Alton Brown and the Metric System

alton-brown-everydaycook-cookbook-coverI have previously written about how the Food Network’s popular chef Alton Brown has praised the ease of the metric system for kitchen use as far back as 2012 in my post called Not the End of the World:

It is impossible to measure these ingredients with consistent accuracy by avoir dupois—that is, volume. Heck, I’ve seen a cup of flour weigh anywhere from 3 to 6 ounces. If you want to measure flour, you have to do so by weight. End of story.
I’m Just Here For More Food, Alton Brown, p. 14.

But, bless his little Southern heart, in his latest book, Every Day Cook: This Time It’s Personal, he’s taken things a step further:

Despite the grumblings of my editor, I’ve decided to quantify these recipes the way I do in real life…For instance, I combine weights (metric no less) with standard volumetric measurements, that is, tablespoons, in the same recipe…However, when I do weigh, it’s always metric because…I hate fractions. I also hate working with decimal points, and that’s the nice thing about grams. No one ever says 18.4 grams unless they’re weighing out something that’s controlled either by local/state/federal laws or by international treaties. Now, I know that there of you who say food isn’t worth the trouble of purchasing a decent, multiformat digital scale with tare function (allows weights to be zeroed out), but you’d be flat-out wrong.

Of course, I could quibble with the fact that the metric system is based on mass rather than weight (weight varies by the gravity of the planet you happen to be on—mass is mass, regardless), but I suppose he could quibble back our scales actually go by a weight equivalent of mass—and I couldn’t prove him wrong.

kitchen scale

There are lots of scales on the market. Pick one that catches your fancy to start with.

But here’s the important bit: not only is he urging cooks of various persuasions to buy and use a scale in their kitchens (you can’t consistently use the metric system without one, and very few people have a proper kitchen scale), but he also includes recipes that are based on metric units!!!!!!!

For instance, his recipe for Always Perfect Oatmeal includes 120 grams of rolled oats, 25 grams of quinoa, 475 grams of water and 7 grams of kosher salt. Yes, he does provide a couple of those ingredients with U.S. customary equivalents but for the quinoa and salt, he does not, thus forcing the use of a scale or a conversion. Where there are conversions, there will be conversion errors so hopefully those with the mistakes will see the error of their ways.

I urge you to take advantage of the coming holiday season to 1) buy lots of copies of Alton’s book for those you love; 2) and buy them a scale to go with it to get folks familiar with weighing things in the kitchen. Then, when we do convert to the metric system, more people will be ready. Tell you what, if this post gets more than 2,000 views before the end of the year, I’ll make a short video showing just how easy a scale is to use for cooking.

A couple of words about kitchen scales

Three years ago I wrote a post called Someone’s in the Kitchen with the Metric System where I extolled the benefits of using scales in the kitchen. While Alton said something about getting one for under $100 (yikes!), most of the ones I’ve bought for the kitchen and demos are between $10 and $15 each and—when I checked them against a calibration standard they do a respectable job all the way down to a gram.

In the post I put up a few years ago, I also pointed how there are some very cool scales you can get to present along with his book. Hardcover is currently $23.57 from Amazon. Throw in a scale for another $10 and you’re good to go. Buy a nifty scale like the one above and bump the package price up by an additional $20. Hey, do whatever best suits your gift-giving needs.

However, I do urge you to buy and use his book to support someone brave enough to include metric system units in an American-based cook book that also supports my work by getting people familiar with using scales in the kitchen. Every little bit helps and this is more than a little bit!

If I loved him before (and I did), I love him even more now.

Also, do let him (and his publishers) know that you support his use of metric system units through social media by using #EveryDayCook along with #USAgometric.

Thanks!

Linda

Pharmaceutical Prescriptions, the Metric System and Your Safety (a Guest Post)

This week’s post was written by a contact I have in Australia. He asked me about how much of a medicine dosing problem we have here (citing a previous post of mine) and I sent him some basic information. After doing some research on his own, he put together this very nice article that he’s given me permission to share with you. Please enjoy.

