October 23, 2014

The shocking truth about the basic necessities of life

I used to make a hobby out of reading and collecting examples of various kinds of crackpottery. At some point, though, I lost interest. I think I just became overwhelmed (and not a little bit discouraged) at the sheer volume of anti-intellectual nonsense that floats around on the Internet.

My latest thing to follow in that vein is Vani Hari, aka The Food Babe. Hari is a crusader against all kinds of foodborne injustice. She is arguably best known for her campaign that pressured Subway into removing the additive azodicarbonamide from their sandwich bread. However, this additive decomposes when baked into gases such as nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide—all of which are harmless when eaten—as well as a harmless amount of ammonia gas. Hari is not a food scientist, medical doctor, nutritionist, dietician, or any other sort of expert in the field, and it shows. Her recent tirade against Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte complained that it contained "[a]bsolutely no real pumpkin in ingredients." (Of course not: it is flavoured with pumpkin spice, the spice mixture used to flavour pumpkin pies: typically some combination of allspice, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg.) To date, however, her most hysterical raving has been against microwave ovens, in which she decries "unnecessary daily exposure to radiation": "Afer all, human cells are made of molecules and molecule bonds are broken and destroyed when exposed to radiation." She clearly does not understand the difference between ionizing (e.g. X-rays, gamma rays) and non-ionizing radiation (e.g. microwaves, radio waves, visible light).

Another site that similarly takes the cake is Realfarmacy.com, which exposed the "horrifying fact" that Big Macs contain, of all things, cellulose. You may never want to eat a vegetable again.

Health sites may very well raise legitimate concerns about the food we eat. Fresh food prepared yourself is probably better for you, and fast foods do contain a lot of salt, sugar, and fat that we can all probably do without, at least on a regular basis. But all too often, any legitimate concerns get buried in a sea of pseudoscience that takes a number of forms, including:

  • "Chemicals" are bad for you, and if you can't pronounce it, you probably shouldn't eat it. (Never mind that even a fresh, organic fruit will naturally contain as many, if not more, unpronounceable "chemicals" as part of its intrinsic makeup, as anything you buy at a McDonald's.)
  • This substance has been proven toxic to rats. (But usually in amounts that are orders of magnitude beyond what humans will come in contact with. Also, remember that substances that are toxic to animals might still be safe for humans: daylilies are harmful to cats, but edible for people; chocolate is awesome for humans, but very dangerous for dogs.)
  • A food substance or additive is also used in the manufacture of non-food items, e.g. azodicarbonamide used in commercial bread is also used in the manufacture of yoga mats. You don't want to eat something that someone's sweaty butt has rubbed all over, do you? (This particular argument commits the logical fallacy of division: that each component part of a whole shares the same properties as the whole. Just because eating a yoga mat is bad for you, doesn't mean everything used to make the yoga mat is bad for you. For example, the puffed corn starch used to make biodegradable packing peanuts is the same stuff used to make cheese puffs.)
  • A food substance or additive can also be found in other non-edible or unpleasant substances. (Cellulose is found in wood, therefore Big Macs are really bad for you. Cellulose is a structural component of plant cell walls; want to bet that a Big Mac's cellulose comes from the lettuce, onions, and pickles?)
  • A food substance or additive is derived from non-edible or unpleasant sources. For example, shellac (used to make candies or pharmaceuticals shiny) comes from bugs, and the musk glands of beavers have been used as a source for natural vanilla flavouring. (Here, at least, we have a somewhat legitimate concern: if you are squeamish about eating insect secretions or beaver butts, you would be wise to read the label. However, keep in mind that the source of something does not necessarily determine how safe it is to eat.)
  • This food is, or contains, a genetically modified organism (GMO). (Never mind that a comprehensive study of 100 billion animals has found no issues with a diet of genetically engineered feed.)

These fallacious arguments are often accompanied with (and made palatable by) attractive-looking graphics. I've wanted to try my hand at building infographics for some time—so, I thought, why shouldn't I get in on the scaremongering game? Behold the infographic that will completely change your life! You'll be shocked at what you put in your body over 20,000 times per day.

[The Air That You Breathe: And Why You Shouldn't Breathe It]

The worst thing about air, however, is this: It isn't even organic or vegan.