Monday, September 26, 2016

Bogus Warnings

They may come in the form of spam e-mails or desperate pleas on social media, but the bogus warnings are out there.  The people who send them seem to be sincere in their concern.  The people who forward them seem to be lax in their interest to do a little simple research to determine their veracity (Critical Thinking).  But there seems to be no shortage of warnings about avoiding certain foods to ensure our future good health.  Maybe everyone wants to perform a heroic act saving their friends and the population in general, but the result is really a bunch of Chicken Littles crying, “The sky is falling,” and distracting everyone from actual serious concerns.

One example comes by way of social media from a site called Healthy Holistic Living.  The article is undated, but was picked up by a number of other sites in August 2014.  The headline, “The Noodles that Cause Chronic Inflammation, Weight Gain, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease,” is a real attention grabber.

It tells of a “first-of-its-kind experiment” by a doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital who “used a pill-sized camera to see what happens inside your stomach and digestive tract after you eat ramen noodles, one common type of instant noodles.”  He found that “even after two hours, they are remarkably intact” which may put a strain on your digestive system.

But wait, there’s more.  They also contain poison!  The noodles contain TBHQ, “a synthetic chemical with antioxidant properties – not a natural antioxidant.”  It’s a commonly used ingredient in processed foods of all kinds but is also used in lacquers, perfumes, varnishes and pesticides.  They go on to warn of a bunch of possible nasty outcomes from eating any non-homemade instant noodles.

This seems very bad on the surface. Has the FDA dropped the ball and the only ones who care about it are the healthy-holistic-living people?  From the rest of the article, the bias becomes clear.  To them all processed foods are bad and potentially poisonous.  This experiment from Mass General just reinforces that view.  So they took that information and combined it with a study from South Korea, where they eat a lot of ramen noodles, showing some adverse health effects.  They published their conclusion linking the noodles to high blood pressure, high blood sugar levels, increased risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

The problem is that the South Korea study relied on self-reporting, results have not been reproduced and instant noodles haven't been isolated as a single factor in adverse health outcomes.  The study itself says findings are not necessarily applicable to subjects outside that country.

This rumor apparently was resurrected by NextShark website, published in July 2016 attributing the South Korea study to Harvard (to try to add some credibility).  An old, non-scary study was rebranded to get attention or confirm an agenda.

A similar scary rumor had to do with Trisodium phosphate (TSP) in children’s breakfast cereals.  Although it can be used in high concentrations for cleaning walls before painting, it is "generally recognized as safe" by the FDA and is also approved for use by food safety standards agencies in the European Union.  It is not a paint thinner, solvent or acetone as the author would have us believe.  It’s probably safer for the children than all the sugar found in those cereals.

I guess two good questions come from this.  Shouldn’t we do some research before panicking and reposting these continual rumors?  Are we going to trust the FDA with the mission of keeping us safe from dangerous foods, some painter who noticed similarities with his work on cereal box ingredients list, or a website with a specific agenda of disparaging all processed foods?  The FDA does make a few mistakes, but I think they are much more reliable over the long run.  It’s a matter of critical thinking and a little perspective – calm down, get a grip and investigate before spreading bogus warnings.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Role Model Freak Show

Sometimes being blunt and marginally irreverent is the only way to get a point across.  That’s what I’ll do today.

There is absolutely no reason why a role model has to look like me, yet politicians and the media continue to propagate this idea.  I can look up to, admire and try to emulate the positive character traits of anyone I want to.  I don’t have to get distracted by their physical characteristics.

This recent news feature bought the subject to mind.  A star wide receiver on the Florida State football team befriended an autistic middle school student.  When he noticed the young man sitting alone in the cafeteria, he "grabbed a slice of pizza and asked if he could join him."  This so impressed his mother that she posted a thank you on line, which led to the gift of a jersey and tickets to a game.  The mother said they both would be his “fans for life.”  It made no difference to anyone that they were of different racial backgrounds.

President Barack Obama is another good example.  Many people can argue with and disagree about many of the paths he followed in his life and many of the decisions he has made or failed to make as president, but there is one series of behaviors that everyone should agree were praiseworthy.  He got an education, got married and had children – in that order.  He stayed married and took responsibility to help support and raise the children.

There is absolutely no reason why a young man of any background or heritage cannot look at this and see that it is the proper course to follow.  He doesn’t have to search around for some guy of his particular race with good behavior to understand that he too can have good behavior or accomplishments.

I say behavior or accomplishments, because anyone can pick and choose what parts of someone else’s life are positive examples. A young swimmer, either a boy or girl, can look at Brian Lochte and tell that hard work and practice got him to the Olympics, and adopt the hard-work and practice as a personal goal, ignoring the arrogant, immature and dishonest behavior that came to light in Rio.  A young soccer player (boy or girl) can look at Hope Solo and see a great athlete with a sour attitude, electing to adopt the work ethic and standards of performance that made her great, while adopting the standards of sportsmanship from another source.  This is common sense.

