Of Food Scares and Fads

I have a pet hate to do with food and media.

Not one, but TWO poisons? (And there isn't any sugar in there!)

Why food?  Because I love food.  Why media?  Because media sells itself by sensationalism, and when they apply this to food, I hate the inevitable result.

The reasoning here is simple and unambiguous:  you can’t make headlines by telling people what they already know – say, that a pile of green veggies is good for your digestion, or that protein or vitamins are good for you.  People will just look at it, shrug and go “so what else is new?”  It is a simple and sad truth of newsmaking, that what doesn’t create a stir, doesn’t sell articles.

Add to this the fact that obesity epidemic is real, and that whatever the times, people always have to eat, and food becomes a field ripe for the plucking for media scaremongering with a sprinkling of political lobbying here and there.

We have all seen it.

  • Some of us who are old enough to remember it, remember the “eggs are awful and full of fat and cholesterol and no one should eat them or you die of heart disease!” scare of approximately 20 years ago.  (According to British Heart Foundation some years later – no, not really.  And in actuality, as the site states, eating cholesterol does not raise cholesterol levels in the bloodstream.  In little-known fact, cholesterol molecule is too large to pass the intestinal/blood barrier and is broken down before it reaches the bloodstream.  So where does it come from there?  Well, eating sugar is what creates excess triglycerides in the bloodstream – by stimulating production of insulin which triggers synthesis of fat, including excess cholesterol.)
  • I doubt there are many people alive now who remember the campaign to replace all natural saturated fats with hydrogenated shortening (aka trans fats) in the 1930s “because it’s cleaner and healthier than lard and [what they euphemistically called] tropical oils“.  I don’t even need to add a source here because by now (40 years after it was discovered in the 70s and hushed up, by the way!) everyone knows trans-fats are deadly.  Washing the stain off reputations of the very healthful saturated coconut and red palm oils will take longer.
  • And a couple of years ago there was a “eating red meat causes cancer!” (2007) headline too.  Actually, the study noted it was a “modest” increase if processed meat was also consumed, and that the relationship between meat intake and mortality is ambiguous, as the increase in cancer risk is associated with increased and excessive consumption of iron.  In layman’s terms, the relationship cannot actually be established, and is only examined in the study due to the fact that red and processed meat are sources of iron.  (By the way, so is spinach.)
  • There is a piece of actual legislation (2008) enforcing that a bunch of chemical food colorings when used in food, should carry a warning label (which I do not disagree with in spirit, as I think they don’t belong in the food), that does absolutely nothing for its professed goal – the reduction in children’s ADHD.  Why?  Because they removed the colors from sugary drinks and candies – three guesses whether that also removed the “sugar high” (which, incidentally, has the same symptoms as ADHD – inability to focus and hyperactivity).  Moreover, the actual study which led to this legislation (via media scandal) was, simply put, bad science – there were no control tests performed properly, etc.  But, media picks up on it, and there you go – legislation!

Now, it appears, it’s the dairy’s turn to take a beating.  All around articles have cropped up in newspapers and press releases about how dairy is awful, and causes prostate cancer, and we just should not eat it.  My reaction to this newest craze is the same as to all the previous ones – a healthy dose of scepticism.  So, what gives?  The actual scientific papers (here and here) regarding dairy consumption, calcium and prostate cancer essentially say that in cases of really high (above-recommended) intake of calcium from milk, there may be a possible small increase in prostate cancer risk in older men.

Sounds familiar?  Yes, the same wording as was used on the “red meat causes cancer!” scare, actually.  Scientists postulate a possible link, and then media writers take it and create a headline – because nothing sells better than telling people that something they eat every day and think healthy is actually GIVING THEM CANCER OH MY GOD, OH GOD THROW AWAY THAT MILK, MARIE!!!

*cough*  Excuse me.  I tend to react harshly to such fearmongering.

A conversation I had with someone about this the other day ended (on my side) when I had pointed out that he ought to read the actual scientific papers behind the populist article and make his own conclusions.  His response was (more or less verbatim) that “he does not feel the need to read the scientific papers because the article sounds good and in agreement with what he already knows”.  Sadly, this is the response of many people when faced with an easy-to-read article vs. a head-numbing paper chock-full of biochemical and clinical terminology.  Doubly sadly because said paper usually contains little or NO support for the populist garbage that is being spewed in such headline-producing articles – and yet, no one lets the science get in the way of a good story!

So, have you heard about the cucumbers?  Every human born in 1603 that ate cucumbers – they all died!  100% mortality rate!  Screw the science, cucumbers WILL kill you, people, you hear me?!

*cough again*

So, what should we believe, if not the newspapers and the paid-for articles?

