December 2001
Vol. 31, No. 12, p IBC.
The Last Word

Table of Contents

David Birkett

Yuletide, chemical warfare, and essential micronutrients

Opening art by Loel Barr
Loel Barr

I had been intending for some time to write about diet, nerve gases, and disease prevention, although I hadn’t particularly planned a piece with a seasonal angle. However, the sad demise of one of my favorite chemistry publications meant that my last chance to tackle these topics would come with a December issue. Fortunately, the Brussels sprout provides a suitable link.

In CHEMTECH in June 1999, I wrote about my accidental generation of trace quantities of ethyl isothiocyanate, a military poison, during an attempt to make fire-retardant acrylic fibers (1). I later came to realize that I needn’t have panicked. Indeed, I may have been doing myself some good. It has been known for some time that brassicas, and in particular the brussels sprout, contain compounds that appear to protect against a range of cancers. What I didn’t know was that the most important compound, a glucosinolate known as sinigrin, isn’t the protective agent at all. It’s a metabolite of sinigrin—allyl isothiocyanate. Evidently, this ostensible nasty causes precancerous cells to commit apoptosis.

Now I don’t know if the situation in the U.S. is the same as it is in the U.K. and Ireland, but over here, just about the only time anyone ever eats brussels sprouts is with the traditional Christmas roast. Indeed, I believe some health organization came up with the slogan, “Sprouts are for life, not just for Christmas.”

I have therefore been wondering about the health implications of other parts of the traditional seasonal fare. I haven’t found any other nerve gases, but otherwise, there’s a lot to chew on (sorry). Most people now know about the cardiac benefits of the occasional glass of red wine, and the value of cranberries in helping with urinary tract infections is widely known. Perhaps less well known is the importance of the nut bowl, particularly the walnuts in the bowl, in preventing coronary heart disease. Or that of cinnamon in the mulled wine and Christmas pudding in the treatment of diabetes.

So is everything good for us? Well, I have my doubts about the brandy butter and the after-dinner cigar. The potatoes probably shouldn’t be roasted, but for the rest, who knows what dietary science will cook up? In our family, we treat ourselves to a little smoked salmon before our Christmas lunch. Oily fish have recently been given gold stars for being good for the heart. Will salmon win any prizes in the future, or should we switch to smoked mackerel? What about the chestnut turkey stuffing? The turkey itself?

The suspicion has to be that for omnivores such as homo sapiens, variety is what matters—this seems to be the line that dieticians increasingly are taking. But if evolution has driven us in that direction, why shouldn’t a varied diet also be beneficial to carnivores and herbivores? Perhaps sheep and rabbits would live longer if they ate a portion of sardines once a week. In one of my favorite Far Side cartoons, one lion says to another, “Boy, I could just go for a nice salad!” Maybe it’s not as ridiculous as it sounds.

Anyway, this year we’ve decided to experiment on our cats. We don’t expect too much trouble in persuading them to eat turkey and smoked salmon. They may even drink a drop of port instead of milk (I once knew a dog who loved port, although whenever he drank it, he would have to spend the whole of the next day lying down with his paws over his eyes). But we will probably get some puzzled glances when we fill their bowls with sprouts and walnuts. Perhaps we should coat them in aspic (the sprouts and walnuts, not the cats).

I had better sign off here. I want to leave a little space to say how much I have enjoyed writing for CHEMTECH and Chemical Innovation over the past few years, and to thank Marcia Dresner and Mike Block for the encouragement they have given me in developing this column.

Chemistry as a subject is facing difficult times, and we chemists are the only people who can do anything about it. So here’s a final seasonal thought: We should each of us resolve to do something in 2002 to slow the decline—to talk to a local school perhaps about the great careers that chemistry can give you, or to write to your newspaper whenever you see an article knocking “chemicals”. It’s up to you. If we don’t do anything, we’ll be extinct in a generation.

Merry Christmas.


  1. Birkett, D. CHEMTECH 1999, 29 (6), IBC.

David Birkett is a senior scientist in the Irish chemical industry.

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