I want to acknowledge a magnificent takedown of a terrible pseudo-scientific article.
Have you seen this BuzzFeed post on your Facebook timeline recently?
“8 Foods We Eat In The US That Are Banned In Other Countries”, written by Ashley Perez summarizes some claims made in “Rich Food, Poor Food”, a book by Dr. Jayson Calton and Mira Calton. It’s intended to give us the ‘real truth’ about the horrible chemicals that we’re ingesting on a daily basis. The problem? It’s complete nonsense to anyone who knows even a little bit about chemistry.
Dr. Derek Lowe, who knows a great deal about chemistry, recently refuted each point in the BuzzFeed article by reviewing actual scientific studies of the relationships between these “banned foods” and the diseases they supposedly caused. He explains how every single claim made by the authors is wrong or misleading . I encourage you to read his entire post, particularly if you saw the BuzzFeed article and were concerned. Here are summaries of Dr. Lowe’s responses to just two of the claims made by the BuzzFeed article:
Another BuzzFeed claim, that the arsenic which “is used in chicken feed to make meat appear pinker and fresher” will kill you was refuted by Allison Aubrey (the author of the article that BuzzFeed cited to make this claim). As she points out:
“Now, the claim that arsenic “will kill you if you ingest enough,” as the article concludes, is true. But as scientists like to point out, the dose makes the poison. So let’s look at the dose here.
Chicken meat (tested in a study done before Roxarsone was pulled from the market) contained about 2.3 ppb — that’s parts per billion — of inorganic arsenic, which is far below the 500 ppb tolerance levels set by the FDA.”
So not only did BuzzFeed (and, one presumes, the authors of the book that BuzzFeed extracted this information from) completely get the most basic chemistry wrong, it also misleads people terribly by not discussing dosage. Ingesting small amounts of a substance is not equivalent to ingesting massive amounts (the dosage that’s generally used for toxicity studies on lab animals). 12 ounces of Mountain Dew a day (the amount in a can), while certainly not good for you, isn’t equivalent to the 135-676 ounces ingested daily* by the people reported in the scientific literature as having BVO-related symptoms.
As someone immersed in a culture of athletes who take their diets very seriously, I completely understand the concerns of people who read this article and were alarmed. Eating the wrong kind of food can seriously impact sport performance, and nobody wants to eat chemicals that might give them cancer. I’m therefore furious at Buzzfeed for posting such misleading pseudoscientific “information,” instead of legitimate facts about food quality and safety issues that people could learn from.
Why would they be so irresponsible?
Dr. Lowe suggests that the motivation behind writing this article reflects a larger phenomenon of scientific misunderstanding**:
“In my experience, people who write things like this have divided the world into two categories: wholesome, natural, healthy stuff and toxic chemical poisons. But this is grievously simple-minded. As I’ve emphasized in passing above, there are plenty of natural substances, made by healthy creatures in beautiful, unpolluted environments, that will nonetheless kill you in agony. Plants, fungi, bacteria, and animals produce poisons, wide varieties of intricate poisons, and they’re not doing it for fun.
And on the other side of the imaginary fence, there are plenty of man-made substances that really won’t do much of anything to people at all. You cannot assume anything about the effects of a chemical compound based on whether it came from a lovely rainforest orchid or out of a crusty Erlenmeyer flask. The world is not set up that way. Here’s a corollary to this: if I isolate a beneficial chemical compound from some natural source (vitamin C from oranges, for example, although sauerkraut would be a good source, too), that molecule is identical to a copy of it I make in my lab. There is no essence, no vital spirit. A compound is what it is, no matter where it came from.”
So keep this in mind and approach claims with skepticism the next time you see supplements advertised as “natural,” or writers decrying something as “non-natural.” It’s just not that simple. Do your own homework and go deeper.
I hope that BuzzFeed and media outlets like it will take seriously the scientific criticism and do some basic research before publishing their next article, rather than mindlessly reproducing the arguments of authors hoping to make money selling supplements. But it seems unlikely. Pandering to the pseudoscience crowd appears to generate more attention and ad money than actually providing information that people can use. And unfortunately, it’s those earnestly health-conscious, well-intentioned readers of these articles who suffer the consequences of misleading information.
*Even when I was going through the dark period known as DISSERTATION WRITING HELL, in which my eating habits were the worst of my life, I couldn’t have imagined consuming that much Mountain Dew. I hope none of you ever do that either.
**Predictably, in response, he spent the weekend being called “a paid shill for Monsanto, DuPont, and all the other evil monied interests” which at least “made a refreshing change from being called a paid shill for Big Pharma.” Because evidently ALL scientists who say things that conflict with people’s worldviews must be selling out to corporate interests.