All natural. Do these words make you feel all fuzzy inside? If so, a fallacy is at play in your mind, and it could be costing you big time.
The naturalistic fallacy, coined by British philosopher G.E. Moore in 1903, though originally identified by Scottish philosopher David Hume (“Hume’s law”) during the 18th century, is our inclination to believe that what is natural is good.
This fallacy runs rampant in our society. There is an excess of health misinformation bouncing around our informational environs—from Facebook memes making dubious claims that have been shared countless times by undiscriminating, impressionable individuals to impassioned diatribes against some ingredient or other on the part of well-meaning but poorly informed relatives. Credulous individuals perpetuate it, not bothering to seek out the facts for themselves from credible sources.
Much of the time, however, substantial attempts at verification of hearsay can only turn up a bevy of further unreliable sources; search results don’t show the most credible results first, but what’s most popular. And popularity certainly is not an indicator of credibility. When sifting through Google search results, look for publications from peer-reviewed academic journals, information from sites maintained by universities, and that from governmental organizations, since you can be assured they are far more likely to abide by rigorous standards for publication. Meta-analyses and reports of scientific consensuses are much more valuable than one-off studies, as well.
The crowning moment of this madness is the ease at which people get on board with attacks against dihydrogen monoxide. As part of a social experiment to demonstrate just how gullible people are, individuals petition the public to ban the substance, and often with meager or no attempt at further inquiry or explanation, they sign those petitions. The joke? Dihydrogen monoxide is simply water.
Further, talk along the lines of wanting to “avoid chemicals at all costs” is all too common. Chemicals aren’t actually a negative thing; rather, all matter is composed of chemicals. Sure, there are both manmade and naturally occurring chemicals, but that tells us nothing of where they are on the safe-to-dangerous spectrum.
The advertising industry is well aware of this pernicious and sometimes fatal flaw of our alacrity in absorbing misinformation. I used to think that seeing claims on food packaging of being free of this or that evidenced their truth. But now I see they are typically only a tactic to sell more built on shaky foundations, doing their part to add fuel to the fire of mass confusion.
This is my attempt to dispel some pervasive food-related myths that are making us poorer (not to mention shed some light on the importance of thinking critically) and sending us on more trips to Whole Paycheck.
One last thing—I’m not saying that if it’s sold in grocery stores, it’s perfectly harmless. The FDA is known to be slow to take potentially unsafe things off the market or to keep them off our shelves to begin with. And if there is some valid data showing that something is potentially harmful but if it isn’t proven, I like to be on the safe side so long as it doesn’t cost me a pretty penny. But when you have a scientific consensus that something is completely safe, and yet the general public continues to go the extra mile to avoid it—or on the flip side, when something is regarded by many to have potent health effects though they aren’t well-documented or well-founded, I draw the line.
Here are some of the most common food myths.
A 2013 academic review assessing a decade of scientific research done on the safety of genetically engineered crops concluded, “the scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazard directly connected with the use of GM crops.”
Glyphosate, the key constituent of Roundup, Monsanto’s signature herbicide and the world’s most widely used weed killer, has been the subject of much controversy. But currently, the science appears to be largely in its favor. In 2016, a joint analysis conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO) found that the chemical was “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet.” Additionally, in 2017 the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), an agency of the European Union, reaffirmed its earlier stance that there is insufficient evidence for glyphosate to be considered a carcinogen, mutagen, or toxic for reproduction.
Incidentally, GM agriculture brings agronomic and environmental benefits, as a 2012 academic review concludes. Among these benefits are the reduced need for energy input (resulting in a lower carbon footprint), yield increases thanks to more effective pest and weed control, and decreased need for insecticide usage (and therefore reduced levels of water contamination).
In 2015 Consumer Reports found organic food was on average 47% more expensive, based on over 100 product pairings. But is it worth the added expense? While organic produce indeed has less synthetic pesticide and fertilizer residues than its conventional counterpart, the matter of whether organic foods are actually more nutritious and significantly better for your health is inconclusive in the scientific community.
As a 2017 study summarizes, “[t]he quantitative reviews and meta-analyses greatly disagree; some found a significant difference in nutrient content between organic and conventional crops but others did not… The only entirely unequivocal benefit of organic foods is reduced contamination from pesticide residues; although this might not matter for consumers in high-income countries, where pesticide contamination on conventionally grown food is far below acceptable daily intake thresholds, it could provide an important health benefit for consumers elsewhere.” In addition, a 2012 meta-analysis of 240 studies concluded that there is insufficient evidence that organic food is significantly more nutritious than conventional.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, spelt, triticale, and barley that serves as a binder, increasing the elasticity of bread and other baked goods.