But the media sees it a different way. They seem to believe, if the person is not of your race or gender, most people can’t figure out how to act or can’t believe that certain accomplishments are even possible.  So we hear almost daily that person A is the first woman to hold a particular position or that person B is the first Hispanic to do something.  Sometimes they even double up:  Person C is the first African-American woman to receive a certain award.  All this does is reinforce stereotypes in the minds of the so-called victims or minorities.  And those personal stereotypes can be the most destructive.  With them in place you don’t need to wait for the system or the uneven playing field to hold you back, you get to hold yourself back while you wait for someone with your physical characteristics to excel at what you always wanted to do.

So instead of encouraging folks to work hard and excel on their own, the media and politicians continue to highlight this as a kind of “accomplishments freak show.”  They hold people up as role models by emphasizing their physical traits - emphasizing differences instead of those things that bind us together and then wondering why the country is so divided.  This emphasis on appearance is reminiscent of a circus sideshow with the bearded woman and the rubber man and other oddities.  "Oh, look, it’s the first [race, gender or sexual preference] kind of person in a particular category!"  They see it as a measure of progress, but the real measure of progress would be judging people not by the color of their skin (or gender or preference), but by the content of their character.  (A 50-year-old idea that still rings true.)

Monday, September 19, 2016


Unfortunately the real world isn’t black and white or true and false.  There are shades of distinction.  Good evaluation always balances the risks and the benefits of any decision.  It is often too easy to overlook the risks or benefits when you are presented with arguments favoring one side or the other.  Some presentations come across so strongly and confidently that it’s difficult to even see that there are tradeoffs.  This is where critical thinking and appropriate questioning come in.

One blatant example was the controversy almost five years ago over pink slime, a derogatory term used to refer to and gather support against, a beef product that has been in our food supply for years with no ill effects.  Some TV chef decided it was yucky to reclaim meat waste, beef trimmings and other meat by-products, and add them to ground beef to lower the fat content.  The “crusade” began and, in response, grocery chains stopped ordering it.

There was nothing nutritionally wrong with it.  People’s jobs depended on the long-standing practice.  It reduced food waste.  As a result, we all had to pay more for ground beef just because someone dubbed it yucky and many others jumped on the bandwagon without a single thought or question – another social media triumph (?). 

It happened again to a lesser extent in Florida recently.  The residents of Miami Beach protested the aerial mosquito spraying.  The mayor insisted, “public health experts have assured him the amount of Naled [insecticide] used is harmless to humans and has proven effective” against mosquitos.  The public responded that they didn’t think the Zika threat was real.  They compared a safe, but probably scary spraying operation against an invisible, but real health threat and came down on the side of the mosquitos.

The same thing happens all the time on a variety of subjects.

Consider hydroelectric power – build a dam to capture the power of a river and provide low-cost electricity with no pollution.  Environmentalists block the project with lawsuits to protect a fish or mussel.  They don’t even have to prove danger to their fish; just raise the possibility and the developers or governments spend millions trying to prove there is no danger.  Meanwhile we all sit around in the dark.  But we are not in the dark because we still get electricity from the coal plant where other environmentalists are protesting against the CO2 and particle emissions.  Still other protesters are busy condemning nuclear power, a safe, pollution-free option.  There is never any discussion about whether the benefits of a decision outweigh the risks (real or imagined).

Sitting around in the dark is not the big problem.  We can always light candles.  But you can’t light candles to keep the food fresh in the refrigerator, keep the house warm in the winter or keep the equipment running in the hospital emergency room.  When we have enough electricity, we take it so much for granted that we are not concerned that various groups with their different agendas keep trying to make it harder and harder to get.  At what point do we demand that they or the politicians look at trade offs and not just at one side of the story, usually the side with the most emotional impact.

Now look at all the other subjects where we are exposed only to the negative aspects:  climate change, income inequality, vaccination, the economy, air and water pollution, police interactions with the community, drug policy and the rest.  As citizens we fail to demand a balanced discussion, so get only the often-exaggerated negative warnings.  Many subjects quickly devolve into finger pointing and name-calling to silence opposition.  In some cases the cry is that all experts agree; in other cases the cry is that all the experts are wrong.  We waste time and energy with these non-critical, knee-jerk reactions.  We lose the benefits and go down the wrong road when we are only presented with and react to the risks.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Don't Be a Sucker!

The Better Business Bureau, specifically the BBB Institute for Marketplace Trust, conducted a survey of the victims of scams.  Contrary to what might be expected, they found “Millennials are actually more vulnerable to scams than Baby Boomers.”

The stereotypical retiree falling for Internet phishing, suspicious phone call or mail document promising vast riches (if only they pay a small deposit in advance), is apparently in error.  Of more than 30,000 reports to their Scam Tracker reporting tool, “89% of seniors (age 65 and up) recognized the scam in time, while only 11% reported actually losing money. For those age 18-24, however, more than three times as many failed to recognize the scam – 34% reported losing money.”

The reason given for this unexpected result is Optimism Bias, the feeling that others are more vulnerable to con artists than you are.  This is less likely among seniors who have been warned repeatedly about people trying to get their money.  It is more typical to hear stories about the “little old lady” for two reasons:  she’s usually a more sympathetic victim; and seniors are more likely to report being cheated.

