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SKEPTOID BLOG:

Sweet Poison, Breastfeeding, Banned Foods, and Zombies

by Eric Hall

November 23, 2013

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Donate 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.

Aspartame

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.

Breastfeeding

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...

by Eric Hall

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