In the September 1902 issue of The Journal of The American Medical Association, “Meyer Bros, Druggist” writes in the Miscellany column:

…It is not necessary to collect souvenir spoons in order to find out the great discrepancy in the size of a spoon when compared to the regulation “one fluid dram” measure. Unfortunately, some of the dose glasses are as far from the mark as any teaspoon. If physicians and pharmacists will give the subject particular attention, they can educate the public up to the point of using only accurately graduated medicine glasses when taking liquid remedies.

In the next paragraph he is quoted advocating the metric system:

The Metric System a Necessity — We have pointed out, says Meyer Bros.’ Druggist, on various occasions that the metric system would be adopted by the United States Government just as soon as our commercial relations with the world at large reached that proportion which would make the adoption of the metric system a matter of necessity. It seems that our country has reached that point. The committee on coinage, weights and measures has decided to report favorably the Shafroth bill providing for the adoption of the metric system by the government of the United States.

“One fluid dram”
In the intervening 111 years how much has changed? Well, the good news is that the pharmaceutical industry switched to metric measurements in 1971, only 69 years after the Meyer Brothers recommended it.

Up until then pharmacists and doctors used U.S. customary weights and measures for recording patient’s heights and weights. For dispensing medicines they had two systems: the metric system (grams and milliliters) and a medieval system called Apothecary’s Measure in which weights were measured in grains, scruples and drams, and liquids were measured in minims, fluid drams, (the “regulation ‘one fluid dram’ measure” mentioned in the Miscellany column) fluid ounces, pints quarts and gallons. It all sounds as if it would be used at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

What is a grain? Apparently, a grain of wheat was a standard measure of weight. (It was later standardized at 64.799 milligrams.) Twenty grains make a scruple and three scruples are a dram (also written as drachm). Finally, eight drams equal one ounce, of which twelve ounces are a pound. Simple, isn’t it? For liquids, a minim is the volume of water weighing a grain, and of course, Apothecary’s ounces, pounds, pints, quarts and gallons are not the same as the U.S. customary measures with the same names.Grain

And to make sure we know it’s all medieval, apothecary’s measures were written using Roman numerals, so gr xx meant 20 grains.

Ron Aylor, a pharmacy technician in Georgia, has put a web site together to help train pharmacy technicians, and which includes a great explanation of Apothecary’s Measure and the symbols used to write them at: http://www.gpht.org/apothecary-system.html.

This assumes that every physician actually used those arcane symbols and Roman numerals to write prescriptions and didn’t just write “grains” instead. How many mis-doses have been dispensed by pharmacists or clerks who couldn’t decipher a physician’s handwriting to tell if he wrote “1 gram” or 1 grain” on a prescription, or didn’t know if the abbreviation “1gr” was for “one grain” or “one gram”?

The only thing more difficult to understand than the Apothecary system itself is why its use persisted for so long. The British Pharmacopia converted to metric measurements in 1963 and the US Pharmacopia in1971. You can still buy medication with the active ingredients listed as grains. The generic aspirin I found for sale over the internet is one example and some non-prescription herbal remedies also have their ingredients listed in grains, probably to avoid any taint of modernity or science.

“The Metric System a Necessity”
Around 70,000 children are admitted to hospital each year in the USA because they have taken an overdose of medicine. The majority of them have sneaked into the medicine cabinet and helped themselves, but it is astonishing that 18% (about 12,600 per year) are given an overdose of medication by their parents. (Note 1)

This happens because the dosing instructions are unclear, the measurements are misread, the parents use inaccurate household teaspoons for measuring doses of medicine and the whole procedure is unfamiliar or done in a hurry because the baby is crying and the parent is distracted.

This problem has been known about and discussed for a long time. In the article quoted previously from the Journal of the AMA, Meyer Brothers make the suggestion that customers should be taught to use properly graduated measures for dispensing medicines. This simple and straightforward action has still not been implemented completely in the century since it was proposed.

