Narwhal Cheese, Plant Sentience, Vegans, & Nerdy Punks

August 18, 2014

I’ve been fairly busy lately and haven’t been giving this blog the attention it deserves. Unfortunately I don’t foresee that changing much as I am starting a new semester today but to tide you over for now here are four recent interviews and discussions I took part in.

First Luc and Stevie of the Team Earthlings Podcast called me up while I was at TAM to discuss the recurrent arguments regarding plant sentience. Give it a listen here.

I was also recently interviewed on Sydney-based community radio station 2SER about the Real Vegan Cheese project. Listen here.

I was a part of the inaugural episode of the Lemon Slice Nebula podcast which you cant listen to here. In the podcast the difficult subject of animal research comes up, I probably muddled what I was saying fairly badly so feel free to get into it with my in the comments but I also highly recommend listening to this conversation between anti-vivisection activist Dr. Ray Greek and skeptical podcaster Dr. Steven Novella.

Lastly I was recently interviewed by my buddy James Funston for the a series he is doing on scholastic punks about punk rock, DIY science, veganism, and other stuff. Check it out here.

A day to #meetveggies

August 11, 2014

This past Saturday I was invited to an event called #meetveggies at Monsanto’s vegetable seed division (Seminis) research facility and farm in Woodland, CA. Because I have a interest in biotechnology and plant-based agriculture I was jealous of The Pythagorean Crank for getting to see their operations in St. Louis so I immediately said yes.

It took about 7 hours and several buses to traverse the relatively short distance between Oakland and Woodland but shortly after 7am I was standing in front of the gates. I pulled out my phone and snapped a quick photo of the entrance before realizing that I might look kinda sketchy standing there in my hoodie taking photos of a such controversial company’s building.

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But not to worry, I quickly resolved the security guard’s curiosity and waited for everyone else to arrive.

Once everyone arrived we gathered in a boardroom for a short presentation by Tom Wofford, director of brassica and leafy breeding, about plant breeding and genetics.

tomwofford
Here Tom explains how it took 20 years of breeding to achieve a white cauliflower that doesn’t yellow in the sun. This saves farmers the labor intensive process of wrapping the leaves over the head to shade it. After Tom’s presentation we headed out to the fields.

The first breeder we met in the fields was Bill Johnson who has spent 14 years breeding squash.

squash
He showed us his various plots of squash, some of which were genetically engineered to be virus resistant. In fact these were the only genetically engineered crops we saw all day, Monsanto actually makes much more non-GMO seed than you might initially think.

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Most of Bill’s work actually centers around non-gmo squash for global markets. He taught us about the great importance of cultural specifications like shape and color in his breeding work. In this video (not shot during my  visit) Bill explains some of his work.

As the group moved on to the the next field I stay behind and talked with Bill, he was gracious enough to show me how he used twist ties on the flowers and hand pollination to control pollination with so many other varieties  of squash all around.

I caught up with the group just as melon breeder Jeff Mills started talking about his work.

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He taught us about how the cantaloupe, actually a misnomer, market is seasonally split between between Western shippers in the warmer months and Harpers in the cooler months and how to pick the perfectly ripe melon. With western shippers you wanna look for creamy skin behind the netting and a smooth round hole where the stem “slipped” off the melon. Harpers on the other hand will have green skin behind the netting when ripe but can be over ripe when the stem slips so look for one where cracks are just forming at the base. He also spoke about how vital marker assisted selection was to his work and the importance of traits like field holding.

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As Jeff spoke he picked up melon after melon, slicing them in half and handing out samples. I tried so many varieties that I lost track but one of my favorites was the Amarillo melon. At the end of the day we were even given the chance to pick out a couple melons to take home.

Next up was Tomato breeder Alan Krivanek who showed us his amazing array of fresh market style tomatoes. Alan said that water use as well as consumer traits like flavor and texture were important in his work.

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There were so many names I couldn’t  keep track of the varieties, to be fair some had names that were just strings of letters and numbers, but one variety I do remember by name were the tiny, juicy Zima tomatoes. Normally I never eat raw tomatoes as a snack but I just couldnt help myself with the delicious samples Alan gave out. He also let me take home a brown type tomato.

