Sweet Poison, Breastfeeding, Banned Foods, and Zombies

While I’ve spent way too much time this week responding to blog comments here on Skeptoid, I watched so many pieces of bad science flow through my social media feeds this week that it makes me weep knowing how poorly people understand the process of science. I don’t even have time to read my whole feed every day, so I wonder how many more I missed. So let me just summarize the few zombie junk science that I saw repeated this week – including the woo links so they can be appropriately flagged for Skeptic Action.


Fellow Blogger Josh DeWald covers this subject pretty thoroughly (for example here) on a regular basis. The evidence against aspartame is all anecdote, and doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. The usual culprit is the formaldehyde which is formed when aspartame is metabolized. However, nearly any food with sugar in it (even fresh fruit) will form some formaldehyde, even more than a few cans of diet soda. Our body can handle it just fine. With the exception of a very tiny subset of people who have a genetic variant where they lack the enzyme to break down one of the amino acids in aspartame, it is very safe at the levels normally consumed.

A blog post showed up multiple times on my timeline (Warning: woo link) which claimed a story about someone being cured of all of their health problems when she stopped drinking diet pop (yes pop for us in Minnesota). Dated September 2013, but it had the feeling of being much older…because it was a slightly modified version of the same story going around e-mail for 15 years. The urban legend section at about.com has the original post. If you are into matching games – go ahead and pull up both links and see how many direct copied quotes you find. I stopped after 10, and I wasn’t close to the end at all.

Don’t worry though. The “author” Rhonda Gessner will sell you a $4000+ water purifier to replace those diet sodas.


This was a story of the usual list of all the “benefits” of breastfeeding. The list included many health claims, and I will highlight a few and why they are bad science (or at least incomplete science).

  • Breastfeeding passes immunity to the baby - While it is true that antibodies are found in the breastmilk of mothers, there is no solid evidence these are active in the baby. It is still interesting, and perhaps there is a mechanism not yet found, but to this point there isn’t any evidence of this.
  • Breastfeeding reduces ear infections, asthma, and other childhood health problems - This is a true correlation. However, the problem with these studies is they do not control for socioeconomic status or other household conditions. This is, in fact, the problem with many breastfeeding studies is they do not account for other influences. We do know that household income and/or socioeconomic status influences if a child is breastfed and for how long. So perhaps having access to more resources also means the child has better healthcare and thus has less health problems. Better studies should be done to control for these factors.
  • Breastfeeding lowers the risk of SIDS - Same problem here. Lower socioeconomic status is a risk factor for SIDS. They also tend to breastfeed less. So it is unclear if there is some other factor at work, or if it is indeed the breastfeeding. The science is not clear.
  • Breastfeeding lowers the risk of breast cancer. In fact, a woman who breastfeeds for 8 years has nearly a 0% risk of breast cancer - 0%? Really? This is really overstated. A couple of meta studies have shown a small decrease in the risk for breast cancer, but not down to 0%. You can read more here.

There were other points in there too, most of which were very oversold and overstated. Certainly there is the cost savings, and many mothers do claim a certain bond it brings them with the baby. I am not discouraging breastfeeding, rather I take Harriet Hall’s take on it – “Breastfeeding Is Good but Maybe Not THAT Good.”

Note (update): I want to make it clear I am not discouraging breastfeeding. There are some small benefits to it that science has shown when the studies are taken in aggregate. I just don’t want the science to be misreported or reported incorrectly. Here, it is OK for medicine to apply the “precautionary principle.” There is little chance of harm (unless the mother is taking drugs or alcohol or has certain diseases) and there is possible benefit. My wife in her role as a labor and delivery nurse did encourage mothers to breastfeed. She also understood it was difficult for some mothers for many different reasons, including some pretty intense pain for some mothers (hence why in the past there were wet nurses). Go ahead and breastfeed, and understand there are many reasons why some mothers don’t – and they are not harming their child for not doing so.

10 American Foods Banned in Other Countries

Even when I try not to, I end up writing about Mercola. His same bad misinformation must get copied to hundreds of sites and reported like they are news. Here, the website Eat Local Grown reprinted a Mercola article full of bad science. I will highlight just a couple.

