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Will Our World Be Dominated By
Junk Science And Sloppy Thinking?

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, April 16, 2010

We’ve carefully chronicled the “Fresh for Ellen” effort to use Ellen DeGeneres’s quest for a ”sugar free” life to promote fresh produce consumption:

Plea For Ellen DeGeneres To Consider Produce In Her Sugar-Free Diet

How Will Success Be Measured For Fresh for Ellen Social Media Campaign?

‘Fresh For Ellen’ Shows Passion And Potential To Help The Industry

‘Fresh For Ellen’ Raises A Question: How Should We Define Success?

While we have praised those involved in the effort, including Dan’l Mackay Almy, Managing Partner of DMA Solutions, Inc., and the self-proclaimed “ring leader” of the effort. As well as the many companies that have donated fresh produce. We have also cautioned that the institutions of the produce industry ought to be cautious about the flippant attitude Ellen has shown toward nutritional science in this endeavor.

Particularly we questioned whether the industry ought to join a crusade to declare sugar verboten but urge the consumption of things such as agave nectar — which we argued are essentially the same things:

In fact, very quickly, Ellen began to backtrack and in a way that made us question the scientific sensibility of her program.

By day two, she was declaring that it is OK to put Agave nectar in coffee and that she is “all for” what she calls “natural sweeteners.” Yet sugar cane and sugar beets are every bit as natural as the various species of agave.

In fact, the reason Ellen likes agave nectar is because it is sugar; it is mostly fructose and glucose. Table sugar is sucrose, which can be split into its two component sugars, fructose and glucose.

People, including Ellen, can prefer one source of sugar to another, and some types are sweeter than others and that might effect how much one consumes but, basically, there is simply zero evidence that anyone’s health will be improved by putting 25 calories of agave nectar in their coffee as opposed to 25 calories of sugar.

Obviously many were confused by Ellen’s declarations because she pretty quickly felt the need to announce that, yes, she was still eating fruits and vegetables and that she meant to say she was giving up “cake” — and would try to get a nutritionist on the show because she didn’t want to be “telling people the wrong thing to do.” A thought you would have thought might have crossed her mind before she went on national television announcing this plan.

This type of junk science has become ubiquitous in our society, and it must be resisted. In the end, endorsing this type of thinking will lead to a rejection of scientific approaches to issues such as food safety — with significant consequences for the industry.

It is not just Ellen DeGeneres who is guilty of this type of sloppy thinking. Virtually the same thinking is involved in the war being waged against high-fructose corn syrup. Michelle Miller, a correspondent with CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, just did a piece titled, Is High-Fructose Corn Syrup Really So Bad??

The mindless nature of the discussion is perfectly illustrated by the contrasting quotes:

Author and NYU Professor Marion Nestle, who is no friend of industrialized food but is both highly intelligent and intellectually honest, explains the facts when asked what is high-fructose corn syrup:

“It’s corn starch that has been treated to turn it into sugar,” said New York University Professor Marion Nestle. “It is sugar. It’s just sugar.”

In contrast, parents in San Francisco pushed corn syrup out of the chocolate milk in the school system in San Francisco, and the head of the committee doing the pushing justified the act this way:

“People feel like they don’t know where their food is coming from anymore,” said Dana Woldow, the co-chair of the student nutrition committee. “They don’t understand how it is produced and I think they have a natural suspicion of anything in their food system that they feel is not natural.”

Now it would be one thing to want to get rid of chocolate milk; that is a judgment call weighing the pros of getting more kids to drink milk versus the negatives of additional calories added to the milk.

But if you read over the two quotes, the problem is clear: Professor Nestle is dealing with science; Ms. Woldow is dealing with superstition and prejudice.

Even the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which we have blasted here, has to admit the truth:

The food police — the ones who told us Chinese food and theatre popcorn were bad — would also be yelling about high-fructose corn syrup. But instead, they say the controversy is all hype.

”The evilness of high-fructose corn syrup has become an urban myth,” said Michael Jacobson with the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Jacobson blames the high-fructose corn syrup controversy on a 2004 study that seemed to link soft drinks sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup to the obesity epidemic.

”They didn’t have one shred of evidence to back up their theory,” Jacobson said. “And they eventually recanted and they realized that HFCS and sugar are essentially the same. But they couldn’t put the genie back into the bottle.”

Many food manufacturers have altered their formulations to avoid the use of high-fructose corn syrup. This is a matter of marketing. It is a matter of producing products that will sell. If people object to this ingredient, it is understandable producers will eschew it.

But we should have no delusion that this anti-scientific way of thinking is good for our country. Thinking is hard, and investigating things and gaining knowledge before coming to an opinion is a challenge, but the alternative is to live in a world dominated by mysticism. This impedes progress and makes our society poorer and less successful.

Watch the CBS Evening News piece here:


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