It is simply amazing how scary food has become. Everyplace you turn you are bombarded with questionable claims about this food or that one. How can I decide what to eat? How to decide what to buy?
There are so many rumors and superstitions and misinformation about foods that make this pretty confusing.
In this book, we go through many of the shibboleths of the food industry and tell you what the science actually says. We’ve reviewed a whole lot of recent scientific papers to get the most recent facts and in this book we explain them to you.
You might think that you would need to know a lot of biology, physics and chemistry to understand all the myths we’ve encountered, but really all you need is a little logic and a tiny bit of chemistry that we provide.
For the most part this book was fun to write because so much of these myths just aren’t true. We have a very safe food system, and there is very little to be concerned about.
I divided the book into several logical sections: scientific thought, kitchen foods, agriculture and biotechnology, and recent research.
Some of these chapters are updated version of articles I wrote for Examiner.com as the Fairfield County Food Examiner.
Enjoy the book as much as I did writing it.
James W Cooper
Wilton, CT 2014
1. The Two Cultures
The Rede Lecture
In 1959, the writer C.P. Snow (Sir Charles P. Snow) delivered the Rede lecture at Cambridge, titling it “The Two Cultures.” Snow was best known as a writer and novelist, but received an M.Sc. in chemistry from Leicester University and a Ph.D. in chemistry from Oxford in 1928.
He worked in the Cavendish Laboratory under Lord Rutherford, but after a setback on a paper on Vitamin A, he had to recant. He turned to literature, writing a number of successful novels, with the first, Death Under Sail published in 1932.
Snow’s main point in the lecture was the vast gap between those in the sciences and those in the literary world:
Two polar groups: at one pole we have the literary intellectuals, who incidentally when no one was looking took to referring themselves as ‘intellectuals’ as if there were no others.[…] Literary intellectuals at one pole — at the other scientists, and at the most representative, the physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension — sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding. They have a curious distorted image of each other. Their attitudes are so different that even on the level of emotion, they can’t find much common ground.
Snow’s thesis was based on his own observations as a trained scientist who became a successful writer, and he gave examples of two circles of friends who could not really converse because of this vast gap. The literati and the scientists had different vocabularies, interests and manners of speaking that rendered them completely foreign to each other.
The lecture made such an impact that it was published as a booklet and referred to constantly. In fact at the beginning of my science career, professors were still discussing it, even in the US. Snow revisited his remarks four year later and acknowledged that there might be more than two cultures, or even two thousand cultures. It is plain that he had completely neglected the social sciences, including economics, in his analysis. Likewise, government and politics were omitted. But, if you simply divide people into scientists and non-scientists you have come pretty close to what he meant.
In reviewing the letters he received in the four year period, Snow noted that
A few, a very few, of the criticisms have been loaded with personal abuse to an abnormal extent…
He didn’t rise to respond to this abuse other than to mention it in his “revisited” preface.
The Two Cultures in Today’s World
This review of Snow’s views may sound startlingly familiar. Of course, Snow acknowledged that his ideas had been batted about by others in the years before his lecture, but that at that exact moment the time was ripe for the impact his lecture had.
And what if he had given it today? Scientists still speak their own language, and do so as early as undergraduate school. Phrases like “asymptotic approach,” “DNA” and “Erlenmeyer” appear frequently in common student discourse. While this may be young people having fun with their new language, it develops into a set of linguistic tics over time and begins to establish barriers.
At social gatherings today just as in Snow’s day, people talk with others in their own educational circle, because they find both the jargon and the thought processes of other less comprehensible. And this leads to the division between two cultures that is only encouraged by this trivial social behavior.
But more important than who you have cocktails with is the issue of public policy. Can those seeking to make laws and those seeking to influence laws have a thoughtful discussion if they not only don’t understand the issues but don’t even understand the vocabulary?
How can we have a sober discussion of issues involving science when almost no legislators have scientific degrees or training?
Issues of energy policy, public health and biotechnology all some up regularly and are debated by those with the loudest voices or the most money. Can discussions even be held on these issues without discussing the science? Do legislators seek expert opinions on these issues before formulating laws? Increasingly, the answer is “no,” because they have no way to decide how such policies can be debated.