  • Milk and Dairy Products Laced with rBG – This is an easy one. Hell, the label right on the milk jug tells me its garbage – as well as the science. Every jug of milk I buy now tells me it comes from cows not treated with rBG. There is always an asterisk though which leads to a footnote stating that cows treated with rBG show no rGB in the milk. So if the concern is we would consume this hormone – we won’t. The science shows us that.
  • Processed Foods Containing Artificial Food Colors and Dyes - Food dyes, generally well tested and safe, seem to be a good target for groups that want to stir up controversy and claim some government conspiracy. Claims such as inducing hyperactivity in children are not well-controlled studies.As an aside – food coloring is interesting. One would think without it the food manufacturing cost would go down, meaning more profit for the company making the food. However, there is some evidence that the food doesn’t sell as well and kids won’t eat as much when it doesn’t look as expected. It is a very interesting science of how all of our senses play a role in how we eat.
  • Flame Retardant Drinks - Yes. Really. While true brominated vegetable oil was originally patented as a fire retardant, it is used in sports drinks and soft drinks. Certainly this is not the first time other uses are found for an invention. Mercola then goes on to explain how bromine is dangerous, but not BVO. This is like saying salt is dangerous because it contains chlorine or like what Konstantin Monastyrsky did in claiming PEG and ethylene glycol are equivalent.

What to do

I try to do my best to explain why these pieces are bad science to my family and friends. They are probably all sick of me commenting on every post like this, but I can’t help myself. I cannot let pseudoscience spread without trying to do something to stop it. I know I can’t completely stop it, but if I slow it down a little I hope to keep ahead of it.

Please help by joining Skeptic Action and rating these sites. It is free, voluntary, and something to do when you have a spare minute. No minimum participation required! Also make sure to keep a list of good links handy to debunk this stuff when people post it.

Back to trying to ignore my social media feeds…

About Eric Hall

A recent recipient of an MS in physics, I am beginning my new career as a college educator. I write about physics, other sciences, politics, education, and whatever else interests or concerns me. I am always working to be rational and reasonable, and I am always willing to improve my knowledge and change my mind when presented with new evidence.
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33 Responses to Sweet Poison, Breastfeeding, Banned Foods, and Zombies

  1. I’ve seen that list of 10 “Banned Foods” over and over, and it’s maddening. People just unthinkingly pass it along, probably without reading it.,

    • Karolyn says:

      It sure can’t hurt not to indulge in these foods.

      • Eric Hall says:

        Well sure, there is no real value nutritionally in drinking a diet pop. It is basically putting caffeine and sodium and not much else into our diet. One could argue that in limited amounts it is a way to add water to our diet too. But there is also a certain satisfaction from drinking a nice cold drink without the calorie load.

        • Karolyn says:

          That artificially sweetened soda tastes like crap! I drank it for many years, but since I stopped 12 years ago, I cannot stand it; and regular soda is way too sweet. I would rather have a nice iced tea sweetened with stevia or just a little real sugar.

  2. Siobhan says:

    Bugger, when I saw the title ‘Sweet Poison’, I thought you were going to address the book of that name by David Gillespie, which argues that fructose is a poison which is slowly killing us. Maybe next time ;)

      • Eric Hall says:

        I was here referring to aspartame, not HFCS. Certainly on average we can all use a few less calories via sugars – but HFCS is not special in the realm of sugar as far as the body is concerned.

    • Christian says:

      Me too. I was interested to see if it was being ‘debunked’, given that I read it, did it, and lost 20 kg in 2 months ( and have kept it off ). I think the book is a bit extreme at times, but the core advice appears to me to be sound.

      • Siobhan says:

        Did you see the Skeptoid post a few days ago about fad diets? It could be that you lost weight because in cutting out fructose, you reduced your overall caloric intake. You may well have achieved the same result by cutting out glucose, sucrose, or indeed going on any calorie-restricted diet.

        • Christian says:

          The *theory* is that sugar affects your appetite control, so you want to eat less. I’ve seen several stories on this, and when I tried it, it worked for me. I used to snack constantly and now I find I am full, most of the time. I don’t discount that it may be that I am full because I expected to be, but I have found that it works reliably for me, and stops working reliably, if I find I’ve eaten a reasonable amount of sugar, over a reasonable time ( but having some now and again appears to be fine ). Like I said, I know my one case is not proof of anything, and I don’t discount that perhaps it works because I believed it would ( although I admit I was dubious at first, I still don’t discount the placebo effect ). I lost weight because I eat a lot less. Stopping sugar was a big part of that, by definition it meant I stopped eating snacks and dessert, but I also found it helped me to be able to ‘hear’ when my stomach tells me it doesn’t need food.

