Don't be fooled by food fads 

Staying away from the miracles we want to ingest

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Get your best practical jokes scripted, for April Fools' Day is on its way. The old salt-in-the-sugar-bowl routine is always a good one, and hidden plastic wrap fitted across the opening of your friend's water bottle usually gets at least a smile.

But one department none of us are ever too happy about getting fooled over are dietary fads that simply don't add up.

I'm not talking about style trends here — though they do kind of qualify in at least one regard: it's good to be aware of what constitutes novelty in any consumer situation, food or otherwise, so you can assess whether you're just getting sucked in because it's new, or if it really has value for you.

But here's a story that sheds light on both angles.

If you listen to the March 14 podcast of This American Life (heard on public broadcasters NPR in the U.S. and CBC in Canada), a segment by John Gravois describes the "hostess with the toastess".

Giulietta Carrelli, founder and owner of Trouble Coffee & Coconut Club, is the "hostess with the toastess" who's credited with pretty much starting trendy San Franciscans on their latest food trend.

Artisanal toast has taken the city by storm. For $4 USD you, too, can enjoy a slice of one-inch thick home-style bread carefully baked, sliced, toasted and topped at one of San Francisco's hipster restos, say, The Mill or Red Door. It usually comes graced with things like handmade marmalade or special nut butter.

While The Mill and Red Door can sell hundreds of slices of $4 toast in one day, people credit Giulietta with starting it all at Trouble, a teeny café on Judah Street on the west side of the city.

Trouble is especially known for their delicious signature cinnamon toast. And in keeping with their compact space and philosophy of simplicity, the only other things on the menu are coffee, fresh young coconuts and shots of fresh grapefruit juice. (The latter are called a Yoko for Yoko Ono's famous Grapefruit, a compact yellow-covered book of drawings and instructions like, "Burn this book after you've read it," which garnered this quote from John Lennon: "This is the greatest book I've ever burned.")

Giullietta has had schizoaffective disorder for years. She opened Trouble after she finally got diagnosed and started getting a handle on things with friends who helped her get through the "trouble".

Cinnamon toast was the one big comfort food she'd enjoyed at home in Cleveland. It's also a big comfort to us all, something, she reasoned, no one could complain about.

The coconuts are on the menu because somewhere she learned you could survive on them as long as you supplement them with vitamin C, ergo the grapefruit juice. Guilietta's schizoaffective disorder presented with some food-related issues, including the fact she couldn't stand the sound of her own chewing, so she did just that, she says, essentially living on coconuts and grapefruit juice for three years.

But let's deconstruct this for a minute.

First, we have people pouncing on what started as an authentic gesture and a good idea — the comfort of toast — and making it trendy.

You could say Starbucks did the same thing. They opened their first small location in 1977 in Seattle with another basic comfort anteed up that went trendy — good coffee.

Artisanal toast might buck the odds and stick, too, like Starbucks has, but for now it's still wedged in the slot of novelty.

As for the other items on Trouble's menu, despite Guilietta's testimony to the contrary, no one, including the people behind the podcast, recommends you try to live on coconuts, even with vitamin C back up. Which circles us back to dietary trends and the foolery that can be embedded therein.

Yes, vitamin C is not just good for you, it's vital for your body to function properly but scientists have long since debunked the idea that huge amounts of vitamin C will ward off everything from colds to supposedly harmful free radicals. You'd have to eat so much to possibly do any good it would floor you and likely harm you. For instance, too much C helps grow the kind of kidney stones I, and millions of others, suffer from.

Antioxidants are a whole other complex story. But for now let's just say there is no scientific evidence even vitamin E will ward off the free radicals that the antioxidants are aimed at, either. In fact, scientists know free radicals also benefit our bodies, so why ingest extra supposed antioxidants?

Then there are those ubiquitous coconuts that have been kicking around as miracle food for years. Delicious, yes, but miraculous? No. Everybody from Lance Armstrong — ugh — to my best friend touted coconuts and their many forms as be-alls and end-alls, doing everything from eating away your fat to dissolving those dreaded kidney stones.

Digital "docs" urge us to eat krill oil to prevent blood clots — I shudder to think what this is doing to our oceanic food chains — or drink up apple cider vinegar to dissolve the fat the coconut oil didn't.

I love how wisely Christine LeGrand, a health scientist with the Heart and Stroke Foundation's health policy department, answered my questions around Valentine's Day when I asked if there was one thing we should eat to protect ourselves from strokes and heart disease.

"It's your diet every day that matters. It's not a single food that is going to protect you," she said.

Duane Mellor, a spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association echoed this in a recent Guardian article. "Whether it's coconut oil, chia seeds or apple cider vinegar, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that if you top up your diet with any 'miracle' or special food that you'll get any of the promised effects. The idea is almost entirely a marketing vehicle..."

Which circles us back to what we humans are suckers for — novelty, novelty, novelty.

As any good scientist doctor or nutritionist will tell you, foods, even those with excellent nutritional value, do their most good when eaten in moderation with a balance of other nutritional things.

So no fooling yourself now or any time of the year in the food department. You don't want to catch yourself falling for the equivalent of a whoopee cushion or hand buzzer when it comes to good, healthy eating.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who's been fooled by more than one practical jokester.

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