Food vs ‘Food’: how pseudo-science is affecting the food industry

As a food professional who has worked in the industry for several years, I’ve always been fascinated at how food and the food industry can present such a vast array of opinions and evoke such a passionate response from the general public. There are people who fervently believe that a gluten free diet is the key to weight management, people who believe that carbohydrates are the cause of modern day obesity and people who believe that organic food offers the most nutritional benefits over non-organic food – the list goes on and on.

Yet for every one of these strongly held beliefs, you can find an army of people willing to argue against them.

The science community, on the other hand, has a relatively unanimous view on most of these polarising topics.  In my experience, there tends to be greater consistency on diet and health issues amongst food scientists, unsurprisingly since pure science has been applied to unequivocally confirm or refute many popular food myths.

So how does this affect the unassuming individual who is trying to determine whether something is beneficial for their health?

Let’s assume someone is looking for information on whether dairy foods have beneficial health properties. This person is likely to start with an internet search which inevitably means they will find a plethora of information with many conflicting points of view. It must be noted that science itself might have led to the conflicting information and subsequent confusion. Being relatively slow moving, science has spent a lot of time playing catch-up debunking myths, such as chocolate causing acne (NOT true), that originated from scientific shortfalls or old wives tales.

Food blogging or advertising are also major causes of conflict. These mediums are dynamic, unregulated and freely available. I’ve come across certain food bloggers who sprout poorly researched statistics and ‘facts’ disguised by the use of pseudo-scientific terms to make them sound somewhat credible.

For example, did you know dihydrogen monoxide had a 100 percent fatality rate yet we consume this chemical on a daily basis? That would be shocking if it simply wasn’t just another name for water.

Horticulturist Dr Kevin Folta aptly stated that social media can often be “more powerful than science itself, more powerful than reason, more powerful than actually knowing what you’re talking about”.

The amount of bloggers writing about food and the food industry is proliferating at a supersonic rate, perhaps more so than some other industries. You rarely hear about people offering their opinion on whether the second law of thermodynamics is actually consistent with scientific evolution principles, unless of course it somehow connects to whether it will help you lose weight or cause cancer upon consumption.

So how does having a confused or relatively poorly informed general public affect the food manufacturing industry?

Many of the players within the food industry thrive on confusion amongst consumers (especially as they can often create it). Conversely they can also be negatively impacted. There have been many instances which have forced them to make significant investments to keep up with the latest food ‘scandal’ or food trend. This can include changing specific ingredients, changing their marketing strategy (have you noticed how oats is now called a ‘superfood’?) or removing the latest additive found to be loosely linked to health hazards such as cancer or heart disease.

Two recent examples spring to mind – permeate and MSG, both ingredients that I have had personal experience with.

Permeate is a dairy by-product consisting of natural lactose, vitamins and minerals separated from milk by ultrafiltration. In order to comply with food standards, where nutritional labelling must be within 10 percent accuracy, milk manufacturers use permeate to standardise milk composition as it fluctuates naturally amongst seasons. Undeniably, it does also offer significant cost savings as it prevents unnecessary giveaway of fat and protein (the costly parts of milk). Science has confirmed that milk with permeate offers comparable taste, nutritional content and functionality to standard pasteurized milk. Yet recent media exposés have claimed permeate milk is ‘watered down’ and offers reduced nutritional benefits. This has caused outcry amongst consumers and has subsequently prompted manufacturers to remove permeate from all their products, costing dairy companies tens of millions of dollars a year.

Better known as monosodium glutamate, MSG has had a bad reputation stemming from the 1960s ever since a letter from a doctor published in the New England Journal of Medicine attributed health issues to Chinese food as a result of the MSG contained therein. This was quickly followed by poorly executed animal studies which involved injecting extremely high dosages of MSG under the skin of animals, completely at odds with how humans consume it. Over the past few decades science has campaigned to dispel this food myth by solidly proving that glutamate is a natural occurring substance in food and the human body. They’ve also found it is unlikely to cause any undesirable health effects such as allergies. Yet despite the array of scientific studies available, the public perception of MSG still remains poor and as a result the prominence of “MSG-free” labelling is increasing.

At the end of the day, I am a big advocate of creating a better understanding of the food we eat, helping people understand that a food myth is really just that – myth. Perhaps this is because I take it personally when a favorite food group of mine, such as dairy, attracts unwarranted criticism despite solid scientific facts disputing the opposite. Many people forget that food is in fact a form of science – probably because it is so ingrained in our everyday lives and highly commoditised.

The Australian Government recently announced ‘food’ as the number 1 strategic research priority for the country. This is not surprising given the global population is likely to outgrow food supply in this lifetime or the next. It is extremely important we begin to rely on science to be our main source of truth.

Anna has a Bachelor of Engineering (Hons), majoring in Chemical Engineering and Bachelor of Science, majoring in Biochemistry.

 

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14 thoughts on “Food vs ‘Food’: how pseudo-science is affecting the food industry

  1. Vaughan O'Leary

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    Interesting article Anna! Goes to show the power of social media and how opinion rather than fact is very often communicated and treated as gospel.

  2. Yes Deniece you’re right. I know exactly which blogger you’re referring to, she’s infamous within the science community.

    1. She’s incredibly infamous. This blogger claimed that the air inside the pressurised cabins of planes is not “real air” and that they pump up to 50% Nitrogen into the cabin. Ignoring the fact that normal atmospheric air is 78% Nitrogen.

  3. and any “chemicals” in foods are evil…. I think it was last year that Subway in the US had to change their bread formulations because a food blogger made a big fuss about a blowing agent (azodicarbonamide) they used baking their bread, which happens to also be used in certain plastics manufacturing…

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