A new Cornell University study examines the origins of food fears, and possible remedies. It’s a survey of 1,008 mothers asking about foods they avoid and why.
Food fears are a common topic on SBM (Science-Based Medicine), likely for several reasons. Humans have an inherent emotion of disgust, which is likely an adaptation to help avoid contaminated or spoiled food. In our modern society this reflex can be tricky, because we do not always have control over the chain of events that leads to food on our plates. Other people grow the food, transport it, process it, and perhaps even cook it
Modern food technology can also involve many scary sounding substances and unusual processes. As the saying goes, you may not want to know how the sausage is made, as long as the end result is wholesome.
This leads to a second reason for modern food fears – we are living in an age of increasing transparency, partly brought about by the dramatic increase in access to information on the internet. I think ultimately this is a good thing – people are seeing how the sausage is made, which makes it more difficult to hide shady practices. This introduces a new problem, however. If you’re going to inspect the process of making sausage, then you need to know something about sausage-making.
In other words – people are obtaining a great deal of information about food, food ingredients, and manufacturing processes, which is a good thing. However, much of this information is coming from dubious sources – non-professional or academic sources that have not been peer reviewed in any meaningful way and may have ulterior agendas or ideological biases.
Further, it is not easy to understand any complex science, including chemistry and food science, which includes medical studies on ingredient safety. The Food Babe has essentially made a career out of provoking irrational fear of ingredients with unsavory sources and with scary-sounding, long chemical names. Neither of these factors have anything to do with actual food safety, but they make it easy to scare the non-expert.
Specifically this includes so-called “chemophobia” – which is the fear of chemicals. The problem with this “Food Babe”, chemophobic approach is that everything is chemicals. As the banana graphic above demonstrates, the formal chemical names even for everyday food molecules are long and unfamiliar to non-chemists.
The end result is that many people use shortcuts or heuristics to determine what food they trust and what food to avoid. One heuristic is the “natural” false dichotomy – if something seems natural it is healthful, and if it seems synthetic it should be avoided. This heuristic rapidly breaks down on two main counts. The first is that there is no good operational definition of “natural.” All food is altered by humans or processed in some way. Where do you draw the line? The second is that something occurring in nature is no guarantee of safety. Most things in nature will harm or even kill you. Many plants and animals have evolved toxins specifically to harm anything that tries to eat it.
Another food heuristic (one explicitly endorsed by the Food Babe) is the chemophobia heuristic – if it has a long chemical name that is difficult to pronounce, then it’s scary.