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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Quinoa the Superfood

The United Nations has declared 2013 to be the ‘International Year of Quinoa’ and so it’s appropriate that I post a blog about this wonderful food on the advent of the new year.  Truth be told quinoa [pronounced Keenwah] has been experiencing worldwide commercial success for almost 15 years now, though there still are many who have yet to discover its remarkable versatility and incredible nutritional benefits.

The quinoa plant was originally discovered in the Andes mountains in the of north-western part of South America - Ecuador, Bolivia, Columbia and Peru - as far back as 7,000 years ago but it was not domesticated until about 4,000 years ago when its cultivation spread and it became a staple in the native diet. It had to be an extremely hardy plant to adapt and thrive in the poor soil of its harsh environment, with its frequent draughts and early frosts.  Optimal growing temperatures range from -3oC [25oF] to 35oC [95oF] so they can actually be grown in your own back yard as shown when you click on the video.
The grains you see in the bowl above are actually the seeds of the plant and, as shown on the right, multicoloured quinoa plants can produce black and brown seeds as well. When the plant’s ready to harvest, its seeds can just be shaken into a container . However there is one problem - to protect the seeds from fungi or being eaten by birds, they are covered with bitter tasting saponins that need to be thoroughly washed off with running water. The packaged seeds you buy probably have been washed but it's still wise to test them to be sure all the saponins that cause foaming, have been removed.

To cook quinoa, you use 2 parts water to1 part seeds, bring to a boil and let simmer for 15 minutes.  The result is a nutty flavoured product that can be used instead of potatoes or rice [or combined with rice], mixed in salads or as a base for many recipes. Quinoa has become a real success in the health food and organic food market because it is rich in proteins, essential minerals, vitamins, good lipids and antioxidants.  It is also gluten free and has a good balance of amino acids. 

In every cell of our body, the DNA in the nucleus carries instructions for the cell to build proteins. Proteins are long strings of amino acids strung together as shown on the right and they are actually what make our body chemistry work. There are twenty kinds of amino acids altogether - nine of which our bodies can’t produce enough of for our needs. Those could be called the ‘essential’ amino acids and they are all present in quinoa – a real bonus for those who are vegetarians and vegans because quinoa is 12 to 18 percent protein.

I like to start my day with quinoa in my cooked cereal for breakfast. I use half quinoa with half oatmeal [or cream of wheat] and I feel well nourished to be ingesting the quinoa protein since it digests slowly and thus sustains me until lunch. Incomplete proteins are found in beans, peas, nuts and most grains but quinoa, along with soy, is one of only a few complete plant proteins. 

Best wishes for a Happy Healthy New Year with quinoa.  Rie

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Optical Illusions

It's the Christmas Season and for many it’s a time of surprise packages all wrapped up hiding their content until they are opened on Christmas day. As a little taste of fun, I’m posting some optical surprises that I hope will give you a few little jolts of pleasure as you 'unwrap' the mystery of the images. As for the first one upper left, can you see that the coloured spaces - around the light ones spelling ‘optical' - trace out the word ‘illusion’?
Try to fill in the gaps to make sense of the black blotches in the next two images on the right and left? Our brains have a remarkable aptitude for recognizing patterns or finding meaning given only a few visual clues.  It’s as if we have a preconceived picture and after searching around, it all at once clicks into view and then you wonder how you couldn't see it before. 

I find the harder I try, the more difficult it is to mentally reconstruct the image. Don’t be put off if you don’t ‘see’ the answers right away – or not at all – once you do recognize what is depicted you can never look at the images again without ‘seeing’ it!

On the right, try quickly saying out loud the colour of the words, not the words them selves. Apparently it is hard for most of us to do because our left brain recognizes words and is dominant over our right brain that perceives colours.

On the other hand, on the left, the right-brain seems to dominate and it will probably take you a minute or so to read the word the image spells out.  A clue before you check the answer – it is similar to the optical illusion sign at the top.

In the illusion on the right,  how many horses you can see in the snow.  I count five.  Animals and insects often use this kind of camouflage to make themselves more difficult for their predators to see. Because motion is easy to track, a creature's instinct is to freeze in its tracks - and hope for the best.
One last illusion, which soldier is the tallest?   Rie 

1 Right - Horse and Rider  2. Left - Bearded man 4. Left - LIFE
5. Left - They're all the same height. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Capillary Action

Caught up in Christmas spirit and partying too much yesterday makes me realize I have a young spirit in a very old body. Today it has let me know I’d overdone it an that’s the reason for being late in posting this week.  With the season well upon us I’ve chosen to write about some of the science in picking out a Christmas tree and caring for it. 