I think there is yet another reason.  Millennials have been raised in an environment where critical thinking is optional at best.  They have been exposed to so many questionable sources of information that when a scammer crosses over from borderline ethical behavior to an illegal promise, it’s not as noticeable to them.

Take TV doctors, for example, promising miracle cures, magical advice to improve wellbeing and guaranteed weight-loss programs.  If a doctor were to give only sound advice free of gimmicks and wishful thinking, it would boil down to just a few things we have heard (and ignored) over and over:  eat right, exercise, get enough sleep, reduce stress, use sunscreen and a few others.  Critical thinking reminds us it’s not rocket science.  Yet the shows go on year after year with a loyal audience.

Look at the proliferation of dietary supplements and special food labels designed to give the impression of a healthier option.  There was a time when everyone took substantially the same vitamin as everyone else and was satisfied.  Now there are different vitamins for men and women and men over 50 and pregnant women and the list goes on.  We spend over $20 billion a year on vitamins and herbal supplements, most of which have never been tested and with “no credible evidence they offer any benefits for the average person.”  The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), an independent group of doctors, opted in 2013 not to recommend regular use of any multivitamins. It doesn’t recommend the use of any herbal supplements, and it advises consumers not to take beta-carotene or vitamin E.”  Yet we continue to wolf them down.

I needn’t talk about all the other food-related myths circulating with no scientific background.  I’ve covered it elsewhere (September 2016, January 2016, July 2015, June 2015, April 2014, and many other examples).  Again so many Americans buy into these concepts and needlessly waste money on natural and organic products or are drawn to groceries whose advertising appeals to the latest fad, craze, fear or hope; the market for them continues to grow.

Finally, there is social media.  Millions of pieces of advice, both medical and personal, stories, both cute and serious, and other information flies through cyberspace every second.  It gets read and reposted and few seem interested in verifying its validity.  My wife once pointed out the error in one entry on Facebook and was basically told, “I don’t care about the facts: it was a good story.”

With such a casual approach to life in so many other areas, with this disinclination to question or investigate, and with such general distain for critical thinking, it should be no surprise that the younger generation is more gullible, more susceptible to the scam.  They are merely reacting to the illegal and fraudulent enticements in the same way they do to these many borderline ethical pitches they confront daily.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Natural or Artificial?

My dictionary defines foodie as “a person keenly interested in food.”  I tend to redefine it as a person fussy about food primarily in the interest of impressing others.  If they were interested in food, they would do more research instead of trying to be cool or trendy about what they eat.  For example, see this Daily Beast article on how Nutella, which has been a common spread in Europe for years, “conquered America” with it’s niche, cult, unique and elite appeal.

This thought came to me as I was listening to the car radio, hearing an ad for some product with no artificial ingredients.  I wondered whether there was a standard definition of what no artificial ingredients means.  I already know the FDA has no formal definition for natural or all natural.  When you see these words on a package, it means pretty much whatever the manufacturer wants it to mean (unless the claim is so outrageous that they get in trouble for false advertising).

The best I could come up with was an FDA definition for natural flavor, that is, derived from a "spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof.”  So a flavoring from any other source must be considered artificial.  But does artificial automatically mean bad, as some (fussy) folks believe?

This interesting article points out: “On a scientific level, an artificially-made flavor compound is absolutely indistinguishable from the same compound derived from a natural source.”  This is similar to the understanding that natural fertilizer, think cow-manure, must break down into the same chemical compounds that are present in processed fertilizer before plants can absorb them.  To the plants it’s all nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, along with a short list of micronutrients.  The source of these nutrients doesn’t matter.  (Plants are not fussy.)

The same article goes on to give a fairly disgusting example of “castoreum, a secretion that comes from the two castor sacs located under a beaver's tail, right next to a pair of anal glands.”  It comes from an animal, so it is considered a natural flavor and it “tastes and smells like vanilla.”  If added to your ice cream, it would be considered natural, not artificial.

Speaking of ice cream, and changing the subject as quickly as possible from beaver butts, many people also believe that frozen yogurt is the better choice.  On the contrary, as this CNN story clearly explains:  “Frozen yogurt only sounds healthier than ice cream.”  It has more sugar than ice cream to cover the tartness, and ice cream has more fat.  The benefit of fat is that it slows the absorption of sugar, which may delay the craving for more.  The biggest disadvantage of frozen yogurt is that people eating any food that they believe is healthier for them tend to eat more of it. 

So to be a good foodie, as the dictionary defines it, one must do the research rather than follow the trends or try to be a trendsetter introducing your closest friends to the latest up-and-coming fad food.  It takes a bit of research and understanding of science, some critical thinking to get the facts; and it takes some perspective to shun the hype.  (Is that why I saw "All Natural" beef jerky in the checkout aisle recently?)

On the other hand, you could go about as normal, shopping at the upscale groceries and spending more for foods with only marginal, if any, added benefits.  Then after the meal, why not relax with the ultimate of after dinner pleasures.  It’s all-natural, made only from plants, gluten-free, with no additives or preservatives and no saturated fats, sugars, sodium or cholesterol.  Yes, light up a cigar!  (I wonder if they make organic cigars.)