Question: If you prescribed a precise dose of medication would you tell the patient to measure it with:
A) a common household implement, or
B) a special-purpose accurate measuring device?

Good news if you manufacture medicines: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says you can do either. Over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medicines are prescribed using measures of milliliters (mL), tablespoons (tbsp) or teaspoons (tsp). A standard teaspoon holds 5 mL, a tablespoon holds 15 mL.

In practice, a teaspoon is designed as a table accessory, not as a precise measuring device for medication and can vary between 3 and 7 mL depending on the design. This is a source of error up to 40% from the prescribed dose and was noted in the column by Meyer Brothers.

In addition to the inaccuracy of the spoon there are several human errors:

•  The abbreviations tsp and tbsp maybe confused, leading to under-dosing if the customer uses teaspoons where they should use tablespoons, or overdosing if they do the reverse.

• Patients may not understand the dose size. They are prescribed a dose of 5mL but take five teaspoons when they get home.

• Patients are given a dosing cup which holds 20 or 30 mL and fill it completely thinking it is the volume of the dose.

An underdosing error reduces the effectiveness of the medication and may be as bad as not taking any medication at all, as the dose is just too small to work. An overdose from the wrong sized spoon or overfilling the measuring device can lead to major medical complications or even death.

Surveys have shown that as many as 70% of adults preparing a dose of medicine for children made one of the errors listed above. (Note 2) Patients with visual impairment, poor English-language skills or impaired abilities are obviously likely to do make these sort of errors more often than the rest of the population. It is especially important to get doses right for children as OTC medications for them are most likely to be in a liquid form to make it easy for the child to ingest.

It is vitally important that things should change, but the Food and Drug Administration has only voluntary guidelines for the design and markings of dosing devices and it is still permissible to prescribe doses of OTC medicines in teaspoons or tablespoons and not mention milliliters at all.

The Institute for Safe Medication Practices (http://www.ismp.org/) is promoting two measures to improve prescribing practices:

1) They recommend that all doses should be prescribed in metric measurements only and not in teaspoons or tablespoons.

2) They are asking pharmacists to instruct their customers in the use and cleaning of dosing devices such as cups and oral syringes, and to supply them to their customers if they are not included with the medication.

(http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/healthcare/We-need-to-go-metric-to-prevent-errors-with-oral-liquids.html)

In Britain, to enable the public to get used to metric measurements, drug manufacturers supplied 5 mL plastic spoons to be given away with each bottle of medicine. This was a great help during the changeover to metric measurement there, and would be an inexpensive and effective way to get customers used to doses in milliliters here in the US.

Some manufacturers, but not all of them, supply dosing devices with their medications. These may be simple measuring cups and spoons or more sophisticated droppers or oral syringes. It is not mandatory to supply them and FDA guidelines for their marking and instructions are only voluntary. (Note 3)

Even when a measuring device is supplied with the medicine, if it is badly designed it can be confusing to the customer. The FDA guidelines document shows examples such as the label on the package listing a dose in teaspoons only, and the accompanying dosing cup marked with:Spoons

  • a scale of teaspoon, dessert spoon and tablespoon measurements all together
  • a scale of fluid ounces and,
  • a scale of milliliters

all of which would confuse anyone. Other errors they noted included stating a half-teaspoon dose or a 2 tsp dose on the packaging but not having a corresponding graduation on the cup.

All of these errors could be eliminated by a bit of careful thought at the design stage and some usability trials with customers.

Is it too difficult for an industry that makes profits of billions of dollars each year to make a simple device for measuring medicine doses, and to make the instructions and markings easy to understand? If the pharmacy companies are slow to act—on a problem that has persisted for over a century—why shouldn’t the FDA mandate a fix the problem?

Would it be too difficult to insist that all doses are in milliliters only? It would require minor changes to labels on bottles and packages, something that costs a few cents per bottle.

