Thursday, 29 March 2012

Eating More Chocolate Makes You Skinny

Answer this question for me - How many times a week do you consume chocolate?

Can you (a) remember how much chocolate you have eaten in the last 7 days? Was it the same amount as last week? (b) Do you know you ate 5 Mars bars, a Twix and a bar of Cadbury's while watching Titanic 3D last night, feel that might be a little excessive and lie to me?

If you are skinny would you happily say 'Oh I eat about 6 bars a week'? If you know you are not so skinny would you lie about your consumption?

What do you think other people would say in answer to this question? Would you trust their answers?

This is the exact question that was asked to participants in a study looking at the relationship of chocolate consumption and BMI. Did they take into account any of those scenarios or questions I just asked? No.

A well timed (just before Easter) news story appeared EVERYWHERE this week, claiming that
Chocolate 'may help keep people slim' (headline from the BBC). Today there are 571 articles (from a Google News search) saying pretty much the same thing.

This is published work, in a peer reviewed scientific journal (archives of internal medicine). That must make it credible research and a valid conclusion. I celebrated yesterday by eating a Twix, then a slab of chocolate.

Unfortunately the paper is behind a pay wall (you have to pay to access it), so it is not freely available for everyone to read.

They didn't take into account that people lie about how much chocolate they eat. The study asked participants what else they eat (and guesstimated the subjects total calorie intake from that), asked how active they are (people lie about this too) and then measured their BMI. They did control for some variables in the analysis - age, activity, sex, mood, saturated fat intake, fruit and vegetable intake and found that in all cases people that ate chocolate more often were associated with a lower BMI. They did screen people before they took part in the study for some medical conditions, but not all related to weight (see study basics below).

The average BMI for the people in the study was 28 (classified as over-weight) so the headlines about more chocolate makes you slim seem completely unfounded.
The study has some serious limitations..(they only controlled for a few variables and didn't look at a whole range of medical conditions) and is a prime example that people should read and make an evaluation of a 'finding' before reporting it. I'm a bit sad that this was found in a peer reviewed journal.

One thing to note though.. there doesn't seem to be any conflicts of interest (the research was not funded by a chocolate manufacturer!)

Basics of the study: They enrolled 1000ish people both men and women, aged between 20-85

'with no known cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or extremes of low density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C) levels (115-190 mg/dL inclusive [to convert to millimoles per liter, multiply by 0.0259]), were screened for participation in a broadly sampling clinical study examining noncardiac effects of statins'

They asked them,  "How many times a week do you consume chocolate?" Once.  They then measured their BMI (there are known problems with this measurement already, read here) and then they filled out the Fred Hutchinson Food Frequency Questionnaire. They also asked them how active they are (how many times per 7-day period they engaged in vigorous activity for at least 20 minutes and mood was assessed using the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale (CES-D). "Because mood could serve as a confounder mediator, analyses were conducted with and without CES-D adjustment"

Results: They found that, the mean age of the subjects was 57, 68% were male and the average BMI was 28 (not exactly a group of skinny minnies, a BMI over 25 is classed as overweight)

'Subjects ate chocolate a mean (SD) 2.0 (2.5) times/wk and exercised 3.6 (3.0) times/wk. Chocolate consumption frequency was linked to greater calorie and satfat intake and higher CES-D scores (all P .001), each relating positively to BMI. Chocolate consumption frequency was not linked to greater activity (P=.41). Yet, greater chocolate consumption frequency was linked to lower BMI (unadjusted, P=.01).

A chocolate consumption frequency–squared term was nonsignificant, providing no evidence for a U-shaped relationship of chocolate consumption frequency to BMI. In contrast to chocolate consumption frequency, the amount of chocolate eaten was not related to BMI, favorably or adversely (eg, per medium chocolate serving or 1 oz [28 g], =0.00057 [P=.97] in an age- and sexadjusted model [analyses not shown]).'

Their conclusion ' Adults who consumed chocolate more frequently had a lower BMI than those who consumed chocolate less often.'

Thanks @jdmoffatt

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Prove it in 30 Seconds

Can you explain an aspect of our world in motion in 30 seconds? My friend and fellow PhDer Gina Maffey can..

If you enjoy the video, please 'like' it on youtube to help support her in the  British Science Assiciation's Prove It! competition.

It was filmed on Aberdeen beach. You can find more about Gina here and she is on twitter @ginazoo and is also part of the Au Science Magazine team :-)

This competition was set for National Science and Engineering week and is open for anyone to submit an entry!

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Cosmetic Science - Looking Behind the Formulations

Beauty is big business. You may snigger at the promises in cosmetic adverts but in reality the majority of cosmetic manufacturers take science very seriously. Procter and Gamble, the biggest consumer goods company in the world, invest $2bn yearly into research and development of consumer goods. L’Oréal, the biggest cosmetics company in the world, employ over 3,000 researchers around the globe and have a grant programme specifically designed to support female scientists.

Science is at the heart of these companies, and it shows in their financial reports. They encourage and invest in scientists and research in the hope of making the next great breakthrough. The biggest areas of growth for the cosmetics industry are developing markets, male cosmetics and the ever-ageing world population. The L’Oreal annual report from 2010 estimates that the global cosmetics market is worth 144 billion Euros and of that, 32% is skincare.

