Apr 18 2014

OMG – The Chemicalz

The Foodbabe is at it again – well, she never stopped being at it. She is apparently trying to make a career out of a combination of the naturalistic fallacy and chemical illiteracy.

I wrote previously about her campaign to scaremonger about completely safe ingredients in food. She called azodicarbonamide, an ingredient to make bread fluffier, the yoga mat chemical because it also has a variety of industrial uses, including making yoga mats. Soy also has a variety of uses, including making yoga mats.

She successfully marshaled her scientific illiteracy to pressure Subway into removing the ingredient from their bread.

Her modus operandi is simple – look at ingredient lists for names that sound like chemicals or are difficult to pronounce, bypass any scientific analysis or evidence and go straight to hyperbolic fearmongering. Then just hope that companies cave in order to avoid negative press before anyone can ask too many questions.

Her twitter feed recently contained this gem:


She calls propylene glycol the “anti-freeze ingredient.” That comment officially makes her the Jenny McCarthy of food.

Propylene glycol does indeed lower the freezing point of water, and you can use it as anti-freeze, which says exactly nothing about its safety as a food ingredient. For the record, the chemical in car anti-freeze is ethylene glycol, which is toxic. Propylene glycol is considered non-toxic and is used as an anti-freeze for water pipes and in food production where ingestion is possible.

A recent review of the toxicological literature for propylene glycol found essentially no risk to human health. The review concluded:

The existing safety evaluations of the FDA, USEPA, NTP and ATSDR for these compounds are consistent and point to the conclusion that the propyleneglycols present a very low risk to human health.

There is no need to quibble with this one – there is simply no evidence of risk to human health from this class of compounds. You would have to consume massive amounts of the chemical, impossible from food, in order to get anywhere near toxic levels.

But never mind all that sciencey-wiencey evidence – the Foodbabe has proclaimed it the anti-freeze chemical and declared it scary.

What about sodium benzoate? This is a food preservative which extends the shelf-life and safety of food. It is actually a metabolite of cinnamon. Not surprisingly, a review of the toxicology literature found that it was safe in the amounts found in food. There is a small risk of skin irritation, and we don’t have safety data for inhaling sodium benzoate, but the levels found in food are orders of magnitude lower than well-established safety limits.

Both of these compounds are considered GRAS by the FDA, or generally regarded as safe. There is simply no reason to worry about these food additives. They are as safe as any chemicals you will find in your food, even food considered to be entirely “natural.”


The naturalistic fallacy, the false and simplistic belief that things that are “natural” are somehow better or safer than substances which are synthetic, is perhaps the most pervasive bit of nonsense in our culture. Nature, in fact, does not care about us and many substances evolved specifically to be toxic or poisonous.

We, however, evolved an emotion of disgust as a heuristic for avoiding potentially contaminated or spoiled food. The point of emotions is to replace the need for careful analysis with an immediate reaction, one that is good enough in most circumstances and is likely to err on the side of false positives.

As a result we like our food to be wholesome and pure, and we have an innate fear of anything strange or unfamiliar. The concept of “natural” is a replacement for the notions of wholesome and pure, and aggressive marketing has encouraged people to think of “all natural” in such terms. It is likewise easy to fearmonger about unfamiliar substances in our food, especially if given by their chemical names, which make them sound synthetic.

We no longer have to rely upon emotions we evolved millions of years ago and which are not well adapted to our technological civilization. We can conduct scientific analysis, measure precise ingredients and amounts and study their effects on biological systems.

The Foodbabe, however, wants to replace careful analysis and evidence with, “Yuk, that sounds weird.” She feels this is a superior process to that used by world organizations that go through the bother of having experts review scientific evidence.

74 responses so far

74 thoughts on “OMG – The Chemicalz”

  1. grabula says:

    I think instead of skeptics bothering to debate creationists anymore, maybe we should be stepping up to publicly debate people like the foodterrorist? I feel like these people would be easy to marginalize after some bad publicity.

  2. Todd W. says:


    I imagine it would be pretty easy. All you’d have to do is find some chemicals that occur naturally in various foods that she touts, talk about them using their scientific names, list all the bad things that can happen when you ingest massive quantities and get her to agree that they should be banned. And then you point out what they really are, thanking her for her call to ban, say, bananas, spinach, broccoli and so on.

  3. carbonUnit says:

    Was the Foodbabe the prime driver behind forcing Subway to remove azodicarbonamide? Or were there other groups/individuals driving the effort? There was a recent article in my local paper about Subway being almost finished removing azodicarbonamide, but it did not make note of the scare campaign that was run against it. I’m contemplating a letter to the editor about this chemophobia. I figure it should include chemical names for what should be considered to be safe food products and also alternative uses for food products such as soy in excercise mats too. Maybe point at http://www.dhmo.org as an example of how benign chemicals can be made to seem terrifying.

  4. ccbowers says:

    “All you’d have to do is find some chemicals that occur naturally in various foods that she touts”

    How about the sodium benzoate that she mentions? This is the sodium salt of benzoic acid, which is found ‘naturally’ in many foods we eat, most notably berries such as raspberries and cranberries (or ‘better yet’ many ‘exotic’ berries).

    But.. of course she touts these berries as superfoods, because ‘natural’ benzoic acid is somehow different? Of course it is not, but why do you need to develop and understanding when you can just have the uninformed gut reaction of disgust due to ignorance?

  5. Squidocto says:

    Reminds me of this ‘ad absurdum’ post from a few years back, regarding *truly* honest ingredient labeling: http://hoorayreality.com/?p=550

  6. Neil says:

    Table salt can also be considered “anti-freeze”

  7. ducktoes says:

    Ho boy. One more thing for me to get into an argument with my family about. Every time something like this comes up and I try to carefully, tactfully debunk it, it comes down to trying to explain why people would be motivated to just make this stuff up and I end up trying and failing in conversation to articulate something like this: Finding a niche on the fringe is a way to turn up the volume on your voice and gain recognition (success) via the receptiveness of people to your ideas; Challenging the ‘status quo’ is the area bearing the richest abundance of such niches because the majority of people tend not to challenge things that have long been proven effective and safe, so you stand out by virtue of going against the grain; Certain ideas of this type catch on and spread like wildfire because people like the explanation that there are hidden causes to their various problems that are easily identified and extricated from their lives, this being more attractive than accepting just how complex are life and its myriad problems and how difficult to overcome are their respectable solutions; This paves the way for websites to gain a lot of traffic and thus ad revenue from eye-poppingly revelatory headlines, the same trick that has always been used with varying degrees of integrity to sell newspapers; The worst of these websites have no problem referencing real scientific studies tangentially related to the claims of these headlines and corrupting the actual findings to support them, again to further legitimize itself as a valid location for ‘real’ news; This also paves the way for gurus who make names and careers from this niche cause, with money and prestige so attractive that they will rarely back down from their message even in the face of overwhelming evidence that contradicts them, and will rarely accept responsibility for the damage they have caused over the course of their ‘careers’; Gurus turn on the charm and the volume and thus push a message attractive to groups susceptible to alternate explanations to their problems beyond that and in front of the general public simply looking for honest answers to their questions… Or I could just smile and nod and try to change the subject.

    Excuse me while I go imbibe some dihydrogen monoxide…

  8. Lumen2222 says:

    Isn’t most baking soda synthetically made? I’m surprised Food Babe hasn’t picked up on this yet.


  9. ducktoes says:

    gah! ‘how difficult to…solutions” should read ‘how difficult to attain are their respective solutions’. bad brain!

