Debunking food myths

  • Health
  • Sunday, 16 Feb 2003


IT usually starts with a seemingly logical statement that gets circulated in the press, re-circulated by word of mouth, and, presto! before you can whip up a bowl of Maggi mee, a food myth becomes an iron-clad fact.  

Many food myths are either old wives’ tales carried too far, the results of improperly carried out research or just plain “common wisdom” that was overturned by modern science or upon further examination. Others are over-simplifications or poorly understood scientific research. Worse, some are deliberate marketing hype aimed at gullible consumers.  

Check out this list of 10 common food myths and see if you have been swallowing myths or facts. 


Curry in a hurry ... it's not true that spicy foods cuase stomach ulcers

Myth #1: Fresh is best when it comes to fruits and vegetables 

Fact: According to the American Dietetic Association, there is little difference in nutritional content between fresh, frozen or canned fruits and vegetables, depending on how the produce was handled. In fact, canned and frozen fruits and vegetables that were processed at their peak may contain more nutrients than fresh produce that is picked early to ensure it stays “fresh” when it reaches supermarkets.  

Also, canned produce takes less time to prepare and may induce people to eat more fruits and vegetables, a definite plus. 

One caveat, though: canned and frozen produce may have added salt or sugar, so check labels if you want to reduce your intake. 


Myth #2: Produce is best eaten raw 

Fact: Raw may be great for a crunchy apple or a green salad but some types of beans and root vegetables need to be cooked to remove toxins. Raw or undercooked red kidney beans produce a toxin called hemagluttinin, which may cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. Improperly prepared tapioca retains prussic acid, a neurotoxin that could prove deadly to unsuspecting consumers. In addition, cooking helps to kill off harmful bacteria like E. coli that may cause food poisoning. 

While some people believe in eating raw sprouts because of the “live enzymes”, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has repeatedly issued warnings, especially to young children, old people and people with compromised immune systems, against eating raw sprouts because of the risk from potentially fatal bacterial contamination.  

Also, according to the US FDA, the higher percentage of fruits and vegetables eaten raw is also one of the reasons for the higher number of food poisoning cases in the United States. 

Recent research has also shown that lycopene, the cancer-fighting compound in tomato, is released and better absorbed in the body when tomato is cooked with a little oil, providing another compelling reason to cook produce. 


Myth #3: Spicy foods cause stomach ulcers that could eventually lead to stomach cancers 

Fact: The burning sensation caused by an over-enthusiastic spicy meal may lead one to believe that spicy foods must have something to do with stomach ulcers. However, according to the US National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse and the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nine out of 10 ulcers are caused by infections from Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium. The rest are the result of long-term use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) such as aspirin and ibuprofen, commonly prescribed as pain medication. 

Stomach ulcers are not caused by spicy food, no matter how intuitive that seems. However, even though they don’t cause them, spicy food and stress may aggravate symptoms in some people with stomach ulcers. 


Myth #4: Organic foods are safer and better than conventional foods 

Fact: Practically all food safety agencies around the world agree that there is little evidence to support the view that organic foods are significantly different from conventional foods in terms of nutritional content or safety. 

When announcing the proposed rules for the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic seal, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said, “ ? the USDA certification is not meant to convey to consumers that organic food is superior, safer or more healthy than conventional food.”  

Similarly the British Food Standards Agency (FSA) asserts that there is not enough information to determine that “organic food is significantly different in terms of food safety and nutrition from conventional food.” 

In addition, the FSA adds, “while the number and prevalence of pesticide residues in organic produce is likely to be considerably lower than in conventional produce, it is not possible to state categorically that all organically produced food will be residue free.” 


Myth #5: Synthetic pesticide residues in food cause cancer 

Fact: According to the American Cancer Society, “? high doses of some of these chemicals (insecticides, herbicides, etc) have been shown to cause cancer in animals, but the very low concentrations found in some foods have not been associated with increased cancer risk. In fact, people who eat more fruits and vegetables, which may be contaminated with trace amounts of pesticides, generally have lower cancer risks than people who eat few fruits and vegetables.” 

Pesticides are a cancer risk only to workers exposed to higher levels of pesticides in industry or farming. Still, while some studies have linked higher cancer rates among farmers and farm workers exposed to certain pesticides, other studies have not found any association. Hence, pesticides are a cancer hazard only to people who are in contact with them directly, not end consumers who may consume trace amounts in their food.  

The American Cancer Society concludes: “When properly controlled, the minimal risks they (pesticides) pose are greatly overshadowed by the health benefits of a diverse diet rich in foods from plant sources.” 


Myth #6: Food additives are the main source of dangers in foods 

Fact: In practically all countries in the world, most food poisoning cases are caused by microbial contamination of food. Additives and chemicals – except in the occasional case of sabotage or mishandling – are rarely the cause of food poisoning. 

For instance in 1999, the CDC listed more than 25,286 cases of food-borne diseases. Chemical causes were responsible for only 104 of these cases, accounting for about 0.4%. The rest were caused by bacterial, viral, parasitic or a combination of factors. 