For some of us, the solution is to read and follow the actual science.  Read the papers being published, preferably the ones not funded by someone with some sort of interest – which are few and far between.  However, I am aware that the average consumer would struggle to make heads or tails of the studies.  This is not a put-down, it’s a fact, like with any technical text.  Heck, I’d not make heads or tails of a text in theoretical physics myself nor do I expect to.  So what to do?

To begin with, take all sensationalist articles with a large sack, not a grain, of salt.  The actually dangerous things, such as the finding of carcinogen and poison acrylamide in French fries cooked at too-high temperature caused immediate WHO (World Health Organization) action in response – because the scientists when they find something scary enough, tend to scream pretty loud.

The second thing to do is to take it in moderation.  Even trans-fatty acids are not actually that dangerous (and even beneficial for some things if they are natural, like trans-palmitoleic acid) in small doses.  Eating them as blocks of hydrogenated fats kills you.  Calcium and iron are good for your health – but overdo them, and they aren’t anymore.  It’s a well-known fact that overdose of iron (such as from iron supplement pills) can be lethal, and the bottle will carry that warning.  I am not surprised that overconsumption of calcium beyond daily recommended intake level is not healthy.  For that matter, taking too may vitamins and supplements also carries a health risk – but the key words here are “overconsumption” and “too many”.

So what to do?  Eat your egg.  One egg, or two but not every day.  Not six of them a day, maybe.  Eat your steak.  Eat it once a week or maybe twice, not half a cow daily.  Drink your milk.  Drink a glass of it, not two litres a day.  Think about what you are eating.  Avoid chemically processed foods.  You don’t need me to tell you that those are not healthy.  Use your head, and for the love of gods and little green apples, don’t listen to people who want to make food a political issue, a politically correct issue, or a matter of a fad.

I will leave you in closing with a funny which ought to illustrate the stupidity of the press pretty well.

Here is an article from BBC News about the discovery of the fatty acid in dairy (the aforementioned trans-palmitoleic acid) which supposedly may reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome, diabetes and obesity, sensationalizing it.  So far so good?  It even links to the actual study it refers to.  But, reading through the article, it is sadly and abundantly clear that the journalist is not only not a biologist, he doesn’t even have the common sense he ought to have writing for the public.  It says:  “…Milk and dairy foods can be high in fat, which if eaten in excess can contribute to weight gain. So it’s advisable to choose lower-fat dairy foods instead.”  Way to go Einstein – which part of the fact that it is a fatty acid did you miss?  Or was it the political correctness that stuck in your craw and made you feel the need to negate the point which is being made – that full-fat dairy consumption is associated with lower adiposity and lesser chances of diabetes?  I suppose I will never know.  But here you go people  – this is about how much credit you ought to give those who write for the press where it comes to food and scientific discovery.

The scientific papers tend to take a longer, less sensationalist view of their own findings – and, speaking of the recent issue, dairy, here’s one:  “Children whose family diet in the 1930s was high in calcium were at reduced risk of death from stroke. Furthermore, childhood diets rich in dairy or calcium were associated with lower all-cause mortality in adulthood.  Replication in other study populations is needed to determine whether residual confounding explains part of these findings.”  (65-year-long study by Queensland Institute of Medical Research, Australia)  Yet do you hear screams of mandatory milk which ought to be forced on children?  No.  Because 1. it’d be bad science to, and 2. it doesn’t sell a newspaper.

So in the end, all you can do is learn critical thinking, and not believe every populist piece of news garbage you read, even if it sounds like something someone said that you’d like to believe.  Learn to use your own head.


12 thoughts on “Of Food Scares and Fads

  1. I completely agree! You have a wonderful way of articulating your thoughts in a clear, organized, and rational way. This one is on point. Your message of moderation is definitely the key!

    1. Daisy, hi and thanks!

      I have my university professors to thank for teaching me to present what I think properly, but I am glad that they appear to have succeeded!

      And yes, moderation is a good way to regulate your food intake – but one mustn’t forget that it should be true moderation, not a politically correct one – so butter, chocolate, meat, good alcohol and cheese DO belong in your diet, too! And as to sugar (which I think is the devil), it, too, is ok – in very moderate doses. Meaning – it’s ok to have an occasional slice of really good cake, so long as “occasional” refers to occasions, not a donut for breakfast every day! ;)

  2. Most weight loss guides/articles are 1 of 2 things:

    1. Watered down advice which is completely useless (eat less, exercise more! Eat cake once in awhile!)
    2. Advice which contradicts other advice out there (Eat eggs vs don’t eat eggs, full fat milk vs non-fat milk vs no milk, meat vs all-bean diets, etc)

    Personal findings:

    On dairy: I had to give up dairy for the “paleo” diet, which I recently re-started. I still prefer hormone-free milk. I found that giving up dairy was overall a good idea, but I miss home made kefir and yogurt. Raw milk is soooo good, and whenever I see some at the farmers market, I buy a pint, and consume it before I leave the market. Having been said, farmers market won’t open again until summer, hence avoiding raw milk is NOT a problem.

