SMBC and alt-med woo

By Phil Plait | November 29, 2009 12:39 pm

Regular readers know of the man love I have for Zach Weiner, who pens the web comic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. It frequently features great skeptical material, and this new one is a great example:

smbc_chemicals

Click to see the punch line. He’s exactly right, of course. My favorite is when people complain about food not being natural enough, like that makes any difference. As I am fond of pointing out, arsenic is an element, one of the basic building blocks of all of nature. You don’t get any more natural than that, but I’d probably avoid buying any food with that on its label.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humor, Skepticism
MORE ABOUT: SMBC, Zach Weiner

Comments (70)

  1. The majority of Earth’s surface is covered by natural salt water, but I think I’ll stick with my chemically treated processed tap water instead, thanks.

  2. Shaun

    Be sure to check the red button below the comic for an extra punchline.

  3. Juergen

    The best way to freak “natural food” freaks out still is to tell them about Dihydrogen Monoxide and Hydrogen Hydroxide found in our drinking water.

  4. It’s got electrolytes!

  5. There *is* one natural thing that senselessly extreme nature-o-philes such as those being satirized above *do* eschew: a natural life span.

    They’re eager beavers to skip questionable things like preservatives and vaccines but expect to live decades longer than human beings “in the wild” (which must to be understood to be a historical wild, as the geographical wild has become too thin to carry sway).

    There’s an expression for that. I believe it’s “having your kelp and eating it, too” or something like that.

    Also: I don’t think Juergen (#3) appreciates the seriousness of the dihydrogen monoxide controversy. For example, it is a chemical solvent. Many people don’t know that, and so persist in ingesting substantial quantities each day as a part of their normal, oblivious diet. Don’t joke about it, Juergen: the dihydrogen monoxide controversy affects us all.

    Yours,
    CBB

  6. SpringAquifer
  7. Dave Wiley

    The dumb thing about this comic is that foods do not list the chemicals they contain. Foods list the ingredients that were put into them. I do not believe that simple chemical names are automatically better for us than scary long ones. I do not believe that “natural” (whatever that means) is automatically better. I do believe, however, that the length of an ingredient list is a good rough guide for how healthy a store-bought food is for you. More simply I believe you get a better diet by buying foods that contain one ingredient. At least you know the nutritional content of your meal because you’re the one who assembled it… until Monstanto figures out a way to sneak high fructose corn syrup into a potato that is.

  8. Steven

    I have to admit that the one thing I dislike about buying food is the impossibility of buying any pre-made meal that doesn’t contain ridiculous amounts of sugar in it.

    I get enough sugar from my well rounded diet of Dark, Milk, and White Chocolate.

  9. ShoeShine Boy

    To quote Mike Rowe (After being told that pork cracklin’ is all-natural), “All natural, huh? So is lightning.”

  10. Crux Australis

    OMFSM!! I can’t believe I didn’t see the big red button below each and evefry one of the SMBC comics I read EVERY DAY!! Thank you thank you thank you Shaun!!!111!!!eleven!!

  11. Mustang

    Where can I find full milk without VITAMIN-D added?

  12. Jeffersonian

    So true. At university I used to laugh at the psychedelic eaters who espoused shrooms because they were “natural” and then had over-intense and less-predictable results. My roommate at the time complained that I consumed too many electrolytes. As he wasn’t a chem major I finally asked one day if he knew what they were. “They short-circuit your system”.

    All-natural : the bite of the Puff Adder.

  13. gypkap

    And just remember, deoxyribonucleic acid is in with those electrolytes too…scary.

  14. I like to know what I’m eating. I avoid high fructose corn syrup because it make things sweeter than I would like them to be, not to mention more mercurial. I avoid monosodium glutamate because I want to taste my food, and I avoid partially hydrogenated oils because the negative effects of trans fats are well-documented.

    Chiefly due to their exclusion of these three substances, I tend to buy a lot of natural and organic food. To say something being natural makes no difference because lightning, arsenic and snake venom are also natural presents a straw man argument. There are specific baddies out there that you should probably get less of. Knowing the ingredients of your food, natural or not, just makes sense.

