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 However, much of this information is coming from dubious sources – non-professional or academic sources that have not been peer reviewed in any meaningful way and may have ulterior agendas or ideological biases.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.
Many of my friends and family will only touch organic food. That’s their right, and I don’t try to fight with them. I sometimes get uncomfortable, though, when they make claims about organic food that just aren’t supported by data and evidence. Moreover, I think arguing with anyone who is attempting to eat more fruits and vegetables that theirs are in some way “not good enough” is counter-productive.
If you care about what is in your food, you have no greater sympathetic intellect than me.
But if you are an anti-science activist, you may not understand the distinction between what is in your food and what it simply is – and there we part company. A genetic modification (GMO) is your food, for example, it is no different than any other food from a health perspective. Cataloging the numerous ways agriculture has genetically engineered food for as long as food has been grown is outside the scope of this piece, but GMOs don’t bother me and that science shouldn’t bother you either. (1)
Pesticides do bother me, and you have a reason to be concerned about those. If you think you don’t need to wash organic food before you eat it, I think you need a sanity test. An organic pesticide is not superior to a synthetic one nor is eating animal feces on vegetables any smarter than eating man-made fertilizer.
That is where anti-science activists miss the mark. Caring about one thing we know is harmless while pretending something we know is harmful is not, if it carries an organic label, is a real mistake for their credibility. I care about food but putting a label on every food that has a GMO (yet exempting mutagenesis, which is all the rage in Europe now, precisely because it is genetic optimization, but not the legally vilified kind) and not putting a label on pesticide-laden organic food would be silly.(2)
Pesticides, fungicides, larvicides, and a myriad of other poisons are used generously on crops, sprayed onto our food, and leach into our soil, within today’s current factory farming methods. With the risks accompanied with consuming current genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and chemically saturated garbage, the consumers are constantly looking for healthier options.
Many are gravitating toward local vendors and farmers markets, preferring antibiotic-free, organic, and free-range food items. However, the label “organic” is not synonymous with pesticide-free, and organic food can and has been found to contain pesticides.
A United States Department of Agriculture [USDA] report surprisingly exposed that samples of organic lettuce had contained pesticide residue. The common residues which were found were known as spinosad and azadirachtin A/B. The USDA happens to deem these particular pesticides suitable for organic agriculture. It is also important to note that land which was treated with non-permitted poisons in the past, but is no longer being sprayed with these poisons, can also qualify as organic. It is safe to assume that just because an item is labeled “organic”, doesn’t mean it’s entirely healthy to eat.
Pesticides authorized for organic farming need to be derived from natural sources, rather than having been synthetically manufactured. Also, the land chosen for the organic crop growing cannot have been treated with any synthetic materials for at least the past three years. One study by the University of Guelph, found that some organic pesticides have a higher environmental impact than conventional pesticides because the organic ones are used in larger doses.
“The consumer demand for organic products is increasing partly because of a concern for the environment,… But it’s too simplistic to say that because it’s organic it’s better for the environment. Organic growers are permitted to use pesticides that are of natural origin, and in some cases, these organic pesticides can have higher environmental impacts than synthetic pesticides, often because they have to be used in large doses.” – professor Rebecca Hallett
Other potent natural extracts which have additionally been approved for use as pesticides in organic farming, include pyrethrin (derived from chrysanthemums) and azadirachtin, which were also detected on some samples of organic lettuce. All three of these substances are considered to be slightly toxic by the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA].
- The Truth About Produce, Pesticides, And The Dirty Dozen (charlotte.cbslocal.com)
Some people who enjoy raw milk also make up false claims that regular milk is more dangerous.
Today we’re going to drop by our friendly local dairy farm and pick up a quart or two of what has become among the trendiest of foodie fancies, raw milk. Raw milk comes straight from the cow’s udder and into your glass. It hasn’t been homogenized or pasteurized and has nature’s full complement of fat, making it a scrumptious, creamy treat. But many of its fans aren’t satisfied with touting its flavor; they also claim it brings a host of miraculous health benefits hitherto undiscovered by science. Health experts, on the other hand, warn against consuming it in no uncertain terms, claiming that its unpasteurized bacterial load makes it an unacceptable risk. Is one or the other of these positions true, or do the real facts lie somewhere in between?
