Bronze-level articleFood woo

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Deliciously edible!

Food and Diet

Dubious diets
Food woo

Food woo is the promotion or prohibition of any particular food as "healthy" or "dangerous" or "great for weight loss" for reasons that have little to do with anything scientific. Often, there are real scientific studies to suggest that there might be "something" to various foods to make us more healthy or less healthy. However, Woo takes those basic, preliminary and correlative studies and turns them into either a dieter's best friend of "Science has proven that X will make you lose weight" or a scaremonger's "Science has proven that X will kill you!".

As food is an important part of everyone's life, and as more and more people are struggling to maintain a healthy weight, everyone is susceptible to food and diet woo, whether it be a health scare like the dangers of plastic or a fad diet like green tea, or a health craze like cinnamon helping with blood sugar. It sometimes takes a lot of thought to determine what advice is genuine and healthy and what is just someone pulling ideas out of their rectum in order to sell more books.

Even legitimate health food advice is plagued with lack of good information on how much, how often, and for whom. Misinformation, doubt and anxiety concerning nutrition find fertile ground in the fact that scientific studies about the matter are rarely reliable, since they use one of the following two methods:

  • Statistics and sample analysis (risk of confusing cause with correlation — as in the coffee makes you live longer claim)
  • Studies on laboratory animals (their physiology is slightly different from humans)

Empirical experiments with identical test subjects (such as twins) are theoretically the only way to know with certainty the effects of a substance on the human body, and they are very difficult to carry out for reasons such as duration of study and the necessity of a closed environment.


[edit] Fad diets

See the main article on this topic: Fad diet

Some of the more popular woo associated with food are the fad diets, which as the name suggests, are pop-culture diets which tend to come and go, and like most food woo, are based on sketchy science. These diets are either supposed to cure you of all that ails you, or magically make you lose weight without all that icky exercise. Some examples of fad diets include:

  • Raw foodism - The belief that cooking or any kind of processing "kills" the nutrients in food.
  • Macrobiotics- Expands the concept of yin and yang to food and is all about "balance".
  • Alkaline diet - The idea that foods affect the blood pH level. Really, really, they do.
  • Fasting - Asserts that starving the body, especially if combined with cleanses, is a wonderful way to not only lose weight but also stay healthy!
  • Jesus Diet - "What Would Jesus Eat?"
  • Lemonade diet - The belief that drinking lemon juice, maple syrup, cayenne pepper, and water will cure all your ills
  • Low-carb diet - Considers carbs to be more evil than Satan. Low-carbing ranges from a more healthy approach like South Beach, to a truly heart attack generating approach like Atkins.
  • Paleo diet - Obviously, modernity sucks. If we live like our caveman ancestors we will all lose weight.
  • Weigh down diet - The idea that you can pray yourself thin.

[edit] Specific foods

Science shows that some foods can bring about some healthy benefits beyond just eating well. Food woo takes these slight benefits of some foods, and turns them into all out marketing schemes of Superfoods!!!!. Generally, there is some slight truth to all the woo, but why pay for the expensive pills, drinks, and super teas, when you can just eat the food if you happen to like it?

[edit] People (woomeisters)

See also nutritionists
  • Doctor Gillian McKeith PhD - Referred to as "the awful poo lady" by columnist Ben Goldacre, she was recently told to stop using the titles of "doctor" and "PhD" because they were deceptive and unsubstantiated.
  • Gary Null - Owner of an awesome haircut and purveyor of a few books that question current scientific consensus on AIDS. Also, was hilariously self-pwned by taking his own products only until he actually became sick himself.