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Last but not least was watermelon breeder Greg Tolla who explained the variety in watermelons are largely due to cultural preferences, some places like seedless, other prefer seeded, so like a 15 pound melons, others want giant 30 pounders.

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To pick a ripe watermelon Greg told us to look for the wilted tendril if you are in the field or to look for a yellow, not white, belly in the store. Greg also showed us a watermelon developed for the cut fruit industry with a firmer, more apple-like, texture the reduce bleeding. By that point in the hot, sunny day the many samples of Greg’s watermelons were a refreshing treat.

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The day wrapped up at a Mexican restaurant where I was able to wrangle up a decent veggie burrito as well as try some yummy pineapple guacamole, paid for by my hosts, before I had to head home while the rest of the group checked out the Woodland Tomato Festival. That raises the question some of you are probably wondering, “How much did they pay you?”.

shillbucks

Honestly? $150 to cover transportation…not in cash, but in gift cards that were essentially cash. So that’s it, I’m bought and paid for. Well not so fast. Because it only cost me $20 in bus fare and I genuinely enjoyed the experience, I actually felt uncomfortable accepting the cards but I felt that rather than refuse them I could use them for a good cause. So I am donating the $150 to a local food bank. And in the interest of full disclosure in addition to my meal being paid for I also received a free hat, a water bottle, and snatched a couple granola bars from the snack table on my way out. Those I intend to keep.

I think one of the take-aways here is that there are a lot of narratives about Monsanto out there, not all of them based on fact. It is a helpful perspective to hear the plants breeders stories first hand. Monsanto isn’t a perfect company, and there are aspects of their business with which I have problems (I am in particular concerned about animal testing and field workers), but I’m not convinced they are the “MonSatan” or the “most evil company in the world” that they are commonly made out to be.

Another take-away is that we all really want the same things, safe and sustainable agriculture. We might disagree on exactly what that looks like. But the breeders I met were no evil henchmen, they were caring and passionate people who took pride in their work. If I could create squash that hardy, melons that sweet, tomatoes that flavorful, or watermelon that juicy, I would be proud too!

I personally had a great time and would highly recommend the experience to others.

Vegan Cheese Update, Eden Foods, Hero Bees, & Elephant Artists

July 2, 2014

Real Vegan Cheese:

A quick update on the Real Vegan Cheese project that I have previously written about, technical work on the project is also coming along nicely but the team really needs your support so they have launched a new crowd funding campaign. Check out the video below,

You can also check out this article in the Eastbay Express called Inside The Ethical Cheese Lab by Sam Levin. Please support this project if you can. Not only could it make a really awesome, and yummy, product but it offers a great model for getting people more interested in and knowledgeable about science. One of the great things about DIYbio groups is the opportunity for students and the general public to learn and get involved, I even got to do a little cloning work myself.

Eden Foods and Birth Control:

The christian-owned craft store Hobby Lobby has been in the news recently due to their opposition to paying for birth control under health care law. A decision which was recently supported by the Supreme Court, despite much public outcry. But what is your favorite soymilk tainted by religious irrationality? To find out have a look at Organic Eden Foods’ quiet right-wing agenda & Eden Foods doubles down in birth control flap by Irin Carmon. And for what it is worth you can also read the response from the president of Eden Foods.

I do also wonder how this will affect the argument by some vegans that they should be exempt from vaccine mandates for “religious” reasons. Is it possible we could see other vegan owned companies denying coverage for the yearly flu shot? I am far from a legal scholar so I would love for someone to school me in the comment section.

Hero Bees:

I find that many people are very quick to uncritically accept stories of amazing or surprising animal abilities and behaviors and tend to ascribe human characteristics and motivation to such behavior. I get it, it, for lack of a better word, “humanizes” the other. While I certainly believe that the gulf between “human” and “animal” is an artificial one of semantics, I think that taking a skeptical look at anthropomorphism is important (especially since it is anthropocentric) and that we should examine individual cases critically. Animals need not be “like us” in order to matter.

Recently a video of bumblebee “rescuing” another bee from a spider web in a swift and bold move has been making the rounds.

