Coffee today is like God in the Old Testament: it will either save you or kill you, depending on how much you believe in its magic powers.
John Oliver, comedian.
I think the way to live your life is to find the study that sounds best to you, and to go with that.
Some anchor guy.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, nutritional science is a mess. In its defense however, we may be expecting too much from it.
By its own nature, scientific research is slow and imperfect. In one word: it’s cumulative. There’s no such thing as the ultimate study, as each study builds upon what came before, and will be a stepping stone for the next.
We, on the other hand, are always looking for clear-cut and definitive answers to extremely complex issues: what food can cause or prevent cancer, bring our biological clock back, or give us mental and physical superpowers?
A certain type of health journalism knows that all too well, and feeds us catchy headlines with oversimplified explanations, if not distorted facts. If you want to see it in action, and also laugh your head off in the process, watch this episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver:
Here are a couple of examples from the monologue.
Wine equals exercise study (00:40″)
The headline: A Glass Of Red Wine Is The Equivalent To An Hour At The Gym.
What the study actually says: resveratrol is found in grapes and also in red wine. Research found that it produces similar effects to those of physical exercise, but you should probably drink a lot more than one glass to get the effects described in the study.
Chocolate and pregnancy study (5:21″)
The Headline: Chocolate is GOOD for pregnant women: Doctors say it has a ‘positive impact on placenta and fetal growth.’
What the study says: “chocolate could have a positive impact on placenta and fetal growth and development.”
Farts and cancer study (6:55″)
Time’s headline read: “Scientists Say Smelling Farts Might Prevent Cancer.” The study did not say any of that, which is why the original article was replaced by a completely different one. However, you can read the original here (thanks Waybackmachine!).
Here’s the press release of the study: just scroll down to the note from the authors at the very end.
Dumpster diving, coming soon to the back of a Starbucks near you
They go by the name of freegans. They go out in the evening, looking for edible food in dumpsters outside supermarkets, restaurants and cafes. It’s not that they don’t have the means to buy it, it’s just that they can’t stand the idea of so much good food going to waste.
Call them scavengers or urban gatherers, but the amount of fresh food that restaurants and cafeterias throw out for apparently no good reason is hard to deny. The pictures in the article tell all.
Are GMOs safe? Time to ask better questions
Back in May, the National Academy of Sciences released a massive systematic review on genetically engineered crops. They looked at the implications of GMOs at all levels: safety for humans and the environment, global economy and whatnot.
Was it the final answer to the question: are GMOs safe? Of course not. In fact, the report presented different answers, none of which were conclusive. What it did however, was expose the main problem of the debate around GMOs: the starting question.
Having heated arguments around how safe genetic engineering is, has proved to lead nowhere. The question should really be “is this particular food safe for humans and the environment?”
Enough focusing on the process, scientists are saying, let’s look at the product instead.