Some raw milk lovers take their passion very seriously, almost to the point of a religion. It’s fine to like something, fine to uphold ideological positions, fine to advocate to others. But it’s never OK to invent bad science to defend a position; and unfortunately, it appears that’s exactly what some raw milk proponents do. Here are five common arguments that I found being repeatedly made about the supposed evils of regular pasteurized, homogenized milk:
1. Pasteurization destroys milk’s nutrients: False.
As we know, regular milk is pasteurized, and this is the key difference between it and raw milk. Heating food to reduce spoilage has been in practice for about a thousand years, even though the mechanism wasn’t well understood at first. We now know that heat kills the microbes found in food; including bacteria, fungi, algae, and a whole host of other organisms. Dangerous bacteria, like Salmonella and E. coli, are the most worrisome.
We could sterilize food if we wanted to kill everything in it, but complete sterilization would also cook or destroy the food. It was Louis Pasteur who discovered in 1864 that a much gentler heating for only a short time was sufficient to kill such a high percentage of the microbes that food spoilage was largely mitigated. Today milk is one of many, many foods that are pasteurized to increase their shelf life and safety. There are various processes for doing this, but the net result is that the milk is briefly heated and then cooled again. Opponents say that a side effect of this is to destroy essential nutrients in the milk.
To see whether this is true, we first have to ask “What are these nutrients?” So far, the answer to this has been wanting. The nutrients in milk are mainly energy from fat and lactose, and these are unaffected by pasteurization. Similarly, the molecular structures of proteins and minerals are far too robust to be damaged by the relatively low heat. One fact is that a number of vitamins are found in reduced concentration in pasteurized milk, including vitamins B1, B12, C and E. Though true, it’s a fine trade-off, because milk of any kind is a relatively poor source for these vitamins. Vitamin A content is actually increased after pasteurization.
Often, advocates point to the fact that regular milk is fortified with vitamin D as evidence that pasteurization destroys that vitamin, so it has to be re-added. Untrue. Milk is not a source of vitamin D; it’s one of many products that are fortified (such as breakfast cereals, orange juice, and baby formula), and have been since rickets was a major public health problem in the 1930s.
Lactobacillus is a bacterium found in our bodies, and also found in cow’s milk. Lactobacillus does help with our digestion and the conversion of sugars to energy. And, it is killed by pasteurization. While some raw milk advocates raise alarm over this, there’s no need. Lactobacillus thrives and reproduces itself inside our bodies. There is no need to drink milk to get it.
2. Homogenization makes milk less healthy: False.
Raw milk is not homogenized like regular milk. Homogenization is just what it sounds like; making the milk consistent from batch to batch, and making the fat level consistent throughout each serving.
Homogenization is a simple process. The first thing that’s done is to mix together milk from different dairies, making it more consistent overall and day to day. The second part is making it consistent throughout. Raw milk separates into a light, fatty layer on top, and a heavier layer on the bottom. Homogenization turns it into an emulsion, in which the fat particles are tiny and evenly distributed throughout the liquid in such a way that they won’t separate like raw milk. This is just a matter of forcing it through a fine strain which breaks up the fat chunks into tiny specks. Presto, a homogenous product.
Opposition to the homogenization of milk is manifold, yet so far, unsupported by any good science. Most of it sprang from a mass-market 1983 book, The XO Factor: Homogenized Milk May Cause Your Heart Attack, which put forth a number of fringe hypotheses which were quickly refuted in the medical literature but achieved much more mindshare among the general public. The book claimed, as its title suggests, that the homogenized fat particles were responsible for a lot of heart disease. Other claimed issues included digestion problems, but again, once controlled testing was done, it was found that people claiming hypersensitivity to homogenized milk reported just as many digestion problems no matter what kind of milk they were given.
Raw milk may avoid homogenization, but the result is just a taste preference. No health benefits or detriments have been discerned either way.
3. Unpasteurized raw milk has less bacteria: False.
The whole point of pasteurizing milk is to reduce the dangerous bacteria, obviously; so this claim really had me scratching my head wondering how on Earth someone could have come up with it. Here is an example of one article that claims raw milk is likely to have fewer bacteria than pasteurized milk, this one from a web site called . . .