  10. Lumen2222 says:

    Speaking of the pervasiveness of the naturalistic fallacy in our society…

    I was reading further into that article I linked further up:

    [i]”… what’s the difference between, say, Bob’s Red Mill and Arm & Hammer baking soda?
    Why on earth would you want to pay dollars more per pound for something like Bob’s Red Mill when you can get Arm & Hammer for a stick of gum?
    It has to do with the way the two things are procured. A brand like Bob’s Red Mill (or Frontier or various other natural brands of baking soda) are mined directly from the ground in their natural sodium bicarbonate state (also known as nahcolite). In fact, Bob’s Red Mill is mined right here in Colorado, so for me it’s kind of like buying local. Which is nice.
    There are no chemical reactions, nothing added or fiddled with. It’s just pure sodium bicarbonate, the way the earth made it.”[/i]

    The Food Babe I think is a symptom of a larger problem. I’ve started to wonder if it’s better to think of these behaviors as a kind of “culture eating disorder”. It just seems like nothing is ever pure enough, or wholesome enough. Perhaps its just me but the vast majority of people I meet who are deep into this kind of thing (absolutely EVERYTHING HAS HIDDEN DANGERS) are absolutely obsessed with talking about the “obesity epidemic” and when you get them riled up, American obesity is one of the first things they point to as “proof” of the unhealthiness of these foods (these foods being whatever food they are attacking). I’ve seen it used to attack GMOs a lot in a classic correlation/causation fallacy. Also food additives, chemicals, processed foods, anything with the “wrong” kind of sugar (as opposed to the all natural sugars…). It just strikes me as painfully similar to other eating disorders, but instead of trying to maintain control by denial and severe restriction of caloric intake, they try to control the “purity” of the food, and the stricter the rules for purity the better their sense of control. And of course because it’s all about being “healthy” it’s not only an acceptable obsession, the culture is encouraging. I also feel like this thought process is increasingly not relegated to the fringe but is spreading.

    I don’t know, perhaps eating disorders are not the correct lens to view this phenomena through. But I do think the Food Babe’s antics are part of a much larger cultural problem that is only getting worse.

  11. Orac says:

    You know, I might have to add the Food Babe to my newsfeed lists, the better to provide myself with blogging material to apply my “insolence” to. 🙂

  12. MaryM says:

    They use soy in underwear too: http://www.uranusapparel.com/

    It is astonishing that people take this woman seriously. And I’m getting tired of shouty and hysterical people determining what we can eat.

  13. BillyJoe7 says:

    Is there really apparel for your anus!

    (BTW, the link doesn’t work)

  14. Bill Openthalt says:

    Lumen2222 —

    Isn’t most baking soda synthetically made?

    Baking soda is what your grandma used for scouring pots and pans, which makes the natural crowd push it as a “natural” alternative to commercial cleaners. Hilarious.

  15. grabula says:

    @Todd W.

    That’s basically what I’m getting at. My wife and I discussed the azodicarbonamide issue a while back. She asked the usual questions, why put it in, is it necessary etc… Her interest was honest. We talked a bit about it but I think it really hit her when I pointed out two things.

    1 – The Penn and Teller as well as many other spoofs on dihydrogen monoxide and how using a more sciency name for something people indulge in every day really can pull the wool over a large portion of the populations eyes.

    2 – The idea that many non edible products are made out of things such as Soy – the yoga mat comparison being appropriate at the time.

    I think we’re fighting two different things here. The first is the general populaces potential for gravitating towards the naturalistic fallacy. As Lumen points out it appears to be associated with our obsessive attitude towards dieting which we can also blame on woo. The second is the medias unwillingness to face these kinds of things in an honest way. You don’t generate as many hits by claiming that the crazy sounding chemical in your sandwich is ok.

  16. kevinfolta says:

    Propylene glycol, ethylene glycol, what’s the difference? When you don’t know anything about science such things don’t matter.

  17. Jorm says:

    What about all those foods that contain dihydrogen monoxide? That’s a chemical that can kill you if it gets in your lungs – and it does kill thousands of people per year, mostly children, in this way. People use it to make *styrofoam* and it’s used in the preparation of so many foods! It’s horrible.

  18. zorrobandito says:

    @Lumen2222 I think you may be onto something with this “eating disorder” analysis. I have some friends (and, alas, family members) who, if they followed their own statements, might possibly starve to death. Among other “insights” I have been urged to stay away from even organic fruit because it contains fructose (well, yes, it does) which is “addictive” and “no better than heroin.” (Oh, and “responsible for the obesity epidemic.” Of course.)

    Add to this all wheat, all dairy, eggs, meat of course, now rice (soaks up heavy metals!)… I’m just not sure one can maintain life solely on undressed broccoli (grown locally of course, and organically), which might be the only food left.

    So what is really going on here? Why are otherwise rational adults picking at their food like spoiled 3 year olds? I even talked to one who opposed water unless it was “structured” water (don’t ask! it isn’t easy to come by, apparently).

    Obviously this isn’t really about food. Deep-seated fears are being expressed here, and rationality is the very last consideration on the table.

    Not unlike anorexia or bullimia, which is why I like your eating disorder analogy.

  19. Lori Anne says:

    It would be nice if DoubleTree doesn’t follow in the footsteps of Subway and cave to this nonsense too.

  20. Bill Openthalt says:

    zorrobandito —

    Maybe it is nature’s way to control the population. If enough people try your “undressed broccoli” (is that vegetable pornography?) diet, they’ll hopefully all earn Darwin awards and reduce population pressure 🙂 .

  21. BillyJoe7 says:

    ” “undressed broccoli” (is that vegetable pornography?) ”

    Well, I wouldn’t call it pornography:


  22. Bill Openthalt says:

    Yeah, but arguably that’s an undressed babe dressing a broccoli (is the singular of broccoli “broccolo” or is it a plurale tantum? — inquiring minds want to know).


  23. Bronze Dog says:

    @Lumen & Zorro: There are definitely people who take “proper eating” to the level of being an eating disorder. In fact, I’ve heard a term used to describe it: “Orthorexia.”

    I don’t know how “official” the term is in the psychological community, but it sounds appropriate.

  24. sonic says:

    Many people have changed diets and improved health.
    Some people seem to extend this so that they think a perfect diet would lead to perfect health.
    This implies all health problems stem from diet.

    It seems for that to be the case, we all must be ingesting quite a few unhealthy things. Our bodies didn’t evolve to digest the chemicals made in a factory– they evolved digesting chemicals made by plants and animals without chemical additives.
    If it’s all about diet, why not eat like a Spartan?

    I think the basic error is in the first extrapolation. ‘a change in diet was helpful’ gets extrapolated to ‘all problems come from diet’.

    Extrapolation can cause all sorts of problems. Wow, one beer was good…

  25. Bill Openthalt says:

    Sonic —

    Our bodies didn’t evolve to digest the chemicals made in a factory– they evolved digesting chemicals made by plants and animals without chemical additives.

    Our bodies are gloriously ignorant of the source of chemicals. As long as the factory chemicals are the same as the plant or animal chemicals, they will be digested. Furthermore, as omnivores, our bodies are pretty good at extracting energy and needed compounds from lots of different foodstuffs. For example, they learned to digest lactose when milk and milk products became an important source of nutrition.

    But you are correct when stating humans are constantly mistaking correlation for causation.

  26. Noah says:

    First time commenter here. I have been reading this blog for several years and I really appreciate what you are trying to do. I have always had a skeptics leaning and its nice to follow like minds. Also, nice to see all the usuals commenting here… ccbowers, BillyJoe, Sonic, etc. Sometimes I don’t know if I enjoy the blog more or you guys arguing in the comment section.

    The reason I am writing today is to ask Dr. Novella a question regarding one of the comments on this “OMG -Chemicalz” article. I’m not even sure who wrote it now – maybe Lumen, but it was about the so-called “structured water” or “vortex water”.

    I wanted to get Dr. Novella’s take on this because I have seen it mentioned a time or 2 in the comments but if he has addressed it specifically in a blog I missed it. I ask because a close friend told me the other day that he was offered a sales job at a very small company who is creating water filters that are suppose to make the water “structured” and thus healthier. He is a good friend and I want to give him advice on whether to take the job, because they did offer fairly good pay which he does not have now, but my skeptic radar was going off.

    When asked what structured water means he says it changes the bond angle of the water. When asked what changing the bond angle means or what changes it makes to the water his answer is “it makes it healthier!” … great, problem solved 😉

    When I asked what scientific research has been done, he says the company can’t afford a long term study but the owners truly believe in its health benefits. Obviously, this is a huge red flag, but in of itself doesn’t necessarily mean the product is worthless.

    I would like to know some real research on this. I think there was one scientist in particular who came up with the idea, but don’t know a whole lot else. Is it pure junk science or could there be some benefits that have not been scientifically tested yet (or maybe there is research backing up the healthier water claims)? I have my doubts but it is too important to this guy to write-off with out the facts.

