Never trust a babe 

Science trumps sensation when it comes to food Qs

click to enlarge WIKIPEDIA - TOXIN TRACKER: A Kipp’s apparatus, invented by the Dutch pharmacist Petrus Jacobus Kipp about 1844, was used in the past to detect toxic metals added to food.
  • Wikipedia
  • TOXIN TRACKER: A Kipp’s apparatus, invented by the Dutch pharmacist Petrus Jacobus Kipp about 1844, was used in the past to detect toxic metals added to food.

He lauds the set of Encyclopedia Britannica his parents gave him when he graduated from university.

I still have mine and sometimes even use it for classic information that never ages to write this food column.

His is... well, we're not sure exactly what happened to it, but once he recognized how much shelf space it was taking up and how little he used it the past 20 years he tried to give it away. No one wanted it. As he explains, he hasn't needed an encyclopedia for ages because from the comfort of his own office he can access all the accurate, published, scientific information on any topics he wants using the marvel called the world wide web.

So why doesn't everyone do that? I wonder.

Dr. Joseph Schwarcz, who contemplates the fate of his encyclopedia in his latest book, Monkeys, Myths and Molecules, runs the Office for Science and Society at McGill University. More popularly known as Dr. Joe by his students and legions of fans, he's gained quite a reputation over the years teaching, hosting radio and TV shows, and publishing bestsellers.

It's all aimed at debunking pseudoscience and making real science — evidence-based science, especially chemistry — accessible to everyone and anyone who might be interested, and even a few who thought they weren't. He's so good at what he does, fellow Montrealer and science buff, Lorne Trottier, gave the university $5.5 million to fund Dr. Joe's office to educate the public about quackery and "battle against charlatans."

Sub-titled "Separating fact from fiction, and the science of everyday life", Monkeys, Myths and Molecules reminds me we seldom hear those two words: "quackery" from the Dutch quacken, "to prattle," and "charlatan" from the Italian ciarlane, "to babble." But, don't kid yourself — they're around! And Dr. Joe is the man to root them out.

A good third of his latest book is focused on something that obsesses more and more people every day — what we eat and drink. Should I eat carbs? Or not? Is fat bad? What can I eat to be smarter? Will X cure cancer? Make my child autistic? Does Y give me a mustache? Make me live longer? Is sugar / wheat / this additive really bad? The list goes on and on...

Dr. Joe walks us through issues like these and more with his scientist's lens on.

For one, it was exciting to learn that anthocyanins, compounds that give plants a purple colour, really are good for us. In one case, they were shown to reduce the risk of heart attack in the Nurses Health Study in which 93,000 nurses participated over 18 years.

Most of the anthocyanin effect in the study could be tracked to eating berries, on average, at least three times a week. Your best bets are blueberries, black raspberries, and chokeberries or elderberries. (Note, these are the dark elderberries common in the U.K., not the red elderberries we see in B.C.'s wilderness.) But even take this news with a grain of salt, cautions Dr. Joe, for plants and anthocyanins are complex. It could be some other effect involved.

I also loved his description of a Kipp's apparatus and its historic use in detecting toxic metals once used to adulterate food. Lead oxide was added to Gloucester cheese to give it a red hue. Lead chromate made mustard look yellower; copper sulfate was added to make pickles nice and green; and copper arsenite, also called Scheele's Green, was used to make candies look more appealing. You don't want to eat any of them!

You can also explore Dr. Joe's take on the chemical bisphenol A (BPA), a headline grabber even I wrote about in this food column. It's added to plastic bottles and epoxy resins lining most commercially tinned food. In this case, Dr. Joe isn't so sure where there's smoke there's fire.

But back to charlatans and quackery. This is where Dr. Joe really rolls up his sleeves, applying his scientific background and droll wit to take aim at the heaps of misinformation about everyday life filling our pop culture airwaves.

Early in his essay "Fruits of the Internet," where that encyclopedia anecdote comes from, he says, "I always know what Dr. Mehmet Oz (you know, the Dr. Oz of TV and Oprah fame) has been up to because my email inbox boils over with questions about his latest antics."

One of these was monk fruit. Then there were Oz's claims about red palm oil. No, it's not a miracle food, but it is a miracle so many people fall for Dr. Oz's misinformation. As Dr. Joe puts it: "As is usually the case with Oz's miracles, there is a seed of truth that gets fertilized with lots of verbal manure..." until it bears fruit dripping with "unsubstantiated hype."

The other hype-dripping fruit he goes after comes from Vani Hari, better known as the Food Babe.

A former financial consultant with no background in chemistry, toxicology or food science, Hari was once so unhealthy she landed in hospital. She says she was living on candy, soda, and fast and processed foods, Ten years later, she's gotten herself on track, at least diet-wise and, along the way becoming one of Time's 30 most influential people on the internet.

In her post on "the shocking ingredients in beer" we get an idea of her concerns. "..Which brands are trying to slowly poison us with cheap and harmful ingredients?" she wonders. Which indeed?

Food Babe may have good intentions and be big on influence, but she's bad on logic. (And attitude: she deletes any comments challenging her views and bans the poster from the site!)

As one of many academics and scientists who challenge her (another, science writer Kavin Senapathy, says she exploits the scientific ignorance of her followers), Dr. Joe devotes an entire essay to her fear-mongering and bad science. Called "Stop Babying the Food Babe," he deconstructs some of her false claims, like worrying people needlessly about calcium carbonate and insisting Subway remove azodicarbonamide from its bread because it's also used to make yoga mats.

"I don't object to the chemical being eliminated," he writes. "...What I do object to, is scare tactics based on meaningless associations and 'science by petition' instead of science by evidence...."


So if you're looking for a good — and logical — summer read, try Dr. Joe. After all, the best weapon against bad science is education.

In the meantime, if there's one scientific fact to keep in mind at the kitchen table, this is it: The growing body of evidence is that the optimal diet is mostly plant-based.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who says bring on the real science.


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