- Skeptoid #383: 5 False Arguments for Raw Milk (skeptoid.com)
- Massive spike in demand for raw untreated milk (radionz.co.nz)
- 10 Things You Should Know About Raw Milk (naturalcuresnotmedicine.com)
- Walker reiterates concerns about raw milk (host.madison.com)
- Gov. Walker reiterates concerns about raw milk (nbc15.com)
- E.coli cases reignite debate over raw milk products (globalnews.ca)
- Wisconsin should make raw milk legal (jsonline.com)
- Raw milk debate stirs passion – on both sides (lacrossetribune.com)
- Are you the Half that Should Avoid Dairy? (liveto110.com)
Via The Soap Box
Breatharianism. It’s a belief in the New Age Movement that people can live off of air and sunlight alone, and do not need food (and for some, water) to live, and that people can convert air and sunlight into prana, or life energy, with according to practitioners is all a person needs to live.
Of course there is the claim that air and sunlight can . . .
- man survives for five years on nothing but fresh air (thesun.co.uk)
- Man claims to live on sunlight and air (lunaticoutpost.com)
Via The Soap Box
There has been a lot of debate recently over whether or not food companies should legally be required to label their foods as being either GMOs (Genetically Modified Organism) or not if they happen to actually be GMOs.
Supporters of these laws claim that this would give consumers the ability to know what they are buying, and whether or not they are actually buying something that is organic or not.
Critics on the other hand claim that such laws are unnecessary and even excessive, since it is well established that most foods are in fact either considered GMOs (technically speaking all foods are actually GMOs in one way or another) or at least would not be considered organic by many people in the organic food community, and that many people who do produce organic foods already label their products as being organic.
While this labeling law debate is sure to not go away any time soon, I do wonder if perhaps the anti-GMO crowd is going about this the wrong way. Perhaps instead of there being GMO labeling laws, there should be organic food labeling laws instead.
While the GMO food industry is heavily regulated by the Food & Drug Administration (despite what many people in the anti-GMO crowd believes) there is actually very little regulation for the organic food industry.
In the United States there are no laws that says what foods are considered organic, and what foods are not considered organic. In fact anyone can actually claim that the food that they are producing is organic, when in fact what the food that is being produced is not considered organic by anyone’s standards…
- Chipotle Becomes First U.S. Restaurant Chain to Voluntarily Label GMOs (cryptogon.com)
- The War on GMOs (libertylobster.wordpress.com)
- Landslide Vote for GMO Labeling in Maine (prn.fm)
via The Soap Box
There’s a lot of things I’ve notice organic foods and the claims about it, and of all the things I’ve noticed about organic foods, there are five things about it that really stand out for me.
So here are five things I’ve noticed about organic food:
5. It’s expensive.
Organic food cost an awful lot, and in some cases twice as much as non-organic foods, and unless you are very well off, it can get expensive real quick and make a real hit on a households budget.
Even if organic food were to cost only 10% more than conventional food, the expense can still add pretty quickly, even if not all the food you buy is organic, just some of your food.
4. It’s not as environmentally friendly as one might think.
Due to the sheer fact that organic farming doesn’t produce as high of a yield of crops per acre as with regular farming, if organic farming was done nation wide (or world wide for that matter) over regular farming, then a lot more land would be needed to grow crops in order to feed everyone, thus things like deforestation would increase in order to make open land to grow crops on, and to raise animals for meat on.
3. There’s no set guide lines for what’s considered organic.
There is really no set of criteria or laws and regulations for what can be considered and labeled organic food, and also what is considered to be organic to one person might not be considered organic to another person.
Also, because there is no set criteria or guide lines for what is considered organic, a farmer could claim what they are growing is organic, but in reality is not by most anyone’s standards, and could be claimed to be organic to only be used as a selling point to get people to buy their product.
Everyone says organic food is better for you and better for the environment. But is that true, or is it just eco-marketing rhetoric?
- Organic Pesticides Fail EU Safety Review (OpenMarket.org), March 30, 2009 (PDF)
- Mythbusting 101: Organic Farming (Scientific American), July 18, 2011 (PDF)
- “Organic” Foods: Certification Does Not Protect Consumers (QuackWatch)
- Does Mother Nature Always Know What’s Best? (sciencebasedlife.wordpress.com)
- Dr. Oz Flip-Flops on Supporting Organics as High-Profile Attacks Intensify (alternet.org)