Which food has more fairy dust, and which journalist will report it?

Aug 27 2010 Published by under Medicine, [Medicine&Pharma]

In his now-famous New York Times magazine piece, Michael Pollan told us to "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."  What is often forgotten is that this was not a prescription for eating as much as it was an admonition against "nutritionism", the idea that foods are nothing more than a vehicle for the delivery of certain nutrients.  While it is not entirely incorrect to view food this way, it is incomplete.  Food is more than the sum of its parts.  Some of the vitamins present in foods are necessary in small amounts to maintain health, a fact that has over the years led us to think that there are more magic substances in food.  This has not been borne out by science.  None of the myriad “antioxidants” and other magical substances discovered in foods has ever been found to provide some sort of revolutionary health benefit.

Antioxidants are probably the most commonly cited magic nutrients in foods, despite the lack of evidence of their ability to miraculously affect health.  The idea that antioxidants can perform important physiologic functions is not implausible, but it appears to be a naive and incomplete belief.

This is one of the reasons I let out a big yawn every time the latest food source of antioxidants is discovered.  There is little evidence that any single food performs significant health miracles.  What has been noted in studies is that diets lower in calories, and higher in plants seem to be beneficial.  Studies on flavinoids and other substances are interesting and may eventually lead to medical advances, but no one should rush to start a high-chocolate diet. 

This is one of the several reasons I was disappointed to read the following headline on the CBS website:

Black Rice: Low-Cost Grain Packs Bigger Antioxidant Punch than Blueberries.

What does this even mean?  If this is true, does it even matter?  The “writer” of the piece states that black rice might be a good source of antioxidants for health-conscious consumers who are tired of the high price of berries.  “Writer” is in scare quotes because, as you may have surmised, the article is cribbed directly from a press release.

What is left unasked and unanswered is “what is the clinical relevance of these findings?”  Does it matter that black rice has more fairy dust than blueberries?  Should this finding affect consumer behavior?  

These unanswered questions distract from a potentially interesting science and health story, an opportunity to raise the level of dialog about nutrition. 

12 responses so far

  • Dammit. I was gonna petition USDA to make chocolate a "food group." Then I realized they don't do food groups anymore.

  • Maryn says:

    Where can I buy this fairy dust? I'd rather sprinkle that on my yogurt and cut out the middleman, umm, -berry.

  • Tzi says:

    I wish there was some kind of healthful fairy dust. Then I could season my french fries with it and feel less guilty about all my deep-fried vices.

  • DLC says:

    I suppose people will come out for and against fairy dust.
    But what about high magic pixie dust, or HMPD ?
    Did you know there's HMPD in almost every herbal remedy ?
    Most homeopathic remedies actually contain a non-zero amount of HMPD.
    I demand the FDA immediately investigate the HMPD crisis!
    Or I would, except for the fact that the FDA clearly has been compromised by Big Food.
    I mean, look at their complete failure to regulate the deadly chemical Dihidrogen monoxide ! This chemical is used as an industrial solvent, but we allow it in food in huge quantities! thousands of people die every year from aspirating this killer substance, but will the FDA do anything ? Nooo! they're in the pocket of the food shills!
    /nuttyconspiracy

  • mxh says:

    The problem is that most science reporters are terrible at (accurately) communicating science to the public. They are trained journalists who care more about their pieces getting the most attention. We really need more scientists going into science journalism.

  • skeptifem says:

    Yeah, the explanations regarding free radicals don't really make sense to me. If it works the way that the pro-antioxidant people say it does, then the benefit is finite anyway, and so eating a bunch of them won't add any kind of benefit.

    mxh
    "The problem is that most science reporters are terrible at (accurately) communicating science to the public. They are trained journalists who care more about their pieces getting the most attention. We really need more scientists going into science journalism"

    That will not work. Crappy, sensationalist, short cut journalism is selected for by the people who own the news media. They don't give a crap about accuracy.

    It isn't about selling the public what they want either, WE are the product of the media. Advertisers pay way more than any of us for media, and the content can be used to gradually mold the consumer into someone who buys more stuff. They can do this by dumbing everything down and reporting on irrelevant issues (lifestyle columns, sports, entertainment). Critical and well informed people don't buy much stuff, and cannot be convinced of just anything. Good science reporting means critical reporting on important things, it isn't what media makes, and it isn't what advertisers want. The political implications of this are far reaching.

    Before you say "conspiracy theorist!!", it is about as controversial as saying that corporations do what they can to maximize their profit and market share. No one has to call a meeting to understand self interest. It is how you would expect institutions like this to work, and they are run by a small number of ultra rich people. They would have to work to actively undermine their own interests to deviate from the propaganda model of media (rigorously reported on in the book Manufacturing Consent). Smaller media, like local newspapers, have to work with what mainstream media makes and generally lack the funding to do any fact checking on big stories. Scientist reporters would be in the same boat as the honest reporters are now- they would get assigned to irrelevant stories, have the good ones rejected in favor of fluff, or just plain get blacklisted after a certain amount of time. The structure of the media determines its content much more than the individual participants.

  • Jeff says:

    The U.S. Dept of Agriculture is conducting some pioneering resrearch on the beneficial fairy dust contained in fruit juice and fruit extracts:

    Blueberry Juice Improves Memory in Older Adults

    Berry Extracts May Activate the Brain's Natural Housekeeper for Healthy Aging

  • palmd says:

    Unfortunately, the first article was also cribbed from an ACS press release. The trial itself was not terribly impressive, but a better and larger study might be interesting.

  • A. Marina Fournier says:

    I eat black rice because it tastes good, goes well with lots of foods, and is chewier than white rice. Don't much care for brown rice, but red and black rices suit me just fine.

    I might look for fiber, sodium, and sugar content on labels, but free radicals and anti-oxidants, no.

  • [...] Rather than appealing to unseen forces such as qi or “water memory”, Joel goes straight for what Michael Pollan calls “nutritionism”.   He invents what he calls his “health equation”: Health = Nutrients / Calories (H = [...]

  • [...] Rather than appealing to unseen forces such as qi or “water memory”, Joel goes straight for what Michael Pollan calls “nutritionism”.   He invents what he calls his “health equation”: Health = Nutrients / Calories (H = N / [...]

  • [...] “bad” foods from her diet and adding others that may provide additional “magic fairly dust” to improve her health. She may eat only organic or raw foods, making it difficult to go out. [...]