But Professor of Biology Dave Goulson explains that what the video actually shows is

“a second bee…comes crashing in, falls on its back and thrashes around a bit. As the second bee flails around on its back, it looks in one frame as if it stings the spider.

In fact, what one can see is the rear leg of the bee which happens to line up with the tip of the abdomen for a moment. It is too long and thick for a bee sting. The spider runs away, and the bees break free (as bumblebees usually do from spider’s webs).

So, sorry, this is not a noble, brave act, much as I might like it to be. This is just two clumsy bees trying to find their way home.”

Painting Elephants:

Every now and then I will see a post about Elephants that can paint, sometimes it is even touted as a way to raise money to protect elephants. But upon closer examination this practice is generally one of tremendous exploitation and  abuse. So it was nice to hear this myth addressed in a recent presentation from Scot Bastian for the Seattle Skeptics. You can listen to the presentation here and find the companion post here.

The Fear Babe, Part 6: Castoreum

June 28, 2014

Yesterday I wrapped up a five part series on veggie burgers and just when I thought I was finished with the Fear Food Babe (Vani Hari) and her nonsense, up pops this gem, “Do You Eat Beaver Butt?“. In this video Hari informs viewers that “tons” of strawberry or vanilla flavored foods in the grocery store are flavored with a substance from a “beaver’s butt”, hidden under the name “Natural Flavors”, because it is cheaper than using the real ingredients. This substance, called castoreum, is an aromatic secretion from glands at the base of the beavers tail and is a cruel product of the fur trapping industry. Castoreum is indeed approved as a food ingredient, but is all the hype over “beaver butt” in your vanilla soymilk really justified? Not really, as Michaeleen Doucleff reports for NPR,

In 2004, the food industry used only about 300 pounds of the beaver extract, according to according to the fifth edition of Fenaroli’s Handbook of Flavor Ingredients, an industry bible of sorts. That’s a mere drop in the bucket compared with the amount of vanilla extract used. And in 2011, the Vegetarian Resource Group asked five companies that make vanilla flavoring if they used any beaver extract. All of them said no.

The average consumer is unlikely to encounter much, if any, castoreum at the grocery store. Where it is more likely to be encounter is at the perfume counter. A desire to avoid castoreum is perhaps one point of agreement between the Food Babe and I. But contrary to what she would have us believe, castoreum simply isn’t commonly used in food anymore. So it makes little sense to be telling people, as Hari does, to avoid all products that contain “Natural Flavors”. If in doubt about a particular product or ingredient simply contact the manufacturer. Be informed and empowered, not fearful.

See:
Does Beaver Tush Flavor Your Strawberry Shortcake? We Go Myth Busting by Michaeleen Doucleff
Social Media and Isolation + Monsanto + Castoreum on The Reality Check podcast

The Fear Babe, Part 5: GMOs

June 27, 2014

Today I am going to wrap-up my five part series on an article called Think Twice Before You Buy This Type of Burger by The Food Babe, aka Vani Hari.

GMOs:

Lastly Hari warns her readers that “if the burger contains anything derived from corn or soy, you can almost guarantee it comes from genetically modified seeds unless it is certified 100% organic.” The problem with this, she states, is that such foods, “have been linked to toxicity, allergic reactions and fertility issues and have not been studied for their long term effects on our health.” Wow, that sure is an eye opener…except that it isn’t true. In reality genetically modified foods have been the subject of thousands of studies attesting to their safety and do not pose a risk beyond that posed by other more publicly accepted breeding methods.

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Infographic On 4 Ways To Breed Crops By Scrambling Genes

See:
Frankenfood Fears by SkepticalVegan
GMO Labeling by SkepticalVegan
The Food Babe is anything but an expert on GMOs by Joe Schwarcz

The Fear Babe, Part 4: MSG

June 26, 2014

Today I shall continue my 5-part series on Think Twice Before You Buy This Type of Burger by The Food Babe, aka Vani Hari.

