Aug 04 2017

Lectin – The New Food Bogeyman

red-kidney-beans-on-a-wooden-tableDo you want to get rich on the internet? Here is a simple formula. First, purge yourself of any ethics or scruples you may have. Suppress any urge for intellectual honesty.

Next, pretend you are an expert. Actual expertise is not necessary. In fact, you don’t even need a basic 5th grade level of knowledge. There are titles you can grant yourself to easily accomplish this step: life coach, nutritionist, health ranger, food chick, whatever.

Now you are almost there. All you have to do is create a demand for some useless snake oil that you can sell online for a ridiculous markup. At this point you might be thinking – why would anyone buy my useless snake oil? It’s actually a lot easier than you think, and marketers have been using some version of this strategy since the barter system was invented. In a word – fear.

Just make your marks (I mean customers) afraid of something and then sell them the solution. It’s easier than you might think, everything you need is already on the internet. Recently John Oliver showed how Alex Jones uses crazy conspiracy theories to stoke fear and rage in his audience then sell them water filters and supplements as a solution. He is also selling a conspiracy culture and convinces his gullible audience that they need to support him so that he can get the truth out there. Jones can even admit it’s all an act and it doesn’t matter, because he successfully created an environment in which facts and truth are whatever he says they are – a marketer’s dream.

There are also many pre-made narratives you can simply assume in order to sell your useless crap. Just find some fearmongering bandwagon to jump on. Food fears are probably going to be your best bet, especially for a beginner.

Existing health gurus have already prepared the way for you. In their marketing narrative all foods are either horrible toxins or superfoods with magical properties. All you have to do is write an article claiming that some food is making everyone sick, then sell them the solution. This can then be a superfood, a cookbook that tells them how to avoid the toxic food, or some special supplement that will counteract the toxic effects of the evil food that’s making them sick. (They don’t even have to be sick – just tell them it’s making them overweight, lose energy, and have aches and pains. Also, be sure to add that they need to do this for optimum health, that way you will capture everyone.)

Take Lectin, for example.

You have probably already heard about gluten. That was a real coup – health gurus were able to convince vast amounts of people they have gluten sensitivity. Here’s the beauty, this forced scientists to study the question, given it a real sciencey name – non-celiac gluten sensitivity (or NCGS – people love saying they have an illness which is a string of letters). Even better, science is always messy, which means there will be actual published studies you can cite and claim it supports your fearmongering, even when it doesn’t.

You can even make entire categories of food into the bogeyman – carbohydrates, dairy, grains, whatever.

Here is the other convenient bit – everything is a toxin, it all depends upon dose. Just about everything we eat has some toxic potential. All plants make toxins to protect themselves, so you can find toxins everywhere. Most food we eat also has nutritional content, and nutrients are necessary for everything the body does. Therefore you can turn anything into a toxic food by focusing on the potential toxic effects of eating way more of a specific food substance than anyone will ever eat. You can also turn anything into a superfood simply by pointing out how their nutrients are used by the body.

There are many toxins and superfoods you can use, but if you are just getting started you may want to pick an up-and-comer. Lectins, for example, are the latest food bogeyman. Actually, it was a coin flip – gurus could have just as easily promoted lectins as a superfood, but food bogeyman is winning out early so that is the horse to bet on.

Lectins are a class of plant proteins that bind to glucose. They are generally used to stick cells and other things together. They are common in grains and beans. In reality, different lectins have different toxic potential, but that is a complexity you don’t have to get into. Just treat all lectins as if they are the same, it’s easier. Some lectins in high doses can cause gastric problems such as nausea and diarrhea. That’s science – and that much detail is all you need to scare people.

Also add that it simultaneously causes inflammation and suppresses the immune system. Don’t worry, your customers won’t notice the contradiction. Always add the bit about inflammation, because everything seems to activate the immune system in some way. That’s pretty much what the immune system does – react to stuff. You can then claim because some marker of immune activity was shown to increase in the presence of massive amounts of purified lectins in a petri dish, lectins call all disease. Seriously – this will work.