    Thanks again – and who knows, I may look back at this as my first comment in a long line of quarreling with ccbowers and grabula (etc).


  27. sonic says:

    Bill Openthalt-
    I don’t actually believe there is a perfect diet that would lead to perfect health or any of the ‘reasoning’ that follows.
    I’m just giving an example of the type of thinking I run into on this subject.
    Is that confusing?

  28. Bill Openthalt says:

    sonic —

    If you meant it as an example of thinking you have been confronted with, and don’t subscribe to this prime example of the naturalistic fallacy, I apologise for trying to teach you (and your grandma) to suck eggs.

    To my defense — in your post, it doesn’t seem very obvious you’re quoting someone (but then again, this is not the most user-friendly comment facility).

  29. Eric Tergerson says:

    I wanted to mention I laughed out loud when I read Steven’s title to this article.

    @Lumen2222, I like that idea of a “cultural eating disorder”….

  30. zorrobandito says:

    @Noah I’ve heard of this “structured water” only recently. I’m no physicist, but I’m pretty sure filtering cannot change the “bond angle” of water. Of course that may not be what these people are claiming to do.

    Sounds like nonsense to me, but does anyone else know anything about this?

  31. steve12 says:

    This is pretty funny – her response to the last post Steve had on the “Foodbabe”.


  32. sonic says:

    Bill Openthalt-
    Actually I was pointing to the extrapolation from ‘eating better made me healthier’ (something that many people really do experience) to ‘all my health problems are due to diet’.

    Sorry if I point to something too obvious.

  33. Ekko says:

    The comments on that Facebook post are utterly depressing….but then again FB is generally a cesspit of stupid.

  34. steve12 says:


    FB is like a virtual version of the DMV – it’s a great indicator of where the true average is, and the true average is really, really depressing along almost any dimension

  35. Noah says:

    Thanks for your reply Zorro! I have done a little bit more research on structured water and I did find this coming from a Dr. Gerald Pollack…


    Sounds like a lot of bs, but again, I don’t want to write it ALL off too quickly. Anyone else have any thoughts?

    Thanks again, keep up the good work,

  36. Bill Openthalt says:

    Noah —

    When it comes from mercola.com, odds are it’s vintage BS.

  37. grabula says:


    What Bill O said, if it’s on mercola don’t bother. Just read through that article, it’s laughable. It also sounds like another system of woo…homeopathy! Change the structure of the water! Make the molecules remember!

    So getting close to freezing (39 degrees Fahrenheit) then stirring you too can have more structured water! Take it for a bike ride! Make it do pushups till it pukes! That water will be so structured that after lowering just a few more degrees it will take on a crystalline matrix!

    Pollack has basically taken homeopathy, the woo obsession with vortexes (ooh?! is water MORE structured if stirred in Sedona Az?) and ionizing stuff, pew pew! IONIZED!

  38. zorrobandito says:

    @ grabula

    Thanks for the info! That article makes about as much sense as stacking words on a page at random, but one gathers that….hm. Anyway getting it cold and stirring it does…..something or other.

    But do it! Because! It’s better for your cells!

    I think we’d know more about it if someone was selling it, or better yet selling some kind of device to produce it.

  39. Teaser says:

    Food Babe’s message is don’t eat crap. Whats wrong with that?

    By defending the hodge-podge of unnecessary chemicals in food, the skeptic position appears to be eat chemical laden crappy food.

    Quick survey: Put down your can of diet soda and raise your hand if you, or any of your pets are, obese.

    There are at least 7-8* of you who are obese. Why are you obese?

    *As of my comment there were 23 unique people who had made comments.
    (More than one-third of U.S. adults (34.9%) are obese. http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1832542)

    Side note:

    All you skeptic beer drinkers out there should take a look at the Food Babes investigation on beer. Hope you enjoy quaffing the corn syrup in your PBR or Miller Lite!


    Skeptic Response: “Corn syrup is not toxic. There is nothing wrong with corn syrup in beer, I defend corn syrup in beer. Food Babe is a hysterical alarmist tool.”


  40. Bronze Dog says:

    Regarding the bond angle of water, I’ve heard some similar-sounding woo. It involved allegedly ‘fixing’ the angle of the hydrogen bonds in water to their ‘natural’ 180° instead of the familiar obtuse angle, probably something like CO2. The problem is that you’d have to change the way the electromagnetic force functions to do that.

    Long chemistry lesson from my memory:

    Atoms has various electron orbitals, and they tend to ‘complete’ those orbitals by taking on extra electrons to fill the vacant slots or they shed electrons to get rid of incomplete orbitals. Some elements tend to form ions in solution as a means to do this. The periodic table is shaped the way it is to reflect this. Hydrogen and helium are on the only two elements on the top row because the 1s orbital is made of one pair of electrons. The following rows have s (one pair) & p (three pairs) orbitals, a total of 8 slots, so they have 8 elements in those rows. After that, the heavier elements add d orbitals (five pairs). Those two rows separated from the rest of the chart would stretch out the periodic table for their f orbitals (seven pairs). The last two are a bit quirky to me, but s & p are the most important for lighter elements we’re talking about.

    Chemistry is pretty much how atoms find ways to fill out their orbitals. Ionic bonds are formed by atoms becoming positive and negative ions. The noble gases are generally unreactive because they start with complete orbitals. Elements on the far left have fewer electrons on their outer orbitals, so they tend to give up electrons. Those on the right, aside from the noble gases, take electrons. For molecules made entirely out of elements that are reluctant to give up electrons, however, forming covalent bonds is another strategy.

    Since the valence (outermost) s & p orbitals are where the action happens, 8 is the magic number. An illustration method for an atom is to have the chemical symbol surrounded with dots for each electron it has. For example, an argon atom would be Ar with a pair of dots on the left, right, top, and bottom. Carbon has 4 valence electrons, but because electrons fill empty spaces before pairing with another electron, carbon has one dot on each of the four sides. Oxygen has two pairs and two lone electrons. Hydrogen, having only the 1s orbital, will only ever have 2 electrons unless you’re doing funky stuff with the LHC or whatever. Covalent bonds are drawn as lines connecting two atoms in place of a pair of electrons, and essentially count as two electrons for either atom’s purposes.

    Water can be drawn as H-O-H with electron pairs above and below the O, but unlike on a sheet of paper, atoms are 3 dimensional. Think of the oxygen atom as the center of a tetrahedron. You may have seen some plastic atom models with protrusions in a configuration like this for the little sleeves that represent bonds. The two paired electrons take up two points, while electrons shared with the hydrogen atoms take up the other two.

    This reaches the limits of my physics knowledge, but although electrons will pair up in an orbital, these pairs are still repelled from one another. The bend in a water molecule is because those chemical bonds and paired electrons are working to maximize the distance between each other. These electron pairs just don’t show up on the little plastic atoms. Oxygen atoms in such models are often blue with two protrusions at that angle because chemists understand that oxygen has two pairs taking up the spots where the other protrusions would be.

    In contrast with water, carbon dioxide has a 180° bond angle, but that’s because it has two double bonds, one for each oxygen atom, rather than any paired electrons, so the maximum distance between the double bonds is to be on opposite sides from each other. O=C=O

    Now, some subatomic physics varies the angles a bit depending on the type of bonds, which atom is ‘greedier’ in sharing electrons, and so on, but for single bonds, the tetrahedron should be a good starting point to understanding some of this.

    Fun facts: Water is a strongly ‘polar’ solution because the oxygen has two pairs of electron on one side giving it a decent negative charge on that end. The oxygen is also more electronegative (I think) than hydrogen, so the bonded electrons are drawn more inward, leaving the positive hydrogen nuclei charging the opposite end. Oils, however, are non-polar, having a more evenly distributed charge. This plays a part in why water and oil won’t mix. It’s also why sugar in your gas tank isn’t nearly a big a deal as many people think. Sugar is polar. It will dissolve in water, which means it won’t dissolve in gasoline. It might slowly clog up your filters as a solid, but it won’t ruin the combustion reaction as a solute.