MSG:

Next up on the list of things that scare The Food Babe is monosodium glutamate (MSG), a food additive that gives dishes a deep and savory, or umami, taste. The belief that MSG is a harmful food additive is so pervasive that it is often taken for granted that it is something to be avoided. The list of symptoms attributed to MSG are diverse and range from flushing and headaches to heart problems to cancer and everything inbetween. But, “decades of research have failed to demonstrate a clear and consistent relationship between MSG ingestion and the development of these conditions.” At most researchers have uncovered a small segment of the population with might be sensitive to MSG, but even this is based on limited, and not very consistent, evidence. Regardless of the evidence, public fears have driven many food manufactures, particularly of products marketed to both the vegan and “natural foods” communities, to avoid the use of straight MSG and to often proudly label their food as having “No MSG.”

But if few veggie burger manufacturers actually add MSG what is all the fuss about? Hari informs us that, “there are several hidden sources of MSG found in vegetarian meat substitutes.” For once Hari is actually somewhat right, though it would be more correct to say free glutamate. While the natural food industry generally eschews crystalline MSG they have found many natural sources of glutamate, such as yeast extract and fermented soy, to serve the same flavor enhancing function as MSG. But just as with MSG these sources pose no real danger. In fact having sources rich in glutamate in your diet can be a good thing. Soy sauce, miso, tomato sauce, mushrooms, and balsamic vinegar are all relatively common glutamate-rich foods. Do you sprinkle nutritional yeast on everything? There might be a reason for that…glutamate. Americans aversion to MSG could even be negativity impacting public health efforts in some cases. Studies have shown that sodium levels in foods can be significantly reduced without an accompanying loss of flavor if MSG is used. It could be potentially useful to replace some of the salt in certain dishes with MSG.

See:
The Safety of MSG by Jack Norris
Is Umami a Secret Ingredient of Vegan Activism? By Ginny Messina
The Secret, ‘Vaguely Racist’ History Of MSG Fear-Mongering By Dan Nosowitz
The Monosodium Glutamate Story – Cornell College

The Fear Babe, Part 3: TVP & Nitrite

June 25, 2014

On Monday I wrote about an article called Think Twice Before You Buy This Type of Burger by The Food Babe, aka Vani Hari, which is basically a case study in chemophobia. Today I continue my 5-part series on this article...

Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP) & Nitrite:

Hari’s next problem is with textured vegetable protein (TVP), a high protein soy product that is used in various foods including some veggie burgers. According to Hari TVP is filled with, “artificial and natural flavors, MSG, colorings, emulsifiers and thickening agents, including nitrosamine, which is a carcinogen no one should be consuming.” In reality this is just a blanket appeal to chemophobia. One issue mentioned that may be a concern is that of nitrosamines, a class of compounds which are created from added of naturally occurring nitrite during the processing, cooking, and digestion of certain foods that have been implicated in certain cancers. This actually forms part of the basis for anti-hot dog/bacon/processed meat campaigns by vegan organizations such as the PCRM. But little nitrite is converted to nitrosamines under normal conditions and the evidence for harm from consuming high nitrite foods is not conclusive while at the same time there is growing evidence of the positive physiological roles of nitrite. According to a more recent report from the European Food Safety Authority, “Epidemiological studies do not suggest that nitrate intake from diet or drinking water is associated with increased cancer risk. Evidence that high intake of nitrite might be associated with increased cancer risk is equivocal.

And, what’s more, even if we ignore the seemingly overstated nature of these concerns, highlighting soy as a dangerous source of nitrosamines is misleading. The precursor to nitrosamines, nitrite, can be found in many foods particularly in certain meats, grains, and leafy vegetables in particular, often at significantly higher levels. And while some surveys do show vegetarian diets having above average intakes of nitrite, their source, as with the general-non-vegetarian population, is mostly from vegetables (where the presence of vitamin C might mitigate the formation of nitrosamines) and the calculated amounts generally do not exceed the conservative EU acceptable daily intake (ADI). The FDA, for their part, does not believe that meat analogs pose a risk to consumers either,

The SCOGS report estimated the maximum daily nitrite consumption for a vegetarian eating meat alternatives prepared from soy protein to be 0.04 mg/kilogram (kg) body weight (or 2.8 mg for a 70-kg person). The report estimated daily per capita intake of nitrite from other foods of plant origin and cured meats to be about 2.4 mg and daily exposure to nitrite from saliva to be 15 mg. The report estimated that nitrite formed in the intestine from reduction of ammonia or organic nitrogen compounds contributed about 90 mg/day. Given the relatively minor potential contribution of soy protein to total nitrite exposure, and the fact that no data were submitted to document the current levels of nitrites or nitrosamines in soy protein isolates, FDA is not persuaded of the necessity for establishing specifications for acceptable levels of these compounds.

