Wednesday, October 28, 2009

10 Modern Food Myths, Busted

Salt helps water boil faster. An avocado pit will keep guacamole from browning. Soda will eat through basically anything, Alien-style.

We’ll hear hundreds of food myths in our lifetime. Some, thank Snopes, will be inarguably disproved, while others will remain as persistent as head colds, altering both what we eat and how we cook. And still more myths will be made up as we go along, as technology develops and kitchens change with the times.

Today, we’re focusing on a few of those newer myths; modern-day legends spawned by newspapers, TV shows, and those accursed enemies of truth, e-mail forwards. Will açai berries speed up weight loss? Does microwaving plastic cause cancer? Are bananas really going the way of the dodo bird? We'll explore and answer these questions and more, once and for all.

When you’re done perusing the myths themselves, head on over to the comment section to continue the discussion. Do you agree with these verdicts? What are the most outrageous food myths you’ve ever heard? Which ones would you like answered, in addition to these? Do tell.

Disclaimer: Many of these myths deal with health and diet issues, so I took special care to cite reputable resources. However, I’m not a medical professional, and nothing should be taken as expert advice. If you have any questions about the following, please consult your doctor.

Myth: Açai berries will help you lose weight.
Ruling: False.
Why: You know those internet ads? The ones with pictures of generic-looking women claiming to have dropped 30 pounds in 30 days? Click on them, and many will take you to websites promoting açai berries. While the berries aren’t bad for you, there’s very little scientific data to back up those outrageous dietary claims. Açai have no more antioxidants than several more common fruits and vegetables, and won’t aid in weight loss more than any other berry. P.S. Oprah does not endorse acai berries.
Instead: If you’re concerned about antioxidants, try packing more blueberries, plums, kale, spinach, and strawberries into your meals. However, know that antioxidants aren’t particularly well researched yet, and that adding more produce to your diet will always promote better nutrition.

Myth: If a food is “made with” healthy ingredients, it is healthy.
Ruling: False.
Why: Something “Made with real pineapple!” or “Made with organic ingredients!” isn’t necessarily comprised 100% of that component. Take this Wal-Mart grape drink for example, which claims to be “made with real fruit juice!” Concentrated grape juice is only the third listed ingredient, behind water and high fructose corn syrup. “Made with” in this case, as in many others, is attached only to sell the product.
Instead: A whole food will almost always be healthier than its more processed counterpart. (Meaning: if you want something with fruit in it, eat a piece of fruit.) However, if you find a product you think you might like, read the ingredient list. It’ll give you all the information you need.

Myth: Drop food on the floor? No worries. If you eat it within five seconds of letting it fall, you’re good to go.
Ruling: Sadly, false.
Why: So famous it scored its own episode of Seinfeld, this cousin to the hallowed Five-Minute Rule claims that edibles can’t be contaminated by floor/ground germs if it’s snatched up fast enough. Alas and alack, it ain’t so. According to the New York Times, “Quick retrieval does mean fewer bacteria, but it’s no guarantee of safety.”
Instead: If it can be washed, wash it! If not … do you have a dog?

Myth: Water infused with vitamins or supplements is healthier than regular water.
Ruling: Usually false.
Why: Health claims made on infused water labels are almost never medically substantiated, and frequently, the drinks contain almost as many calories as soda. Even creators admit, “It’s 100 percent marketing.
Instead: If you’re in a rush and in the mood for something flavorful, try seltzers or bottled drinks with minimal added sugar and short ingredient lists. Or, y’know, pack a thermos of tap water. It’s healthy, plentiful, and free.

Myth: Baby carrots are treated with deadly chlorine, making them deadly orange spears of death. You can tell by the deadly white film that appears on their death-causing surfaces as they age.
Ruling: True, then false.
Why: This has been a popular e-mail forward the last year, so we’ll go straight to Snopes for the debunkification: baby carrots are just larger carrots cut up. And they can, in fact, be treated with chlorine. But so are lots of other ready-to-eat vegetables, and they’re all washed before being shipped to stores. The white stuff you see on older baby carrots (middle-aged carrots?) is merely their cut surfaces drying out.
Instead: If you’re still worried, buy full-sized carrots and cut them down yourself. It’s cheaper anyway.