    Detergents, on the other hand, are game changer. They’re mostly non-polar, but have a polar ‘head’ on them, so they can bridge the gap. They allow water to dissolve oils and other non-polar gunk, which comes in handy for cleaning. Unfortunately, this also means they come in handy for ruining your gas tank. I think that’s true, even without the sugar.

  41. ccbowers says:


    I just noticed your comment, and I read the Mercola link. It is typical of what you find on his site. There is a mix of truth and science with a lot of vague nonsense that get mixed up in order come to a non sequitur conclusion. I found the whole article incoherent, and even at the end of the article it is not clear what they mean by structured water (how is it identified?, what are the characteristics that distinguish it from non stiuctured water?). It’s not worth your time

  42. ccbowers says:

    “Food Babe’s message is don’t eat crap.
    Whats wrong with that?By defending the hodge-podge of unnecessary chemicals in food, the skeptic position appears to be eat chemical laden crappy food. ”


    There many things wrong “with that.” First off, she uses fearmongering and charged emotional language to appeal to disgust rather that using the best evidence available to evaluate specific claims about particular ingredients or foods. (e.g. referring vaguely to “chemically laden foods, whatever that means)

    The basis for this approach (and what determines this category you call “crap”) is the reliance on the naturalistic fallacy. A skeptic should evaluate specific ingredients on whether or not they are likely to harmful using the best evidence available combined with the basic and clinical science about that ingredient.

    Whether something is natural or not is not a basis for safety. Whether you’ve heard about an ingredient is not a basis for assessing its safety. What chemical it is derived from is not a basis for assessing it either, etc, etc.

    All of these irrelevant facts are used to stir the emotions of someone who doesn’t know much about chemistry, biology, physiology or health, and such a strategy works. The problem is that relying on fallacious reasoning is the wrong approach for evaluating any claim.

  43. KarlHungus says:

    Mr. Novella, et al.,

    I’m a layperson, so I won’t presume to know about the rigors of testing performed by the FDA. However, I feel pretty confident the Scientists are honest, hardworking people that do the right thing. After all, I’m sure they (and their friends and family) eat many items cleared by the FDA.

    However, foods can alter our chemistry — pH, hormones, moods, etc. So, while one food/additive may be Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS), I wonder about the combinations of such ingredients. The number of additives currently in use would make testing all potential combinations impossible.

    Besides, one combination may be okay for one person, but not another. A 40-year-old with no health issues is different than a 40-year-old with Intestinal Permeability and an autoimmune condition. The former can pound-down the gluten-containing grains with no obvious issues, while the latter cannot.

    Anecdotal for sure, but, in my own experience, I cannot ingest any items with Aspartame. When I do, I get a blinding (literally), crushing headache for several hours. I have a 30-year history of migraines, so that may play a role in my sensitivity. The point is: *I* don’t regard it as safe.

    Overall, though, as a previous commenter alluded, I think it’s better to avoid food additives. Considering those are usually found in highly-processed foods, I see no downside.


  44. Teaser says:


    Let’s see if I have this right then.

    Food Babe unwittingly enters pseudoscience territory by alerting people to read ingredients on the food they are eating. Her tone and approach are primarily emotional and not fact based, thereby inciting innocent passerby’s to follow her lead without proper due diligence on their part. Essentially the blind leading the blind.

    Skeptics reject food babe since she is offering no proof of ill effects from chemicals listed on label. In fact chemicals listed on label are common to everyday life and often consumed in foods. She is a one woman wrecking ball of scienceless advice. As such she should be marginalized and dismissed. Furthermore it is precisely this sort of pseudoscience that is endangering society at large. On the broader scale science is under siege by witless fools such as Food Babe, mercola, anti-vaccination nutjobs ad infinitum, who can turn the populace away from a science based life. Once turned, society will revert to a neo-darkage of myths, disease, despair and profound ignorance. Effectively, the lights will go out on these glorious times if people like her are allowed to persist. They must be confronted and debunked wherever and whenever. And there shalt be only be the light allowed by science. And so the Ontological Primitive said “Let there be light unto the Scientists alone, so they may shine it back upon the ignorant populace of Planet Earth.”

    Is that about right?

    To dispel the foul stench of my idiotic ramblings, how about an easy two stage n=1 study? It’s open to everybody! C’mon it’s science!

    At the risk of falling prey to natural fallacy I propose a elimination diet study. Elimination diets are
    frequently used to determine food allergies. The idea being you eat a very bland diet for a period of time then reintroduce foods one at a time so as to capture what food or class of foods are not tolerated well. This study will generate a list of chemicals since the subjects will be required to keep a list of chemicals in the food they are eating. Instead of reintroducing foods in echelon, this study will flood the subject with specific
    foods from the fast food and national restaurant chain food outlets. This reintroduction is in one day. The point of the study is see if chemically laden food has any affect on the subject. At the end of the study period the subjects are asked to compare chemicals consumed in the two stages of the study.

    Stage 1 – Reset your system:

    Go on a elimination diet for 15 days. Keep study log of food eaten. Pay attention to the chemicals in the
    primarily unprocessed foods you will be eating.

    Here are some examples to choose from.

    Stage 2 – Reintroduce chemically laden, food like substances to your body:

    In Stage 2 we determine if chemically laden foods have any affect on our health and well being. Journal all reactions to the introduced foods in the study log.

    First Meal:
    Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC):
    Order a bucket of Kentucky Grilled with the Honey BBQ sauce.
    Sides: Mashed Potatoes with gravy, Coleslaw, Biscuits
    Drink: Large sized Diet Mountain Dew
    Ask order taker person for an ingredient list of what you have ordered. Ask what oils were used in preparing or cooking the food.
    Record all ingredients in journal.

    Second Meal:
    Order any Family size the super deluxe pizza from Dominoes, Pizza Hut or Papa Johns.
    Side Order: Any cheese filled breadsticks topped with seasoning, with dipping sauce.
    Drink: Large sized Diet Cola of your choice.
    Ask order taker person for an ingredient list of what you have ordered. Ask what oils were used in preparing or cooking the your food.
    Record all ingredients in journal.

    Third Meal:
    Full dinner meal at Applebee’s, Outback Steakhouse or similar national restaurant chain. Be sure to order something fried and something with a sauce on it. Order dressing on the salad. Request dipping sauces if available.
    Drink: A large glass of Skim Milk.
    Ask order taker person for an ingredient list of what you have ordered. Ask what oils were used in preparing or cooking the your food.
    Record all ingredients in journal.

    Finalize Results – Reconcile Dietary Differences

    Compare chemicals consumed in elimination diet stage with those consumed on the reintroduction stage. If any adverse effects were experienced in stage 2 determine which chemical additive(s) caused the effect.

    Last thing:
    Chemically laden crappy food = Any food that a person who operates under the delusion of the natural fallacy would not eat.

  45. Teaser,

    The problem with unblinded tests like the one you propose is that they are liable to placebo/nocebo effects and are highly subjective. For allergy testing, there is a fairly obvious objective outcome.

    The general rule for such clinical tests or challenges, is that you need a clear objective marker. Otherwise the test is likely to be useless.

  46. ccbowers says:

    Teaser – Regarding your “Let’s see if I have this right then.” comment. You started out reasonable enough, but then intentionally went off the rails at the end, e.g:

    “Once turned, society will revert to a neo-darkage of myths, disease, despair and profound ignorance. Effectively, the lights will go out on these glorious times if people like her are allowed to persist. They must be confronted and debunked wherever and whenever. And there shalt be only be the light allowed by science.”

    I’m not sure your point here, other than to make a reasonable position into a strawman one. It is not that the world will collaspe, but do think the world needs more skepticism or less? Take a look around you… at the waste and damage that comes from lacking the basic skills to think critically. As for how to do this, or how confrontational we should be… I’ll use the cliche “it takes all kinds.” Styles of interaction vary, and some situations lend themselves to different approaches.

    I’m not sure why you object to skeptics trying to counter these pseudoscience advocates who are largely controling the narrative, but you don’t appear concerned that they are misleading the general public. It’s not necessarily that the general public are ‘witless fools,’ but when these advocates have narratives that coincide with the biases and misunderstandings of the general public what else can be done but to point out the flaws? Why do you object?