A national standard for describing and measuring doses would ensure a uniform method of measuring and dispensing medicines of all types, and would lead to customers performing the same procedure to dispense the medication, no matter what brand of medicine they purchased.

What would it cost? How many anxious visits to the hospital emergency room could be avoided?

Peter Goodyear

References:

Note 1 – http://healthland.time.com/2009/08/14/70000-u-s-kids-overdose-each-year-%E2%80%94-accidentally-%E2%80%94-on-everyday-household-meds/
Note – 2 Parents’ Medication Administration Errors

Role of Dosing Instruments and Health Literacy

H. Shonna Yin, MD et al  ARCHIVES of PEDIATRIC AND ADOLESCENT  MEDICINE/VOL 164 (NO. 2), FEB 2010

Note 3 – Guidance for Industry – Dosage Delivery Devices for Orally Ingested OTC Liquid Drug Products – FDA May 2011

An Anti-Metric Case Study: The Huffington Post

When I started this project I sensed there was a pro-metric undercurrent that’s been building for some time. I also surmised that the anti-metric folks would start to feel it and respond. While I can’t currently prove more media attention is building on either side, there was an piece that appeared earlier this week to which I would like to respond. It includes several of the more common anti-metric arguments I’ve come across.

The Huffington Post, in its Science section ran a piece by Lila Nordstrom on Thursday called “Diverging Bases: The Case Against the Metric System.”

Nordstrom says:

More irritatingly, there is something deeply patronizing and dismissive about the way in which the same people criticize our measurement system in America, which is based on British imperial units (which do, to be fair, have a vaguely sinister name).

The “They’re part of our British history” argument

Ms. Nordstrom is not the first person I’ve encountered who has connected a fondness for our current units in the United States to our ancestral roots in merry old England. There are a couple of problems with this:

1) We don’t use imperial units in this country. Sure, we initially brought inches, yards and ounces over but they were so flawed that we tried to “fix” them. However, that resulted in a system that does not completely align itself to any other country in the world. Thus, we don’t use imperial units in this country, we use U.S. customary units. We’re the only ones in the world who do.

2) As a subset of this incorrect attribution, the ounce used within this system is the avoirdupois ounce. It’s the one we use for units smaller than a pound and less than a cup. It also sounds kind of French doesn’t it? So, in an effort to embrace our British heritage one needs to embrace what the British adopted from the French. Sound a bit convoluted to me.

3) The U.K. formally adopted the metric system in 1965. So, if we really want to embrace our links to the British brothers and sisters, we should use the metric system as well. The fact that it is not fully entrenched there owes much to our own lack of adoption.

The nostalgia argument

This argument goes something along the lines of “It’s part of our heritage in this country, something we should embrace and try to preserve.”

Nordstrom says:

Though it may seem uncivilized (though I’d argue that a nation whose government lacks a belief in basic science could perhaps lay blame for its uncivilized reputation elsewhere), our loyalty to imperial units is, in fact, emblematic of some of America’s more endearing qualities; our belief in the common man, our pioneer past, and our history of rebellion.

Well sure, I’m all for embracing our history but I’m also pretty sure than many of these same folks who might find it quaint to have our monarch’s portrait back on our money would not want to revert to English currency and give up our metric measures within the dollar (as in 10 dimes and 100 pennies) for the pence and shilling. Do we want to go back to using the hogshead as a volume measure as well? That’s also part of our country’s early history.

The “they’re organic” argument

Nordstrom says:

Imperial measurements, by contrast, can easily be described in relation to the human body and the physical world because they were originally designed to be based on body parts.

I’d posit that some of these same folks arguing for our history would probably not want to go back to having their yard of fabric measured from the tip of nose to the outstretched tip of the finger (surely store owners would hire those with the smallest possible arms to do the work). Yeah, body parts are a convenient use of measures for a population that cannot read or write (looking back a couple of hundred years) but that is hardy the case today.

I could go on and pick apart what she says (for instance, she also uses the “having a system with more divisors” [2, 3, 4, 6] argument) but that really isn’t my intent.

