Friday, June 19, 2015

If You Can't Pronounce It...

The following message is common on the Internet, especially in social media.

Michael Pollan, a food writer and activist, wrote for a 2008 NPR story: “Don’t buy products with more than five ingredients or any ingredients you can’t easily pronounce.”  Other activists like the “Food Babe” website are spreading this easy-to-remember but simplistic idea, using fear and bad science to condemn any food or additive that sounds harmful, artificial or synthetic.

Just to test the notion, would you like to eat a food containing: cholecalciferol or tocopherol or phylloquinone?  How about pyridoxine?  Trick questions – they are also known as vitamins D, E, K and B6.  Everyone gets some of each daily in food or taken in those tablets we believe will make us healthier.  Most of the time these and other vitamins have been produced synthetically.  (They can’t get all that vitamin C added to cereals, drinks and lozenges by just grinding up fruits and vegetables.)

The idea that you shouldn’t eat what you can’t pronounce is absurd.  If that were the case and they decided to call azodicarbonamide “delta 3” instead, no one would know the difference or care – problem solved!  Well-educated and respected experts agree.  Take this story I found on  Robert Gravani, PhD, a food scientist professor at Cornell University, confidently debunks this craziness.  There is nothing to fear.  As he puts it, "In many cases, additives improve our health."

So what of all the warnings about evil corporations trying to poison us with chemicals?  The New York Times ran a profile on the author of the Food Babe website.  “Sometimes she finds an ingredient, often an ugly-sounding chemical (propylene glycol, which she said was in beer), and finds a secondary industrial use (antifreeze) for it.”  But this example is not true and indicative of her lack of scientific training and understanding.  “Dr. David H. Gorski, a surgical oncologist who also has a degree in chemistry, wrote on Science-Based Medicine that the beer ingredient is propylene glycol alginate, which, despite its name, is not even close to propylene glycol, is not antifreeze and is derived from kelp.”  The chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida described her message as “abject food terrorism,” adding:  “She found that a popular social media site was more powerful than science itself, more powerful than reason, more powerful than actually knowing what you’re talking about.”

Other websites contain long lists of where she got it wrong, but that does not slow down the pure-food crusade backed by an estimated 3 million followers.  They can band together to use their economic power to force unnecessary changes on the rest of us.  See this news article from late last month announcing:  “A number of major fast-food chains and food companies have recently announced healthier practices, moving to all-natural ingredients and ending the use of downright strange and sometimes hard-to-pronounce additives.”  They list specific examples including:  Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Panera, Dunkin Donuts, Kraft, Coke, MacDonald’s and others.

That story claims: “Experts say these latest moves represent a real effort to make food both healthier and better for the environment, while also tapping into the growing consumer demand for more natural products.”  But the first assertion is not the case!  Experts don’t worry about how easily pronounced the ingredients are.  It’s obvious that the writer is either too lazy to research the facts or has handpicked the “experts” to match a preexisting agenda.

The second part is true.  Corporation are changing their practices and ultimately passing the costs to us, the consumers, based on demand for changes driven by the often erroneous warnings by unqualified, self-appointed watchdogs, who profit from the fear and misinformation they spread.  Followers of such dietary fear-mongers line up like sheep, desperate for hope or looking for easy answers.  And the rest of us are forced to accept the new standards.  That is what’s really scary.

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