What about in our schools? Are teachers equipped to hold thoughtful scientific discussions of issues that affect our lives? To a large degree they are not. And even in very good school systems, teachers are loathe to speak out when they see policies that violate basic scientific principles, because they fear for their jobs. In fact, I talked just last year with one very good teacher in a very good school system who admitted that he could not take the science based stance he should because his administrators wouldn’t approve.
While you would think that the Internet should help people become more informed, it is frequently the case that activists and ideologues have taken over causes and washed away any chance of discovery of actual scientific facts because the Internet megaphone is so potent. In such instances, citizens are overwhelmed with information that may indeed be completely false, but repeated so loudly and frequently that it becomes difficult to discover what science actually says on an issue.
It is at that point that we realize that most people are not equipped to evaluate scientific-sounding claims and cannot distinguish real science from pseudo-science. Most have no idea how peer-reviewed research is conducted or what it means, with many taking refuge in the canard of “bought science,” despite the fact that bad science is generally weeded out in the review process.
What to Do
When confronted with a scientific-sounding report you need to consider where it is: a press release or a legitimate paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. They can do this without any special scientific training, but need to exhibit healthy skepticism about new claims never heard before that don’t seem to build on existing work. And the citizenry in general needs to seek out opinions from legitimate scientists, rather than accepting sensational reports.
And scientists need to do much more to bridge the Two Culture divide and make it understood why science is the only way we can gain knowledge. The fact that there are two cultures does not mean this is an acceptable state of affairs and members of both cultures need to do a much better job of communicating their knowledge. And of course, educators need to recognize the existence of the two cultures and adjust curricula to help produce a scientifically literate society.
And finally, lawmakers need to have trustworthy staff scientists to advise them in formulating new laws. It just isn’t acceptable to hold legislative hearings and not seek out testimony of scientists expert in the field at issue.
2. How Science Works
LOGICIAN: Here is an example of a syllogism. The cat has four paws. Isidore and Fricot both have four paws. Therefore Isidore and Fricot are cats.
OLD GENTLEMAN: My dog has got four paws.
LOGICIAN: Then it’s a cat.
What is science?
Science is the systematic study of the material world based on experiments and observation. We are going to start by talking about how science evolved, so you can see the logic of science as we encounter it in looking at food science and food myths. By understanding a bit about how science is carried out, you are better prepared to be a “food skeptic” about the wild new claims that come up almost every in the popular press and on line.
If you have never worked in science on a day to day basis you probably have sort of an overview of what scientists do, but probably haven’t heard as much as you might about how it all works. For the purposes of this chapter we’ll confine ourselves to the physical (laboratory) sciences: chemistry, biology and physics. There is plenty of interesting science going on in the social sciences as well, but they approach it somewhat differently because they deal directly with humans as subjects or in the aggregate.
Scientists try to find out things about nature in a systematic way that tries to eliminate bias and error. Today, we call this the scientific method, which began to be recognized by Newton, although many of its principles were practiced as early as Aristotle. The point is to approach every bit of science completely logically and try to eliminate natural human biases and errors.
Aristotle developed the syllogism, a ridiculous example of which is given above. But in non ridiculous cases, it was helpful to recognize that this sort of logical progression can be very useful.
Aristotle also developed principles of scientific knowledge, claiming that we have scientific knowledge when we know:
The cause why a thing is… and that it cannot be otherwise.
Then he claimed that
1. Only what is necessarily the case can be known scientifically
2. Scientific knowledge is knowledge of causes
Galileo was born in Pisa in 1564 to the musician and composer Vincenzo Galilei, and like his father became an accomplished lutenist. He is considered the father of observational astronomy and of modern physics and science in general. After his heliocentric views of the universe were challenged by the Roman inquisition, he was found guilty in 1633 and forbidden to publish further, but he began writing his great work Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences and eventually had it published in Holland in 1638. It was in this work that he summarized his thinking that became much of the basis of modern science.
He began by separating physical phenomena from our observation of them by saying that
If ears, tongues and noses were removed, I am of the opinion that shape, quantity and motion would remain but there would be an end to smells, tastes and sounds which …I take to be mere words.
Galileo adopted the approach that science, like mathematics, proceeds from simple axioms, which are clear self-evident truths. Then he explained that by deductive reasoning you can establish new truths. And unlike his predecessors who believed that such axioms came “from the mind,” Gallileo believed that these axioms must come from experience and experimentation rather than what the mind prefers.
