Should We Be Afraid of Our Food?

It appears that the media, the food industry, and even groups that supposedly serve the public interest have been working to make Americans afraid of our food for decades. Unfortunately, Americans are too easily influenced by scare tactics. It has a high cost in both money and health.

Should we be afraid of restaurants?

Restaurant kitchen

Restaurant kitchen

Restaurants indeed deserve criticism for loading their meals with much more sugar, fat and salt than anyone would use preparing meals for themselves.

And they deserve criticism for increasing portions sizes over the past few decades to the point that they routinely serve much more than anyone ought to eat at one sitting.

Unfortunately, the misnamed Center for Science in the Public Interest wades into the discussion with shrill rhetoric that makes everything seem unsafe and a health hazard. As soon as any company makes any kind of health claim, the CSPI is sure to mount an attack and paint the company as a money-grubbing enemy of public health.

Some time ago they would regularly malign entire segments of the food industry I distinctly remember a radio interview with one bored-sounding CSPI spokeswoman who explained how one chain was trying to poison its customers. It’s as if she had explained it so many times that surely everyone should have already known. The kicker? She said that at least the salads were healthy. Just don’t let them put avocado on it!

What’s wrong with avocado? It’s reputed to be the only fruit that contains fat. At the time pop nutritionists claimed that eating fat is what makes people fat, and the only healthy diet avoided it as much as possible. So a piece of avocado on a salad renders it unfit to eat! I don’t know if the CSPI follows such fads or invents them, but their shenanigans too often have no point of contact either with science or the public interest.

When I lived in the Chicago area, I could always tell when TV stations were preparing for Nielsen’s sweeps. One station always hauled out a reporter with a sour expression on her face to present results of an undercover investigation of a particular restaurant.

Somehow, the reporter had managed to place a “mole” on the restaurant’s kitchen staff who surreptitiously took videos in the kitchen. Cooks and wait staff always came through with violations of sanitary codes. Perhaps they dropped something and put it on a plate or did a perfunctory job of wiping a surface. There was nearly always some problem with temperatures of food, the refrigerators and freezers, and vermin. The reporter always followed the video with a “gottcha” interview with the restaurant owner.

The station, of course, advertised the segment extensively in the days leading up to the broadcast. The restaurant owner always answered the questions awkwardly, having no advance warning of what the reporter would show or ask. I expect it took some of the restaurants a long time to recover business lost after the broadcast.

Once in a while, some of the lapses on the video seemed like they might be a threat to customers’ health. More often than not, though, they were no different from how perhaps the majority of viewers who cooked at all prepared and served food in their own kitchens. But hey, the station got a boost in ratings for sweeps.

Preparing food at home for yourself is healthier than eating out. Preparing food from fresh produce and meat is healthier (and often no more time consuming) than fixing prepared meals from a box or the freezer section. But we don’t need cynical organizations exaggerating problems with irresponsible rhetoric or “gottcha” tactics making us afraid of restaurants in general.

Should we be afraid of produce in stores?

apples--with pesticides?

Apples–with pesticides?

Some advocates of organic farming try to make people afraid of non-organically grown produce. It has pesticide residues, they say. Organic farmers also use pesticides.

Organic produce has been tested for synthetic pesticides, but not for the natural pesticides organic farmers use.

So is organic produce free from pesticide residue? Probably not. Is ingesting the natural pesticides any healthier than synthetic pesticides? Probably not.

Meanwhile the US Department of Agriculture has compared the average levels of the most commonly found pesticides with the EPA’s exposure limits. These limits are set to be at least 100 times lower than the lowest exposure that causes any noticeable harm to test animals. In order to reach the limit for the most common pesticide found on apples, someone would have to eat 787 of them in one day.

What about genetically modified organisms (GMOs)?

anti-GMO rallyCurrently labels are not required to disclose the presence of GMOs, and a lot of people think they should be.

But not all GMOs are created equal. For all we know, some GMOs might be safe or even beneficial, and others might be potentially harmful.

Prudence dictates finding real scientific evidence before allowing GMOs in the food supply.

Unfortunately it’s not prudence, but craven fear at the root of efforts to ban them altogether.

We might usefully consider the reason for a particular modification. Monsanto, for example, makes Roundup, an herbicide that kills nearly everything it touches. Farmers naturally want to kill weeds but not their crops. I suppose it would be difficult to design an herbicide that can distinguish between a particular crop and whatever might be threatening to crowd it out.

So Monsanto has developed Round-up resistant seeds, giving it two profit streams. Does food from the seeds pose any health risk? As far as I know, science hasn’t come up with an answer. Does the combination of Round-up and Round-up resistant seeds have any benefit to the farmers that buy them? I have to wonder.

On the other hand it might be ecologically superior to encode a highly toxic organic insecticide, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), into the crops’ genome. The plants themselves would kill the insects and not leave residues on the surface. Again, it would be nice to have some scientific studies to determine if that genetic modification would be as healthy as just ingesting residues of Bt.

The scare over BPA in plastic is also premature. On successive days I heard conflicting news reports. One group of scientists had verified that BPA leaches from plastic into food. The next day the same station reported a study by another group who concluded that the human body doesn’t digest it. Confusing, to be sure. There is no scientific proof that the substance is harmful to human health, but the question hasn’t been settled.

Whenever you start hearing or reading multiple news stories about some substance that may be harmful, don’t act on it until you have looked into the science. It’s as easy, really, to find reliable information on the web as misinformation. Plenty of sites explain science in non-technical terms that the average person can understand. Unfortunately, sorting information from misinformation takes more mental effort than many people seem willing to expend.

Should we be afraid of certain foods entirely?

Gluten free aislePeople with celiac disease have a nasty and potentially life-threatening reaction to gluten Their immune system attacks their intestines.

They make up about 1% of the population. A somewhat smaller portion of the population has a non-celiac gluten intolerance.

In other words, the number of people living in the US who must avoid gluten for health reasons runs in the hundreds of thousands.

A gluten-free diet has become one of the latest food fads. About 33% of American adults, or nearly 100 million people, have developed an interest in avoiding gluten. Supermarkets fill shelves with gluten-free products. Restaurants offer gluten-free options on their menus. They are more expensive than their regular counterparts, and less tasty.

A lot of people on a gluten-free diet claim that it increases their energy or helps them reduce weight. It probably doesn’t. Becoming more conscientious about diet and healthy eating will lead to increased energy and weight loss with or without shunning gluten. In fact, a gluten-free diet poses some risk of malnutrition for people who don’t need it.

Other people have life-threatening allergies to other foods, such as peanuts, eggs, or shellfish. As with gluten, many people decide to shun these foods who don’t need to. Enough people want to avoid certain foods that the food industry has started to tout the ingredients a food doesn’t have on the labels.

Why do so many people avoid so many foods that pose no health risk? At least part of the reason is some people’s suspicion that if a food is bad for some people it must be bad for everyone.

We should all choose our foods wisely. It’s more important to make sure that our diets contain enough of certain nutrients than to avoid certain foods. An excess of anything is bad for us. An excess of caution and deciding what or what not to eat on the basis of fear is bad for us.

Let’s make choices based on knowledge and reason, not on politically or economically motivated rhetoric and claims. And certainly not on the basis of fear.

9 Things You Should Know before Going Gluten-Free / Sarah Klein (Celiac Disease Foundation, February 12, 2014).

Photo credits:
Restaurant kitchen. Restaurant kitchen. Some rights reserved by SMcGarnigle.
Apples. Pixabay.
Say no to GMO Photo by Khalid Aziz. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Gluten free aisle. Some rights reserved by Memphis CVB.

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