Food Fears Part One

Fashionable food fears – part one

Ivo VegterFrom butter to sweeteners, carbohydrates to fat, and microwaves to factories, food fears surround us daily. Everyone has an opinion about what is good for you and what is bad for you, and most of those opinions are wrong, writes Ivo Vegter of Daily Maverick, one of SA’s best myth-busting journalists.

Other than sex, there’s nothing we’re more neurotic about than food. It is perfectly understandable that we worry about what we eat.

“Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse,” as the saying goes, loses a lot of its rebel thrill once you’re no longer young, or have young ones of your own to care for.

Everyone would like to be healthier, stronger, and feel younger. Everyone wants simple, easy-to-remember solutions to their dietary or medical concerns. Entire business empires are built on allaying fears of sickness, under-performance or death. And many of those are based on little more than sensationalism and lies.

Is there anything that takes the pleasure out of life faster than having to worry that your next meal is sodium-free, preservative-free, gluten-free, lactose-free, baked or grilled instead of fried, unprocessed, organic, raw, whole, low-GI, sugar-free, fat-free, low-carb and grass-fed?

Most of these simplistic labels are based on exaggerations or over-generalisations. It takes only one study, put in a nutshell for the masses by lurid tabloids, to start a food myth. Folklore passed down by oral tradition is venerated for its wisdom, despite the fact that old wives’ tales are derided as such for a reason. Purveyors of vitamin supplements, diets, and superfoods regale us with carefully-crafted marketing spiels, which are uncritically accepted and passed on to friends over lunch.

Once a myth takes hold in the public imagination, it is almost impossible to dislodge. Don’t cook with salt. Eggs are bad for you. Use margarine instead of butter (no, wait, the other way around). High-fructose corn syrup is worse than sugar, and honey is better. Artificial sweeteners cause cancer. Irradiated food is bad for you. Avoiding pesticide residue is a good reason to buy organic. Nutrition is a good reason to buy organic. Frozen food is not as good for you as fresh fruit and vegetables. Canned food is worse. And don’t even start with preservatives. Using a microwave will nuke you, your food, or both. Use a plastic cutting board instead of wood. Low-fat food is good for you. Low-carb food is good for you. Raw foods preserve enzymes and are better than cooked foods. Detoxing is good for you.

All of these notions are exaggerated or false. In this, the first of a short series, we’ll look at these fears.

Salt has long been accused of causing hypertension (high blood pressure) in some (but not all) people. Hypertension, in turn, is a risk factor in heart disease. The panic about salt led to official government warnings and shelves full of fashionably low-sodium products.

Although a speculative link between hypertension and salt intake had been established as early as 1904, the modern fear about salt is largely based on the work of a single researcher at Brookhaven National Laboratory, a physician named Lewis Dahl. In 1960, he pumped mice full of salt and discovered that this raised their blood pressure. Sure. Being force-fed large quantities of salt would raise my blood pressure too. I might even punch my feeder. But by 1970, Dahl felt confident enough to declare that processed baby food is rat poison.

The problem is that Dahl’s idea of “chronic salt intake” was a dose 60 times higher than humans actually consume. Subsequent studies within genetically similar populations – to rule out genetic factors in hypertension – have found no relationship between sodium intake and high blood pressure. Note: not a small relationship, or an uncertain relationship, but no relationship……

Daily Maverick: Read the full article