These two giant leaps defined how all modern science proceeds.
Isaac Newton was born Lincolnshire County in England in 1642, the year Galileo died. In his hugely productive career he formulated much of the basis of mathematics and physics, developing much of the basis for calculus, the laws of motion, optics, mechanics, gravitation and dozens of other things.
But he also further developed the rules for scientific inquiry. Notably he proposed that you should:
1. Admit no more causes of natural things than are sufficient to explain them.
2. Assign the same causes to the same natural effects.
3. If all bodies we observe have the same properties we can assume these properties to be universal.
4. Assume that propositions collected by induction are true or very nearly true until other phenomena occur that make these propositions more accurate or lead to exceptions.
Note that this is the first mention of “induction,” or the formation of general principles by observing specific instances, and it plays a large part in formulating how biological and chemical systems work.
Interestingly enough, despite all the rigorous scientific principles Newton espoused, economist John Maynard Keynes found when he acquired Newton’s writing on alchemy that both alchemy and the occult occupied his thoughts, at a time when the separation between science and superstition was less clear. Keynes called Newton not “the first great scientist,” but “the last of the great magicians” instead.
Scientists have been conducting scientific experiments for hundreds of years, carefully working out their plans for how to understand physical phenomena. They recognize their own fallibility and try to design ways to eliminate human error.
Hypotheses and Theories
Scientists usually start with a proposed explanation, or hypothesis, and work to try to turn that hypothesis into a theory. Note that these words have fairly formal meanings in science, unlike their use in common discourse. An hypothesis is an idea to be proven. A theory is a formal explanation for a series of events that is logical and complete and explains all the facts at hand.
For example, scientists observed changes in the capabilities of animals from the fossil record, and also observe that we need to formulate new versions of the influenza vaccine each year. Looking at all these facts, and many more, scientists developed the theory of evolution. Evolution is not just an idea scientists are flirting with, it a theory that is the foundation of modern biology. All observed phenomena can be explained by this robust theory.
One important part of a theory was developed by Karl Popper. The theory must not only be provable, it must by falsifiable. There must be some set of events, however improbable, that if they occurred would show the theory to be false. Generally, you need only one such example.
For example, “No alien spaceships have ever landed in New Jersey,” can be falsified, if you find even one spaceship.
One of the easiest fallacies to fall into is called confirmation bias which describes ignoring all facts that don’t fit the hypothesis you have proposed. This frequently occurs in political discussions and is easy to stumble over in any kind of human experiment, but it can just as easily happen in the lab. The best way to eliminate it is to discuss your plans and preliminary findings with others, who will suggest ways to eliminate such hidden bias.
And whenever your experiments used human or animal subjects, you need to carry them out double blind so neither you nor the subject knows which sample they have received.
The other main logical fallacy is the confusion of correlation and causation. You can see that two events occur at the same time without saying either one causes the other. If we observe that people who drink diet sodas are overweight, for example, we cannot conclude that diet drinks lead to obesity. People who are overweight might naturally choose diet sodas.
Jim Walker compiled a complete list of common fallacies, shown in the reference list.
In addition, some of the most well-known bad arguments, more used in debating than science are covered in cartoon form in Ali Almossawi’s delightful book An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments.
Today, most scientific research is conducted by groups, either in a university setting or in an industrial research environment. Much of what goes on in chemistry and biology requires modern lab equipment and instruments, making it a fairly expensive undertaking.
To undertake research in either environment, you have to have a pretty good idea of what you are going to attempt and some sort of idea of the budget you’ll need. Then you’ll need to write up a research proposal to get funding for your idea. If you are working in an industrial lab this may actually be easier, since funding may just come from your department’s budget unless you need more people or equipment. In any case, you’ll have to explain to your management what you want to undertake and what it might cost in research time and equipment. It will probably be reviewed for both cost-effectiveness and scientific accuracy before you can proceed.
If you work in a university setting, you’ll need to write up a fairly complete research plan and budget and submit it to s funding agency, usually the NIH or the NSF. Here your proposal is read by as many as 5 independent scientists in your field and ranked for funding. This means that they believe that not only is your approach likely to succeed, but that the resulting science will be valuable.
The NSF funds about 25% of the proposals it receives from its $7 billon budget. The NIH funds about 28% of its proposals in the biomedical area, from a $26.4 billion budget.
