When is a food myth not a myth?

January 16, 2013

At the end of 2012, the New York Times health writer Jane Brody published a list of supposedly misunderstood foodstuffs — including meat glue, trans fats, genetically modified food, and farmed salmon — and encouraged readers to embrace these foods.

In truth, the list came not from Brody but from Joe Schwarcz, a Canadian chemist who campaigns against “pseudoscience.” On the food-politics blog Civil Eats, Kristin Wartman pegged Schwarcz as pro-chemical and supported by Big Ag. In Wartman’s assessment, Schwarcz (and Brody) view the chemicals in modern foods (such as the nitrites and nitrates used to cure meats or the astaxanthin sometimes used to dye farmed salmon) as being either of negligible health concern or actually good for us.

So who’s right? For the casual reader, it can be very hard to figure out which science writer actually practices accurate science. Brody has written about health for the Times for decades. But science journalist Gary Taubes has roundly dismissed Brody’s work — particularly her emphasis on low-fat, low-salt diets — in his books.

Meanwhile, in a recent Columbia Journalism Review feature, science journalist David H. Freedman condemned Taubes (and health writers in general) for supposedly misleading the public. (Freedman replied to his critics in a follow-up article.)

Even the same website can post conflicting assessments, as the blog Food Safety News did recently with a lengthy diatribe in favor of antibiotic use in livestock followed by a swift rebuttal.

Sometimes the comments on such articles are enlightening; sometimes they’re just more confusing. Bottom line: Judge carefully, both the science writers and the "junk science" debunkers.

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