I Watched a Documentary…That Stuff is One Molecule Away from…

This had been a pet peeve of mine for a long time.  “Margarine is one molecule away from being plastic!”  Back in the “old” days you got an inbox full of these things, but thanks to social media and blogs, nowadays it is easier than ever to spread myths, half-truths, and outright propaganda about everything, including food.

 

One thing about Trim Healthy Mama that made it so attractive to me is Serene and Pearl’s very down-to-earth way of tackling food and ingredient myths and facts without hype and extremism.  However, because the THM way of eating is very flexible, there is a very broad spectrum of mamas—from, what Serene and Pearl refer to as, Drive-Thru Sues to Purists.  And, if you follow THM Facebook groups and other forums, you quickly encounter very strong opinions on everything food and nutrition.

 

Four statements I see regularly that make me cringe are:

 

1. <some food product> is one molecule away from <some horrible poison>

or a variation on this such as:

<some food product> is chemically similar to <some horrible poison>

<some food product> is used in making <some inedible/toxic product>

2. It’s natural, so it’s safe

3. If you can’t read all the ingredients on the package, don’t eat it.

4. Do your own research

Let me start by saying, many times I actually agree with the underlying conclusion—i.e. that one should eat foods as close to their natural state as possible or that a natural sweetener is better than an artificial one. My beef (no pun intended) with these statements is that they are not logically sound (yes, Data is my favorite StarTrek character) and make healthy eaters appear to be fanatic cult members.

 

Chemical Similarity is Irrelevant

Using the logic that something is chemically similar to known poisons is not proof that it is bad or even relevant at all. Water and hydrogen peroxide are chemically similar (H2O vs. HO). One I will drink and require to live. The other, not a good idea to drink in large quantities. One molecule, or even one atom, difference can mean a lot in terms of safety. The oxygen we need to live is a molecule containing two oxygen atoms. Ozone, on the other hand, is a molecule containing three oxygen atoms and is dangerous to breathe. So, even if margarine is one molecule away from plastic, that isn’t a valid argument that it is bad for you. A more compelling argument that you should avoid margarine is that it often contains high amounts of trans fat, which will lower high density lipoproteins (HDL) or “good” cholesterol and that results in higher low density lipoproteins (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol, and this may increase your risk for heart disease.

 

The “Natural = Safe” Fallacy

The justifications of “it’s natural” and “it’s plant based” for foods or supplements being safe is not legitimate either. There are many things that are natural or plant-based that are not safe: tomato leaves, rhubarb leaves, opium, hemlock. oleander, some varieties of mushrooms, poison ivy, just to name a few. The phrase “too much of a good thing” exists for a reason. Nothing is completely safe and too much of anything can be harmful. So, let’s see the “natural” label and its cousins for what they are, marketing hype.

 

Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious

Another popular mantra in the healthy eating world is to refuse to consume anything that contains ingredients that you can’t pronounce. And, on the surface, this is great advice. Eating whole foods—foods that have been minimally processed—is wise. However, once you think about this a little, a small problem develops. Everything has multiple names or labels. Sodium chloride = table salt. Sodium bicarbonate = baking soda. Aspartame = Equal. Sucralose = Splenda. Dihydrogen monoxide. Sounds scary, right? You know it by another name, water. Things can be renamed according to their chemical makeup. Plants and animals are often referred to using Latin-based binomial nomenclature, turning a lemon into Citrus × limon. Just because a name for something is not readily pronounceable doesn’t mean it is “bad” for you. Just because you can pronounce something doesn’t mean it’s “good” for you. I can pronounce antifreeze, but if I see it on the label of a food, I’m not going to eat it.

 

Googling is Not Research

What seems to be the final defense of many people touting sensational food claims is “do your own research.” This is often used when opposing view points are questioning the hype rather than just jumping on the bandwagon. They’ll tell their challengers to “do your own research” as a polite way of saying “la la la, can’t hear you!” because they don’t want to even entertain the possibility they have fallen for a myth or propaganda. People say they have “done their own research” when what they have done is googled the topic, read a few blogs on it, watched a “documentary”, and decided to believe the ones that agree with the preconceived notion that led them to google the topic to begin with. That is not research. It is a form of confirmation bias and is nothing more than finding internet information (often in the form of propaganda and myths) to support what one already believes is true. Research is reading the actual scientific studies themselves, not what others say about the study. Because for every article that says something is okay, there is one saying it will kill you.  And ultimately, the truth is probably somewhere in between.
There are “documentaries” and blogs/websites by “professionals” out there that are pretty convincing that various foods are going to kill us all. Some of them even target currently popular natural things like stevia. There is also a lot of “research” that says these same things are perfectly safe. The “documentaries” and blogs are produced by people and groups that are convinced that anything not grown organically by oneself, or that has been processed at all, is dangerous and the end of civilization. The “research” is often funded by companies with a vested interest in “research” turning out a certain way—making them/their product/their cause look good or making a competitor/opposing cause look bad—or entities (government, universities, etc.) that have been paid by those companies (in the forms of lobby, grants, etc.).
I am at the point where I believe no information any more. Research and statistics can be manipulated. Often, the research merely shows and association between two or more things, but the mass media picks it up and reports it as if a causation has been established. The internet and relatively cheap technology make it possible for anyone to make a “documentary” with a few thousand dollars or launch a website that looks pretty professional. Do research, but also think critically. Don’t just look for the sound bites that agree with what you already believe. You haven’t made an informed opinion unless you’ve seriously looked at all sides of an issue without bias.

 

Food Freedom

Eating in response to the stresses of life and making food choices based on “margarine is one molecule away from plastic” hype are equally forms of food bondage.  One of the main tenants of Trim Healthy Mama is that it offers food freedom through sustainable healthy eating choices. You cannot have food freedom if your food choices are tied to emotions.  Emotional eating is not only tied to things we are dealing with such as death, divorce, job stress, marriage trouble, money trouble, sadness, frustration, and joy.  Another very valid area of emotional eating is making food decisions based on fads, hype, sound bites, and junk science. It is important to weigh statements about food safety and selection with a logical, not an emotional, mind. Evaluating food safety from an emotional point of view allows you to be easily swayed when the next fad or hype headline comes along or easily give up your healthier ways because you don’t really understand or believe the why behind the decision.  Looking at the whole picture of a particular food will allow you to make a reasonable choice about its place in your diet.

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