  15. XKCD pointed out a good twist to this sort of thing http://xkcd.com/641/

  16. I'd rather be fishin'

    Dihydrogen monoxide is the leading cause of drowning! Organic stuff is best: pass the tobacco and can I have an extra helping of vitamin D in my dairy products please? Living in northern Canada, I have a difficult choice to make: natural vitamin D or severe frost bite.

  17. Gary Ansorge

    Ah, natural food, the stuff of kings,,,or not(he said, recalling that kings were prone to gout from having such natural food as lots of meat).

    As a diabetic, I avoid high glycemic food(well, most of the time). I have to read the contents on everything I buy, to avoid sugar(in all its readily digestible forms). Of course, there’s sugar in nearly all prepared food, but some has 10 to 20 times as much as it could have and have nearly the same taste. The only bread I eat is either rye or pumpernickel. Wheat bread has 10 to 15 gms of sugar in every slice. Rye and pumpernickel have less than (or equal to), one gm/slice.

    Grace Slick(for those of you who are really young, check out the Jefferson Airplane) had a song in the early ’70s that said, roughly “Ah, those preservatives you’re avoiding may be preserving you. I think you might have missed that,,,”. Smart lady.

    As far as life extending techniques are concerned, I expect David Brin nailed it when he pointed out that all the drugs and caloric restriction we’ve used on lab animals that actually worked to extend their lives will likely have little effect on us, since we already live three times longer than we should, compared to other critters our size and that implies our genes may already be tweeked for as much longevity as we can get.( I’m thinking here of the maximum recorded human life span of 122 years).

    On the other hand, I do take me vitamins because I know I don’t eat as perfect a diet as I could. Those vitamins are just to ensure I’m not inadvertently skipping something.

    Gary 7

  18. “Where can I find full milk without VITAMIN-D added?”

    In Australia.

    I’m with Dave Wiley – Good nutrition by making meals from scratch with decent ingredients is much better than packaged meals.

    It doesn’t have to have ‘no chemicals’ but it does need to have the basic proteins, carbs, fibre etc – and most importantly, taste.

  19. Corey

    Funny – I am always amused by the “Organic” label, having studied organic chemistry. So …. HCN, organic compound, right? Organic, healthy Cyanide. Like anyone would eat “inorganic food” – perhaps harvest from silicon-based plants on some remote planet.

  20. Jadehawk

    I agree with Caelum Grey and Dave Wiley

    personally though, I’m far more concerned with sustainability than with “organic-ness” of a food; and ATM, the only remotely sustainable food there is is among the hippie foods (or stuff grown in my boyfriend’s family’s backyard :-p )

  21. gypkap

    19: Besides the cyanide, remember that the water, salt, and iron in your body are not organic, but are absolutely required for life.

    11: Unless you expose your skin to the Sun regularly, Vitamin D in extremely small doses is required for health. That’s why it’s added to milk.

    You would not believe how many people never took biology or chemistry in high school or college…

  22. 20. Jadehawk Says: “I’m far more concerned with sustainability than with “organic-ness” of a food; and ATM, the only remotely sustainable food there is is among the hippie foods”

    Unfortunately, the human population is already far, far beyond what could be sustained by “traditional” farming methods (assuming that to be prior to chemical fertilizers and motorized farm equipment). If we were suddenly to revert to “hippie foods” we’d have to let a sizable fraction (just guessing maybe 2/3) of the population starve to death before things became “sustainable.”

    - Jack

  23. Everything that is good for you will kill you if you take too much of it.

  24. Leander

    “My favorite is when people complain about food not being natural enough, like that makes any difference.”

    You know, virtually everybody I know, when they refer to “natural food” mean food (you know, the little word that sets apart stuff found in nature that’s beneficial and nutritious to our bodies from the stuff found in nature that is not, like arsenic) that has been tempered with as little as possible or not at all. But of course you’re free to play dumb if that gives you material for a post.

  25. Nigel Depledge

    Juergen (3) said:

    The best way to freak “natural food” freaks out still is to tell them about Dihydrogen Monoxide and Hydrogen Hydroxide found in our drinking water.

    More than that, these substances are both in rainwater too!

  26. Nigel Depledge

    Dave Wiley (7) said:

    More simply I believe you get a better diet by buying foods that contain one ingredient. At least you know the nutritional content of your meal because you’re the one who assembled it…

    I agree with this. Supermarkets, sadly, tend to stock mostly what sells best and gives best profit margins. People in general have been led (mostly by advertising, I think) to expect to have more leisure time than ever before, so few people have the “time” to prepare their own food these days.

    until Monstanto figures out a way to sneak high fructose corn syrup into a potato that is.