Research can often be a multi-year effort, involving you, colleagues, students, technicians and frequently co-researchers from other institutions who have some complementary expertise. This research provides the primary vehicle for training of graduate students in the sciences and has led every year to major scientific discoveries.
Now, once you have some results, you have to publish them. Both academic and industrial scientists are expected to publish their work, and this turns out to be almost as hard as doing the work in the first place.
First you and your coworkers write up the paper. Often at this point you pass it around to some friends in your field for comments, to make sure you didn’t say anything incorrect or just plain dumb. Once you’ve made the suggested revisions, you prepare the final version and send it to a major journal in your field.
The journal editors look at it to see that it fits the topics their journal covers, and if it does, they select 2-5 outside reviewers who are experts in your field to review the paper for accuracy and scientific significance. This is a major hurdle. Almost all papers submitted go through several rounds of revisions based on the comment from the reviewers.
And, in many cases the papers are submitted to the reviewers anonymously, so that the reviewers won’t allow their biases for or against a particular scientist to influence their reviews.
Sometimes this review process not only involves rewriting, but additional research work to firmly establish the finding you are reporting.
If the editor and or the reviewers don’t like your paper, you can always try another journal, but it is better to try to get it published where you first submitted. If one of the reviewers is intransigent about the paper, the journal editor sometimes can overrule him, but don’t count on it.
Usually the peer review process strengthens your paper and makes it more persuasive.
Maybe industry paid for the paper?
When a paper is in a field where a lot of controversy has been generated, accusations often fly that the paper was paid for by the industry it covers, and thus is seriously suspect.
This doesn’t really happen very much, because the peer review process weeds out such bogus papers pretty quickly. If a referee notes that the research was partially funded by some pharmaceutical or biotechnology company, he will give the paper greater scrutiny to make sure that the science is solid.
And don’t forget, if one or more of the paper’s authors is an academic, where tenure and promotion are influenced by paper quality, publishing industry-funded festschrifts is not a path to career longevity.
Writer Marc Brazeau tackled this issue elegantly in his article in the Biofortified blog, noting that industry pays for studies because they want to find out the answers, not to receive a puff piece.
The National Library of Medicine
John Shaw Billings grew up in Indiana, not far from the Kentucky border and close to Cincinnati. He graduated from Miami University in nearby Oxford, OH in 1857, and from the Medical College of Ohio in Cincinnati in 1860. He served with distinction as a Civil War surgeon, and after the war he became head of the Surgeon General’s Library in Washington.
Billings spent 30 years in this position, developing the Army Medical Museum and Library into the National Library of Medicine (NLM). He developed a comprehensive index of medical scientific articles called the Index Medicus, first published in 1879 which was the core index of the National Library of medicine, as well as the Surgeon General’s Index Catalog. This was later referred to as the “most original and distinctive contribution to medicine in the world.” Billings left the NLM in 1895 and planned the Johns Hopkins Hospital and later planned and became the director of the New York Public Library.
Index Medicus continued for 125 years, until 2004, long after the information became available on line. The index catalog continued until 1961, with over 3.6 million entries in 61 volumes.
In 1957, the NLM began planning for a computerized database of this information under the direction of Frank Bradway Rogers. The system was called MEDLARS and was developed under contract by GE and originally ran on a Honeywell 800 computer.
In 1971, an on-line version of MEDLARS, called MEDLINE was developed which allowed you to search the collection, and as web browsers became available in 1996 a free web site for accessing Medline called PubMed was developed.
Medline is now online system that allows you search for titles and abstracts of biomedical journals. It was organized and funded by the National Library of Medicine and contains abstracts of some 19 million articles from 5600 journals back to 1946. In addition, to the title and author information, each article is indexed with standard Medical Subject Heading (MeSH) keywords. Older journals are in some 56 languages.
The journals in this database represent the most scientifically significant contributions, and represent just about all of the contributions in modern biomedicine.
Journals and the Evolution of PubMed
Publishing in scientific journals is not a lucrative activity. Authors and reviewers do not get paid for their work. Most of the major print-based journals work at least in part on a subscription model, where subscription fees and some advertising fund the publication expenses. And subscriptions to major journals can cost more than $2000 a year. Some journals also levy “page charges” for publication to cover these costs. These page charges vary with your ability to pay and whether you have grant funds to pay them from.
