Monday, August 5, 2013

Fact Checking the Fear-based Food Article

If you’ve been online recently, then you might have read the popular article titled “8 Foods We Eat In The U.S. That Are Banned In OtherCountries”.

A few weeks ago, I saw it and then skipped it because experience has taught me to stay away from this kind of “fear-based” food information, true or untrue.

Everyone knows not to believe everything they read on the internet.  But who’s to say that you aren’t still influenced by the information you learn, even if it’s false?

The other day, I was happy to find that an organic chemist did an actual “fact check” study on the 8 banned foods piece.  He went through the article and showed how each claim was either flat-out wrong, or information was taken out of context to prove a point.  To my surprise, most of his counter article was not written in the uber-intellectual language that I was expecting.  I enjoyed it, but I guess I am a bit of a geek.  You can find the whole article here.

I am not a scientist (No! Really?).  I cannot vouch for the original article or the rebuttal.  However, I was happy to see someone out there (albeit a scientist!) not letting this one go.  In the Buzzfeed article, the author claimed “research”, “studies”, and “statistics”.  In my own short inquiry, I found she quoted studies that didn’t exist and her links were misleading or dead end roads.  The title of her article says “8 Foods…” but it’s not about food at all; it’s about chemicals, substances, raw elements, etc.

Who do you want to believe?  The BuzzFeed staff member writing to create a “buzz”?  (She has over 5 million views currently.)  Or an organic chemist working on his Post-Doc in Germany?  (That’s something you do when you have studied everything you’ve possible could and there’s nothing left to study.)  I'm just saying...

So, now on to some interesting information.  The chemist and author writes (referring to the other post):
"This whole article is soaking in several assumptions about food, about chemistry, and about toxicology, and that's one of the big ones. In my experience, people who write things like this have divided the world into two categories: wholesome, natural, healthy stuff and toxic chemical poisons. But this is grievously simple-minded. As I've emphasized in passing above, there are plenty of natural substances, made by healthy creatures in beautiful, unpolluted environments, that will nonetheless kill you in agony."

I like what he says here.  Being who I am (constantly tempted with the black or white, all or nothing dramatic here to read more about that) I can nod my head and relate...graciously.  Food is among the many things that causes me anxiety.  And mainly, it's because I lump it into one of the two categories that he is talking about: healthy or poison.  But that's not reality.  That's not life.
So, anyway, point for point, claim for claim, the author, Derek, breaks down each topic showing its flaws and shortcomings.  An example of one of the "foods" in question:

"Number Four: Potassium Bromate. The article helpfully tells us this is "Derived from the same harmful chemical as brominated vegetable oil". But here we are again: bromate is different from bromide is different than bromine, and so on. If we're going to play the "made from the same atoms" game, well, strychnine and heroin are derived from the same harmful chemicals as the essential amino acids and B vitamins. Those harmful chemicals, in case you're wondering, are carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. And to get into the BuzzFeed spirit of the thing, maybe I should mention that carbon is found in every single poisonous plant on earth, hydrogen is the harmful chemical that blew up the Hindenburg, oxygen is responsible for every death by fire around the world, and nitrogen will asphyxiate you if you try to breathe it (and is a key component of all military explosives)."

The original article is having the reader believe that there are poisonous chemicals in our everyday foods and we should be afraid, very afraid.  The chemists makes a good point about chemicals (believe it or not) in that certain deviations are harmful, yes, but that doesn’t make the main source harmful, i.e. oxygen.  (You know, the stuff we breathe?)
Reading this article really makes me question why we have to know so much about the chemicals in our food anyway.  Azodicarbonamide (It was number 5 on the list) is in baking soda and yeast, I think he said 45 parts per million.  I would have never thought twice about putting the stuff in my baked goods; it’s just part of the recipe.  Should I worry though?
My reaction:  Fear of food can distract you from more important things.  If you're not careful, fear can consume you and take over your life.  Living in fear is not healthy either.  It will destroy you.

The chemist seems to have a similar belief:
"Another assumption that seems common to this mindset is that when something is poisonous at some concentration, it is therefore poisonous at all concentrations. It has some poisonous character to it that cannot be expunged nor diluted. This, though, is more often false than true. Paracelsus was right: the dose makes the poison. You can illustrate that in both directions: a beneficial substance, taken to excess, can kill you. A poisonous one, taken in very small amounts, can be harmless. And you have cases like selenium, which is simultaneously an essential trace element in the human diet and an inarguable poison. It depends on the dose."

In the spirit of "quoting", we’ll let the chemist do the conclusion today:
"Finally, I want to return to something I was saying way back at the beginning of this piece. The author of the BuzzFeed article knows painfully little about chemistry and biology. But that apparently wasn't a barrier: righteous conviction (and the worldview mentioned in the above three paragraphs) are enough, right? Wrong. Ten minutes of unbiased reading would have served to poke holes all through most of the article's main points. I've spent more than ten minutes (as you can probably tell), and there's hardly one stone left standing on another. As a scientist, I find sloppiness at this level not only stupid, not only time-wasting, but downright offensive. Couldn't anyone be bothered to look anything up? There are facts in this world, you know. Learn a few."

Oh snap!  I do believe that was a burn, good fellow!

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