    As for your elimination diet, Steve pointed out the most obvious problems with such an approach. Plus, why am I doing such an elaborate process to begin with? In the end how do we know that people will not attribute all sorts of things to noncauses? There are vague symptoms like headaches, GI symptoms, etc that are unpredictable by their nature, and once people start attempting to connect them to their diets, they will assume a lot of false positives. Then they end up restricting their diets unecessarily. Is this the end of the world? No, but it is a lot of wasted time and effort, to avoid gluten, milk, soy etc just because it is a fad to do so.

  47. zorrobandito says:

    Avoiding gluten, milk, soy, fat, anything with a chemical name, meat, fruit….make your own list….is harmless unless you so restrict your diet that you deprive yourself of some essential nutrient, in which case you will get sick. Anyway, have a good time. I’m certainly not advocating forcing anyone to eat a sandwich against their will.

    We just need personally to think for ourselves. Because some website says that asparagus causes eyeball cancer (or, whatever) does not make it so. Websites are easy and cheap to maintain, and you can say mostly anything you like (short of libel I suppose). Even science-based medical surveys seem bewildered. First, don’t eat butter. Then, do eat butter. Fat is bad for you. Fat is good for you. One example of very many. It all depends on what month and year we are in currently.

    Individually I eat a varied diet of mostly non-processed foods and think about other things. I am intellectually interested in the “eating disorder” side of all this, however, and I wonder what is really going on here. Some sociologist or anthropologist or psychologist should be working on a PhD with this material. And probably several are.

  48. Teaser says:


    I suppose the clear objective marker would be blood work before Stage1, after Stage 1 and after Stage 2. I did not state my hypothesis. Which is: How does the body, conditioned following a standard elimination diet, react to a massive influx of chemically laden food (Fast Food). That is, foods that are the antithesis of those eaten on the elimination diet.
    Obviously my terms and definitions need further clarification but the intent should be clear.


    My point is humanity is a undisciplined mess that will not be corralled by the rules you choose to live by no matter how scientifically or logically sound you deem your position to be. It appears skeptics fancy themselves the proverbial finger in the dike of human ignorance.

    My position statement based on what I have seen on this blog is along these lines:

    Skepticism = Stasis.
    The general position is wait for the expert to define boundaries, causes and conditions.
    Until then do nothing.
    I am unable to determine personal right or wrong because I am subject to confirmation bias.
    As a result of my confirmation bias I could unwittingly do harm to myself or to others under my influence.
    Therefore demote personal initiative in favor of external authority.
    Expert external authorities follow rigorous guidelines and procedures to determine truth.

    When skepticism is put practice, as zorrobandito asserts, the public is often subject to a greater risk than they would suffer from confirmation bias.
    Example 1 – The public is advised to substitute transfats for butter based on scientific results. Since I am subject to confirmation bias I place my trust in the scientific community I follow their guidance and integrate transfats into my diet. In the intervening years I develop CVD from eating heart-healthy transfats and die. Transfats are subsequently scheduled to be banned by the FDA due to a correlated increase rate of CVD as proven by scientific studies.

    Example 2 – The list of deadly approved pharmaceuticals is extensive. There is plenty of documentation showing that results were fudged in order to get the product to market and recover R&D costs as soon as possible.

    Where is the concern for the general public now?
    Can you blame those that lack critical thinking skills for their subsequent skepticism of such a system that wantonly kills in the name of profits and under the imprimatur of science?
    Could we postulate that this activity actually drives the very people you are trying to reach further away and into the narratives espoused by the Mercola’s and Food Babes of the world?
    Where is the middle ground between caveat emptor and confirmation bias?

  49. Bronze Dog says:

    Quacks often take advantage of our in-built eagerness to assign cause, intentionally or not. The problem with evaluating our own health is that cause is often very hard to determine. There are a lot of “symptoms of living.” People have occasional, random bouts of sniffles, headaches, insomnia, sleepiness, and such even though they’re healthy. As long as those symptoms remain occasional, there’s no reason to worry. The human body is complex and imperfect, so it’s no surprise we have the occasional, temporary malfunction.

    Many quacks, however, use the symptoms of living as fodder for fake diseases, and many people fall for it because they seem to think people are supposed to have some default state of complete health with no symptoms.

    Similarly, we also have random good days, when we feel more energetic, lucid, euphoric, or whatever. The comedy sci-fi series Red Dwarf did the reverse of those quacks by inventing “positive viruses” as a plot device.

    The problem with “try it yourself!” unblinded, uncontrolled experiments is that they make it all too easy to assume the random noise is meaningful. Someone who has a random good day shortly after eliminating X from their diet or taking supplement Y is at risk of assuming it was their decision that lead to the good day, rather than other circumstances or luck. Being aware of our own flawed perceptions and motivated reasoning is why we invented scientific methodology, and why we don’t completely trust our subjective experience. If it was easy, there’d be a lot less arguing and confusion about the topic. But science isn’t easy. If you conduct an experiment, you have to put in the hard work of examining and countering your own biases.

  50. ccbowers says:


    Your characterization of skepticism is a caricature, and not correct. I’m not going to go over every detail, but just a few examples.

    “It appears skeptics fancy themselves the proverbial finger in the dike of human ignorance.”

    I’m not sure that this is an argument of any type, nor a comment on skepticism itself, but a vague ‘dig’ at skeptics. Yes, there are people who think this way, but that is not unique to any group, and is irrelevant to skepticism itself. Reading the comments on a blog is not the best way to assess a group… have you read the comments section of the average news article? Peopple sometimes use the relative anonymity of the internet to say things that they wouldn’t normally say to others. The commments section of this blog is pretty mild.

    “Skepticism = Stasis.
    The general position is wait for the expert to define boundaries, causes and conditions.
    Until then do nothing.”

    This is not the skeptical position. Now, using skepticism does tend to result in conservative changes over time, because evidence does not tend to accumulate rapidly, but the mechanism is not from preferring stasis over change. It is more accurate to say that confidence in particular positions should be proportionate to the best evidence available.

    “I am unable to determine personal right or wrong because I am subject to confirmation bias.”

    Not quite. The point of understanding cognitive biases and fallacious thinking is not to give up on thinking, but in better understanding so we can better assess various situations and take our biases into account. Also, it is not an appeal to authority to defer to experts… for complicated topics it’s your best bet. That does not mean that people should not educate themselves on the topics that they care about, but they should be very careful when they think they can learn a complex topic over a few hours on the internet better than a large community of people who spend their lives studying the topic. Intellectual humility is in order.

    “When skepticism is put practice [sic], as zorrobandito asserts, the public is often subject to a greater risk than they would suffer from confirmation bias.”

    Define ‘often.’ You have picked a couple of common examples, which I think have been mischaracterized to some extent. The point is that using the best evidence available (taking into account plausibility and alternate theories that may also explain the data) is the best we can do. I’m not sure what else you are advocating for. You seem to want to point out some flaws (examples with which I disagree), then imply that we should ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater. That is the “perfect solution fallacy” (aka nirvana fallacy).

    Example 1. is not a good example of the skeptical position. The evidence was not strong in either direction regarding trans fats in the past. You may be confusing pop science/journalism articles regarding butter and margarine with actual evidence and consensus recommendations. The actual science regarding trans fats is fairly complicated and I’m not sure what the FDA is going to do. It seems clear that painting the entire category of trans fats with a broad brush is not appropriate (just like the saturated fat category). There are subtypes of transfats that should not be looked at in the same way. Your senario in which you followed recommendations and ate transfats and died is simplistic to the point of ridiculous.

    Example 2 is also a nonsequitur (Drug companies). There are a few cases in which corporations acted poorly, but for the most part the system works well, and changes are made when problems arise. The fact that problems are exposed, changes are made, and harmful drugs are removed from the market actually demonstrate a mechanism to correct problems. Instead you take the opposite message that there is a problem. Yes profits can be a confounding motivation, but again, we know this. This is a topic of study within science, but you are again making a perfect solution fallacy argument.

    You are attemping to discredit skepticism by finding senarios in which it may lead you astray. I would argue that even in your examples, this is not true, but more importantly, I am not arguing that a skeptical approach will always lead you to the correct conclusion. But by systematically following the evidence, taking into account plausibilities, and confidence in evidence, you should go with what is the ‘best bet.’ What is the alternative? You seem to be advocating (or at least impying) that since a skeptical approach isn’t perfect, we should just follow our personal convictions. That seems like an absurd position. If you don’t think that is an accurate assessment, than restate yours.

