Food as snake oil: ‘diet gurus’ hook us with religion veiled in science

With full respect to Kurt Vonnegut, I listen to the ethical pronouncements of the leaders of the church of organic and am able to distill only two firm commandments from them. The first commandment is this: Stop thinking. The second commandment is this: Obey. Only a person who has given up on the power of reason to improve life here on earth, or a soldier in basic training, could accept either commandment gladly.

vonnegut.back.to.schoolFood is 21st century snake oil. In an era of unprecedented affluence, consumers now choose among a cacophony of low‑fat, enhanced‑nutrient staples reflecting a range of political statements and perceived lifestyle preferences, far beyond dolphin‑free tuna.

And to go with the Salt Spring Island goat cheese, the all‑organic carrots and the Snapple-laced echinacea is a veritable sideshow of hucksters and buskers, flogging their wares to the highest bidder ‑‑ these things always cost a premium ‑‑ or at least the most fashionable.

In 2001, the U.K. Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) upheld four complaints against claims in a Soil Association leaflet entitled Five Reasons To Eat Organic. The ASA ruled there was no evidence that, contrary to the assertions of the Soil Association, that consumers could taste the difference, that organic was healthy, that it was better for the environment, and that organic meant healthy, happy animals. On one claim, the Soil Association responded that 53% of people buying organic produce did so because they thought it was healthy. The ASA rightly ruled this did not constitute any sort of clinical or scientific evidence.

Alan Levinovitz writes for NPR that from Paleo to vegan to raw, nutrition gurus package their advice as sound, settled science. It doesn’t matter whether meat is blamed for colon cancer or grains are called out as fattening poison — there’s no shortage of citations and technical terms (tertiary amines, gliadin, ketogenesis) to back up the claims.

But as a scholar of religion, it’s become increasingly clear to me that when it comes to fad diets, science is often just a veneer. Peel it away and you find timeless myths and superstitions, used to reinforce narratives of good and evil that give meaning to people’s lives and the illusion of control over their well-being.

Take the grain-free monks of ancient China. (My specialty is classical Chinese thought.) Like all diet gurus, these monks used a time-tested formula. They mocked the culinary culture around them, which depended on the so-called wugu, or “five grains.”

According to the monks’ radical teachings, conventional grain-laden Chinese diets “rotted and befouled” your organs, leading to early disease and death. By avoiding the five grains, you could achieve perfect health, immortality, clear skin, the ability to fly and teleport. Well, not quite. To fully realize the benefits of the monks’ diet, you also had to take proprietary supplements, highly technical alchemical preparations that only a select few knew how to make. All of this may sound eerily familiar: Look no further than modern anti-grain polemics like Dr. David Perlmutter’s Grain Brain — complete with its own recommended supplement regimen.

Despite basic logic and evidence to the contrary, the philosophy of the grain-free monks gained popularity. That’s because then, as now, the appeal of dietary fads had much to do with myths, not facts. Chief among these is the myth of “paradise past,” an appealing fiction about a time when everyone was happy and healthy, until they ate the wrong food and fell from grace.

hucksterThe mythic narrative of “unnatural” modernity and a “natural” paradise past is persuasive as ever. Religious figures like Adam and Eve have been replaced by Paleolithic man and our grandparents: “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” is journalist Michael Pollan’s oft-quoted line.

The story also has a powerful moral dimension. It’s the Prince of Evil, after all, who tempted Eve. Once secularized, Satan reappears as corporations and scientists who feed us chemical additives, modern grains and GMOs, the “toxic” fruits of sin. (No matter if science doesn’t agree that any of these things are very toxic.)

Paradise past. Good and evil. Benevolent Nature with a capital N. The promise of nutritional salvation. After you’ve constructed a compellingly simple narrative foundation, all you have to do is wrap your chosen diet in scientific rhetoric.

For Chinese monks, that rhetoric involved “five phases theory.” For ancient Greeks and Romans it was “humors” — four fluids thought to be the basis of human health. Now it is peer-reviewed studies. Thankfully for diet gurus, the literature of nutrition science is vague, vast and highly contested — just like religious texts — making it easy to cherry-pick whatever data confirm your biases.

