Decades ago, I became a fan of the ACSH long before becoming an occasional contributor. I was motivated by one clear point of reasoning. I found it next to impossible to locate a reliable source of health-related issues I had an interest in, as well as being able to recommend that source to students enrolled in my college course for continuing education purposes.
The easiest method I found to grade a web sites potential reliability was to do a word search for popular categories I was very familiar with, such as organic vs. conventionally grown food, antioxidants, free radicals, chemophobia, supplements, detox diets, anti-inflammatory foods, etc., and see how they handled these issues. I felt that if they addressed issues I was very familiar with poorly, they would be just as likely to handle the information in areas I was less familiar with in a similar way.
It did not take long to realize how difficult it is for the average consumer to sift through the quagmire of misinformation and try to make some sort of practical sense of the media’s take on the “science.” Today, I want to explain why the ACSH is so important to consumers.
A very popular source for nutritional news comes from Eat This Not That! (ETNT), who state they have 110 million annual readers.
“Inspired by The New York Times best-selling book series, Eat This, Not That! is a brand that's comprised of an award-winning team of journalists and board-certified experts, doctors, nutritionists, chefs, personal trainers, and dietitians who work together to bring you accurate, timely, informative, and actionable content on food, nutrition, dieting, weight loss, health, wellness, and more.”
Their specialists, all with the appropriate credentials, “ensure” the content of the material provided by ETNT is accurate. But even with their well-credentialed advisory board, ETNT would not have made my list as a reliable source of nutritional news.
This ETNT headline is based on a study in Environmental Pollution:
“One Major Effect of Eating Organic Food, New Study Says.” “If you grew up eating organic food, you may have had a leg up developmentally, research shows.”
Here are the words from the study itself:
“This study aims to systematically assess associations between a wide range of prenatal and childhood environmental exposures and cognition… life style factors were collected by questionnaires and included maternal smoking habits and alcohol use during pregnancy, maternal and child diet, child physical activity, child sleep and family social and economic capital during childhood.” …
…many prenatal and childhood environmental risk factors suggests that unfavorable child nutrition, family crowdedness and child indoor air pollution and environmental tobacco smoke exposures adversely and cross-sectionally associate with cognitive function.
…we found better scores in fluid intelligence and working memory with higher organic food intake and lower fast-food intake. Healthy diets (including organic food) are richer than fast food on brain necessary nutrients, such as fatty acids, vitamins and antioxidant substances, and may altogether enhance child cognitive function.”
I have discussed the inaccuracy of lifestyle questionnaires previously. It should be common sense that any child growing up in a higher socio-economic environment, where they have the overall greater availability of high-quality food, organic or not, along with educational opportunities and superior environmental surroundings, will have better cognitive development. Cherry-picking the occasional intake of organic produce as THE among the many variables involved in this study linked to good cognitive development is junk science reporting.
Antioxidants and Free Radicals
This ETNT Headline is based upon the personal opinions of the author:
“One Major Side Effect of Eating Tomatoes, Says Science. Did you know your pasta sauce could do this?”
Here are the author's words, again with my emphasis added:
“One of the reasons why we're such big fans of tomatoes is because eating them can result in one major side effect you can't really get by eating any other popular foods: fending off cellular-damaging free radicals thanks to tomatoes' high levels of lycopene, a powerful antioxidant.”
The article reflects a serious misunderstanding of the typical role of free radical production in cellular metabolism most plays, as well as the purported magical benefits of some isolated antioxidant compound we have debunked. The ETNT litany of articles on superfoods, which, like superman, do not exist, illustrates a serious lack of understanding of basic nutritional biochemistry. As pointed out in the ACSH article Superfoods Aren’t Real, “there are a nearly infinite combination of foods that you can eat to satisfy your body's dietary requirements.”
This ETNT Headline is based on a study in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism as well as interviews with supplement companies:
“The #1 Best Supplement To Take Before a Walk, Says Dietitian.”
Three claims are made here.
“…a registered dietitian at Balance One Supplements, says the best supplement to take before a walk is a vitamin B complex. …When it comes to ensuring you have optimal energy levels to keep your walking regimen going long-term, the first thing you should turn to is a B-complex supplement."
Why would you expect objective advice from someone selling supplements? And what exactly are optimal energy levels. Walking is undoubtedly good for you, especially for those experiencing low back pain, but walking three miles, roughly the distance easily covered in an hour, may require 300 calories of fuel from your body. (The caloric load in 5 Munchkins) Anyone who is unable to muster up enough energy to walk for an hour needs to see a doctor. Having enough B vitamins onboard is not going to be the issue.
"Extra B12 can help improve anyone's energy levels.”
B12 is extensively stored in the body; the excess is lost in our urine. It is a worthless supplement for anyone not diagnosed with B12 deficiency.
“A 2006 review published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism revealed that exercise may increase the requirements for vitamin B6.”
While true, it certainly does not mean you will need a supplement. The body has distinct mechanisms that compensate for any nutrient's increased needs—first, your body stores all nutrients to some degree, some more than others. I have highlighted this for vitamin C, as well as for all nutrients. Additionally, your body can increase absorption, reduce excretion, and resynthesize nutrients when needed – they are normal adaptations to protect us when food is not as plentiful, or our needs grow.
This ETNT Headline is based upon a study from Environmental Pollution:
“This Chemical Found in Groceries Kills More Than 90,000 People Every Year, New Study Finds
“You already know that you want to be thoughtful about the foods that you eat, but it turns out you may also want to look out for certain kinds of packaging materials, too. More specifically, it might be best to avoid foods packaged in plastic since exposure to phthalates, aka toxic chemicals found in many plastic food containers, could have serious health consequences. In fact, a new study finds that phthalates contribute to anywhere from 91,000 to 107,000 deaths per year.”
ACSH covered this same study in, Correlation Is Not Causation and stated the following.
“A significant shortcoming of the study is using participants with known cardiovascular disease or cancer at the beginning of the study. These participants would be more likely to die of these diseases than the other participants, skewing the study results. Apparently, the authors also recognized this, reanalyzing their data excluding these individuals, reducing the study to 3,951 participants. Interestingly, the results in this instance were only to be found in the supplement. The results now show no correlation between phthalates and cardiovascular deaths. They were not included in the discussion or the extrapolation of economic costs, making the reported numbers significantly overstated.”
By increasing the shelf life and the transportation distances, the food packaging and processing industry have increased the availability and reduced the waste of very perishable fresh food, which can be stored, shipped, and distributed to millions with limited seasonal food choices.
A Final thought
To be fair to ETNT and their readers, they do not just produce pointless and trivial articles. My overall point is whether they are reliable enough so that the average reader can be confident they are acquiring good information? In my opinion, they are not. Unfortunately, as with most media outlets, you need a degree in the field to discern if the information you just read is accurate, misdirected, or erroneous.
We live in a country where we are blessed with an overabundance of food, yet many experience grocery shopping as a potentially stressful and dangerous situation. For the worried, perhaps a non-GMO, unpasteurized, gluten-free, organic, anti-anxiety medication may be helpful before shopping. What a life!