So you can probably enjoy your veggie burger in peace. Any nitrite in soy should not present a problem for the average vegan consumer and testing of soy protein isolate found no detectable nitrosamines. Additionally when researchers in Taiwan looked at nitrite exposure from soy they found an inverse relationship with the type of cancer under investigation due to an inhibitory agent in soy. All in all, I remain unconvinced that avoiding soy is warranted on the basis of nitrite concerns.

See:
Nitrate in vegetables from the European Food Safety Authority
TVP and MSG by Jack Norris

The Fear Babe, Part 2: Canola Oil

June 24, 2014

Yesterday I wrote about an article called Think Twice Before You Buy This Type of Burger by The Food Babe, aka Vani Hari, which is basically a case study in chemophobia. Today I continue my 5-part series on this article. Let’s seem what we have next…

Canola:

The second issue with veggie burgers pinpointed by The Food Babe is the use of “cheap” oils. Along with soy oil, corn oil, sunflower, and safflower oil, Hari illustrates this point with canola oil. But once again Hari plays the chemophobia card by invoking the specter of hexane. Like with soy, hexane is used sometimes in the processing of canola and some other oils. And also as with soy protein, hexane is present only in trace amounts in the finished product, if at all, and is likely of little concern. Beyond the repeat of hexane fears Hari further informs us that, “overconsumption of these cheap oils are causing an abundance of Omega 6 fatty acids in our diets“, which, “increases the risk of inflammation, heart disease, obesity, and prostate and bone cancer.

While Omega 3/6 balance is important for vegans, canola actually has a decent 3 to 6 ratio when compared to other common cooking oils and is a healthy source of ALA. In general you should try to choose oils with a healthier Omega 3/6 balance such as flax, hemp, canola, or even soy, and it may be a good idea to supplement DHA. But, unless your diet consists primarily of veggie burgers, I feel the oil in a typical patty is not the greatest of concerns.
Check out the links below for more information on dietary fats.

See:
Why Canola Oil Is a Safe and Healthy Choice by Shereen Lehman
Omega-3s in Vegetarian Diets by Jack Norris
Omega-3 Fats in Vegan Diets: A Quick Primer by Ginny Messina

The Fear Babe, Part 1: Hexane & Soy Protein

June 23, 2014

An article called Think Twice Before You Buy This Type of Burger by The Food Babe, aka Vani Hari, who you may remember from the Subway-yoga mat “scandal”, detailing the supposedly scary ingredients in a typical veggie burger has been making the rounds in the run up to BBQ season. But like pretty much everything The Food Babe has written, this article is simply pseudoscientific nonsense that plays on the public’s fears and misunderstanding of food chemistry. Over the next five days I hope to break down each claim, one by one. Let’s go…

Hexane:

The first issue The Food Babe raises is that of “neurotoxins & carcinogens”, particularly in the form of hexane. During the processing of some soy for veggie burgers and other soy protein products a solvent called hexane is used to extract the oil. Over the years a number of groups such as the Weston A Price Foundation and The Cornucopia Institute have sought to exploit public fears of this issue for their anti-soy and pro-organic agendas. Fortunately though for those that enjoy a good veggie burger this is probably not a big concern, most if not all hexane is removed during processing but sometimes a small amount in the parts per million range remains behind. While the US has yet to set limits for hexane residues in soyfoods the levels of hexane residue claimed by folks such as the The Cornucopia Institute are below limits set by the generally cautious and conservative EU. To reach a reasonable level of concern one would have to consume many thousands of veggie burgers or drink dozens of gallons of vegetable oil.

If you really are still concerned, not to worry, there are many brands of veggie burger on the market that do not use hexane. Finding them is just a Google search away. As for me, I’m not too worried so make my burger a double.