  51. Teaser says:

    This is my absolute last comment. I promise.
    This article on DPA and apples cuts to the chase in regards to chemicals in foods.


    “Back in 2008, European Food Safety Authority began pressing the chemical industry to provide safety information on a substance called diphenylamine, or DPA.”

    The last paragraph of the article clearly states two scientific groups at odds over DPA found in apples from the USA.

    “So do DPA-treated apples present real health risks? I don’t know—and neither, apparently, do food safety authorities on either side of the Atlantic. Until they learn more, Europe has decided that the public shouldn’t be gobbling up DPA along with their daily fruit. For Americans wanting the same level of protection, EWG suggests choosing organic apples when possible.”

    How does the skeptic deal with opposing scientific conclusions?

    How do average consumers manage the opposing scientific claims? That’s assuming they are even aware of the difference in scientific guidance.

  52. BillyJoe7 says:


    I’m not sure why you’ve decided not to comment any further.
    You’ve got a good discussion going here and you are leaving.
    Why is that?

    As to your last comment here:

    There are always going to be borderline situations where the experts will disagree; or situations where there is not enough information for the experts to make confident recommendations; or situations where additional information cause the experts to change their recommendations. That doesn’t mean that there are no situations where the evidence is overwhelming and where the recommendations of experts are unlikely to change.

    So, again, why throw out what the experts confidently agree on just because there are things they cannot confidently agree on, or just because they change their recommendations when more information becomes available. Isn’t it actually good science to change recommendations when more information becomes available.

    And, again, what is the alternative?

  53. ccbowers says:

    Teaser –

    The open questions in science are difficult for a reason, and IMO you should reserve judgement, however… you have to decide whether the the cautionary principle applies in those senarios. Taking into account questions like: How do the different conclusions affect how we would actually conduct our lives? What is the magnitude of the effect if it is a real one?

    Answering those questions can help you decide what you are comfortable with. I am not particularly concerned with diphenylamine, but if they choose to remove it at a later date, then that is fine. I believe that it is a product that is meant to help with long term storage and does not appear to wash off very well with just water, but as will all such questions… it is about the toxicology and the dose. Despite all of the concerns people have about things added to produce it appears that effects (if any) are pretty small since it is clear that people who consume more produce tend to be healthier for a large number of outcomes. I still would like them to study it though.

    Although I am not a fan the organic label, I realize that it is here to stay. Since we seem to be stuck with it, I would like the following questions answered: How does organic produce compare to nonorganic product after washing? I have seen studies looking at comparing organic and nonrganic produce, and a few looking at the effectivess of washing for different pesticides and fungicides, but to inform the general public, who do not generally consume unwashed produce- the most direct actionable question is not answered. For me, I wish that they would stick to an evidence based approach for the criteria of labeling “organic” (instead of having some arbitrariness to the criteria), but I know I am asking a lot, and I digress.

    All in all, these types of questions tend to not to be ones with huge consequences for a large number of people, since regulators do tend to apply the precautionary principle in high stakes senarios, and scientists are also likely to reserve judgement more when the stakes are high. The truth is, if these genuine scientific controversies or open questions become our main concern, we have come along way. There are plenty of lower hanging fruit.

  54. Teaser says:


    I was feeling like a bull in a china shop and didn’t want to over stay my welcome.

    ccbower & billyjoe7

    As I see it science at its core is a fundamentalist proposition. The gravity of adherence to existing scientific paradigms ensures stability and therefore theoretical and process consistency. As a result there is zero tolerance for unproven propositions.

    The topics/comments of this blog often take that fundamentalist position and lambaste the non-fundamentalist guilty of espousing psuedoscience. In all fairness I should add Steven willingly takes on well-credentialed members in the science community as well. That’s how I found this blog! He was toe to toe with the author of a book I was reading.

    The populace at large operates on the precautionary principle as you stated. In that sense we are all risk takers. Part of the risk would be disregarding the scientific method in daily life. People who follow Food Babe, Mercola, Dr Oz, et al are assuming the risk of the psuedoscientist advice. If I conduct n=1 study on my diet then that qualifies as psuedoscience then I assume the risks of my confirmational bias.

    I am not in disagreement so much as I am in ignorance of the skeptic point of view and the boundary conditions. I needed to understand what trips the skeptic wire so to speak.

    “All in all, these types of questions tend to not to be ones with huge consequences for a large number of people, since regulators do tend to apply the precautionary principle in high stakes senarios, and scientists are also likely to reserve judgement more when the stakes are high.”

    Do scientists scurry off to the lab when the stakes are high? I would think they would stand and defend their position. If they don’t who will? Whats the point then?

  55. Bill Openthalt says:

    Teaser —

    I looked at the first “elimination diet” link you provided, and I noticed the following:

    3. The Allergen, Salicylate and Histamine-Free Elimination Diet is a much more restrictive diet that focuses on eliminating all allergens as well as chemicals, both natural and artificial.

    This is a rather nice example of sloppy reasoning:

    1. all allergens means “everything” in the sense that there are very few edibles (including water :)) that have never been linked to allergic reactions.

    2. chemicals, both natural and artificial means “everything”, because everything is a “chemical” (water is H2O, and sucrose is C12H22O11).

    One of the cornerstones of science and skepticism is careful and correct reasoning, and using methods (such as double blind tests and independent replication of results) that reduce the effect of cognitive biases as much as possible.

    As I see it science at its core is a fundamentalist proposition. The gravity of adherence to existing scientific paradigms ensures stability and therefore theoretical and process consistency. As a result there is zero tolerance for unproven propositions.

    Zero tolerance for “unproven propositions” means that if the only thing you have is an hypothesis, without proof, you’re told to get the proof (and get it in a reproducible way) before your hypothesis is accepted. This is fundamentalist only in the sense that this is a fundamental part of the scientific method. If you have a idea that contradicts well-established knowledge (such as homeopathy), the only way to get it accepted is to produce incontrovertible proof, meaning that your every protocol, test, statistic and reasoning is going to be examined and questioned, even if you are a reputable scientist (like happened with Benveniste’s water memory). But if the proof is unassailable, science (if not each and every scientist) will change its mind, your hypothesis will become a scientific theory, and part of that what you call stasis — a reliable body of knowledge.

    If your idea in not plausible and you have no proof (like astrology), it will trip the skeptic wire. If your idea is not plausible and your proof cannot be replicated (like Darryl Bem’s telepathy and precognition experiments), it will trip the skeptic wire. If your idea is plausible, but your proof cannot be replicated, it will trip the skeptic wire.

    A good scientist will indeed “scurry off to the lab” when the stakes are high, and a credible challenge to the existing body of knowledge — they all want to make the next paradigm-changing discovery. But scientists are humans, and by definition 50% of humanity is below average, so there will be scientists who doggedly defend their ideas long after science has moved on, and there will be scientists who do sterling work in one field, and go completely batty in another (think Linus Pauling).

  56. grabula says:


    First, the idea that obesity is somehow linked to chemicals used in food is somewhat of a strawman. More likely obesity is more directly linked to the intake of too many calories regardless of source, and the sedentary lives most people live, i.e. sitting in front of a desk all day, then going home and sitting in front of the tv before finally laying down to sleep. Combine this with the fact that many people do not get the sleep they need and you have more than just empty calories from bizarre sounding chemicals to cause obesity.

    And if you attack beer again I will find you…

  57. grabula says:


    “Is that about right?”

    no, that’s just argument ad absurdem

    “Skepticism = Applying critical thinking to everyday situations in order to determine what makes the most sense”

    There, I fixed that for you.

    “As a result of my confirmation bias I could unwittingly do harm to myself or to others under my influence.
    Therefore demote personal initiative in favor of external authority.”

    That’s a strawman.

    ” The list of deadly approved pharmaceuticals is extensive. There is plenty of documentation showing that results were fudged in order to get the product to market and recover R&D costs as soon as possible.”

    Documentation please. Be aware this argument has been dismantled dozens of times on this blog site so you may want to read back a bit.

