A Drop of Value – Wine Additives

As alcoholic beverages go, wine would seem to be among the simplest to produce, requiring little more than grapes, water and time; after all, humans have been producing the potable for over 6,000 years. But the modern, industrial-scale wineries of makers such as E&J Gallo, the company behind the Carlo Rossi and Barefoot brands, have little in common with the Copper Age vessels of the earliest vintners—and their products also contain ingredients that would have astounded their Neolithic forefathers.

Holding tanks at the largest winery in the world, operated by E&J Gallo in Livingston, California. Courtesy of Wine Business.

Take, for example, the coloring agent known as “Mega Purple.” The substance, a thick concentrate of grapes from the “Rubired” cultivar, adds a rich redness and jammy sweetness to any batch of wine. Mega Purple is astoundingly potent: 200 milliliters is enough for an entire wine barrel of 119 liters (less than two-tenths of a percent of the finished product).  Although few winemakers openly admit to using the additive, anonymous industry sources estimate that nearly 25 million bottles per year contain some Mega Purple, including several ultra-premium brands.

While Mega Purple adds flavor, sulfur dioxide prevents it from being lost. The chemical acts as an antimicrobial and antioxidative agent, fighting the negative effects that can come from improper wine storage. Yeast naturally produce small amounts of sulfur dioxide during fermentation, around 10 parts per million, but winemakers often add more to ensure the quality of their products. However, high levels of the gas can cause some people to have allergic or sensitive reactions, including asthma, stomach upset and dizziness.

The speed of wine production has also increased thanks to chemical additives. Aging in oak barrels, a lengthy and expensive process, adds flavors known as aromatic compounds and is considered an integral part of making fine wines. When winemakers don’t have the time or money to spend, they can add these flavors directly through oak essence, a concentrate that imparts vanilla, spice and coconut aromas. While oak essence is certainly convenient, it can’t replace the other benefits of oak aging, such as tannin reduction and the improvement of clarity and color.

In response to these practices, a growing number of winemakers have begun to market additive-free wines. Consumer acceptance has been a challenge; without the benefit of added sulfur dioxide, for example, a wine can become murky or become spoiled in transport. But, as sommelier Hugues Lepin explains, there are some definite positives to additive-free production: “I’m often being asked by customers to choose a wine that won’t give them a hangover and I always choose a wine that’s been made with little sulphur dioxide.”



Eyes On You – Cereal Psychology

Any beginner’s course on public communication stresses the importance of eye contact for building a connection between the speaker and the audience. The same holds true for advice of the romantic variety, with scientific research supporting the claim that direct eye contact makes people seem more attractive to potential mates. But eyes don’t necessarily need to be human to have a powerful effect: those of a talking cartoon rabbit are just as potent.

Trix, or at least the eyes of its mascot, are for kids. Courtesy of Wikia.

The psychologists of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab set out to examine the types of eye contact made by cereal “spokes-characters” with supermarket consumers. First, the scientists went shopping, scouring ten grocery stores throughout the Northeast for 65 different types of cereal and 86 different mascots. They measured the height of each box on the store shelf and then calculated the angle of the direction in which the mascot for each cereal was looking.

As might be expected, traditional “children’s” cereals such as Cap’n Crunch and Lucky Charms were placed at nearly half the height of “adult” cereals such as Wheaties and Quaker Oat Squares. But the researchers also found that the mascots on the children’s cereal boxes almost universally had downward gazes, while those of adult cereals stared straight ahead. This difference meant that the mascots made “incidental eye contact” with their target audiences.

Although directing a mascot’s gaze may be a common marketing technique, the Cornell researchers also wanted to determine if the trick was effective. They divided a group of 63 students into two groups, showing one set of participants a Trix box with a downward-gazing rabbit and the other a box on which the rabbit looked directly at the viewer.

According to Cornell researchers, this rabbit is more trustworthy. Courtesy of Cornell University.

Amazingly, simply changing the direction of the mascot’s eyes had a significant effect on measures of “brand trust” and “brand connection,” as well as preference for Trix over other cereals. Participants who viewed the box with the straight-staring rabbit reported feeling 28 percent more engaged with the brand than those who saw the alternative.

An unscientific examination (slightly NSFW) of other grocery products by Cracked’s XJ Selman shows the same pattern: Keebler’s elves, the Kool-Aid man and Kid Cuisine’s penguin all cast their gazes towards the toddler set. These brands share more than psychology with children’s cereals, as both are generally highly processed and high in sugar. The Cornell researchers noted that eye-contact marketing to kids is used mostly for unhealthy products, advising parents to avoid taking children down the cereal aisle lest they go “cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.” But with their newfound psychological understanding, the scientists also hope to advise sellers of healthier products on how to generate childhood interest in eating right.

From the Vaults: A Wooly Issue – Deextinction of Mammoths

Editor’s note: Thanks to you, the readership of Sword of Science has significantly increased from my first posts nearly a year ago. I recently started volunteering at the Cincinnati Museum Center, and in honor of their emblematic Ice Age Trail, I’m reposting one of my earliest pieces, about efforts to bring back extinct species such as the woolly mammoth.