The number of foods on the market advertised “gluten free” has skyrocketed, and given that many people think that gluten is intrinsically harmful, this claim gives them a leg up over competitors. According to a 2015 survey of 1,500 American adults conducted by The Hartman Group, 29% of consumers consider “gluten free” to be an important label to look for when shopping for food and drinks, and 20% are avoiding gluten in their diets. Yet, 35% of respondents had no reason for purchasing gluten-free foods, and 26% gave the reason that it’s a healthier option.
There is indeed a debilitating autoimmune disorder, celiac disease, that hinders gluten’s absorption in the small intestine, whose only treatment is a strict gluten-free diet. It is estimated to affect 1 in 100 people worldwide, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation.
But for those who do not have celiac disease, there is insufficient evidence that gluten is harmful to health. A 2016 study exploring the validity of the gluten-free craze states “[t]here is no evidence that processed gluten-free foods are healthier than their gluten-containing counterparts.”
On the flip side, gluten-free processed foods have actually been found to be particularly detrimental to health in several notable ways, among which are increased amounts of sugar and fat, arsenic (rice—a popular ingredient in gluten-free goods—is very efficient at uptaking it), fourfold greater levels of mercury in adults consuming a gluten-free diet according to the results of a 2015 study, and being the cause of deficiencies in B vitamins and minerals including iron, according to a study from 2010 and another from 2012.
Marketed as NutraSweet and Equal, aspartame is an extremely common low-calorie sweetener that is approximately 200 times sweeter than sugar and composed of the two naturally occurring amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid.
It has been extensively studied, and most studies showed that it is harmless even in very high doses, yet rumors continue to circulate. There have been some studies to suggest otherwise, but they have shown to be faulty, as the American Cancer Society details. The European Food Safety Authority published a full risk assessment on aspartame in late 2013, concluding that it is safe at the current level of exposure, creating a fact sheet on its safety.
5. Coconut Oil
Coconut oil’s reputation has undergone quite the transformation over the past few decades.
Back in the 1980s, coconut oil was demonized due to its high saturated fat content. It didn’t deserve its bad rap back in the day; its main saturated fatty acid (lauric acid) has been shown by some studies to raise HDL (good cholesterol). But it also seems to raise LDL (bad cholesterol).
More recently, it has risen to stardom, but it isn’t deserving of its newfound glory, either. A 2016 meta-analysis that examined the validity of the claims in support of its positive effects on heart health concluded that while the evidence linking between coconut oil and heart disease risk factors is tenuous, it showed that it raises overall cholesterol levels, but not to the extent that butter does. Thus, it seems to be a fair alternative to butter, but for regular usage, vegetable oils, which are high in unsaturated fat, are a better choice; whereas coconut oil does not appear to improve heart health, unsaturated plant oils do.
Recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST) is a supplement that was put into commercial practice in 1993. It increases efficiency of milk production by about 15% per a 2010 rbST safety assessment, thereby reducing costs as well as resource consumption.
On some milk jugs you may have noticed the label “rbST free.” Even Chipotle advertises that its usage is prohibited for its milking herds.
But in 1994 the FDA implemented a labeling requirement: that companies advertising that their products are free of the supplement include the fact that the FDA found no significant difference between milk derived from rbST-treated and non-rbST treated cows. Its lack of health threat has long been established; for instance, the aforementioned safety assessment asserted “there is no measurable impact on animal health and no scientific link between drinking milk from cows supplemented with rbST and any human health issues.”
MSG is a form of glutamic acid, which is one of the protein-building amino acids. It officially originated in Japanese chemistry professor Kikunae Ikeda’s extraction from seaweed in 1908, who sought to replicate the savory taste attributed to foods like mushrooms, Parmesan cheese, and tomatoes. He patented the resultant compound, naming it “umami,” which translates to “savory.” Umami is considered a fifth taste, along with sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, and is imparted by many different types of glutamates in addition to monosodium glutamate.
Many individuals have claimed to suffer headaches, heart palpitations, weakness, and numbness after eating meals from Chinese restaurants. The term “Chinese restaurant syndrome” was coined by scientist Robert Ho Man Kwok, who asserted he experienced those symptoms in a 1968 letter to The New England Journal of Medicine. It went viral, prompting a frenzied outcry, spawning research in the scientific community and backlash from uninformed persons.
A 1993 study that sought to determine whether MSG was the case of the “syndrome,” which involved 71 subjects and a randomized double-blind placebo-controlled crossover design, concluded that there was no significant difference between the control group and those consuming MSG. Further, a study performed in 2000 (with a similarly rigorous design) on 130 subjects who claimed to be sensitive to MSG demonstrated sparse reactions to MSG over the placebo and lack of consistency in responses.
Does any other persistent and pesky health misinformation unjustifiably driving up people’s food costs come to your mind?
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