    The list goes on of fallacies you make and common mistakes in reasoning and understanding. Coming to this site with the same claims is only going to get your argument dismantled quickly and efficiently. The food babes approach is blatantly wrong, and my guess is that she’s more interested in developing publicity for herself than anything else. Sometimes it’s not just the ‘Big’ series of bogeymen you people create that are out to pull the wool over your eyes.

  58. grabula says:

    “This is my absolute last comment. I promise.”

    Don’t be afraid to engage in discussion but two pieces of advice:

    1. – Be Prepared. Have the data and evidence to back up your claims handy. Understand logical fallacies and the scientific method thoroughly because I guarantee you many of the commentators here do.

    2. – Engage in the discussion. There are several visitors some random, some frequent who blast information out and continue to “reply” without ever actually responding or engaging. Most of the commentators here are more likely to respect you (if not your position) if you’re at least honest in your inquiries.

  59. grabula says:

    Sorry, I tend to make multiple posts because my schedule means I’m always behind on these discussions.

    The skeptical process as I have always seen it is one of caution and a demand for evidence using the scientific method.

    If you have a theory or hypothesis no matter how wild or how common sense it may seem, you still need to provide evidence. That’s all we ask. If you make a claim you absolutely need to back it up with data, and or evidence discovered using rigorous scientific methodology. That may sound unreasonable but as a skeptic I don’t think it is. I don’t dismiss a theory out of hand unless it’s obvious it’s problematic. For example the earth being 6000 yrs old, the evidence very clearly states otherwise. Any theory claiming otherwise needs to provide some evidence before it can be taken too seriously. There’s wiggle room, it’s just quacks who make wild accusations often miss that fact.

    The problem I have with the foodterrorist is multifaceted. The first is that there’s no scientific rationale behind her method. She selects a few crazy sounding chemicals, finds just enough reason to attack it (for example it can also be used to make yoga mats) and then attempts to build up steam using a series of logical fallacies and irrational claims lacking any evidence whatsoever. She preys on peoples desire to live and be healthy and the general populations ignorance of the science. When she’s confronted by that very same science, she dismisses it out of hand and builds strawmen.

    Ironically, her supporters accuse manufacturers of just fishing for more money, and paints herself out as a crusader for the people when I fully believe she’s just building a cult of personality around herself. If she were really serious about her stated goals, there’d be a lot more science presented in her arguments.

    Finally, she uses this to harass and terrorize companies, none of it in my opinion really motivated by sound reasoning.

    This all adds to the ignorance of science and leads people down irrational paths of thinking that can and do cause problems in our society (check out stanislaw byrzinski for an example of this).

  60. ccbowers says:

    “Do scientists scurry off to the lab when the stakes are high?”

    Absolutely. These are the types of senarios that drive people, especially when the question is one that interests the individual scientist. Which brings me to your subsequent questions…

    “I would think they would stand and defend their position. If they don’t who will? Whats the point then?”

    It is true that the first reaction for an individual is often to defend a position, but… the group of people we are calling scientists is not a homogenous group. For true open questions within science, there are likely several groups (loosely speaking) who disagree on various details, and all would love to be the one who makes a breakthrough in science. That is why a large conspiracy is so far fetched. They all striving to progress the science, because it is in their self interest to do so. Also, it is helpful that they disagree on the open questions, because it allows for competing positions to be explored with the best ones persisting and the bad ones being disregarded (eventually).

    “As I see it science at its core is a fundamentalist proposition. The gravity of adherence to existing scientific paradigms ensures stability and therefore theoretical and process consistency. As a result there is zero tolerance for unproven propositions.”

    I disagree somewhat with this characterization. Fundamentalism implies an attachment to particular set of beliefs or facts, but with science it is not an adherence to specific ‘paradigms,’ but a specific process. Hypotheses should be tested and retested, and theories should fit with our observations and be able make predictions. Also, it is not about a zero tolerance to ‘unproven propositions,’ but a need to recognize that unproven propositions are just that. ‘Unproven propostions, ‘ as you describe them, are actually used to generate hypotheses. There is just low tolerance for touting someone’s pet theory as something more than it actually is.

  61. ccbowers says:

    “I was feeling like a bull in a china shop and didn’t want to over stay my welcome.”

    I was afraid you were feeling more like a piece of china in a bull shop. I’m actually glad that this is your reason, because it indicates these discussions/arguments are not so confrontational to be off-putting. You comments have been helpful, because I am sure that your perspective is a common one, but not all people who have the same thoughts as you are willing to engage in such a discussion.

    This is why I have resonded to your comments. Perhaps I am not the very best person to answer your questions, but I think I have a pretty good grasp of the topic. I do not read a lot of skeptical books (just a couple), and I do not even follow skeptical websites other than this blog, but I do like to think about these types of issues, and I do benefit from the interactions. I listen to several podcasts, and if you are interested, I would recommend the Skeptics Guide to Universe as good podcast for both people new to skepticism and those who have been skeptics for a long time. It covers a lot of science news, and they have interviews. They manage to keep the show entertaining with humor, and it has a relaxed atmosphere as 5 of them (including Steve) discuss various topics. I hope you benefitted from the interaction here.

  62. zorrobandito says:

    “The evidence was not strong in either direction regarding trans fats in the past. You may be confusing pop science/journalism articles regarding butter and margarine with actual evidence and consensus recommendations. The actual science regarding trans fats is fairly complicated and I’m not sure what the FDA is going to do. It seems clear that painting the entire category of trans fats with a broad brush is not appropriate (just like the saturated fat category). There are subtypes of transfats that should not be looked at in the same way.”

    The layman reading the articles in the press about fats was not told about these complexities. Trans fat bad! Eliminate all trans fat! And, don’t eat butter! Fat in general is horrible for you!

    Now the wind has shifted 180 degrees, and fat is not bad for you, carbs are bad for you!

    If the scientific community is appalled by all these oversimplifications, how about if some of you speak up? Taking your paragraph as read, the consensus among scientists is uncertainty about the whole topic. At least uncertainty is what I get out of what you say.

    Well if you-all are uncertain, so am I, and doubly so when I find out that you are. I’m old enough to have been through several cycles of this bad-for-you-NO!-good-for-you! stuff and as a result I’m on my way to deciding to ignore what “science” has to say on the topic of human nutrition until it stops being quite so much of a moving target.

    (I had the same reaction to economics, and for the same reason. I read a number of scholarly books on the topic, and discovered that now, nearly 100 years later, and with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, there is STILL no consensus on the cause of the depression of the 1930’s. Imagine if physicists were still arguing about the Second Law of Thermodynamics.)

    In the meantime I will eat a balance of reasonably fresh, unadulterated, natural foods in reasonable quantities. If butter is Good today I may have some; if it’s Bad today, and I want some, I’ll eat it anyway, knowing that it will be Good tomorrow.

  63. BillyJoe7 says:


    In other words, if the subject is too complicated, just throw up your hands and go with gut instinct?
    But now the assumption is that gut instinct is better than science. Where’s your evidence for that hypothesis?

    In fact there is a simple take home message regarding the extremely complicated topic of human nutrition and metabolism: eat a wide variety of foods, lots of fruits and vegetables, not too much fat. This will need to be modified if you have specific medical problems.

    “If the scientific community is appalled by all these oversimplifications, how about if some of you speak up?”

    Some of them are speaking up:
    The question is: are you willing to listen and learn?

    There are over one hundred articles at that link that distill what science can tell you about nutrition and that expose the extravagant and unjustified claims and outright scams made through the media by both medical and non medical media personalities.

  64. Bill Openthalt says:

    zorrobandito —

    You want certainties, and techniques you can learn today, and use the rest of your life without questioning. Scientific knowledge isn’t like that. It moves along a path, sometimes with dead ends, sometimes difficult to navigate, sometimes barely visible. It’s easy to stray off the path, as sometimes there is more money to be made, and more notoriety to be had by finding a nice clearing far off the path, and gather a bunch of followers.

    Nutrition and economics are notoriously difficult areas, as they involve humans. This means it is very difficult to conduct experiments, in addition to the huge variability introduced by the subjects. J K Galbraith quipped that economics was invented to make astrology look good, and as usual, his assessment is spot on. It tries (and often fails) to understand why the economy behaved as it behaved, and its predictions are woefully off the mark (to quote JKG again: economists accurately predicted 30 of the last 3 recessions).