  3. Christian says:

    For what it’s worth, my son was diagnosed with ADHD, and we found that removing certain food colourings from his diet, resolved the issue. I know correlation is not causality, but my own experience makes me prone to believe that for some kids, there is a reaction there. We could see the difference when he was fed ‘banned’ foods, even when we didn’t know ahead of time that he had been. But, if it was real, I would suggest it was real only in the case of a child with a specific issue, and not a general case for all kids.

  4. Gareth says:

    The abundance of Dr. Mercola based articles and news items emphasises how little effort most websites take in verifying their sources before publishing material. A sixty second reading of Mercola’s Wikipedia page is all it would take to ascertain that the man is a crackpot.

    • Karolyn says:

      Dr. Mercola is the person who played one of the biggest parts in the good health I enjoy today. Having been diagnosed with hepC 12 years ago, I did all my own research, and he was instrumental in my deciding against allopathic treatment of this disease. I have no doubt that had I undergone traditional treatment I would have been left with a plethora of lasting side effects. I had no symptoms of the disease and felt good at the time. As it stands, using good herbs and supplements and taking care of my health has resulted in lowering my viral load and feeling great!

      • Gareth says:

        I know nothing about that disease but I certainly wouldn’t claim that absolutly none of the treatments promoted by Dr. Mercola are effective. The word crackpot was probably far too strong, but my point is that some of the claims Dr. Mercola has made (some of which are listed on Wikipedia) are so dubious that any author should be very cautious when using him as a source of information.

      • Christian says:

        You’re claiming that using herbs, you cured Hepatitis ?

        • Karolyn says:

          I did not say I cured it. I did say, though, that my viral load, though it does fluctuate, went down and has consistently been low. Also, my second biopsy came out better than the first. My AST & ALT have also been consistently low all these years; and I continue to display no symptoms. Many people I came into contact with who had undergone treatment were left with horrendous lifelong side effects, even though they had no symptoms of hepatitis. That is much like what happens to cancer patients being cured of cancer but left with miserable disabilities for the rest of their lives due to chemo. To me, quality of life is the most important thing.

          • Christian says:

            OK, just trying to understand what you were saying, and confirming it was Hepatitis. I have never heard of people doing chemo and being disabled by it, although it’s possible (chemo works by killing cancer faster than it kills you). I did read this : http://www.hepatitis.va.gov/patient/treat/side-effects-single-page.asp it does not sound fun. I suspect that it’s possible that in your case, this treatment helped. Alternative treatments may work sometimes. But, if they were truly effective for the general population, they would not be alternative medicine, they’d just be medicine. Effective means ‘works the same for everyone, all the time’, not ‘worked for me’. I’m glad it did work for you, of course. As I said above, I stopped eating sugar and lost a ton of weight, and am a lot happier and healthier. I’m cautious though, some people who did what I did, become real zealots over it, and it’s not medicine, it doesn’t work the same for everyone, although it happened to work for me.

          • Karolyn says:

            Medicine doesn’t work the same for everyone either. There just is no one-size-fits-all. Re chemo side effects: I have been following the story of a little boy, 2 years old, who went through chemo last year and has beaten cancer. However, he suffers from several disabilities due to the chemo, including neuropathy, which he will have for the rest of his life. There are cures for cancer out there, like hemp oil; however, they are being quashed by the powers-that-be. Though I know I will be pooh-poohed for saying it, I truly believe that the pharmaceutical companies are not interested in cures because they would lose all the income they make from all the medications on the market. Just reading about the new cholesterol recommendations, which will put more and more people on statins. Why? Money!