    Naaah. All they need to do is to have it express amylase when it gets hot. The amylase will break down the starch (amylose) into sugars (mainly glucose and sucrose IIRC). Behold: a Sweet PotatoTM. Oh, wait …

  27. Deimos

    Im sorry but I think in this case this comic missed the mark… the assumption being that the same people that are scared of chemicals in one product would think its good in another is ridiculous. There’s no evidence of that. I though we were supposed to be the critical thinkers here..

  28. Gavin Flower

    @Juergen

    Forgets the deadly Hydrohydroxic acid!

  29. Nigel Depledge

    Gypkap (13) said:

    And just remember, deoxyribonucleic acid is in with those electrolytes too…scary.

    And it’s a known carcinogen, mutagen and teratogen!

  30. Nigel Depledge

    Caelum Grey (14) said:

    I like to know what I’m eating. I avoid high fructose corn syrup because it make things sweeter than I would like them to be, not to mention more mercurial.

    Eh? You don’t like your food to be whimsically unpredictable?

    I avoid monosodium glutamate because I want to taste my food, and I avoid partially hydrogenated oils because the negative effects of trans fats are well-documented.

    Chiefly due to their exclusion of these three substances, I tend to buy a lot of natural and organic food.

    Your implication here is that “natural” foodstuffs don’t contain fructose, glutamate or trans-fats, and that simply ain’t true.

    Every strawberry, raspberry, apple, pear, orange, banana and so on that you have ever eaten contains a high concentration of fructose. Glutamate is a component of very nearly every protein on the planet. And trans-desaturated fatty acids are formed as a part of the ß-oxidation pathway, so you turn saturated fatty acids into trans-unsaturated fatty acids. What could be more natural than that?

    So, this raises another question. Since “natural” is clearly not an appropriate word for you to use in that sentence, what did you really mean instead?

    To say something being natural makes no difference because lightning, arsenic and snake venom are also natural presents a straw man argument.

    No, it isn’t. It quite rightly points out that your use of the word “natural” is meaningless. “Natural” is absolutely not synonymous with “good for you”.

    There are specific baddies out there that you should probably get less of. Knowing the ingredients of your food, natural or not, just makes sense.

    Absolutely, but that is a separate thing from whether you call your food “natural” or not.

    I think the issue here is that the “whole foods” movement has given marketers a beautifully easy way to trick the uninformed. By attempting to make the word “natural” in some way equivalent to “good for you”, the whole-foods / organic movement has given the marketing industry a way to claim that foods that have no specific benefits (or that have extraordinarily high sugar or fat content) are, in some vague and unspecified way, good for you.

  31. Nigel Depledge

    Corey (19) said:

    Funny – I am always amused by the “Organic” label, having studied organic chemistry. So …. HCN, organic compound, right? Organic, healthy Cyanide. Like anyone would eat “inorganic food” – perhaps harvest from silicon-based plants on some remote planet.

    Yup. The only inorganic foodstuff on planet Earth is salt. Though you might find it really hard to “eat” HCN at room temperature.

  32. Nigel Depledge

    Gypkap (21) said:

    19: Besides the cyanide, remember that the water, salt, and iron in your body are not organic, but are absolutely required for life.

    Likewise zinc, copper, calcium, magnesium, manganese, potassium and so on and on. However, we cannot generally digest inorganic forms of those substances. Our dietary iron, for example, most commonly comes in the form of myoglobin (which is what makes red meat red) – which is a protein that contains a haem group with an iron atom at the centre.

    11: Unless you expose your skin to the Sun regularly, Vitamin D in extremely small doses is required for health. That’s why it’s added to milk.

    But milk already contains vit D. So: why the need to add more?

    You would not believe how many people never took biology or chemistry in high school or college…

    Try me.

  33. Nigel Depledge

    Leander (24) said:

    “My favorite is when people complain about food not being natural enough, like that makes any difference.”

