“”Um, I need to read the numbers on the bar code aloud to you. I don't want any lasers touching my food.
|—As overheard at Whole Foods|
Food woo (or Wootrition) is, simply, woo about anything culinary. Examples include fraudulent promotion or criticism of any particular food, often as "healthy"/"natural cures"/"dangerous"/"great for weight loss"/"causes cancer"/"mental spirit boosters"/etc., for reasons that are hardly scientific. There are real scientific studies to suggest that there might be "something" to various foods to make us more healthy or less healthy. However, food woo takes those confirmed, testable, 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 health, 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 takes a large amount of research 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, gain more site visitor hits, etc.
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.
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 bothersome 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 carbohydrates 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 your weight away.
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 this 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?
- Açaí berry
- Apple cider vinegar
- Coconut oil — Claimed to be a trans-fat-free, cholesterol-free shortening, and just about the healthiest option other than palm oil (or coconut mixed with a lighter oil)… for shortening. Adding shortening where not needed, using shortening in place of
lighter oilscanola oil, and spooning it from the can may not be the way to perfect health.
- Raspberry ketone — Ineffective and is often not even derived from raspberries.
- Rooibos tea
- Various other spices and herbs
DoctorGillian McKeith, Ph.D.— Referred to as "the awful poo lady" by columnist Ben Goldacre, she was recently told to stop using the titles of "doctor" and "Ph.D." because they were deceptive and unsubstantiated.
- Gary Null,
Ph.D.— 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.
- 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. There is also no good evidence of food or food coloring (such as tartrazine) causing ADHD either.
- 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.
- 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), that it will make you obese (because many diet soda drinkers still get fat), and that it will damage your memory and may give you Alzheimer's disease. 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?!"[citation NOT needed]
- Canola oil — Urban legends and certain statin denialists claim 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.)
- 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. Nice one, guys!
- 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 flavor 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.
- 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.
Being on this list does not specifically indicate Wootrition, but 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" or "refined" (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, though not the fiber. 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.
- 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 in October, 2009. No doubt, this was in response to the swine flu panic that had been building all year. 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.
- "Gluten-free" — While gluten is dangerous in those with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), and gluten-related disorders, 'glute-heads' (those who won't shut the fuck up about gluten) pretty much believe that gluten is responsible for everything from the Holocaust to werewolves to kicking their dog and nuclear Armageddon. Peter H.R. Green, MD, director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University, states "unless people are very careful, a gluten-free diet can lack vitamins, minerals, and fiber." "Gluten Free" is also, of course, being added to labels of products (liquor for instance) that wouldn't contain gluten anyway, making it even less meaningful than "Made with whole grain".
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 (yum!) experience the same poor health as meat eaters who rely on McDonald's 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.
Also, those who choose vegetarianism for health reasons are more likely to lead a healthy lifestyle in general than your average user, thus adding to the confounding variables. Considering the fact that generally, the same people who happen to choose vegetarian also exercise, control their alcohol intake and abstain from smoking, attributing any health improvements to vegetarianism alone becomes far from clear-cut.
As Nathalie McIntosh of the Boston University School of Public Health remarks:
In summary there is evidence that a vegetarian diet protects against cardio-vascular disease, particularly heart disease, and there may be some health benefits related to diabetes and colon cancer. Evidence is lacking, however, for any benefits related to other cancers, other conditions, or mortality rates. Whether the benefits are related to not consuming meat/meat products or having a higher consumption of whole grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables is not clear. In addition, the fact that vegetarians generally have lower BMIs, lower blood pressure, lower alcohol intake, smoke less, have higher levels of physical activity and have higher socioeconomic levels confounds the issue. The take home message is that there may be health benefits to being a vegetarian, but these may be due mostly to eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, limiting alcohol consumption and not smoking.
- Spoon-Fed: Why Almost Everything We’ve Been Told about Food is Wrong (2020) Professor Tim Spector ISBN 978-1787332294
- Organic food
- Food allergy
- Gluten-free (which isn't woo if you have Celiac disease)
- William Li
- Surviving Whole Foods — A satire on health food stores in general (published on Huffington Post, of all places!)
- "Health Food ... or Health Fraud?" — Discusses packaging propaganda for foods that are not really healthy. E.g. "Is Frankenberry really a whole grain cereal?" (MSN reprint of a Men's Health article.)
- Tomaska LD and Brooke-Taylor, S. Food Additives - General p 452 in Encyclopedia of Food Safety, Vol 2: Hazards and Diseases. Eds, Motarjemi Y et al. Academic Press, 2013. ISBN:9780123786135
- Diet sodas may play a role in the obesity epidemic. But what about the other chemically-processed, hormonally-enhanced "foods" that obese people eat?
- "Sugar Substitutes: Healthy or Deadly?" CBN News website, 17 July 2009, accessed 6 November 2009.
- Alex Renton, ["If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn't everyone in Asia have a headache?"], The Observer, 10 July 2005.
- I.e., Rice Krispies, Cocoa Krispies, and Frosted Krispies.
- "Kellogg's Immunity Claims Draw Fire" CBS News website, 3 November 2009, accessed 6 November 2009.
- "The Truth About Gluten" WebMD Feature Article