As the Internet began to grow, the lack of access to these technical papers became more and more frustrating. If the papers were available on line at all, they were behind paywalls accessible only to subscribers and libraries, who often had to subscribe to a package of journals to get the ones they wanted.
About this time, according to Michael Mechanic’s fascinating article in Mother Jones, Nobel prize winning cell biologist Harold Varmus took over the leadership of the NIH. Varmus and his colleague from Stanford, Patrick Brown, felt that since the NIH had paid for the research, that the papers describing this work should be freely available, and proposed that all agency funded research be available freely on line in an NIH-funded library.
Needless to say journal publishers were outraged at this attempt to put them out of business. And they put pressure on Congress to kill the proposal, and die it did.
A few months later a reduced proposal was introduced that would ask publishers to submit their articles to PubMed Central within 6 months, but since it was optional, few complied.
What finally broke the back of publisher’s resistance to PubMed was the proposal of a new financial model, where journals would publish free online articles and would collect publication fees from the author’s grants.
Of course, the major journals resisted this because their system had become very profitable. But Varmus, Brown and Michael Eisen persisted, launching the Public Library of Science (PLOS), followed eventually by PLOS Biology and PLOS Medicine. The major problem of journal influence, called impact factor was solved when several major scientists joined in contributing and as members of the editorial board. Finally, PLOS ONE was launched, which made no judgement about scientific importance, only that the papers were scientifically valid.
Finally, in 2007, Congress passed a bill requiring that publishers send all NIH funded papers to PubMed within 12 months. Today PubMed indexes thousands of journals and in addition provides access to the actual papers from many important journals as well as their abstracts.
If you read about a paper that was published in Nature, or Science, or PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Science) or major medical journals like the New England Journal of Medicine, or The Lancet, or JAMA you can be pretty sure that that paper was carefully written and peer-reviewed.
Of course there are many dozens of other major journals as well. But if a single study shows up in an otherwise significant journal that seems to be at odds with everything we thought we knew, you might see if there is any other confirming work, and wait until there is before taking it seriously.
One way to see if a new topic has been investigated at great length is to see if there are review articles on it that cite a number of papers. One really useful place to look is the Cochrane Reviews, which review a lot of major topics in biology and medicine where articles about foods and their potential dangers frequently appear.
Since Internet journals are so easy to found, there are now a plethora of them, of varying degrees of reliability. Some of them are quite good and some of them are Third World profit scams.
In a recent Science magazine John Bohannon describes how he created a fatally flawed fake science paper and sent it to 304 on-line “open access” journals of lesser repute.
So what Bohannon did was create 300 slightly different articles (using a sort of Science Mad Libs approach to fill in the blanks) but all with the same critical flaws, such as a figure that showed exactly the opposite of what the article claimed regarding dose-response.
Despite the claims that these journals were peer-reviewed, 157 accepted the paper and 98 rejected it. The rest have not been heard from and may be defunct.
Open access journals mostly provide free on line access to their contents, and recover their costs and make a profit by charging publication fees than can be up to several thousand dollars. While the article implies that this is a practice limited to shady on line journals such as the Journal of Nature Pharmaceuticals, many top drawer print journals also charge page fees to reduce the enormous cost of publishing technical articles.
Bohannon’s “sting” was called “flawed” by Martin Eve, writing in MedicalXPress, who points out that Bohannon singled out open access journals, when there were plenty of weak print journals who might have fallen for the scam as well. In fairness, Bohannon does note in the Coda to his article that he only eliminated print journals to make the task tractable, and he might have gotten the same result from questionable print journals.
Many of the journals Bohannon targeted were on Beall’s List, a list of questionable or predatory journals compiled by librarian Jeffrey Beall, and the rest from the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) which are supposed to be more reputable. Some were on both. A lot of the questionable journals, even though they purported to be American, were actually located in third world countries and were clearly in it for the money.
So what does this mean? Is a peer-reviewed science hopelessly compromised? Probably not, if you eliminate the obviously junk journals that spring up like mushrooms after the rain. One easy test is whether the journal has been indexed by PubMed, the journal abstracting service managed by the NIH. You would not find the specious Journal of Nature Pharmaceuticals there. (Although we understand it has now been shut down anyway). You can also look for the journal’s impact factor, which is a measure of the average number of citations made to articles in that journal by articles in other journals.