A little less than a week ago, a team of Russian scientists announced a startling find in the frozen wastes of Siberia: the complete carcass of a woolly mammoth, a relic from the most recent ice age over 10,000 years old. Although mammoths have been unearthed from the permafrost before, they are rarely recovered in such pristine condition, and never have they been found with liquid blood. Of course, there are only two words that come to mind when the blood of extinct species is mentioned: “Jurassic Park.”  The central conceit of Michael Crichton’s novel is that dinosaur DNA from blood trapped in amber-preserved mosquitoes is used to resurrect the Mesozoic beasts, with dire consequences.

While it’s unlikely that a herd of woolly mammoths will go rampaging through an ice age theme park anytime soon, it is becoming increasingly feasible that the genetic resources necessary to clone a mammoth will be developed. Blood itself is actually a rather poor medium from which to extract ancient DNA: red blood cells, or erythrocytes, do not contain any genetic information, and white blood cells, or leukocytes, are fairly fragile. In the words of Stephen Schuster, the biologist behind the sequencing of the mammoth genome, the genetic material in the mammoth blood is probably “as shattered as if you took a mirror and threw it on the floor.” Research is already in progress to clone a mammoth from bone marrow cells, which are more resilient and have better-preserved DNA.

A frozen baby mammoth, courtesy of National Geographic

Considerable amounts of effort are being invested in this project, but why (or is it even) a worthwhile investment? The “wow” factor of bringing back an extinct species is certainly a large part of the rationale. The sense of reaching back into the past, of letting people see something that hasn’t been seen for millenia, excites the imagination and draws attention to science in general. Conservation biology has a similar concept in the “flagship species,” a charismatic large animal that serves as a focus for  the ecological concerns of the general public. The plight of the manatee, for example, draws in attention and funding for the preservation of the Florida Everglades. Bringing back a mammoth would encourage a new generation of young scientists to explore the fields of molecular biology and paleontology. This kind of project may also put a more favorable public light on genetic technology, which has recently received a lot of negative attention due to the fight over GMO labeling and a recent Supreme Court case involving the agribusiness giant Monsanto.

Some scientists, like Jose Folch, see a bioethical imperative for work on de-extinction. Folch, whose team successfully cloned the extinct Pyrenean ibex (albeit one with a lifespan of seven minutes), believes that his work may serve as a basis “for future cloning-based conservation.” There is a sort of inherent justice in the thought that species wiped out by direct human impacts, like the passenger pigeon and the Steller’s sea cow, might one day be restored by direct human effort. However, there are many steps remaining between cloning an individual and reestablishing a population of an extinct species. Clones are genetically identical, and therefore rather vulnerable to disease or ecological stresses. Evolution and migration have shaped ecosystems in the absence of extinct species, even over the short timespans some have been extinct, and it is likely that not all species would fit comfortably back into their niches. A less obvious danger is the thought that with this sort of technology, the importance of traditional conservation is somehow reduced. Why bother with protecting existing species if we can call them back at will? Yet as scientists have continually learned, all species are connected; the loss of one obvious organism could have unforeseen effects on countless others, and it’s best to conserve as many as possible while we try to understand the web of life.

News Flash – NASA Cuts Ties With Russian Space Agency

WASHINGTON – A NASA official announced yesterday that the agency would be cutting the majority of its contact with its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos. Citing Russia’s “ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” in the Crimea crisis, Associate Administrator for International and Interagency Relations Michael O’Brien confirmed that communications between NASA and Russian officials would be suspended until further notice, with the exception of cooperation on the International Space Station.

Launch of a Russian Soyuz rocket, courtesy of Space.com

This break comes at an inopportune time for NASA; having retired the Space Shuttle fleet in 2011, the agency has relied on launches of Russian Soyuz rockets to send its astronauts into space. While NASA has encouraged the development of private American spaceflight companies such as Orbital Sciences and SpaceX, which has sent a number of resupply missions to the ISS over the past several years, Russia is currently the only provider of manned launches, charging US and European astronauts up to $70 million per trip.

Many in the agency have expressed frustration over the current state of affairs. Said one anonymous NASA scientist, “NASA’s goals aren’t political. This is one of the first major actions I have heard of from the US government and it is to stop science and technology collaboration… You’re telling me there is nothing better?” The announcement comes on the heels of a blog post by NASA administrator Charles Bolden criticizing Congress about the level of funding for US spaceflight. As Bolden wrote, budgets “are about choices. The choice moving forward is between fully funding [President Obama’s] request to bring space launches back to American soil or continuing to send millions to the Russians.”

NASA has few other options for getting its personnel into orbit in the near future. Although China has developed the capacity for manned spaceflight, current restrictions prevent NASA from hosting Chinese citizens due to fears of technological espionage. Development of the European Space Agency’s Crew Space Transport Vehicle isn’t slated for completion until 2020, and India’s human spaceflight program is only in its beginning stages.

Although perhaps better known for the competitive “space race” of the mid-20th century, the relationship between the Russian and American space agencies has recently been one of productive collaboration. From the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975 to NASA’s visits to the Russian space station Mir in the 1990s, scientists have managed to mostly avoid the political tensions between the two countries.