[edit] Sheer lunacy

Food is good to woo with.
  • Breatharianism - States that one can live on just air. The stupidity and dangerousness of this notion cannot be overstated, and most people who claim to be able to live on air actually cheat and eat food. The only fair, scientific test done on breatharianism had to be terminated early because the subject (who claimed it was possible) was going to die.
  • Autism and ADHD diets - While there is certainly evidence that good food will benefit children in school (in reality, it's just that bad food is detrimental), there is no evidence that vitamin supplements or specific foods are able to "cure" autism or ADHD.
  • Kombucha - A potentially toxic, often home-brewed potion made of fermented bacteria, yeast, sugar and tea, and frequently given miracle-cure status. Scientific evidence shows that adverse effects are much more likely than any health benefits. Mentioned in the System Of A Down song Sugar, which, judging by the lyrics, was probably written shortly after consuming a few servings of kombucha.

[edit] Scares

  • Aspartame — An artificial sweetener that is considered safe to use, but has been involved in some cancer scares. Televangelist Pat Robertson, of all people, is one of Aspartame's most vocal critics. He claims that the human body converts aspartame into formaldehyde (which it does, in small amounts[1]), that it will make you obese (because many diet soda drinkers still get fat),[2] and that it will damage your memory and may give you Alzheimer's disease.[3] The only confirmed negative effect for many people is that it causes a sudden and violent expulsion of the substance from the mouth and often a vocalization sounding much like the phrase, "What the hell is this?! Diet?!"
  • Canola oil — Urban legends and myths were spread claiming that canola oil is dangerous. The oil is actually no more dangerous than any other oil (i.e., if you eat too much of it, you'll get sick, if you manage to set it on fire, you'll get burned, if you inhale it... etc. etc.)
  • Food irradiation — The subject of a very successful scare campaign by various groups, most of them related to the anti-nuclear movement. Food irradiation was repeatedly confirmed to be completely safe, but the backlash prevents it from being more widely used to prevent food poisoning.
  • Genetically modified food — Humans have been practicing genetic modification of their food crops for centuries, via selective breeding and hybrid cross-breeding. Recent advances in genetic technology now allow for genes to be transplanted between wholly-unrelated organisms, resulting in rice that contains a daffodil gene for producing beta-carotene or mice that glow in the dark like a luminous jellyfish. There are some potential problems, such as the introduction of new proteins triggering food allergies; and there are overblown scares of "Frankenfood", some of which stem from the fact that the Monsanto corporation (which produces the majority of genetically-modified crop seeds) is all big and rich and corporationy and stuff.
  • Monosodium glutamate, or MSG — Glutamates (or glutamic acid) occur naturally in many foods, and can be manufactured artificially and stabilised with salt to form MSG, which is widely used to enhance the flavour of processed foods, and in Asian cuisine. In recent decades, MSG has been the subject of repeated food scares in the West, and blamed for various ailments ranging from headaches to asthma to depression to hyperactivity. These reports rely almost exclusively on anecdotal evidence, while objective tests have concluded that MSG is harmless at the levels contained within foods.[4]
  • Nitrites in cured meat — There is a pervasive fear in some quarters of cured meats such as ham and bacon due to nitrosamines, which are mild carcinogens derived from the reaction of nitrites with amino acids. Although sodium nitrite and its relatives aren't among the healthiest substances, considering how nitrites ward off botulism poisoning, and exist in meats in quantities much lower than in many vegetables, there are some irrational risk assessments occurring here.

[edit] Packaging propaganda

Food manufacturers often dedicate large portions of their packaging labels toward selling you on the premise that their box full of salt and sugar is somehow better for your health than their competitor's box full of salt and sugar. Some examples include:

  • "Whole grain" - The dietary difference between whole grains and "polished" (white) grains is that the former contain a small amount of dietary fiber and B vitamins. This doesn't prevent food manufacturers from implying that whole grains, because they're natural, have some mystic nutritional property that fiber and B vitamins from other sources lack. Furthermore, the amount of whole grains in the package may be vanishingly small; you might want to question just how much you're getting if it says "Made with whole grain" on a box of Froot Loops. Even if it's true, junk food doesn't stop being junk food simply because it has extra vitamins in it. "Partial" grains also are required by US law to be "enriched", adding in most of the vitamins that are lost in the refinement process. In addition, whole grain corn is actually less nutritious than hominy, which have the hull stripped away using an alkali like lye or calcium hydroxide in a process called nixtamalization.[wp]
  • Organic food - It's natural, pure, and is somehow better for you and better tasting. Of course, what it takes to be organic is not always precisely defined. For example, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) certifies organic foods according to fairly strict guidelines. However, some less-trustworthy brands have packaged food implying that the product has been "certified organic" with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), or they label it as "organic" without mentioning either the USDA or the FDA. The difference here is that the USDA's designation is protected, while the FDA does not even certify foods as organic, and therefore this association is meaningless.
  • "Trans fat free" - Indicates a very low amount of "transfats", which are unsaturated, non-essential fatty acids. They naturally occur in small amounts and are a product of partial hydrogenation. The reason this label seemed to suddenly spring up on almost everything is that word spread that transfats cause coronary heart disease, so everything that didn't already include them had the label slapped on them to boost their popularity. Competitors followed suit and it became the best thing since "new and improved!". Also of note is that because transfats occur naturally, food producers are able to label their food as having 0g of transfats as long as the transfats levels are lower than 0.5g per serving (regardless of how small the manufacturer defines a "serving" to be); yay for legally being able to lie!
  • "Less sugar" - If the manufacturer reduces the sugar in a kilogram of food from 400 grams to 300 grams, they can claim a 25 percent reduction in sugar. But the total sugar content of the food (by weight) is still 30 percent.
  • "Boosts immunity" - This label started appearing on boxes of Kellogg's Krispies cereal line[5] in October, 2009. No doubt, this was in response to the swine flu panic that had been building all year.[6] Paraphrasing one nutritionist interviewed about this, you could add those vitamins to bark dust and make the same "immunity" claim.
  • "Made with real sugar" - The jury is still weighing the risks of high-fructose corn syrup, as it has been for over 20 years now. It wasn't until recently that people actually noticed that HFCS is in like, everything, and its health effects were considered. The reason that it's in so many food products is that due to government corn production subsidies, corn is inexpensive in the U.S., which makes HFCS a very cost-effective form of sugar.

[edit] Vegetarianism

Vegetarianism is not woo in and of itself, but is a component of a great many woo-based food plans, and as a result has long had a reputation for being an eccentricity. It's widely accepted that vegetarians tend to be healthier although this is not due to the lack of meat as is claimed, particularly by those who do it for animal rights reasons. The health effects of a vegetarian diet is an example of confounding variables, in which cause and effect are difficult to derive due to the large number of possible causes. Vegetarians, as the name suggests, tend to eat far more vegetables and fruits (which are good and healthy foods, recommended for everyone) and won't be tempted to scarf down anything that claims to be "meat" from the kebab van at 2 AM while drunk. Thus, health benefits are most likely to arise from this, and such healthy effects can also be seen in meat-containing diets if they are properly balanced. People who avoid meat but substitute it with other fatty (although vegetarian) foods like cheese or oil soaked products experience the same poor health as meat eaters who rely on McDonalds for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And conversely, those who are not vegetarian, yet eat a healthy balanced diet, essentially eating just as a vegetarian would, but with a reasonable amount of lean meat for protein, instead of lots of nuts and beans, are just as healthy as those who eschew all meat. In short, vegetarians are more likely to be eating a balanced diet, since most of the most unhealthy foods (excluding snack-food) are meat products.

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] Footnotes

  1. [1]
  2. Diet sodas may play a role in the obesity epidemic. But what about the other chemically processed, hormonally enhanced "foods" that obese people eat?
  3. "Sugar Substitutes: Healthy or Deadly?" CBN News website, 17 July 2009, accessed 6 November 2009.
  4. Alex Renton, ["If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn't everyone in Asia have a headache?"], The Observer, 10 July 2005.
  5. I.e., Rice Krispies, Cocoa Krispies, and Frosted Krispies.
  6. "Kellogg's Immunity Claims Draw Fire" CBS News website, 3 November 2009, accessed 6 November 2009.

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