What does please me about this particular article is that quite a few pro-metric comments  appear in her piece.

For instance:

It is easy for me to remember how many meters in a kilometer, or how many milliliters in a liter, but so hard to remember how many feet in a mile or how many pints in a gallon. That Imperial system just is not logical.

 

I still don’t know for example how many pints there are in a gallon, or how many feet in a mile. Not that I want to go back to the country of my birth, but still, I want to improve the country I became a citizen of.

and

…as a younger nation we prided ourselves on self sufficiency, competition and innovation as the imports increased tool companies and manufacturers used multiple measurement systems as opportunities to increase revenue. now that labor costs in the U.S. have become restrictive, outsourcing and imports have created an environment of government subsidies just for survival. much like the postal system, imperial units are dead weight that are dragging our economy down.

The pushback reinforces that moving toward the metric system are efforts in the right direction.

To view the original article and the comments I’m sure will accrue, go to http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lila-nordstrom/metric-system_b_2923997.html.

Linda

“We Buy Metric Gold…Other Systems Need Not Apply”

Throughout history, one of the reasons that some have resisted standardization of measurements systems has been the potential to cheat others out of their money. Going back to the days before the almost unilateral adoption of the metric system in all but three countries (the United States, Burma and Liberia, cough, cough) having a plethora of measurement systems meant confusion abounded and merchants realized that there was profit to be made out of that confusion.

While this certainly was true when various measurements had differing names, as in perhaps my “merkel” was the same as your “ibitz,” however, in other situations my inch and your inch might not be the same amount even though we were both using the same word—certainly confusing. Merchants routinely took advantage of people’s lack of understanding of these measurement systems to give them less than they thought they were paying for. In fact, some buyers carried around their own calibrated weights Lady Justicejust to ensure others weren’t taking advantage of them. Remember, early weight systems relied on balance scales, unlike today. It’s also not an accident that the “scales of justice” refer to just such a trust being upheld.

Unfortunately, our U.S. customary units continue to perplex. Let us consider the ounce. As I’ve gone around talking to people about the project, one of the things that I’ve asked them is “How many ounces do we have?” At first, some people look at me quizzically, then I go on to hopefully illuminate that in the United States we currently have two different ounces: the avoirdupois and the Troy. The avoirdupois ounce is the one that we use on a routine basis. However, even this is complicated because the avoirdupois ounce represents both a weight (16 ounces in a pound) and a volumetric (8 ounces in a cup) measurement. (By the way, I’ve come across some really horrendous pronunciations of avoirdupois, including the Merriam-Webster online dictionary—which surprised me. Having taken some French in college, the pronunciation that I use can be found at this link http://www.howjsay.com/index.php?word=avoirdupois.)

Most people use the avoirdupois ounce every day of their lives without realizing that that’s what they’re doing. Now let’s move on to the Troy ounce. It is a measurement that is used almost exclusively for weighing precious metals. So, for all those folks who have responded to the “We buy gold” come-ons, how do they know they’re getting the right amount of money if they don’t even understand the measurement system being used?

So, here’s how it breaks out:

1 Avoirdupois Ounces equals to 0.911458333452 Troy Ounces (from this site http://www.unitsconversion.com.ar/)

So the Troy ounce is actually slightly less than avoirdupois ounce.

However, a gram is a gram is a gram. So if we all go metric we get out of all this ridiculous “which ounce are we talking about?” business and then you just have to worry how accurate this guy’s (or gal’s) scale is.

If it were me in this gold-selling situation, I’d insist that the measurement be in grams (most scales can switch back and forth) and compare a couple of different people’s scales. (The right kind, of course. Your kitchen scale is not precise enough for this task.) Yes, they should be calibrated but when was it last done on that scale? And while you might not think a gram is that much when you’re weighing flour in your kitchen, when we’re talking gold, we’re talking about $50 a gram.

Sometimes what you don’t know can hurt you—and not just financially.

Linda