This, for example, would help you understand that the Journal of Organic Systems, which has published some controversial studies is not listed in PubMed, has no impact factor, and is supported by the Organic Federation of Australia
You might also be suspicious if you are looking at Volume 1, Number 1 of a journal, such as the previously unknown Journal of Hematology and Thromboembolic Diseases.
And finally, if you really are skeptical about some finding you never heard of before, wait before believing it. There will be further papers on the subject, expanding on it or explaining why the first report was in error or just plain wrong. Look for a review article on the subject and see of this fits in.
If you’ve ever tried to publish in a peer-reviewed journal, or acted as a referee for one (I’ve done both) then you know how hard the journal editors and the authors work to make the papers the best they can possibly be. Sometimes there are 4 or 5 or more back and forth revision requests before the paper reaches the journal’s standards, and sometimes you just get rejected. The quality of articles in most journals is very high indeed despite these pranks on low-level journals.
No discussion of science is complete without touching on pseudo-science as well. Pseudo-science comprises any of a set of practices which are not provable and are not backed by any theories. They cannot be disproved or falsified either, but many of them have been with us a long time, such as astrology, spiritualism, and homeopathy.
Astrology is an easy case, since the idea that our activities are controlled by the positions of planets and moons is hard to take seriously. It is just fantasy, and there are no theories involved. Astrology cannot be proven no disproven.
Likewise, spiritualism has no theories associated with it nor has it ever been proven to exist. And falsification is pretty difficult too.
Homeopathy is a bit different, in that it started out as a series of hypotheses by Samuel Hahnemann, who believed that extremely dilute solutions of “active substances” could be used for medical treatment. The dilution levels were so extreme, however, that not a single molecule of that active substance remained. Thus, there is no extant theory that explains how the absence of any molecules of a substance can be used for medical treatment. Again, no theories and given no theories, no way to falsify them.
Homeopathy does persist as a series of quack treatments, however, and some rational people believe in it. You will find an elegant critique of homeopathy on the reference pages of Science Based Medicine.
Pseudo-science also infests articles on diets and nutrition and unless you can confirm claims in such article by finding an article in an actual journal, you can probably ignore all of them.
But, as you begin to see, the boundary between science and pseudo-science is a fuzzy one, and the boundary moves over time as we learn more and more. Michael Shermer wrote an elegant article in Scientific American on pseudo-science, describing this moving boundary that is worth reading. And he describes pseudo-science in part by whether any theories have been generated that have stimulated scientists to work in that area.
1. Aristotle’s Logic. Plato, Stanford. stanford.io/s4dbI
2. Morris Klein, Mathematics for the Non-mathematician, bit.ly/17GgGRz
3. Paul Halsall, Modern History Sourcebook, Fordham University, bit.ly/1f8yHfZ
4. Keynes, John Maynard (1972). “Newton, the Man.” The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes Volume X. MacMillan St. Martin’s Press. pp. 363–4.
5. “Karl Popper,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philsophy, stanford.io/4PQxF
6. Jim Walker, “List of Common Fallacies,” bit.ly/1ih6G7
7. Ali Almossawi, An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments, bit.ly/13lxaIe
8. Marc Brazeau, “About those industry funded GMO studies…,” Biofortified blog, http://www.biofortified.org/2014/02/industry-funded-gmo-studies/
9. Michael Mechanic, “Steal this Research Paper: you already paid for it,” Mother Jones, Sept-Oct 2013, bit.ly/1fVNGJa
10. John Bohannon, “Who’s Afraid of Peer Review”, Science, Oct 2013, 342, 6154,pp 60-65. bit.ly/1bu5sDU
11. Michael Eisen, “I confess, I wrote the arsenic paper,” bit.ly/1aP0m0H
12. Felisa Wolf-Simon, et. al, “A Bacterium that can grow by Using Arsenic instead of Phosphorus,” Science Vol. 332 no. 6034 pp. 1163-1166, bit.ly/v0aJkv
13. Daniel Creasey, “Arsenic-life bacteria prefer phosphorus after all,” Nature, Oct 3, 2012, bit.ly/PSF0Fb
14. Martin Eve, “Flawed sting operation singles out open access journals,” MedicalXPress, Oct 4, 2013, bit.ly/19p9JRr
15. Jeffrey Beale, “List of Publishers,” Scholarly Open Access, bit.ly/xkOeNq
16. Directory of Open Access Journals, doaj.org
17. “Consumers Union statement on new long term study of feeding GE grains to pigs” bit.ly/117MyMa
18. Judy Carman, Howard Vlieger, et. al. “A long-term toxicology study on pigs fed a combined genetically modified (GM) soy and GM maize diet,” Journal of Organic Systems,8, 2013. bit.ly/17FtBo0
19. B P Mezzomo, et. al., “Hematology of Bacillus thuringiensis…,” Journal of Hematology & Thromboembolic Diseases, 1:1, 2013. bit.ly/1hzFVXe
20. “Homeopathy,” Science-Based Medicine, http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/reference/homeopathy/
21. Michael Shermer, “Pseudoscience,” Scientific American, August 11, 2011. http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/reference/homeopathy/
Let’s start out with a little kitchen science and make up some rock candy.