Advice on avoiding food poisoning from food safety agencies every where is basically the same: practise proper personal and kitchen hygiene, cook meat and seafood products thoroughly, avoid cross contamination between cooked and raw foods, refrigerate leftovers properly. You rarely see the advice “avoid foods with additives.” 


Myth #7: MSG causes many health problems including migraine, hair loss, hypertension and other immune system-related disorders 

Fact: Much maligned as the cause of “Chinese restaurant syndrome”, which purports to produce symptoms like dry mouth, giddiness and headaches, monosodium glutamate (MSG), a glutamate salt that does not impart any flavour on its own but acts as a flavour enhancer, has been a food myth staple for years. 

While research findings indicate glutamate injected into rats damaged their nerve cells, consumption of glutamate in food does not cause the same effects.  

As one of the most widely used food additives, many scientists have put MSG under the microscope to study its potential health effects. In 1995, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology concluded that only two groups of people would react adversely to MSG. The first are people who are intolerant of MSG in large quantities and people with severe, poorly controlled asthma 

For the first group, symptoms were usually short-term and benign. Later better-conducted studies disproved that MSG exacerbated asthma symptoms. 

Scare stories of people developing brain tumours, Alzheimer’s and other severe neurological diseases after prolonged consumption of MSG are all urban myths and have never been medically substantiated.  

Because of the extensive studies conducted on its potential health effects, the Joint Committee on Food additives of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation and World Health Organisation placed MSG in the safest category for food additives. 


Myth #8: All fat is bad 

Fact: With all the low-fat mantras we have been hearing, you would think that you’d have to cut fat in all forms from your diet. But unlike people, not all fats are created equal.  

Briefly, according to the American Dietetic Association’s primer on fats and oils, the “bad” fats are saturated fats found in animal fats and coconut oil. Then there are the “good” fats – mono and polyunsaturated fats found in most vegetable oils and seafood. The third class of fats, trans fatty acids, are formed when vegetable oils are processed into margarines and shortening. Trans fatty acids behave very much like saturated fats. 

While an excess of anything is a bad thing, research shows that a diet rich in monounsaturated fats like olive canola and peanut oil helps to lower “bad” cholesterol in the blood and prevents heart disease. At the same time, substituting saturated fats (in red meat for example) with polyunsaturated fats (in oily fish like salmon, cod and tuna) also helps to reduce bad cholesterol levels. So hold the santan, use canola or olive oil and eat fish instead of red meat for a healthy heart. 


Myth #9: Conventionally-reared chickens are injected with hormones 

Fact: Remember your mother or grandmother telling you men and boys shouldn’t eat chicken necks because they’ll make you grow breasts? The advice is one-part fact but, with changing times, it has become just another part myth. 

The use of hormones, which were implanted under the skin in the neck of chickens as a slow release pellet led to the advice that men and boys shouldn’t eat chicken necks. “It was probably practised in Malaysia but that was a long time ago,” says Assoc Prof Dr Zulkifli Idrus of Universit Putra Malaysia.  

The hormone, diethylstilpesprol, a female hormone, was used in the belief that it improved the birds’ growth. However, poultry farmers realised that the hormone only caused the birds to gain fat, not muscle, so the birds got fatter, not meatier. 

And, yes, it did have the nasty side-effect of causing female characteristics in men, like the development of breasts. Also, the hormones were carcinogenic.  

The practise has since been discontinued and Dr Zulkifli is sure that commercial chickens today do not contain hormones. Instead today poultry farmers use supplements like enzymes and probiotics to improve growth. “These supplements actually improve growth without the health effects on consumers,” says Dr Zulkifli.  


Myth #10: You can make water healthier by putting it through special treatment  

Fact: You may have heard the spiel – special filters that ionise, break up water clusters into smaller clusters, magnetise the water – all with “scientific” evidence and glowing testimonials that prove that these treated waters help to prevent and even cure diseases like cancer and aid in prolonging life and youth.  

What do you make of them? 

According to Dr Steven Lower, professor of Chemistry at Simon Fraser University in Canada, all these filters and machines are nothing more than a hugely successful marketing scam to get credulous consumers to part with their money.  

On his website set up specifically to debunk these water myths, the retired professor who has lectured on the chemistry of water says, “The market for ‘alternative’ health products is a large and growing one, aided partly by the general decline in science education and the attendant popularity of pseudoscientific beliefs and entertainments in popular culture?. More seriously, folks in truly poor or insecure health are also being taken in, often paying hundreds of dollars for worthless nostrums and devices that purport to energise, revitalise or restructure water so as to restore health, reverse ageing, and even improve the harmony of the world.” 

In other words, whether it’s “energy” water, ionised water or magnetised water, forget it. None of these claims are supported by peer-reviewed science.  

The website examines the science or, more often, pseudo-science, behind most of the filters and devices supposed to “improve” water in simple to understand language. So before you spend your hard-earned cash on more of these filters and devices, pay a visit to the professor’s website first. 

  • See Yee Ai has a Masters in Agricultural Science and has written extensively on science, health and food issus. 

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