          • Christian says:

            Ooops, replied in the wrong place :-)

            Medicine does work the same, given the same conditions. It’s not voodoo. You can be allergic to a medicine, or have other conditions to complicate things, but chemo is always chemo, and asprin is always asprin. Hemp oil does not cure cancer, that is crap. How could you ‘suppress’ it ? All you’d have to do, is go to a cancer ward, give people hemp oil, and get online and let people know. It’s self selecting. Some people go in to remission, and give credit to the hemp oil, other people die, and they are not around to tell their story. People with cancer are desperate, and the snake oil sellers prey on them, at least as much as the drug companies take an interest in making money from them. The difference is, the ‘alternatives’ have no FDA or other body they need to prove anything to, they create a website designed to appeal to those in desperation and suffering, and open a Paypal account.

            ‘Big pharma’ is made up of normal people, who go to work every day and hope they are doing good. People with their own health issues, and their own families, who would like to see sick people get better. Of course there’s a profit motive, but there’s no ‘let them die and milk them as they die’ motive, that’s just an insane narrative used to sell snake oil.

  5. Christian says:

    Medicine does work the same, given the same conditions. It’s not voodoo. You can be allergic to a medicine, or have other conditions to complicate things, but chemo is always chemo, and asprin is always asprin. Hemp oil does not cure cancer, that is crap. How could you ‘suppress’ it ? All you’d have to do, is go to a cancer ward, give people hemp oil, and get online and let people know. It’s self selecting. Some people go in to remission, and give credit to the hemp oil, other people die, and they are not around to tell their story. People with cancer are desperate, and the snake oil sellers prey on them, at least as much as the drug companies take an interest in making money from them. The difference is, the ‘alternatives’ have no FDA or other body they need to prove anything to, they create a website designed to appeal to those in desperation and suffering, and open a Paypal account.

    ‘Big pharma’ is made up of normal people, who go to work every day and hope they are doing good. People with their own health issues, and their own families, who would like to see sick people get better. Of course there’s a profit motive, but there’s no ‘let them die and milk them as they die’ motive, that’s just an insane narrative used to sell snake oil.

    • Karolyn says:

      I do not think people who risk their own freedom to help others qualify as “snake oil salesmen.” This link is just an introduction to Rick Simpson.
      There is much info on this man, including the video, available online.

      I do not trust the FDA. Lobbying by Big Pharma goes a long way. Look at all the mistakes they’ve made. Drugs kill more people, by far, than herbs and supplements. Were I to find out that I had cancer, I would not do chemo and know many people who feel the same. I’ve heard far too many stories of people who are diagnosed with cancer, go through one round of chemo and die. My mother is one of them. Chemo kills.

      • christian says:

        Drugs also CURE a lot more people than herbs. Cancer kills people. Chemo is a best shot, not a magic cure. I am sorry about your mother but you cannot know it was the chemo and not the cancer, and if she had chemo, odds are she would have died without it. Anecdotes are not science, they are self selecting. Lots of people have chemo and live, that’s why doctors prescribe it.

        I have no doubt that many people sellib g miracle cures are as sincere as they are wrong.

        • Karolyn says:

          Good article on Institutional Corruption re Big Pharma and the FDA. Dr. Mercola got his observations in this piece from an article in the Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics.

          • Eric Hall says:

            Funny that Mercola is so against lobbying and the corruption brought about by it when he continues to defend and benefits from a huge loophole in the FDAs regulatory oversight – http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/supplement-regulation-be-careful-what-you-wish-for/

            “Generally, manufacturers do not need to register their products with FDA nor get FDA approval before producing or selling dietary supplements.”

            So versus not very good oversight (which I believe is more a function of not enough funding primarily) – the supplements pushed by Mercola have no oversight. Not good.

          • Karolyn says:

            Actually, there is a push to OVER-regulate herbs and supplements. There are already far too many laws and regulations trying to protect us from ourselves. We don’t need more nanny start rules. This is supposed to be a free country. Why do we need so many regulations to control methods that have been used for 100s or even thousands of years? Sure, there are people who care for money more than people, and that goes for doctors, as well. That is why people need to educate themselves. We are in the unique position to have all the information we need right at our fingertips.

          • Christian says:

            Karolyn, the basic issue with the internet is that it tends to serve as a reinforcement engine. People who believe stupid things, find other people who believe the same things, and assume they must be right. Big pharma is out to get us, they don’t care at ALL about our health, but the people selling us ‘natural’ products at insane prices, only have our interests at heart. It’s a compelling narrative, if your politics lean towards wanting to believe it, but it’s nonsense.