    Nutrition is just as difficult — people are quite different in their reaction to foodstuffs (witness the poor folk allergic to strawberries), and the human body is remarkably effective in using whatever is put in its stomach. There are fads and weird beliefs galore, and always plenty of anecdotes to lure the public (and make money for the gurus).

    In addition, both fields are very badly served by the media. Journalists know the economy is an important subject, but most of them don’t understand the limitations of the field and present the current state of knowledge as a kind of gospel. Nutrition and health get an equally raw deal, with most reports prime examples of the “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” fallacy. In both cases things are made worse by politicians, who believe science (or more accurately “experts”) can give them reliable recipes for their policies.

    There is no quick way to the truth – only a long, winding path to better understanding.

  65. ccbowers says:


    Some have already addressed your post, and I’ll try to comment generally to your overall message. Both the dietary type questions and your economic questions have something in common… they are both complex questions with complex answers that people want simple answers for. I think the desire for a simple answer that does not exist is most of the problem in these areas.

    On one hand, I disagree with your description of economics and lack of consensus regarding the great depression. There were many ’causes’ of the great depression, and perhaps you are referring to a lack of consensus in the ranking the most important cause. This quibble seems unfair given the large number of contributing factors, and the tendency for differing opinions and personal biases to impact the relative weights given to different causes. There are probably many ways to alter those factors to mitigate the severity of the great depression, so in some sense having differing perspective is probably appropriate. This is a complex topic that goes beyond what we can cover here, but I think that there is decent agreement on the contributing factors.

    Regarding specific diet recommendations and science: An important reason why there seems to be a disconnect between the science and the pop culture coverage of the science is the nature of such studies and their limited application. There is an expectation among the general public that specific foods or nutrients should be discussed in an almost moralistic language, such as X is good or Y is bad.

    Many of the studies used to justify such simplistic language are basic science studies, or studies that measure some markers that correlate with other outcomes. This is problematic, because almost no actionable recommendations can be extrapolated from those types of studies individually. There is an additional problem besides that: individual foods and nutrients are not likely to have a significant impact on an individual’s health. That is because there aren’t really good or bad foods, but better and worse diets for certain outcomes. Unless your diet is very very homogenous, one specific food will have no measurable effect on any outcome. So in the end the recommendations are pretty general.

    Being general doesn’t sell like fear and fads so here we are.

    BJ7 says “eat a wide variety of foods, lots of fruits and vegetables, not too much fat.”

    Not bad, I would alter it slightly: eat a variety of foods, mostly fruits and vegetables, limit your intake of animal derived fats (excluding seafood), and don’t eat too much. Easier said than done. (Of course this advice is framed from the perspective of a person who is otherwise healthy with a “Western” diet.) There are definitely many ways to have a healthy diet, so more specific recommendations are difficult.

  66. zorrobandito says:

    I said, “In the meantime I will eat a balance of reasonably fresh, unadulterated, natural foods in reasonable quantities.”

    So I come out where you who are learned in the subject come out. Not bad for someone who is not trained in medicine.

    Remember the food groups? (I forget how many there were.) Then we went to the (in hindsight disastrous) “pyramid” under which we were supposed to emphasize carbs. Which a substantial group now thinks harmful. (Is this emphasis really bad? Who can say?) The government has not served us particularly well here.

    As someone pointed out, if the government is bad, the media is worse. Most of what most literate people “know” about nutrition comes from newspaper articles, which, in the last 30 years or so, have veered all over the lot, seldom with even a whiff of uncertainty, whereas in the science involved uncertainty apparently abounds.

  67. BillyJoe7 says:

    “I said, “In the meantime I will eat a balance of reasonably fresh, unadulterated, natural foods in reasonable quantities”

    In other words, you’ve learnt nothing.

    “So I come out where you who are learned in the subject come out”

    Unadulterated? Natural?

  68. zorrobandito says:


    Now I’m really confused. I thought I was agreeing with you, and now I hear that I have “learned nothing.”

    You said, “eat a wide variety of foods, lots of fruits and vegetables, not too much fat.” I thought that’s what I said.

    What was I supposed to learn?

    I’ve read labels on processed foods and I learn that there’s an awful lot of added salt and sugar in most of them, so I prefer fresh vegetables and fruits. Was I supposed to learn from you that this is not the right direction to go in? Foods with a lot of additives are better? (They’re certainly more expensive!)

    In general, on my principles as I stated them, soda pop, for example, would probably not be a good choice for a major part of my diet. You disagree?

    Variety in diet will give me a chance of getting the variety of nutrients I probably need. (You used the word “variety” yourself!) But now you don’t agree, you think I should pick one thing and stick to it, and if so, what would it be?

    Wow. I can’t even agree with you without being told that I’ve “learned nothing.”

  69. zorro – In your assessment of nutrition science, I think a bit of historical context would be useful. Nutrition science made many critical discoveries in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries – defining the macronutrients and their metabolism, identifying all the vitamins and other microntrients, what they do, and what deficiency syndromes result. This resulted in our understanding of what a well-balanced diet actually is, the benefits of fruits and vegetables, and some targetted fortification.

    Essentially, we solved all the big nutritional issues over 50 years ago. Now we are trying to tweak the diet in order to extend life expectancy a bit further, reduce risk of specific diseases. This is not so easy. This requires large and long term trials looking at many variables. Also, the stakes are actually not that high – quibbling over small net results.

    In the past 50 years we haven’t bounced all over the place as the lay press might make it seem. Rather, our knowledge has deepened. For example, looking at specific fats rather than all fat, and glycemic index rather than just carbs. We now understand the role of antioxidants much better. etc.

    As our knowledge has deepened, the lay press has tried to hype whatever the latest oversimplifcation happened to be (often taknig the form of “food X is good,” or “food Y is bad.” Such hyped oversimplifcations have bounced all over the place, but don’t confuse that for the underlying science.

    Also self-help and nutrition gurus have greatly muddied the waters. But there’s lots of money in this, so it won’t stop anytime soon.

    When we say – eat a varied diet, plenty of fruits and vegetables, reasonable calorie control – that will get you 95% of the way to an optimal diet, in terms of net health effects. Everything else is agonizing over the last 5%, and is probably not worth the effort or expense.

    Scientists do communicate this, but you can’t blame them for being drowned out by a sensational media and self-styled gurus getting rich. You won’t sell many books with that one line on nutrition – people want the magic answer.

  70. Noah says:

    Hey guys thanks very much for the responses, especially bronze dog. Bronze this is helpful but I’m trying to remember back to freshman chem – that was 15 years ago and I think I have taken way too many business classes since then!

    Is an ionic bond anything like a treasury bond? -sorry, stupid joke

    Thanks again, maybe Dr Novella will weigh in at some point on this topic in a post.


  71. lu_ming says:

    I’m tempted to contact her to tell her I’ve found some (R)-3,4-dihydroxy-5-((S)- 1,2-dihydroxyethyl)furan-2(5H)-one in my oranges and ask her to do something about it. I’d like to see how she reacts.

  72. the devils gummy bear says:

    Oh. My. Lord. The GMO/Monsanto web of conspiracies and the naturalistic fallacy, I can’t seem to escape this stuff in my otherwise critically thinking and scientifically literate circle of family and friends. I’m beginning to blame Bill Maher for the perpetuation of these things. We were watching Real Time last Friday, and I think he made two or three off the cuff GMO conspiracy comments in a row, and I literally facepalmed, but everyone else in the room with me was nodding along.

    I’m at a loss. The times I’ve tried to discuss these things when they’ve come up organically (eh), I’m either of accused of being grossly misinformed and misled by pro-Monsanto propaganda, or I’m accused of buying into right wing or libertarian so and so ideologies. I’ve given up, because any seed of skepticism I plant in these conversations is undone by an NPR blurb the next day, or a Salon blog post, or by Bill Maher on Friday nights.

    Good grief. I give up.

  73. mhmike says:

    I just wanted to make you aware of a couple legitimate concerns over propylene glycol;



    Also, you will find ethylene glycol or porpylene glycol in antifreeze products.


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