Australia and raw milk: delusion continues

Controversial south-west farmer Swampy Marshnice handle — has opened up another front in his battle with bureaucracy, this time over his sale of raw unpasteurised milk to Melbourne farmers’ markets and health food shops.

swampy's.organic.farmMr Marsh is challenging Dairy Food Safety Victoria to take him to court over his refusal to comply with the new licence conditions that require raw milk to be treated in a manner that deters people from drinking it.

Mr Marsh said he was selling the raw milk for cosmetic use and it was not his concern if people drank it.

“Once they buy it, they can do what they like with it,” he said.

The new licence conditions, which require raw milk suppliers to change its taste, texture or aroma to deter human consumption, were introduced following the death of a three-year-old child on the Mornington Peninsula last December after consuming raw milk.

Four other children, aged between one and five, also became ill after drinking raw milk late last year.

But Mr Marsh claimed the child who died had terminal cancer and the death had “nothing to do with milk.”

Dr Rosemary Lester, who was the Victorian chief health officer at the time of the child’s death, said the child died from hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which affects the kidneys and the bloodstream.

Mr Marsh said he sold about 1,000 litres of raw milk each week to Melbourne outlets, such as farmers’ markets and organic food groups.

The raw milk came from two milk producers in the south-west, he said.

It was a sideline to his sales in Melbourne of organic eggs and other grades of eggs, Mr Marsh said.

He had been selling the raw milk in Melbourne for about 20 years and “drinking it for about 65 years”, he said.

Top-10 kingpin in borders of your hometown: Canada has world-class food safety system?

It’s been 10 years since I left Canada.

And the longer I’m away, the cuter it becomes: I want to send the country a fruit basket.

Stuart Smyth, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s bioresource policy, business and economics department, said “Canada has one of the top, if not the top, food safety systems in the world. Other countries look to our regulatory system as a model of food safety. Many developing countries just don’t have the fiscal resources to have the level of quality and control that we do in Canada to ensure that the food products that are available for purchase in our grocery stores are as safe as they possibly can be.”

Smyth’s assessment mirrors that of a 2014 Conference Board of Canada report, which ranked Canada’s food safety performance first among 17 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The report, which surveyed the country’s ability to assess, control and mitigate risks, cited a low number of reported food-borne illnesses and recalls as a reason for the top billing.

Nosestretcher alert: Smyth said a regular food safety issue in Canada is related to organic foods.

“Thousands of cases a year of food illness are triggered from organic products,” he said. “It’s largely due to the process of them using manure slurry as fertilizer and coming down to improper household food preparations in terms of making sure that they’re properly washing organic food.”

That is complete manure slurry.

Organic juice bar employee has hep A in Toronto

I don’t do juice bars.

big.carrotI’ll take my fruit whole.

And I don’t want it organic.

Toronto Public Health is advising anyone who consumed juice at the Big Carrot organic juice bar located at 348 Danforth Avenue in Toronto, Ontario, between March 17, 2015 and April 2, 2015 that they may have been exposed to hepatitis A.  While the risk is low, individuals who consumed fresh organic juice from this food market during these dates should get a hepatitis A vaccination as soon as possible.

An employee of the Big Carrot organic juice bar is a confirmed case of hepatitis A and anyone who consumed fresh juice at the organic juice bar between March 17, 2015 and April 2, 2015 could be at risk of infection.  Toronto Public Health is asking anyone who consumed organic fresh juice at the organic juice bar during these dates to monitor for signs and symptoms, practice thorough hand washing and contact their health care provider if concerned.

 

Listeria in spinach prompts recalls

Listeria in organic spinach has prompted at least two companies to recall frozen meals.

listeria.amy's.kitchenAmy’s Kitchen, Inc. is voluntarily recalling approximately 73,897 cases of select code dates and manufacturing codes of products.

Gluten-free, dairy-free, GMO-free in Amy’s kitchen, but maybe Listeria.

And Wegmans Organic Food You Feel Good About Just Picked Spinach (frozen), 12oz after Twin City Foods, Inc (Wegmans’ supplier) said the spinach may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

Feel-good spinach, now with Listeria.

Organic spinach dip recalled for Listeria in Calif.Organic spinach dip recalled for Listeria in Calif.