Don’t worry about critics who will point out that cooking destroys almost all lectins in food (you know, because proteins break down with heat). Just ignore this fact. If you tell people that raw kidney beans are high in lectins, that is true. If people ate a lot of raw kidney beans that would likely make them sick. Just don’t mention that actually cooking the beans, which is necessary to eat them, destroys almost all the lectin.

Lectins are also “antinutrients” because they can decrease the absorption of some vitamins and other nutrients. That is also a good tip to keep in mind – liberal use of the “anti” or “pro” prefix. (antioxidant, probiotics, etc.) It is a easy way to signal that something is good or bad – very binary, which is the essence of the narrative you are selling.

You may worry that there is no actual evidence that lectins as consumed in a regular diet are harmful and your snake oil solutions are worthless, but don’t. It takes 10-20 years for the science to work itself out. In the meantime there will be mostly basic science and animal studies. These are a goldmine for the health guru selling snake oil, because these preclinical studies will show all sorts of things. Scientists like to see what happens when you give massive doses to cells or to animals, just as a proof of concept. That’s great, because bad stuff is almost guaranteed to happen, and you can exploit that to promote your fearmongering. You may even want to take a picture of yourself in a white coat as you discuss the latest animal study to reinforce your fake expertise.

It will be 20 years before definitive clinical studies prove that everything you are claiming and selling is bogus nonsense. By then there will already be a thriving market for your snake oil, and the fear you helped create will be deeply embedded in the culture. The science will come too late. If the market starts to wane, however, because people don’t actually benefit from the crap you are selling them, there is sure to be another food fad waiting to take off. There are endless substances to either promote or fearmonger. Also, in a generation, when everyone has forgotten what happened, you can recycle the old food fears or superfoods. It’s an endless cycle, and you will never run out of material.

And again, don’t worry about scientists or skeptics who will point out that everything you are selling is unscientific nonsense. Just call them shills for big-something and your target audience will eat it up. Make some vague reference to a conspiracy if necessary. Remember, the actual science doesn’t matter. You are selling an attractive narrative, and people will buy it.



11 responses so far

11 thoughts on “Lectin – The New Food Bogeyman”

  1. JScarry says:

    Steven, can you recommend an all natural supplement to purge myself of any ethics or scruples I may have. I heard that cranberry juice will do it. But not the kind you get at the grocery store, only the concentrated kind found on the intertubes.

  2. DGA says:

    In this sentence “You may worry that there is no actual evidence that lectins as consumed in a regular diet are harmless and your snake oil solutions are worthless, but don’t.” did you mean “harmful”?

  3. DisplayGeek says:

    About four decades ago, I learned the hard way about how lectins from improperly cooked beans can be a problem when I earned myself a visit to the ER. No need to go into details, as the symptoms are very well documented elsewhere. Since then, I’ve fastidiously cooked everything with those lectins very, very thoroughly!

    Although this recent attention to lectins is clearly overblown, especially given the well understood means of working around it, I do however wonder about the possibility of lectins being involved in some cases of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Again, not to be too descriptive, but I was diagnosed with IBS several decades ago and was advised to keep a food diary and note if I was sensitive to certain foods, etc. I found that I was… and that they were to some raw curcubits and solanum fruits… but not to fully cooked (and I do mean *thoroughly cooked*). This was a serious blow, since I had been brought up loving cajun cooking including blackened crooked neck squash. Ah… but the dose makes the poison… so a few bites won’t hurt… much.

    Later (and long before this fad began) I wondered what these foods all had in common: a particular lectin. It made sense, as I had already suspected that a protein was involved… one that could be denatured by cooking.

    OK, this is not science, since it is a study of N=1. But as an hypothesis, perhaps medical researchers interested in IBS could test various lectins on patients, fully double blinded, using gelatin capsules of lectins (one at a time) vs. placebo (or should that be labeled as “nocebo”?)

