Student Questions: Food Woo, Food Woo, and More Food Woo
There was nothing else I could call this episode. Every so often I answer questions sent in by students around the world, and this time, every single question had to do with a pseudoscientific food claim. Food woo is everywhere, and student demographics are heavily targeted by marketers. There's a hardly a young person anywhere who hasn't been bombarded by warnings ranging from "this food will kill you" all the way to "this food is a miracle cure", and everything in between. All of today's student questions can be answered with a single concept: Every food can be part of a healthy diet, or part of an unhealthy diet; and there's no such thing as a miracle food. Let's keep that in mind as we hear from our students:
MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is a flavoring agent originally developed from seaweed. As with so many other compounds, mountainous anecdotal evidence exists that certain people are sensitive to it or develop some reaction to food with MSG added. But there's a problem. MSG is a glutamic (gloo-TAM-ick) acid (as its name suggests), and glutamic acids are widespread in many foods, including virtually everything that contains protein. The supposed condition, called Chinese Restaurant Syndrome or MSG Symptom Complex, exists only from self-diagnosis reports and has never been medically described. Reported symptoms vary, but often include numbness or a jittery feeling.
But just because it's common, and just about everyone gets some in just about every meal, doesn't mean that a big dose of it (like a big spoonful mixed into your teriyaki sauce) won't cause a reaction in people who are susceptible. This has been tested, a number of times, in large, well-controlled, randomized trials. The result? Even people who self-identify as MSG sensitive no longer have consistent reactions when given food that they don't know whether or not it contains MSG; and numerous studies have conclusively found that MSG produces no long-term effects in anybody.
This is one of those conclusions that's hard to swallow because so many of us take MSG syndrome as a given, but the science shows that it simply doesn't exist.
Yet another food demonized as secretly poisonous. I've done a full episode on milk myths, mostly centering on the claims that unpasteurized milk is a miracle food, and the alleged evils of homogenization were well covered. Yes, homogenization does break up the large chunks of fat into smaller pieces, giving it a uniform consistency. But this is not a chemical difference, it's just finer chunks in the mix. The taste is different, just as eating a fried egg is different from eating a scrambled egg. You're still eating the same egg. You're still drinking the same milk.
And, there's plenty of proof that homogenized milk does not result in any increased cholesterol problems or weight gain. It's something that consumers have been calling for for a long time, and so lots of testing has been done. Check studies published in the Journal of Food Protection or the Journal of Dairy Research, and see the references on the full Skeptoid episode if you want to get all the data. Don't worry about it; it's nothing more than a personal taste preference.
Let's refer back to one of our starting theorems: There's no such thing as a miracle food. If you're weight lifting and want to build muscle, you need a lot of food: A lot of calories, a lot of proteins, a lot of everything your body uses to build itself. The idea that there's one supplement, or one protein type, or even a combination of several that will build your muscles faster is wrong. The biochemistry of your muscles is more complicated than that.
Your blood is your body's supply train. If you've worked out your muscles and they need raw materials to rebuild damaged fibers, the blood supplies those. When your blood becomes depleted of something, it gets it from your body's various stores — like your fat, your bone marrow, your lungs, your digestive system —whatever it needs to maintain its balanced supply inventory. There is no direct line to supercharge your muscles with protein; the body simply doesn't work that way.
If you're trying to build muscle by weightlifting, adding a bodybuilding supplement to your regular diet is probably better than adding nothing; but simply eating a whole lot of properly balanced meals is better still. Give your blood access to everything it needs, not just to one or two specific brands of miracle protein or amino acid. And don't skimp on the water, the single most important nutrient.
How Much Protein?
This is another really popular subject in bodybuilding circles. Everyone wants to maximize their body's available protein, but nobody wants to buy and eat more special protein powder than their body's going to use. Well, the 20 gram number is always going to be wrong, simply because everyone's a different size with a different amount of lean mass and different requirements based on all sorts of things. In addition, your digestive system is relatively slow, and this is for a good reason. A long, slow digestive tract smooths out the spikes of incoming nutrients from meals. Surprisingly, ignoring the effects of hunger and looking at it from a long-term perspective, most studies indicate no difference between people who eat one big meal a day and those who eat the same food spread out over a number of smaller meals and snacks.
The recommended daily allowance for protein is .8 grams per kilogram of body weight, but active bodybuilders (or hard workers like lumberjacks) may want to more than triple that to about 3 grams per kilogram. Despite concerns from some about damaging your kidneys through overwork, too much protein is not going to hurt you, regardless of whether you spread it out over a day or suck it down all at once in a giant protein shake.
Milk & Congestion
Would that there were a single food that could affect the outcome of a viral infection, but even in this popular folk-wisdom instance, it's not the case.
Perhaps the best study of this belief was done in 1990, with 60 people who volunteered to be given a cold virus. Researchers collected and weighed each subject's mucus output every day to see how much they were producing. Half drank a lot of milk each day; half didn't. It turned out that the milk drinkers did not produce any more mucus than normal, thus conclusively busting the myth.
However, subjects also reported subjectively on the severity of their cough and congestion. Those who stated they believed that milk would make congestion worse were also the same people who felt they suffered the most from cough and congestion, but there turned out to be no significant correlation between them and the subjects who produced more mucus. So, like so many phenomena, this particular snippet of folk wisdom also comes down to belief.
Soy & Fertility
And again, one more case where adding or eliminating a single food is thought to produce radical change in the body. And this one comes armed with supporting studies, and whole battalions of alternative-health websites promoting it. Notably, one study gave rats massive doses of isoflavones, a compound found in soy that mimics estrogen. Some developed irregular menstrual cycles, and many publications have attempted to extrapolate that into reduced fertility in humans who consume real-world amounts of isoflavones. Thus was born yet another Food Woo urban legend.
But reviews of all studies, rather than just a cherrypicked few, have found no reduction in fertility from consuming soy, nor any harm to babies who drink soy formula. No good research has ever found a reliable link between consuming soy and either fertility problems, menstrual cycle irregularity, breast cancer, or any other problems associated with estrogen and other hormones. This doesn't mean hopeful mothers should rush out and consume all the soy they can find, but it also doesn't mean they should worry about avoiding it.
Overall, the default reaction to all Food Woo that you hear should be extreme skepticism. At any given dinner party, at least half the people at the table will harbor a pet Food Woo belief whose source can probably be traced to a random claim on the Internet or a mass market paperback. Their pet beliefs are probably all different, yet if you look around the table, just about everyone will appear to be just about as generally healthy as everyone else. Any astounding factoid, making an unlikely claim that should result in half the world's population should be at death's door, should raise a red flag. Whenever you hear any claim that looks, sounds, and quacks like Food Woo, you should always be skeptical.
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