If these manufacturers could crack the science and invent the elixir of eternal youth, they would be quids-in. So what can a cosmetic formulation achieve? What is the science? And are they really searching for the secret of eternal youth?
Under the Microscope: Mascara brush seen under a scanning  electron microscope and falsely coloured in photoshop. Taken by me!


Cosmetic creams and serums consist of similar basic ingredients; water, moisturising agents, colouring, preservatives and perfume. Beyond this they may contain a sun block and any number of other additives like vitamins, caffeine and plant extracts.

Where moisturisers have proven benefits; they can help make skin plumper, smoother, improve skin tone and prevent dry and flaky skin, the role of additional ingredients has been difficult to determine. But there are some additives that look like they have advantages of their own. Dr Iman Kotb, Clinical Research Fellow (Dermatology) at the University of Aberdeen, observed when using “0.025% retinoid cream (over 6 months)” and “mesotherapy facial rejuvenation agents like hyaluronic acid, vitamins, amino acids and growth factors” an “improvement in skin tone and firmness in over 60% of patients”.


Cosmetic products are tested in a number of different ways in order to demonstrate their benefits. Consumer studies can involve tens to hundreds of people who rate how a product has made them feel, or changed the appearance of their skin. Clinical studies involving skin experts make visual assessments of skin texture, tone and look. Statisticians and clinical ethics approvals are involved in the studies to ensure compliance with any regulatory requirements and that sample sizes are large enough to give statistically significant results. Laboratory testing of products is also carried out. Cosmetics manufacturers work with experts from outside the cosmetics industry, including university academics and professional bodies like the British Association of Dermatologists in order to improve their products and gain endorsements.

Although cosmetics manufacturers invest time and money into scientific testing, it is not a requirement to publish data on cosmetics in peer-reviewed journals. It is not uncommon for the only information about the way in which the product has been scientifically tested to be available through promotional material. This can make it difficult for consumers to evaluate the real benefits of products. There is often no way of knowing whether claims have been proven in a laboratory or by large-scale studies and the important control in a study is also not always clear. A hypothetical example, a new moisturiser was tested in a consumer study and the results showed that it improved skin ‘smoothness’ by 50%. The advertisements for the product state the improvement in smoothness. But, was the new moisturiser compared with the users normal moisturiser? A competitor moisturiser? Or did it improve ‘smoothness’ versus using no product at all?


There are steps in place to ensure that manufacturers cannot say whatever they like. The regulation of scientific claims in advertising has traditionally been based around three distinct categories; cosmetics, which primarily affect the outside of the body; nutrition and health products, which include such things as food supplements and contact lens fluid; and medical products, which refers to something used with the prevention, treatment or diagnosis of disease. In the UK, the Advertising Standards Agency regulates all of these categories, medical products are also regulated by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.

Industry self-regulation also occurs, where competitors challenge the claims of rival products. Finally, there is personal judgement; manufacturers want to produce products that give visible benefits to the consumer so they will purchase them again and again.
Under The Microscope: MicroPerfecting Powder seen under a scanning  electron microscope and falsely coloured in photoshop. Taken by me! COURTESY OF THE MICROSCOPE IMAGING  FACILITY, INSTITUTE OF MEDICAL SCIENCES,

Dr Siân Morris, Principal Scientist P&G Beauty and Grooming from Procter and Gamble spoke to me about, “the first and second moments of truth. You want to delight women when they first see how the product looks, feels and smells and then in the second when you apply it to the skin and see results. We are also interested in the third, fourth and 400th moments of truth because delivering on our promise is critical, to comply to obligations on claims with regulators. Most importantly because women who use products like Olay trust our brands and products, they expect a lot from us and we know we need to deliver”.

I asked if ‘ any product can reverse the signs of ageing?’ “Interestingly, if you ask most women they will tell you they want to look great for their age and to get compliments or maybe be thought of as several years younger but most don’t want to look 25 when they are 45 anymore. So we are looking to help offer a way to achieve younger looking skin, to minimise the signs of ageing, reduce the appearance of lines and wrinkles, firm and even the skin tone and texture with different products. It’s also about making skin feel smooth, soft, hydrated or clean and radiant as well as protecting it every day but it’s not about reversing signs of ageing in the way you may expect.”

This is an important point; it isn’t just about the active ingredients in a cosmetic formulation. Consumers buy products that look, feel and smell appealing, which they enjoy using. Cosmetic manufacturers expend a great deal of time and money in order to determine what cues in a product indicate that it is ‘working’. What scent says, ‘This product is reducing the appearance of fine lines’? Cosmetics are a luxury item, a concept that people buy in to. The ‘experience’ goes right from the advert, to the text and design of the product packaging to the actual product used, and this; you could call the science of cosmetics.

This article was published in Au Science Magazine, which you can read here -

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The Open Access Publishing Debate at the SULSA Young Scientists Event

I was lucky enough to attend the Scottish University Life Sciences Alliance Young Scientists' Event in Edinburgh on the 19th and 20th of March.

