation methods. We could develop better techniques within those systems and preserve environment and fruit quality while improving yields. Many organic/biodynamic growers have surely worked out such techniques on a local scale, which leaves a role for scientists to listen to what they’re doing, identify why it works and how/whether it can be generalized more broadly. Some environmentally conscious wine people are happy to pour their big pharma money (or whatever it might be) into projects they believe in with no thought for financial return, but most are trying to support their families as well as their values. Sharing successful organic/biodynamic techniques — say, for weed management, which was the biggest issue in this study — developing them scientifically, and stamping them with a scientific seal of approval so that they’re not dismissed as just those quacky organic people, will help conventional growers improve their weed management tactics, too. Likely, too, with economic benefits you can appreciate even if you honestly don’t care about trashing the environment for short-term gains.

The researchers should have made another point about those yields. Are the high-input yields a reasonable benchmark? Should we buy short-term gains with long-term environmental and social damage? If your business isn’t “sustainable” without using chemical warfare to eke every last grape out of the earth, then perhaps you need to reconsider your business practices in other areas. It comes back to the old resurrecting dinosaurs argument. Just because we have the technology to do something doesn’t mean we should. The wine might even be more interesting.

 

Brett + bacteria = worse, or better

Microbiology has gotten a lot wrong studying yeast and bacteria. We’ve assumed, until quite recently, that if a microbe doesn’t grow in a dish it’s not there. And that a microbe is either on/live/growing or off/dead. And that we can study microbes in isolation — “pure culture” — away from other species in little sterile dishes and expect them to behave normally. In all fairness, microbiologists have sometimes seen these as a problems, but have mostly just gone on this way, writing books about what we think we know.

DNA detection and sequencing technology is showing just how many bugs don’t grow in dishes — “high throughput” technology can document (theoretically) all of the species in a drop of [insert favorite liquid here]. That’s pretty routine these days. And we’re slowly beginning to study how mixtures of microbes — you know, the way they live in the wild — behave in the lab. Wine was a bit ahead of the curve here: microbial enologists have been studying the goings-on of spontaneous and mixed fermentations since the late 1980’s.*

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Don’t worry about mercury in whisky (but maybe worry about England?)

Mercury in single malt whisky is something about which you should never be concerned. Seriously, don’t worry about it. A recent study tells us that even the most highly contaminated bottles are more than 600 times lower than the World Health Organization’s current guideline for acceptable levels of mercury in drinking water. That’s for something you drink by the tablespoonful versus something you drink by quarts or liters. There is nothing to worry about here.*

So why bother talking about it, or measuring it in the first place? The authors behind that study were following up on a medium-sized hullaballoo in the mid-1990’s over relatively high concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in single-malt. If that acronym looks familiar, it’s likely because PAH’s are the reason for the shadow cast over our grilling habits and, if I die of cancer, a probable place to point the finger.** PAHs are carcinogens formed by incomplete combustion that gives off smoke; in other words, PAHs are a minor-but-maybe-significant component of that marvelously flavorful char that accumulates on the outside of your barbecue, part of what makes smoked salmon such a very worthwhile thing, and one of the many reasons why cigarettes are a really nasty habit. It’s logical to suspect that they might be part of smoky single malts, too, which a group of researchers did strongly enough to bother studying it.

Chemistry confirmed the logic: moderate concentrations of carcinogenic PAHs showed up in the Scotch. But it also found something else. Single malts were worse off than American bourbons or Irish whiskies and even than blended Scotch. Worse yet, from my perspective, they found the highest concentrations in Laphroig and Oban, two of my favorites. Drinking whisky is associated with increased risk of colorectal, esophageal, and mouth cancer in the sorts of studies that measure such thing, though the researchers said that the concentrations of PAHs they found weren’t high enough to explain those risks.

So why the leap to mercury? Whiskies from southern Scotland turned up with higher PAHs than whiskies from northern Scotland. It’s well known that the south and west of Scotland is subject to more pollution than the north and east; it’s changing, but coal- and oil-burning proportionally overload the southwest with various airborne unpleasantries that end up migrating to soil and water and, evidently, to whisky. But maybe those Islay whiskies weren’t high in PAHs because of their proximity to the more densely populated and polluted parts of the country (and England). PAHs could just as easily come from those peat-smoked malts or the oak barrels used for aging.

If whisky’s carcinogens are a function of environmental pollutants, then concentrations of other environmental pollutants should follow the same south-north gradient pattern. And so we have the mercury study. Mercury levels in every whisky they tested were far too low to cause concern, but they nevertheless followed that same pattern: higher in the south, lower in the north.

This is a good thing, even for me and the rest of the hyper-peated club. Environmental pollutants from coal and oil combustion have declined massively, more than 90% since 1970, and continue to fall. Off-the-shelf whiskies the chemists tested were at least 9 years old, reflecting the environmental conditions of a decade or so ago. Tracing carcinogens to those conditions rather than to part of the whisky-making process itself means that it’s becoming less hazardous all the time. Or, at least, less hazardous in this one respect. Anything as delicious, expensive, and high-octane as a good single malt is always going to be at least a little dangerous.

 

*In light of recent events, I feel the need to make myself perfectly clear on this point.

**My diet is pretty ridiculously high in fruits, vegetables, whole-grains and all of those things we’re told should protect us in times of cancerous trouble, but I have an abiding weakness for smoked and charred foods. And I spend a lot of time with candles and incense, and I’m Catholic, which evidently doesn’t help.

***Which warrants quoting in full a letter to the editor sent to the Lancet following up on the PAH study:

Sir

As a member of the Scottish Malt Whisky Society, I found Kleinjans’ (Dec 21/28, p 1731)1 report of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in whiskies of interest, but have one question. Since the authors used only 200 mL of each of the 18 whiskies studied, what did they do with the remainder? I hope that they had a very merry Christmas.