    This type of research may put an end to the BS about lectins? Not likely… after all, we know about celiacs and gluten… and that hasn’t stopped the BS about gluten…. sigh…

  4. Heptron says:

    Semi-serious question:

    If we created a supplement for a fake disease or to combat some sort of ailment that doesn’t exist, then if we made a pile of money from it, then we donated a portion of that money pile to the SGU… Would you be okay with that? πŸ™‚

  5. tb29607 says:

    My personal favorites are the “snake oils” which “boost the immune system”. How a more active immune system increases energy or wellness is never explained or examined. The general public lacks the twin concepts that the immune system only stops bad things from killing you and feeling sick is the result of an activated (or “boosted”) immune system doing its job.
    Just ask someone with Lupus or Multiple Sclerosis how great an over active immune system is.

  6. BillyJoe7 says:


    (I can’t decapitalise you on my iPad)

    Or SN’s point about scam artists wanting to boost your immune system, which implies increasing the inflammatory response, while at the same time wanting to decrease inflammation.

  7. RyeReads says:

    The supplement industry to plagued with this type of marketing because of its lack of regulation, so much of it is fear-mongering snake oil its hard to trust whats out there. A lot of it is masked in pseudo scientific jargon meant to confuse its audience knowing the reader isn’t going to really fact check their source but instead look for the solution to whatever problem the company is suggesting–which is conveniently being sold on the bottom of their page. . .

    I loved the point about the inflammation while also suppressing the immune system made me chuckle haha

  8. w3woody says:

    My wife (an RD) once theorized that you could create a great diet program for people by placing about 30 or 40 classes of foods on a roulette wheel, and spin the wheel five times. Every food that shows up on the wheel, you then tell the client he has a food allergy to those foods, and he needs to make sure he avoids those foods.

    Inevitably people will feel better–not because they’re avoiding those foods, but because they are now eating mindfully. (That is, they are now paying attention to what they eat, spending time to shop for foods that lack those ingredients, and probably spend more time cooking for themselves.)

    Which will then convince them they have those food allergies.

    It’s the only way to explain the friend of mine who explained how avoiding gluten made him feel so much better–as he sipped beer.

  9. aegimius says:

    Love this post, Steve! There’s another option available to the ambitious charlatan who wants to get rich selling useless supplements that you left out: Multi-level marketing.

    By marketing this anti-lectin supplement as both a health-promoting product and a lucrative business opportunity, they could attract a lot more marks. Just think of all the gaudy fake-it-till-you-make-it “permanent vacation” video testimonials from members(who you call “independent business owners”) of the scheme and using social media to maximize recruitment. Pesky skeptics can be dismissed as lazy, closed-minded, jealous haters who were brainwashed by society into having a “J.O.B”. Encourage members to get these doubters out of their life.

    All they would have to do is follow the example of HerbaLife or Juice Plus. Be sure to include lots of mindset training to destroy all doubts or questions members may have about the company and its products and also hold regular pep rallies to boost enthusiasm. Pretend your motives are purely philanthropic and that the money you make is really just icing on the cake to you. You’re ultimately doing this to change people’s lives and to help them live beyond their wildest dreams! Of course, members are required to make regular purchases of the product in order to remain part of the scheme. There should be different tiers that are based on how successful a member is at sales/recruitment. If your scheme starts getting a lot of bad press or the government starts an investigation, claim a Big Pharma conspiracy is out to destroy you. This tactic could get you a lot of support from the alternative medicine community.

    There’s a lot more that goes into running a pyramid scheme, this is just a broad outline.

  10. Average Joe says:

    I’m gonna book mark this post. If I ever get fed up with my job, I now have a back up career. But seriously, I’ve had this thought before. Suppressing ethics and intellectual honesty will be an issue for sure but coupled with ‘laziness’ or lack of motivation, I just can’t be bothered. But if I ever sell out, I’ll sell it under the label Dr. Steno’s as a nod for the inspiration.

  11. marxsowa says:

    One of the best blog entries I have ever read πŸ™‚ This is what I consider to be one of the best ways to make people realize how they are being tricked – and since no one likes to be tricked, people reading it may actually start being more suspicious of food scares and fads.

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