Of the three kinds of evergreen trees usually used - spruce, fir or pine - I prefer the fir because its needles stay on longer and I find it is the easiest to decorate. If you click on video you’ll get a few tips on how to choose your tree and care for it. Best to wait until you get the tree home before using a saw to cut off about an inch thick slice from the tree trunk and then put it in a stand that holds water. We don’t think about it much but a tree is just like a cut flower, to stay fresh it needs to have its freshly cut end in water.

Any growing plant needs a constant supply of water to run up the length of its stems to carry nutrients so it can grow and mature. The water evaporates from the leaves [or needles] and though we are not aware of it, a big leafy tree can give off well over 100 gallons [~ 400 liters] of water a day. The water climbs up a plant or tree by capillary action, which is just the ability of a liquid like water to flow up narrow spaces in spite of the force of gravity pulling on it.  We are used to this effect when we see porous materials like sponges or paper soak up water, or paint being held between the hairs of a paintbrush.  As seen in the diagram, the narrower the tube, the higher the water can climb.  When you consider that the tallest tree  is almost 400 feet [120 meters] in height - that's figured to be the maximum height possible - you wonder at the power of  capillary action!

Being a chemist by nature, I like to think of the inter-molecular forces that are responsible for lifting water to such an incredible height. In my post on water  I discussed the uneven distribution of electrostatic charges around the water molecule that tends to make them stick together. In the case of plants or trees, the water molecules are attracted to the sides of pores and also to each other with the result that the combination of these attractive forces has the power to lift the water to the highest branches of the tree where the water evaporates causing more water to rise. The fun drawing below shows anthropomorphized water molecules climbing and pulling neighbors with them. 

You will be surprised I think at the amount of water your room temperature Christmas tree will need to stay fresh. As the water rises and evaporates from the needles it has the added advantage of supplying moisture to the dry air in your house. Sometimes you are advised to add a nutrient like sugar or aspirin to the water but the tree is not growing, so it really doesn’t need any.    Rie

Sunday, December 9, 2012


In last week’s blog post I wrote about our chromosomes, the twisted double stranded molecules of DNA in the nucleus of every cell. A detail I did not mention is that the chromosomes have special caps on each end called telomeres.  These telomeres are thousands of repetitions of a few bases that have no function except to protect the end of the chromosomes. 

Every time a cell divides, as it does in the process of growing or producing new skin, flesh, blood and bone cells, all the chromosomes in the old cell have to be copied and stored in the nucleus of the new cell. In the copying process, from 6 to 40 telomeres at the end of chromosomes are lost and the telomeres get shorter and shorter as we age. Why this is so is very well explained if you click on video.

There is some indication that when a telomere becomes very short, the cell perceives it as a break in the DNA and the cell dies to protect the proliferation of incorrect genetic information. As well, short telomeres have been linked to such health risks as cancer, dementia, strokes, arthritis, diabetes etc.  To escape death, cancerous cells that replicate more often, are able to activate an enzyme called 'telomerase' that can lengthen the telomeres so they can continue to grow.

A company called Syn-RG sells a supplement to slow the shortening of your telomeres. They claim that the gene responsible for the production of the enzymes 'telomerase' stops working at around the age of 25 and their supplement is ‘designed to replenish lost telomerase enzyme activity’.  I am skeptical, and they must be too, because the supplement also contains antioxedents and other key health promoting  nutrients .
In people over 60, when telomere length as well as age and gender are taken into consideration, it turns out that they are responsible for only 37% of the factors involved in the risk of dying.  The other components that cause the remaining 63% have to do with  getting enough exercise and sleep, reducing stress in your life, eating well and staying at a good weight for your body type. A major factor is that the oxygen we breathe and use to stay alive, produces nasty free radicals that need antioxidents like Vitamins A, C, and E to mop them up.

We're told that we are all different when it comes to how fast our telomeres shorten– with the most fortunate people possible living to 120 before apoptosis.  It's predicted that the average life-span may be raised to 90, but the jury is still out on whether it can be prolonged beyond that.     Rie