It’s pretty easy to make rock candy from sugar. All you have to do is mix two parts of sugar with one part of water, heat it in a saucepan until the sugar all dissolves and let it slowly cool. The sugar crystals will form on the bottom. But it is more fun if you put a piece of string or a toothpick into the solution for the sugar to crystallize on. This is called a nucleus. In 3 or 4 hours, you’ll see sugar crystals growing on the nucleus and eventually you can pull out the candy on the string to eat or to decorate with.
But, let’s suppose you wanted to experiment a little and wanted to make Lemonade Rock Candy, by adding a tsp or so of lemon juice to the sugar solution and letting it simmer for 10 minutes or so. When you let that one cool, nothing happens! No crystals form.
In our experimental candy making, we took one cup of sugar and half a cup of water and stirred them together and then heated until the solution was clear. We poured out half to make the rock candy, and then added lemon juice and simmered it with the other half. Then we let the two syrups cool with a toothpick added to form a crystal nucleus.
Surprisingly, while the sugar solution crystallized in a few hours all over the top of the pitcher, the other pitcher with the lemon juice did not form a single crystal, even after several days. Why is this? If you suggest that the lemon juice adds an impurity that prevents crystallization, you are partly right. But what’s going on is actually more interesting than that, and we’ll go back to Germany where some of the chemistry of sugar began to be understood in the mid to late 19th century.
4. Is there any good reason to buy organic?
In the previous chapters, we’ve looked at the development of the organic farming movement in Europe and the US. In general, organic farming and gardening seek to use fewer synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and more compost.
With the development of organic methods, it became easier to see the potential disadvantages of inorganic fertilizers. First, they are highly soluble, and can wash out of the soil and into streams if not contained. And of course, they are then no longer available to fertilize the plants. In addition, over-application of fertilizers can reduce the effectiveness of the mycorrhizae fungi in the soil, at least temporarily. These do grow back if the fertilizers are not continually reapplied, however.
Finally, it is certainly possible that overapplication of mineral fertilizers will result in dependency on them and along with overtilling can reduce the health of the soil.
As ideas for organic farming spread, farmers began to see a need for standards that they would all adhere to. At first, this took place through private regional associations, but in 1972 the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM.org) was formed. IFOAM started as a small group of volunteers to a widely regarded organization whose mission is “loading, uniting, and assisting the organic movement in its full diversity.”
In the 1990s the European Union formed EU-Eco and in the UK, the Soil Association set high organic standards. At the request of organic producers in the US, the National Organic Program was formed in 2001, and the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI.org) was formed to review possible materials for organic use.
There is no question that organic farmers are sincere and hardworking people who want to produce the very best food they can. From the supermarket manager’s view, the markups on organic produce may well be quite a bit more, making them significantly more profitable. You can find a nice discussion of organic markups in Stacy Mitchell’s article “Whole Foods Markup.”
But why buy organic foods? Are there any good reasons?
The Environmental Working Group
The Environmental Working Group is a small lobbying organization of do-gooders, taking positions on any number of issues where science affects society. Unfortunately, their positions are not well supported by science. Their 2009 position on the dangers of cell phone radiation is a prime example. As physicist Robert Park so clearly pointed out, microwave radiation is simply too weak to break any chemical bonds, and thus is not ionizing radiation,” and can’t conceivably cause cancer. And study after study confirms this. Nonetheless, the EWG even this year holds the position that cell phones are dangerous.
