Information Key to Overcoming Food Fears

The way some bloggers and commentators talk about food and the ingredients that go into it, I sometimes start to hear the theme from "Jaws" in my head. News reports literally warn of the dangers "lurking" in our food, like a mugger crouched behind a dumpster. The rhetoric is almost always alarmist, inaccurate, and lacking in context.

"Azodicarbonamide, which is used in bread, is also used in yoga mats!" Well, yes. But ADA, as it's also called, is a dough conditioner that is quite safe (except possibly when you inhale it in copious amounts, but you can say that about even the most benign of things). It was used in bread first, and for decades with no known, legitimate ill effects. Some consumer products actually switched from using environmentally unfriendly chemicals to using ADA because it is better for Mother Nature but still gives yoga mats the sponginess that keeps your toes comfy when you're doing your chaturanga.

"Some artificial food colors are made from petroleum!" Well, sort of. But consuming Yellow #5 or Yellow #6 is a far cry from drinking straight from the gas pump. Petroleum comprises complex molecules that can be broken down into other things, some toxic and some beneficial. Vitamins A, B-6, and B-9, for example. No matter whether a particular molecule is found in nature or synthesized in a lab, it is still exactly the same molecule.

"Brominated vegetable oil, which is in some beverages, contains bromine, which can be toxic if inhaled!" Brominated vegetable oil (BVO) is used in some citrus drinks to keep the citrus flavor from separating out and floating to the top. You know what can also be toxic? Chlorine. But it's also found in ordinary table salt. Phosphorus is found in fireworks, but it's also a crucial component of DNA.

The fact is that everything is a chemical, or is composed of chemicals—even "natural" foods. That broccoli you just popped into your mouth? It is chockfull of sulfur, which is in fact essential to life, but it's also used to make gunpowder and shampoo. That lettuce you just scarfed down? It's replete with nitrogen, which is also found in rocket fuel, explosives, and cyanide. (You can see where logic begins to break down and the hilarious reductio ad absurdum of it all.)

Brian Wansink of Cornell University recently wrote about a study that looked into what types of people are most susceptible to food fears. Not surprisingly, one characteristic they share is a tendency to get more of their information from the Internet. Yes, I realize the irony in cautioning people about what they read on the Internet, but the website you're reading right now conveys information that is evidence-based, reflective of the totality of science, and backed up by some of the most preeminent experts in their respective fields, scientific and medical societies, and government regulators.

On the other hand, some of the most popular websites offering up "health" information are run by wacky conspiracy theorists and the modern equivalent of snake oil salesmen.

A little fear can be a good thing. It keeps us from falling off buildings or climbing into the tiger cage at the zoo—or most of us, anyway.

But unfounded fears about what's in our food can lead to changes in our diets that can then cause nutritional deficiencies. And that alarmism crosses a line when it restricts the food choices of the rest of us who understand why certain ingredients are in foods, their benefits, and the body of science and knowledge regarding their safety.