Confusion in the media

There is an article from August 11 in the New York Times by Gina Kolata called “We’re So Confused: The Problems With Food and Exercise Studies” that I feel I have to address. The gist of the article is that Food Science is inexact and there is conflicting scientific literature on many foods. The cornerstone of the article is a January 2013 article from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition entitled “Is Everything We Eat Associated With Cancer? A Systematic Cookbook Review“. In this article, two physicians selected 50 common foods from random recipes in a cookbook and did a meta-analysis of the scientific literature on those foods and found conflicting results. Ms. Kolata uses this and a few quotes from other physicians and researchers to conclude that Food Science in inexact and conclusions should be, pardon the phrase, taken with a grain of salt.

The problem here is that this isn’t really the whole story. There are two fundamental flaws in this logic.

First, it’s not really true for all foods. I issue a challenge to anyone who can find me an article that says that beans cause cancer. Let me expand that and say I’m unable to find articles that link ANY commonly consumed plants that cause cancer. Yes, you may find the odd link that suggests that pesticides or other chemicals sprayed on the plants may be harmful, but none to suggest that the foods themselves are carcinogenic. Please, flood my inbox and show me the error of my ways and I promise I’ll post anything you can dig up.

Second, the bigger problem is the media and the disconnect between how science works and how we want it to work. Science is a process, a long and tedious search for clues as to how things work. But our brains are not wired for this sort of process. We want answers; we want a story. If you want insight into how our brains work, there is no better work than Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow“. I know, it’s a big, hard book, but I promise it’s worth it. One of the recurrent themes of Kahneman’s work is that we always try to make a coherent story out of available facts, even if one does not exist. It’s the reason why you so often see headlines screaming the latest findings as if the story is told and the conclusions are in. But that’s not how science really works. Yes, every scientist (like every person) has a bias. Yes, they conduct research based upon those biases. But then they publish those findings, not (hopefully) because they believe their findings are necessarily THE TRUTH, but because we slowly discover the truth by retesting, again and again, until we decide that the original conclusion was correct or not. The problem, then, is the media, which takes every Food Science article and study as the gospel truth because it sells. I’m pretty sure not many people paid a lot of attention to the February 2016 article in the New York Times “Gravitation Waves Detected, Confirming Einstein’s Theory” which described how scientists recorded a sound that they believe proves the existence of gravitation waves, first described theoretically by Albert Einstein in 1915. It took 101 years to find data to substantiate the theory and the scientists conclude that more data is needed to confirm the finding. But because they are not claiming that gravitational waves cause cancer, or improve your health, there is not much media attention paid to this finding. There is no great story except the tedious research needed to weed out the truth.

Until we have sufficient evidence to actually back up the assertions made, we have to rely on imperfect science to guide us. I remind you of the best eating advice ever dispensed, 7 simple words:

“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Food, of course, refers to vegetables, fruits, whole grains and even meats (if you choose), but not “edible food-like substances (i.e. high fructose corn syrup)”.

Healthy fats?

olive-oil-and-olivesAbout two weeks ago I was looking for an interesting recipe for wheat berries. For those unfamiliar with wheat berries, it’s what is actually harvested from wheat. If you’re into it, you can buy wheat berries and grind them up in your coffee grinder (espresso setting) and make flour. They’re hard little nuggets that take forever to cook (at least an hour), but they have a nice, chewy texture, a nutty flavor and are, I think, an under used grain. After a bit of searching, I found a nice recipe for a wheat berry asian salad, if you’re interested, it can be found here. I made the salad as directed and it was, indeed, quite good. I added some marinated, baked tofu to the top and it was a winner, but I was a little worried about the amount of oil that the recipe has, 3 tablespoons of olive oil and 2 tablespoons of toasted sesame oil for 2 servings. Because I liked the flavor, I did some research on how to reduce the oil in the recipe and came up with the following substitution. I added 1 tablespoon of toasted sesame oil for flavor, then a 1/4 cup of sunflower nuts for additional flavor boost, then, in place of the 3 tablespoons of olive oil and the other tablespoon of sesame oil I used a quarter of a block of soft (non-GMO, of course!) tofu. The flavor was still great and I was rather pleased with the results. So pleased, in fact, that I went to the unusual step of returning to the web site and posting my substitutions for those who might be interested in reducing the fat content of the salad. To my surprise, the blogger responded to my comments:

Hi Matt, I’m glad you’ve been enjoying this salad. Keep in mind that 3 of the 5 tablespoons are extra virgin olive oil – unheated, raw and wonderfully healthy. No other oil has been as extensively studied as olive oil in terms of its health benefits. It’s been a core component of the Mediterranean diet for centuries. I always recommend being very choosy of the brand (buy locally pressed whenever possible) to make sure you’re getting a quality product.

If you look at the recipe, feel free to scroll down to the bottom of the page and read our exchange. But this got me to thinking about the her statement and the concept of “healthy fat”. Indeed, when I replied to that comment stating that there was a large body of evidence that shows limiting fat intake is a good goal, she responded:

Matt, there is a relatively small body of clinical research that suggests that healthy fats are bad. You’ve probably noticed that many of the doctors making these claims are citing the same few papers or their own clinical/anecdotal observations (e.g, Dr. Esselstyn). On the contrary, the greater body of research largely draws the opposite conclusions.

So, there it is again, “healthy fats”. Readers who have been reading this blog probably know that I have a semantic quibble with the application of “healthy” to foods. But I take it, from the use here, that there are people out there, and maybe a lot of them, that believe there is some distinct benefit to their health to be gained by eating certain fats, like olive oil. Let me dispel this myth.

There is no such thing as a healthy fat.

I would refer interested readers to this short video at Nutritionfacts.org looking at the effects of olive oil on arterial endothelial cell function. It turns out that olive oil, just like all fats, inhibits endothelial cells. Is that important? Yes. It is this inhibition of endothelial cell function that is the critical first step down the pathway to vascular disease including, but not limited to, cardiovascular disease.

But how about extra virgin olive oil? Isn’t that OK?

It’s better than most oils, but it’s an oil, just like all the other oils. There are a few compounds retained in EVOO, but they’re few and far between. The olives are “juiced” for their oil and some of the “healthy” qualities of the olive fruit are retained in that juice, but all of the water soluble goodness is then extracted, leaving only the fat behind. The only nutrients that are retained at this point (i.e. in the bottle) are those that are fat soluble. Thus, using olive oil is not comparable to eating olives.

But what about the Mediterranean diet?

The “traditional” Mediterranean diet is primarily plants and whole grain foods. Dipping your piece of white foccacia bread into olive oil, while tasty, is not a good practice nor is it part of a traditional Mediterranean diet. Having a large salad with veggies, olives, nuts, and lots of greens along with a reduced fat dressing along with some whole grain bread is clearly a more nutritious practice that will bestow benefits to your health.