Deconstructing food fads

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Deconstructing food fads
Dr. Joe Schwarcz busts myths and misconceptions about food and nutrition

By Erin Ruddy

Dr. Joe Schwarcz is both a scientist and a food lover. As the Director of McGill University’s “Office of Science and Society” he is well-known throughout Canada, and specifically in Montreal, for his entertaining and informative public lectures on topics ranging from the chemistry of love to the science of aging.

Dr. Schwarcz will be presenting a lecture on the mass confusion surrounding food and nutrition at the National Baking Industry Show and Conference on May 3rd in Toronto. For a taste of his perspective, we asked him to comment on the following food fads and myths:

Gluten-free

“For celiac patients, this is not a fad. For these people there is no question that eating gluten can be harmful, if not life threatening. That said, only about 1% of the population suffers from celiac disease. Another 7% or so may have “non-celiac gluten sensitivity” and claim they feel better after eliminating gluten despite having normal biopsies and blood tests. There is controversy about such a diagnosis due to the possibility of a psychological component. The reality is that for over 90% of the population, eliminating gluten does not make sense.”

Eating for cancer prevention

“There is a lot of evidence showing that geographic and environmental factors can contribute to some cancers. In other words, it isn’t always genetic. When Asians move to Canada, for example, they may develop new cancer forms that weren’t prevalent in their home country. It is possible that some consumer products, and of course pollution, play a role. Epidemiologic studies show that having a plant-based diet leads to lower incidences of cancer. But what is the cause of cancer? It is difficult to say. We do know that when anti-oxidants are consumed in pill form rather than in food, it doesn’t work. Quite simply, eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is a good thing to do.”

Food additives

“Food additives are strictly regulated in Canada and U.S. A manufacturer can’t simply decide to add a new colour or flavour to enhance a product’s taste or appeal. All food additives come with extensive data research and studies. It is possible that a specific person can have a reaction to a food additive just as some people have adverse reactions to things like peanuts or fish – but you are less likely to have reaction to additives than to natural foods. That said, foods loaded with additives typically aren’t the most nutritious to begin with, and maybe therein lies the problem.”

Artificial sweeteners

“There has been more research on artificial sweeteners than any other food-related area. There is overwhelming evidence here that aside from the odd, isolated reaction, artificial sweeteners pose no problem. On the other hand, they have not done what they were supposed to do—and that is solve the problem of obesity. Whether some products cause an increase in cravings, or whether people who use them reward themselves by eating more, data shows that obesity has been increasing despite the use of artificial sweeteners. Also, there is one inherent problem with aspartame—for people who have the rare condition in which they can’t properly break down an amino acid called phenylalanine, those people may have an adverse reaction and should stay away.”

Diets promoting anti-aging

“I don’t know of anything that prevents aging. If I did I would be doing it myself. But healthy diets rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains are best, no question. High salt, high fat diets are conducive to all sorts of conditions.”

Juice diets for “detox”

“Anything that uses the word ‘detox’ is a total scam. That’s all there is to it. Our bodies are equipped with kidneys and livers for the sole purpose of removing toxins. Juice diets make all kinds of claims that aren’t founded in truth. If you see the word ‘detox’ run the other way.”

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