There really were some excellent and useful talks, from presentation skills (including how to use pauses and silence correctly) to possible new therapies for inherited skin diseases.

On the second day there was a debate about open access publishing. I tweeted the debate and have collated them using storify.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

What to do after a PhD?

Struggling to decide what to do after you finish your PhD? Try out my handy, 'nofuss-science-career-decider'.

Start the process by clicking the link and saying, 'HELLO'

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Is LSD really the answer to Alcoholism?

Researchers from at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology analysed studies (meta-analysis) that used single doses of LSD to treat alcoholics from the 1960s and 1970s.  The studies included 536 participants in total. They looked at the results of all of these studies which were all randomised controlled trials (double-blind).  They found there was a benefit of the LSD treatment at the first follow up after treatment (1-3 months) but this was not statistically significant at the 6 month follow up.

They state, that according to their meta-analysis, a single dose of LSD compares well with a daily dose of  naltrexone, acramposate, or disulfiram (which are three commonly prescribed approved medications for reducing relapse in alcohol dependence.

Not surprisingly the publication of this study was followed with a range of headlines:
And many others. 

It even prompted a quote from Professor David Nutt (published on the BBC website): 

'Prof David Nutt, who was sacked as the UK government's drugs adviser, has previously called for the laws around illegal drugs to be relaxed to enable more research.
He said: "Curing alcohol dependency requires huge changes in the way you see yourself. That's what LSD does.
"Overall there is a big effect, show me another treatment with results as good; we've missed a trick here.
 "This is probably as good as anything we've got [for treating alcoholism]."'

I am no expert in alcoholism, and I want to tread carefully here and I recognise that it is an incredibly complex issue. One treatment is not going to cure all overnight (as demonstrated by 
the meta-analysis). 

The scientific findings of the study seem sound, but I am mostly disappointed that no-one has made a comparison of the findings of the study with other methods like attending AA meetings. Does a significant number of people remaining sober for 3 months really mean that LSD will help alcoholism? What is deemed as successful when treating alcoholism? 

AA report, states that a 2004 survey found that 50% of AA members were sober over 5 years.  This is based on a survey that they carried out and not subject to peer review, so the conclusions they come to have not been subject to proper controls and scrutiny. Also there is nothing to say in the AA study that the people attending the meetings were taking any supplements to aid their sobriety... however, I just thought it was an interesting point to add into the mix. 

I would welcome anyone to add further information, studies and data!

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

How to get involved in public engagement / science communication if you are a PhD student / post-doc

I see/hear get asked this question quite a lot, here are some tips and some examples of things I have been involved with 

Periodic Table cupcakes at the
Freshers Fair 2011 for Au Science Magazine
1) Before you do anything, find out what public engagement and science communication activities are already going on at your university/place of work and in your area. There are a number of ways you can do this.
  • Search the Internet, find out if there are any bloggers/tweeters in your area. Find out if there are any meet ups/tweet ups scheduled (usually advertised on Facebook and Twitter)
  • Get on google, find the bloggers, tweet them, message them, comment on blogs you find interesting. I have found that the sci blogging and Internet community are very friendly and incredibly helpful
    Car Boot Science at Techfest Aberdeen 2010
  • Find out who the key people are in your area (by key, I mean the ones with lots of connections and ones that organise events and know what is going on)
  • Speak to others around the world, find out what they are up to
  • If you are in the UK register as a STEM ambassador and sign up to your local British Science Association branch (they circulate opportunities running in your area)
  • Be inspired by others that are already involved and have experience
  • If you are at a university, find out and contact the representative for your research field (if there is one)
  • Speak to others that you work with and find out what they know
  • Start a blog (if you don't feel confident starting your own, write a post for someone else)
  • Get on twitter
  • If you are funded/member of a research council or academic society find out if they organise any events, schemes, or offer any advice and support.

Encouraging the undergraduate
students to win the 'hand of science'

2) Think about what it is you want to do. What do you want to get out of it. What will you enjoy? What is missing in your area? Who needs help and support and how could you fit in? What kind of engagement/communication do you want to do? Do you want to talk to children or adults? AND how do you judge if you have been successful? These are lots of questions, but important to ask yourself at the start. There are lots of different opportunities out there.

Not all public engagement/science communication involves talking about your research to an audience. You could do something online, run a website, behind the scenes, help raise funding or organise an event where someone else talks or help someone else organise an event.

Au Science Magazine

3) If you spot something that is going on elsewhere, but isn't happening in your area, think about how you could set this up (if you wanted to!). The connections you have made will be able to help and support you do this.

4) I think the worst thing to do is spend a lot of time and effort to trying to set something up and then find out someone else is already doing avoid this make sure you get connected with the right people. Put yourself out there.

5) And another thing, you need to make sure what time you have available. Do not sign up for lots of things and make too many promises to people (most engagement/communication events, schemes rely on volunteers). People do not appreciate being let down at the last second.. saying that, everyone understands that people are volunteering and that other things sometimes have to take priority.

Aberdeen Skeptics in the Pub

6) Have fun with it. Don't force yourself to continue with something you hate but try everything you can!  

Anyone else got any tips/advice or useful links to share?

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