It’s a big stretch sug­gest­ing the crys­tals rep­re­sent a vi­able al­ter­na­tive to dairy milk

Montreal Gazette - - WEEKEND LIFE - JOE SCHWARCZ The Right Chem­istry joe.schwarcz@mcgill.ca Joe Schwarcz is di­rec­tor of McGill Uni­ver­sity’s Of­fice for Science & So­ci­ety (mcgill.ca/oss). He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Ra­dio 800 AM ev­ery Sun­day from 3 to 4 p.m.

Back in 1981, en­to­mol­o­gist Josef Gre­gor called a press con­fer­ence to an­nounce a re­mark­able dis­cov­ery. He had bred a novel species of cock­roach from which he man­aged to ex­tract a hor­mone that, when in­cor­po­rated into a pill, ex­hib­ited amaz­ing prop­er­ties. It cured con­di­tions rang­ing from acne and al­ler­gies to asthma and arthri­tis. “Roach hor­mone hailed as mir­a­cle drug,” crowed head­lines. Some 175 news­pa­pers went on to fea­ture tes­ti­mo­ni­als at­test­ing to the won­ders of the hor­mone pills.

Sub­se­quently, Gre­gor was in­vited to ap­pear on var­i­ous tele­vi­sion pro­grams where he de­scribed that cock­roaches were im­per­vi­ous to ra­di­a­tion and that in ad­di­tion to its cu­ra­tive prop­er­ties for a plethora of ail­ments, his pills would of­fer pro­tec­tion against ra­di­a­tion ex­po­sure. It all sounded great, but there was one tiny lit­tle prob­lem. There was no Josef Gre­gor, and there was no cock­roach hor­mone. Gre­gor was ac­tu­ally Joey Sk­aggs, a teacher at New York’s School of Vis­ual Arts, who rel­ished pulling off hoaxes to show how the me­dia could be duped into re­port­ing non­sen­si­cal sto­ries be­cause of a fail­ure to fact-check. And that was decades be­fore the cur­rent wave of pub­lic­ity about “fake news.”

Re­call­ing the “cock­roach hor­mone” episode, I fig­ured a prankster must have been at work when the head­line, “Sci­en­tists Think Cock­roach Milk Could Be the Next Su­per­food,” re­cently scooted across the in­ter­net. Ob­vi­ously, fact-check­ing was in or­der. While the head­line was typ­i­cal click-bait, it was ac­tu­ally spawned by le­git­i­mate re­search.

In 2016, a pa­per in the Jour­nal of the In­ter­na­tional Union of Crys­tal­log­ra­phy re­ported some in­trigu­ing re­search about the unique Pa­cific bee­tle cock­roach (Di­ploptera punc­tate). Why unique? Be­cause it is vi­vip­a­rous, mean­ing the fe­males give birth to live off­spring. The term de­rives from the Latin “vivus” for “alive,” and “parere,” mean­ing “to bring forth” or “to bear.”

While com­mon in mam­mals, vivipar­ity in in­sects is rare. The Pa­cific bee­tle cock­roach does, how­ever, re­pro­duce in this fash­ion and is of in­ter­est to sci­en­tists be­cause the em­bryos get their nu­tri­ents from tiny crys­tals that form from a fluid they ab­sorb from the mother roach. These crys­tals can be iso­lated and have been cre­atively dubbed “cock­roach milk” by pub­lic­ity seek­ing head­line writ­ers.

The re­searchers’ in­tent was to study the spe­cific com­po­si­tion and fold­ing pat­tern of the pro­teins found in the crys­tals, since such crys­tals are rare in liv­ing species. They dis­cov­ered that the pro­teins were at­tached to sug­ars and fats and were ex­tremely tightly packed in the crys­talline lat­tice.

A sin­gle crys­tal was es­ti­mated to con­tain three times as many calo­ries as an equiv­a­lent mass of dairy milk. Its pro­teins con­tained all the es­sen­tial amino acids and in­cor­po­rated the nec­es­sary fats and car­bo­hy­drates needed by a grow­ing em­bryo. This led to claims that the crys­tals were a “com­plete food.” Yes, they ob­vi­ously are for the quickly grow­ing cock­roach em­bryos, but any sug­ges­tion that they rep­re­sent a vi­able al­ter­na­tive to dairy milk for peo­ple is a very, very big stretch.

To start with, milk­ing cows is a lot eas­ier than “milk­ing ” cock­roaches, and given that some 1,000 roaches have to be sac­ri­ficed to get 100 grams of crys­tals, “cock­roach milk” does not ap­pear to be an eco­nom­i­cal source of nu­tri­ents. There are at­tempts to iso­late the genes re­spon­si­ble for the pro­duc­tion of this nour­ish­ing liq­uid, with hopes of in­ser­tion into the genome of yeast cells that would then crank out the “milk,” po­ten­tially for hu­man use. Safety would of course have to be ad­dressed.

It should be pointed out that in no way did the re­searchers claim any sort of “su­per­food” sta­tus for the crys­tals. That was a me­dia in­ven­tion. “Su­per­food” is a mar­ket­ing, not a sci­en­tific term. It is gen­er­ally ac­cepted as re­fer­ring to foods that claim to of­fer an ad­van­tage in main­tain­ing health, of­ten based on some sort of study in which an­i­mals ex­hib­ited a ben­e­fit when fed amounts that on a weight per weight ba­sis are greater than can ever be con­sumed by hu­mans.

The list of “su­per­foods” seems end­less, rang­ing from com­mon foods like berries, kale, fish, co­conut oil, choco­lates, bone broth, beet­root, oats, pome­gran­ate juice and av­o­cado to the es­o­teric like chia seeds, goji berries, mi­croal­gae, man­gos­teen and seaweed. There is noth­ing wrong with eat­ing these, but the con­cept of sin­gle foods mak­ing sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions to health is flawed. While there are no su­per­foods, there are good di­ets and poor di­ets. Load­ing up on fresh pro­duce and curb­ing pro­cessed foods is the way to go.

As far as cock­roaches go, you can be awed by their abil­ity to sur­vive ra­di­a­tion and to go for weeks with­out food or wa­ter. The male’s knack of at­tract­ing fe­males from long dis­tances by wafting his pheromones into the air is also im­pres­sive. So is the fact that 100,000 roaches can de­scend from a sin­gle pair within a year.

Amaz­ing crea­tures, in­deed, but don’t wait for their “milk” to ap­pear in your groach­ery store.


Like the Pa­cific bee­tle cock­roach, these roly poly cock­roaches from Ja­pan bear their young live. While com­mon in mam­mals, vivipar­ity in in­sects is rare.


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