Why it’s so easy to believe our food is toxic

Nutrition is a wonderful playground for people who want to manipulate fear. We need food to live, yet can be poisoned by eating the wrong things. Learning from others which foods are safe and which are dangerous was essential to our survival in the days before grocery stores. We are primed to react to scares about food.

scaredWe make 200 food-related decisions every day. Food choices are one of the few things we can control as individuals. Believe that the government and big corporations are poisoning you? Just shop a little differently. (Then bond with your friends on facebook about the conspiracies you’ve foiled.)

I teach nutrition at a community college, to students who are interested in the subject but have little to no scientific background. I like to think I’m helping them develop their baloney detectors, but there is a lot of, ahem, baloney out there. I even presented some in class: they voted to watch Hungry For Changeand I said fine—but we’ll unpack it and, literally, do our homework on the “experts” featured.

Because, as this review clued me in, the film is a bait-and-switch: it draws in the viewer with a lengthy lament on how unhealthy the western diet is, then turns into an infomercial for juicing. One of the experts is introduced as a filmmaker, but oh by the way he sells juice extractors. Another is the Dr. Oz-endorsed author of books about juice-based “cleansing.” (He believes that the problem with “toxins” is that they cause our bodies to produce a spiritual mucus that makes us sluggish.) Not everyone is juice-centric: some are selling other things, like weight-loss meditation CDs.

The movie even gives a specific warning in its first half: beware anybody selling you food that’s supposed to be healthy, because they don’t make money from your health. They make money by making the product attractive enough that you buy it.

Ironically, this describes the tactics used by the peddlers in Hungry for Change. It’s true of the people behind Mercola and Natural News (both of whom were featured in the movie, and both of whom hard-sell conspiracy theories about food and medicine right next to dubious products like earthing mats.) And it’s true of my favorite purveyor of facebook-borne rumors, the Food Babe.

She sells meal plans and endorses superfood supplements, but positions herself as an “investigator” of the dangers in foods. The tactic, it seems, is to make people feel that the world is so full of dangerous foods that they better pay for her meal plans that specify what she believes is safe to eat.

But behind the unified front (all processed food is dangerous!) lies a tangled web of factoids. Some are clearly not true, like her claims about GMOs (for a good read on which GMO claims are myths and which are real, I highly recommendGrist’s series.) Others are true, but only scary if you don’t think about them too much – like when she makes a big deal about “wood pulp” in your food. When you extract cellulose from anything, wood or otherwise, what you get is not chunks of trees in your food, but simply cellulose itself, better known as one type of dietary fiber, the stuff that veggies and whole grains are full of.

Maureen Ogle sent the Food Babe’s list of “shocking” beer ingredients to several actual brewers. MSG? Nope. Fish swim bladders? Sort of, yeah, but they don’t actually make it into the finished beer. Corn syrup? Possibly, but most of it would be food for the yeast, so that means it’s turned into alcohol by the time you drink it.

Alcohol, by the way, is an actual toxin.

All this misinformation is a version of the Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt tactic that’s been recognized as a marketing tool in other contexts. It operates on a guilt-by-association model: if bread contains a chemical that’s also used in yoga mats, you claim that yoga mats are in our food. Nevermind that TUMS contain the same chemical used in gravestones; that’s a great example from Joe Schwarcz’s critique of the Food Babe.

GMOCountering this misinformation is, I think, an important but overlooked target for public health. Education helps: many of the misconceptions about GMOs can be overcome once you actually understand what genetic modification is—although it’s a tricky subject. I survey my students about GMOs, and most are usually suspicious of it. When I ask what’s wrong with GMOs, they respond with some serious, legitimate concerns: pesticide residues, Monsanto’s control over farmers, environmental effects of fertilizer runoff. The only problem with these concerns? They aren’t really about GMOs. Once they learn what GMOs can and can’t do, and how the other problems in modern agriculture would exist with or without GMOs, they’re better equipped to form opinions that, whether I agree or not, are based on something closer to fact.

I’m not often a fan of the deficit model; educating people doesn’t always change their mind. But you can’t spread rumors about Bt toxin in GM corn if you know what Bt toxin is – a bacterial product that has a long history in organic farmingand is naturally abundant in soil. (If you boycott GMOs because of it, you have to boycott organic food too.) Ask critics what bothers them about the toxin, and they’ll start talking about RoundUp, a chemical herbicide that’s involved with a completely different GMO crop. (There’s a good explanation of these two GMOs here.)

So how can we baloney-proof people who are honestly trying to find the best information about how to be safe and healthy? I’ll keep teaching and writing about the real science behind what’s in our food, but in the meantime, maybe this message will appeal: when you hear somebody trying to scare you about food, ask what they’re selling. If you distrust Big Ag and Big Pharma, you won’t find any better treatment from Big Juice.
The Why it’s so easy to believe our food is toxic by Beth Skwarecki of Public Health, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.


Beth Skwarecki is a science writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. Contact her at twitter: @BethSkw, her linkedin page , or at [email protected]


Image credits:
Ah, che barbaro appetito! (Fine family dining) #1 by Socar Myles
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