See:
Hexane in Soy Food on Berkeley Wellness
Hexane in veggie burgers: little science behind the claims by Virginia Messina
Is Your Veggie Burger Killing You? The risks of hexane in soy products.
by Brian Palmer
Do Veggie Burgers Contain Hexane? by Shereen Lehman
Vani Hari (a.k.a. The Food Babe): The Jenny McCarthy of food by David Gorski
Useful Idiot Alert: The Food Babe by Julie Gunlock
Chemicals in Food: Who cares about Science? by Amy Hawthorne

Fluoride & Neurotoxicity in The Lancet

June 20, 2014

Not this again! Lately anti-fluoridationists have been touting a recent study, Neurobehavioural effects of developmental toxicity, published in the Lancet,

Who would have thought that it ever would have happened? Someone in mainstream medicine and peer reviewed literature and journals would publish the ‘unthinkable’: fluoride, the stuff they put into municipal water supplies supposedly to ‘protect’ teeth from cavities, is a neurotoxin. Wow! And congratulations to doctors Philippe Grandjean, MD, and Philip J Landrigan, MD, two researchers who published their findings in The Lancet Neurology, Volume 13, Issue 3, Pages 330 to 338, March 2014. [source]

But how significant is this finding? Not very. This is simply a rehashing* of the same Chinese studies from the so called “Harvard study” and adds nothing new to the discussion. Dentist and pro-fluoridationist Steven D. Slott writes,

The “Harvard Study” was simply a review of 27 Chinese studies found in obscure Chinese scientific journals, of the effects of high levels of naturally occurring fluoride in the well water of various Chinese, Mongolian, and Iranian village. The concentration of fluoride in these studies was as high as 11.5 ppm. By the admission of the Harvard researchers, these studies had key information missing, used questionable methodologies, and had inadequate controls for confounding factors.

The Chinese studies have been addressed to death already (you can see my break down of the studies here), but anti-fluoridationists just don’t seem to care. They will continue to parrot anything that casts fluoridation in a sinister or scary light. For them this is not an issue of science, this is fear and ideology.

As I’ve written before fluoride is a social justice issue. Endemic fluorosis disproportionately affects the poor in developing nations, while fear-based efforts to stop community fluoridation programs disproportionately affect the poor in developed nations. When anti-fluoridationists cite such evidence what they are essentially doing is exploiting a very real problem of mostly poor and non-white folks (endemic fluorosis) in order to drum up attention and donations for a *made-up* problem of mostly privileged white folks in the West. The Fluoride Action Network in particularly is fond of citing Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern and African data on endemic fluorosis, yet to my knowledge they have not lifted a finger to help people in these areas. Instead they focus entirely on blockading or dismantling public health programs.

Thankfully however there are some organizations on the ground in India addressing the issue of endemic fluorosis in a science-based manner, the Fluoride Knowledge & Action Network (not to be confused with the anti-science Fluoride Action Network) is one such organization. Hopefully this organization will grow and make some headway however I do share one concern expressed by science-blogger Ken Perrott,

I wish the Fluoride Knowledge and Action Network well in their future activity. They are dealing with an important problem in their area and hopefully won’t get diverted by Connett’s organisation. I think that is a possibility because the fluoride free groups, and the “scientific” journal Fluoride they love to quote, does try to make capital out of these real problems by arguing that they are also a problem with fluoridation in countries like New Zealand [and the US]. They aren’t.

Another organization doing some good in India is Frank Water which helps to provide “safe drinking water for the world’s poorest communities” by setting up sustainable filtration programs in areas with bacteriological and fluoride contamination. Their work in India, a fluorosis hotspot, has resulted in safe drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people who now have a brighter future. It is projects like this that are doing the real good, spreading fear and misinformation, however, helps no one.

*in that spirit you may find some that some of the text here is rehashed from previous posts on the subject.

Further Reading:
Repeating bad science on fluoride by Ken Perrott
The Data Behind the Global Neurotoxicity “Silent Pandemic” Is Kinda Sketchy by Michael Byrne
Upholding its tradition, a new Lancet piece on chemicals aims to scare rather than inform. from the ACSH
Fluoride & the Brain: The China Studies by Skeptical Vegan


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