Myth: Microwaving plastic causes cancer.
Ruling: Largely false.
Why: If the plastic is meant specifically for use in a microwave, there should be no problem. This comes straight from the American Cancer Society: “[The FDA] does say substances used to make plastics can leach into foods. But the agency has found the levels expected to migrate into foods to be well within the margin of safety based on information available to the agency. As for dioxin, the FDA says it has seen no evidence that plastic containers or films contain dioxins and knows of no reason why they would.”
Instead: While I wouldn’t nuke a container unintended for the microwave (like a peanut butter jar or hummus tub), go ahead and use the other stuff. Still unconvinced? Try a glass microwaveable dish or bowl.

Myth: “If I can do this, anyone can!”
Ruling: Well…
Why: I love The Biggest Loser, largely for its central message: if the contestants can drop 5, 10, or even 15 pounds each week, us Joe Sixpacks can, too. And to a certain extent, it’s true; with the correct exercise regimen and diet, many people will lose weight over time. However (and here’s the catch), it’s highly unlikely it will be at Biggest Loser pace. BL participants shed quickly - maybe too quickly - for three reasons: first, the ranch is a closed culture. Family, friends, work, and other daily responsibilities aren’t around for distraction. Second, the BLs are in the gym eight hours a day, have their food closely monitored by the show, and receive multiple forms of psychological support. And finally, most are very large to begin with, which means they’ll lose more from week to week anyway. A 410-pound man can drop 22 pounds in a week. A 130-pound woman should not, unless she’s giving birth.
Instead: Keep watching! It’s a good show. But when it comes to your personal approach, keep in mind that moderation is everything.

Myth: A cardboard cup of Tasti D-Lite vanilla dessert contains only 40 calories.
Ruling: False.
Why: Back in 2002, the New York Times discovered it was actually between 140 and 225 calories. (Other flavors held even more.) The dessert was made differently in each store and serving sizes varied, explaining the discrepancy. As a result, Tasti had to tone down its ad campaign, and now lists all the real nutritional numbers on its website. CremaLita, a competitor, had similar false advertising issues.
Instead: Eat small portions of real ice cream, and maybe scale back on the Skinny Cow. Weight Watchers isn’t too happy with them right now.

Myth: In ten years, there will be no bananas.
Ruling: Well, maybe.
Why: In 2005, Popular Science published a piece about the potential extinction of the Cavendish banana, the varietal Americans have come to know and love/slip on in random parking lots. Writer Dan Koeppel argued the Cavendish is particularly susceptible to fungus, which would eventually wipe it out. While this may occur, it’s not expected for quite awhile. In that time, scientists could find another banana resistant to disease, as they did 50 years ago, when the Gros Michel banana was replaced by the Cavendish in supermarkets. Beyond that, a fungus presumably wouldn’t affect other kinds of bananas, of which there are dozens.
Instead: Eat apples?

Myth: If you use coupons the right way, supermarkets will owe you cash.
Ruling: Sometimes true.
Why: We’ve all seen folks like Frugal Coupon Mom on Oprah or Today. They’re the people who go grocery shopping, hand the checkout girl a few slips of paper, and come back with $25 or five free bags of groceries. And while there’s no doubt this is possible, it’s almost entirely dependent on location and time. Geographically speaking, if there’s no nearby supermarket with double or triple coupon days, you’re at an automatic disadvantage. Time-wise, you have to be prepared to devote several hours a week to couponing, making it the equivalent of a part-time job. Again, this is entirely possible, and even preferable for some families, but for most, those kind of savings simply aren’t feasible.
Instead: Shop wisely. Make a list. Buy loss leaders. Purchase food in-season. Stick to the perimeter of the supermarket. Use coupons judiciously.

And for kicks, an extra special bonus!

Myth: Everything you’ve ever read in an e-mail forward.
Ruling: Varies, but largely false.
Why: When it comes to a food forward, take it with a grain of salt. Even if it looks truthy. Even if someone writes, “I checked Snopes, and this is 100% correct!” Even if the Pope sends one to you. Because odds are 99 to 1 that it’s untrue, or at least grossly misrepresented. Onions will not protect against swine flu, Korean soup producers are not soliciting American animal shelters for ingredients, and McDonalds shakes ARE made with dairy products. (Apologies to the lactose-intolerant.)
Instead: If you want information on food or are sufficiently frightened by the contents of a forward, check Snopes or Google the matter. And speaking for all your friends and family, don’t pass on any any e-mail without verifying its accuracy first. That’s how “White House Won’t Allow Christmas Ornaments” rumors get started. (*Hits head on table*)

And that's it. Folks, the comment section is open. Or, for more fun food myths, check out some of these guys:


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(Photos courtesy of [bellies], Flickr member terry_tu [baby carrots], and Wikimedia Commons [banana].)

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