La Terra Fina is issuing a voluntary recall of its Organic Spinach Dip due to a potential health risk from Listeria exposure. The recall of product available in Bay Area Costco stores is a precaution. This is the only product that has been impacted and there have been no reports of illness.LTF157_Organic Spinach DIP 24OZ_V5

Product Name: La Terra Fina Organic Thick &

Creamy Spinach Dip & Spread,

24-ounce tub

UPC Code: 640410513730

Best-By Date: 3/24/2015, 4/01/2015, 4/14/2015, 4/20/2015

Salmonella in Trader Joe’s walnuts

Trader Joe’s Company is recalling Raw Walnuts because these products have the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella.

ucm438493The recalled Trader Joe’s Raw Walnuts were distributed to Trader Joe’s stores nationwide.

The products are packaged in clear plastic bags with the UPC Codes printed on the back. For the Raw California Walnut products, the “BEST BY” dates and Lot Numbers can be found printed on the back of the packages. For the Organic Raw Walnut products, the “BEST BY” dates can be found printed on the front of the packages.

The potential for contamination was noted after routine testing by an outside company contracted by the FDA revealed the presence of Salmonella in certain packages of Trader Joe’s Raw Walnuts.

Out of an abundance of caution, Trader Joe’s removed all lots of these products from store shelves and will suspend sale of these products while the FDA and the manufacturers involved continue their investigation into the source of the problem.

To date, Trader Joe’s Company has not received any illness complaints related to these recalled products.

 

Salmonella risk in Frontier Co-op organic garlic powder

Frontier Co-op is voluntarily recalling several of its products manufactured with organic garlic powder that were sold under its Frontier and Simply Organic brands, and one product sold under the Whole Foods Market brand due to potential Salmonella contamination. To date, no illnesses have been associated with these products.

frontier.garlic.powderThe product in question was raw material received by Frontier, which tested positive for Salmonella during a test by the United States Food and Drug Administration. Given that Salmonella may be present, Frontier is immediately initiating this recall.

Frontier Co-op is immediately initiating added precautions to the safety of the supply chain and instituting additional product testing, beyond FDA guidelines, to mitigate any future occurrence.

Go Salmonella: Go Raw brand Organic Spicy Seed Mix recalled

Ecomax Nutrition is recalling Go Raw brand Organic Spicy Seed Mix from the marketplace due to possible Salmonella contamination. Consumers should not consume the recalled product.

go.raw.seed.salmThere have been no reported illnesses associated with the consumption of this product.

This recall was triggered by Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) test results. The CFIA is conducting a food safety investigation, which may lead to the recall of other products. 

It’s what consumers do and why food safety should be marketed at retail: China goes organic amid food scandals

An organic food craze is emerging among China’s urbanites as food safety scandals spur the younger generation toward alternative ways to buy fresh produce and meat.

organic-manure1So far, organic foods’ penetration into China appears small, accounting for 1.01 percent of total food consumption, but that’s nearly triple 2007’s 0.36 percent, according to data from organic trade fair Biofach.

A series of high-profile food scandals over the past seven years has been a primary catalyst for growth in the organic food market. Biofach expects the segment’s share of China’s overall food market to hit 2 percent this year.

China was ranked as one of the world’s worst safety-violation offenders by American food consulting firm Food Sentry this year. In 2013, 3,000 pig carcasses were seen floating in Shanghai’s Huangpu river, one of the city’s key sources of drinking water. A few months later, reports that a Beijing crime ring was selling rat and fox meat as lamb sparked international outrage, resulting in the arrest of more than 900 people.

The trouble continued in 2014, with the Chinese affiliate of U.S. meat supplier OSI Group accused of using expired meat. OSI caters to major fast-food chains such as McDonald’s and Yum Group’s KFC operating on the mainland. Wal-Mart was also dragged into the limelight this year following revelations that its donkey meat product contained fox meat. Most recently, Subway also came under scrutiny after Chinese media reported in late December that workers at a Beijing franchise changed expiry dates on meat and vegetables to extend their use.

The rise of organic food is also expected to draw support from government officials prioritizing nutrition and environment to spur domestic consumption in a country where focus has traditionally always been on industrial growth.