Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Food wars

Have you seen this example of internet fear-mongering, 8 Foods We Eat In The U.S. That Are Banned In Other Countries and the push back from a chemistry professor, Six chemicals we consume in our food and drink that should be banned?

Do you think that people who write about food additives should know something about chemistry?  Or do you think that any intern who works for free should be allowed to write about anything so long as they meet their posting requirements for the day?

I found this one about dyes so wrong-headed, I can't even figure out where to begin.
Why it’s dangerous: Artificial dyes are made from chemicals derived from petroleum, which is also used to make gasoline, diesel fuel, asphalt, and tar!
There are real reasons to avoid artificial dyes in food, like allergic reactions. I get itchy skin, a common allergic reaction, from certain food dyes, and avoid them whenever possible.  Moreover, we should have a broader conversation about our overall dependence on petroleum in agriculture (or in modern life in general), but guilt by association is not a scientifically valid rationale.

One more example:
Synthetic growth hormones rBGH and rBST: Harmful to cows and linked to increasing tumor development in humans.
Harmful to cows and linked to increasing tumor development in humans.
Why it’s dangerous: Growth hormones are bad for cows and people, potentially causing infertility, weakened muscle growth, and a whole array of cancers.
How can she write about rBGH and rBST without mentioning the reliance on antibiotics in dairy cattle to counter mastitis brought on by the hormones?  That's the greatest danger.  Perhaps she didn't mention it because she doesn't know?

It gets worse.  Number 8 is Arsenic.  Yes, "arsenic is poison, which will kill you if you ingest enough."  But it is also a naturally occurring element in food because of its presence in water and soil. The same, "will kill you if you ingest enough", can be said for just about any other metal in our food, including ones necessary to sustain human life.

In case BuzzFeed's article makes your head hurt, go read Mark Lorch's response in the Guardian for levity.
Denatured protein

You might not know this but Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's and CJD (the human version of mad cow disease) are all caused by proteins that have misfolded. Basically perfectly normal proteins get shape-shifted into evil versions of themselves that then cause dreadful diseases. And guess what, when you fry your egg you cause the proteins in the white to misfold. I'll leave you to draw the obvious conclusion.
Lorch links to another takedown of Buzzfeed by Derek Lowe.

If you want to get depressed about the public's lack of science literacy and policy implications, read The public don't want to be involved in science policy.

7 in 10 poll correspondants say that they are very interested in medical research, but 8 in 10 say they have little or no understanding of what the term "human genome" means.

I am a bit unclear on whether the term means the entire set of human genetic material or specific subsets of it, and whether it encompasses only DNA in chromosomes or includes mitochondrial DNA, or tRNA. But that lack of clarity wouldn't cause me to select "little or no understanding" in the poll.

If you think that is scary, take a look at the science literacy of the people making policy by writing laws or allocating research money.  Yikes!


  1. I minored in Biology and actually taught classes in genetics but that doesn't stop people from arguing with me when I explain something that they are doing/saying that's incorrect. Some people are afraid of science,so they prefer to remain ignorant. Local news is especially guilty of science sensationalism.

  2. Anonymous18:04

    People's relationship to food (mine included) is complex and ruled largely by emotion. Half of my friends avoid broad categories of food for no good reason I can see. Then they occasionally consume these very same foods if they look appetizing enough. Maybe they even write articles about it.

  3. I seem to be noticing a great deal of this kind of thing label, on the internet and in books and magazine articles. Perhaps they have always been there but I don't always pay attention. So much of what I read about food seems to completely misconstrue what is important if it is not downright wrongheaded and ignorant.

    People are very inconsistent. Faced with a constant barrage of information, and little skill at or inclination toward seeking out the truth of the matter makes everything worse.

  4. Arsenic is one of my favorites. It's organic, after all.


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