            I mostly agree with you. Medical science works. Because it does things, it actually can do harm, if taken in the wrong ways. ‘Alternative medicine’ generally does nothing at all, and so, because it cannot do good, it also cannot do harm. There are some exceptions, though, some of these things actually do have reactions with other drugs and do things in our bodies, and it’s not reasonable to assume that everyone who takes them, knows if their blood pressure medication will interact with it ( for example ). What the author of the article you linked to wants, is for the ‘alternative quackery’ sector of the drug store to make lots of money selling lies, but to not be held accountable in any way for those few products they sell that actually do something and therefore need to be taken with care.

          • Karolyn says:

            Just your use of the word “stupid” to define some peoples’ beliefs is telling. That is your OPINION., as is the sentence “Alternative medicine generally does nothing at all.” Why is more and more alternate medicine being taught in medical school as an adjunct to allopathic medicine? Why does my doctor (who is very well versed and educated) support herbs and supplements to be used by her patients? Some supplements and herbs may be a bit expensive, but they cannot compare with the cost of prescription medication..

          • christian says:

            I apologise, my use of the word stupid was meant to be generic ( that is, of the Internet in general ). I doubt that real medical schools teach alternative medicine, if they did, it would not be alternative. What your doctor believes proves nothing, except that you would look for a doctor who believes such things. The scientific method is a fancy name for common sense. Almost all alternative medicines, when subjected to common sense tests, are found to do nothing.

          • Karolyn says:

            If you would do some investigation, you will find out that a much more holistic approach is being taken in medical schools. I was just speaking to a nurse who is working toward her NP about this very thing. As far as “Almost all alternative medicines, when subjected to common sense tests, are found to do nothing” goes, you are wrong. Where did a great deal of pharmaceuticals come from in the first place? Plants. Aspirin came from white willow bark. How has Chinese medicine lasted for 1000s of years? You would do well to learn a little bit more about alternative medicine before passing judgment. I am not a sheep and do not follow any methods blindly. We are very fortunate to easily be able to investigate all methods. I do not like what I see when it comes to pharmaceuticals; and other than for an occasional headache, do not use them.

          • Eric Hall says:

            I suggest the Skeptoid episode on “ancient” Chinese medicine – and see why it is used –


          • christian says:

            I am sure some medical schools teach such things and that you’d seek out those who attend them. I was going to bring up aspirin as an example of how traditional methods that actually work, are part of mainstream medicine. Chinese medicine was invented by the communists in order to give the people cheap care. Mao did not use it. He knew better and had access to real medicine. I have read a LOT about alternative medicine, that’s why I said nearly all alternative medicine does nothing. None does better than real medicine, but some do something. You assuming I am unread and a ‘sheep’ is exactly the sort of rallying call I’d expect from someone trying to push things that are proven not to work. Your personal narrative and what you think sounds nice does not change reality.

  6. Christian says:

    Interesting. Thanks, Eric, I don;t think I’d read that, although clearly I’d read something similar, in one of the books I’ve read that collates the history of double blind studies and their results when testing ‘alternative’ medicine. Karolyn, I feel like this has run it’s course. Just because something is written on the internet, does not make it true. If you’re determined to believe something, you’ll find a way, this is called cognitive dissonance. No matter what, the people who follow this blog are by definition people who question things and look for evidence ( and understand what real evidence is ). People like you find this place, I assume, from googling names of people who are discussed here, but, the discussion isn’t going to ever agree with you, and like I said, most people are using the internet not to learn, but to reinforce what they want to believe, and to feel that they must be right because there are links to pages that say what they believe. I’m not interested in fighting with you or upsetting you. I would have liked to open your eyes a little, but if that’s not likely to happen, I’d prefer to wish you well on your journey. I’m really sorry you lost your mother, and I can see how blaming the drug companies would help you to find meaning in a tragic and meaningless event, but, the scientific method is the ONLY dispassionate way to apply common sense to work out what is real. It’s the reason we’re able to establish facts and build on them, which is the reason you and I can talk on the internet at all. Your phone, your TV, your car, did not come about through ‘ancient methods’, but through the fact that human knowledge is constantly improving and refining. If you’re my age or older, then you know the world has changed a lot through the success of science to make new things. I have known people who remember a world without airplanes. This has been an amazing century or so. You can thank science for that, not ‘ancient wisdom’.

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