    On eggs: eggs are a good source of protein, are low in fat, and low in carbs (I heard 1 or 0 grams/egg). Eggs are also paleo-friendly. I use eggs whenever I can’t cook meat due to time constraints, or whenever I just don’t feel like cooking/eating meat.

    On red meat: I’m still scared to consume corn-fed beef, and try to reduce consumption whenever possible.

    On grains, legumes, sugars, and carbs….
    Best advice I found was that of Gary Taubes (author of “good calories, bad calories”): http://www.amazon.com/Why-We-Get-Fat-About/dp/0307949435/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1325622388&sr=8-2

    Gary is a supporter of Atkins. Essentially his advice is to avoid foods
    which cause blood sugar (and subsequently insulin) to rise.

    Also, red light cameras are bad :D

    1. I know red light cameras are bad. But as I don’t drive anymore since buggering off to Europe, they bother me far less as I don’t tend to try to run a red light as a pedestrian.

      Gary Taubes, Atkins and paleo people are all not wrong – although please do tell me what the justification is for avoiding sustainable grass-fed dairy (unless you are allergic or lactose-intolerant, in which case it’s clear). We buy unhomogenized milk, and a variety of good cheese and live yogurt and for the life of me I don’t see what could be wrong with them.

      Legumes are good. Grains (whole) are good. Sugar is a luxury and same goes for white flour, pasta, and potatoes. Unless you are like T, and need them to not get too thin (darned skinny Scandinavians whose basal metabolic rate makes them lose weight sitting on sofa eating candy…)

      And I think more people should spread the word that, as far as I have seen or read anywhere, there is not a single scientific study which supports any link between consumption of natural saturated fat (lard, butter, coconut or palm oils) and coronary disease.

      Excuse me while I go munch on that pancetta. <3

  3. I remember a time when I was about 13, standing in a fish and chip shop, wanting to order a hamburger with egg. I was warned against it by my aunt, as I’d had an egg for breakfast that morning, and you know, too many of those are bad for you…

    So I had the hamburger and chips without the egg.

    The same aunt now regularly sends me the types of emails that are disproved on snopes.

    Thought your post was great, so I’ve shared on FB.

    1. Thank you for sharing – both the story, and on fb! ;)

      Yes, unfortunately, there are too many people out there who believe anything a stranger tells them on tv or internet, but disbelieve anything a professional they know tries to explain about it being untrue. This sort of thing, in part, is what led me to create this blog – needing to have a place to say it in detail with references.

      And I really wish more people would learn to think. Too bad it’s something that the education system largely fails to teach.

  4. Well said, V. Am going to share this, if you don’t mind. Some folks still have to be told to think for themselves and then there are the others who believe everything they read.

    1. Thank you and of course I don’t mind! The more people read it, hopefully, the less will buy into all the garbage!

      And like I’ve said above, let us hope and pray to whatever we believe in that people learn to think for themselves and not believe everything is true “because I’ve seen it on TV/read it on the internet”.

  5. Nail on the head. This is one of my serious pet peeves. There’s a corollary, too: the notion that one miraculous diet plan will CHANGE YOUR LIFE, no matter your metabolic needs or medical history. I don’t begrudge people being excited when they find a way of eating that works for them. But don’t go pushing me to follow a diet plan just because it worked for someone else.

    Also, in regards to your previous post: Challenge accepted. :)

    1. Oh yes, that idea isn’t just stupid, it’s also dangerous – people have different metabolisms, and putting someone on the wrong diet (though arguably, low-calorie starvation diets aren’t right for anyone due to bounce-back effect of starvation metabolism) can actually badly endanger them – like feeding someone with PKU a large hunk of meat. Or driving someone into a fatal heart arrythmia.

      The “our diet plan WILL work for you” is generally a trademark of large and unscrupulous corporations who market an unrealistic and often dangerous “plan” (heard about the deaths attributed to Lighter Life people?) to the desperate (and varied in their problems and metabolism) masses. Makes me want to scream and throw something.

      And yay! Looking forward to reading the answers!

  6. Okay, I finally found the comment section! Ha! To reiterate, this is a very well written post and I completely concur.
    I believe that moderation of everything in life leads to a balanced and well lived life.
    Have a great weekend!

    1. Hey Jess!

      Sorry about slow reply here, and thank you for your comment!

      And yes, among other things, moderation in eating even sweets (which I consider the spawn of the devil, proverbially! Or at least my large behind does!) is key to being healthy.

      Beyond that, I believe that people should listen to actual scientists, and not those who seek to make a quick buck popularizing the results of their studies. That’s neither right, nor is it beneficial – nor, as it happens, does it instill respect for science in the general public.

      And same to you!

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