If you take a look at the EWG’s Board of Directors, you not find a single PhD scientist from any field. They are made up of environmental activist and other well-meaning people. And, unfortunately, the board includes the notorious purveyor of alternative medicine and other pseudo-science, Mark Hyman, MD. The only other board member with an advanced degree is a pediatrician, Harvey Karp, a specialist in well baby child care.
All of this lead-in is to bring up the EWG’s annual publication, the “Dirty Dozen.” Each year, the EWG analyzes USDA data on pesticide residues and comes up with the crops with the highest pesticide levels.
But in fact, the amount of pesticides found on conventional crops (even on the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen”) is orders of magnitude lower than the established safety levels.
In a 2011 peer-reviewed paper by Winter and Katz, they analyzed the same USDA data used by the EWG and compared it to the “chronic reference threshold,” the estimate of the amount of a chemical a person could be exposed to on a daily basis throughout a person’s lifetime without any appreciable risk.
All of the vegetables in this dirty dozen had residues thousands of times lower than this threshold, and furthermore, this same USDA data shows the 23% of organic vegetables had detectable, but equally low residues of these same pesticides.
So on that basis, synthetic pesticide residues are not a concern in any common agricultural crop in the US (or in any other major country, most likely). And in fact, a significant proportion of the organically raised crops had the same residues, perhaps because of over-spraying or other carelessness.
But these numbers do not even measure the botanical pesticides used on organic crops, which are allowed because they are of “natural” origin, not because they are safer. In fact some of the pesticides sprayed on organic crops are worse for you and the environment.
Rotenone is one of the worst, is toxic to fish and can induce Parkinson’s disease. Not all organic farmers spray these toxic, but approved pesticides, but neither do all conventional farmers. Christie Wilcox discusses this in Scientific American’s Mythbusting 101 blog. Here she notes that
1. Organic farmers do indeed spray their fields with insecticides; they are just ones that are approved by the Organic Standards Board.
2. Organic foods are no healthier
3. Organic farming is not better for the environment, and
4. It is not necessary that farming be “all or none” on organic farming approaches.
Figure 1 – Comparison of Organic and Conventional Crop Yields in 2012
The chart in (Figure 1) is reproduced from the article “The crop yield gap between organic and conventional agriculture.” In general, the data show that organic farms have yields no better than 80% of those of conventional farms, and as low as 59% for organic strawberries.
This, of course, makes them much more expensive to grow, and this cost is passed on to the consumer with no actual benefit. A similar conclusion is drawn in Seufert’s 2011 paper in Nature.
While the organic advocate publisher Rodale has created a report suggesting that organic farming techniques have higher yields, they admit that they have never published this work in any peer-reviewed journal.
Organic food is a niche market
The total US organic acreage is only about 0.5% of the current US cropland, and growth has slowed. Even if it continued at the rate before 2008, Savage projected that organic cropland would only be about 2.5% by 2050, and in fact in recent years there has been no real growth in organic croplands. This is shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2 – US Trend in Certified Organic Cropland
Organic Foods do not Reduce Cancer
This is probably no great surprise, considering Ames work on pesticide residues, but a 10 year study of some 620,00 middle-aged British women found that there was no relationship between the consumption of organic foods and the risk of all cancers. This was reported in Dr Arya Sharma’s web column and in the original paper by Bradbury, et. al., in the British Journal of Cancer.
There was a small but nearly statistically insignificant reduction in non-Hodgkin lymphoma, but this was more likely attributable to statistical chance than any plausible biological mechanism.
Much as it may disappoint organic partisans and idealists, there just aren’t any good reasons to buy organic crops over conventional ones.
• They are nutritionally identical.
• Conventional crops have pesticide levels well below any possible danger level even if you ate them daily, and the pesticides used on organic crops are actually more dangerous.
• Organic fungicides are considerably more dangerous.
• Organic crops have a more than 5 times larger carbon footprint because of greenhouse gases released by composting and because of the need to till organic crops.
• Organic crops are more expensive both because of lower productivity and supermarket price gouging.
Organic foods are not exactly a “scam,” but they have no real benefits to justify their high price. We recommend buying fresh foods from local farmers when you can, because you can at least ask how they were grown. And they will probably taste better, too.