    You know, virtually everybody I know, when they refer to “natural food” mean food (you know, the little word that sets apart stuff found in nature that’s beneficial and nutritious to our bodies from the stuff found in nature that is not, like arsenic) that has been tempered with as little as possible or not at all. But of course you’re free to play dumb if that gives you material for a post.

    Way to miss the point.

    All you have done is transferred the question to the word “food” instead. How do you define “food” and “natural food” in particular?

    Is it “as nature intended” (i.e. raw and still covered in blood / fur / feathers / soil depending on exactly what it is)?

    What about a cooked steak? Is that “natural food”? Cos it’s already been processed in two different ways.

    What about a cooked steak with a pepper sauce poured over it? If you made the sauce yourself, is that still a “natural food”? What if someone else made the sauce, put it in a jar and gave it to you to re-heat? Does it still count as “natural food” then?

    What if you bought a jar of ready-made sauce from a shop? Is that still “natural food”?

    What if you bought the whole meal ready-prepared and all you have to do is re-heat it?

    In each case, why is your answer what it is?

    To return to your original point, food is (in my understanding) whatever can be eaten. However, birds eat mistletoe berries (for example), but these are poisonous to humans. But they’re still a natural food. Chocolate is a highly-processed foodstuff (made from natural ingredients, of course) but it is eaten by many, many people. Since its ingredients are all obtained from the natural world, surely that qualifies as a natural food, right?

    People eat pufferfish, one of the most toxic animals on the planet. It is only safe for us to eat after extensive and careful processing. But the “natural” way to eat it would be whole and raw.

  34. mitrax

    Is it that hard to grasp that some people refer to ‘Natural food’ as not over-processed / over-refined / filled-with-pesticides food ? Yes the word is used as a marketing argument by some companies, yes bird poo and cyanid are natural, but it saddens me to see people who care about what they eat and question what can be found in an ingredient list turned into ridicule, especially in a country where more than a quarter of the population is obese and something like 8% have diabetes.
    I’m tired of seeing silly arguments such as “a fruit contains glucose, vegetables contain fats too!” like it makes no difference health wise to eat the average processed food you can buy at every supermarket vs fruit / vegetables and wholesome products.
    It’s not because there’s an overlap between people into woo-woos and the organic / healthier food movement that skeptics should completely dismiss and bash it… that’s just a childish “us vs them” attitude without looking at the facts.
    For the record, i’m an atheist, i don’t believe in homeopathy or the paranormal, i’m not an antivax, yet i don’t ingest whatever the food industry sells … Denying that the food industry sometimes takes potentially harmful shortcuts to maximize profit is not being skeptic, it’s being naive.

  35. All natural hemlock!

  36. Ashley Moore

    mitrax,
    I’m sure everyone would like to reduce the amount of obesity and diabetes in our society.

    The problem many of the commenters here have is that ‘natural’ is almost meaningless and is really just a marketers way of adding a comforting adjective to something without having to meet any verifiable criteria.

    In your case you seem to be using ‘natural’ to mean ‘minimally processed’. But if you are concerned about obesity/diabetes, focussing on avoiding processed foods isn’t really the best option. You’re better to restrict your calorie intake and increase the amount of fibre you eat, irrespective of whether the fibre is more highly processed, or the calories less processed.

    Basically, the concept of ‘natural food’ is a confusing red herring which doesn’t really do much to help educate people of the best sort of food to be eating for maximal health.

  37. Nigel Depledge

    Ashley Moore (36) said:

    In your case you seem to be using ‘natural’ to mean ‘minimally processed’. But if you are concerned about obesity/diabetes, focussing on avoiding processed foods isn’t really the best option. You’re better to restrict your calorie intake and increase the amount of fibre you eat, irrespective of whether the fibre is more highly processed, or the calories less processed.

    In general I agree with this. However, there is a lot more to it, and I think the oversimplification can be a bit misleading.

    Avoiding processed foods is a good way of controlling your calorie intake, because so many processed foods have added sugar. Very often, those that overtly claim to be “low fat” have a lot of added sugar, and some that claim to be “low sugar” contain a lot of fat. Most supposedly-savoury foods have sugar added during the processing.

    Take a can of baked beans. The baked beans sold in Australia are also marketed in the UK, but as “reduced salt and sugar” baked beans. The “standard” baked beans sold in the UK would probably qualify as “reduced sugar” baked beans in the USA.

    If you eat sensibly-balanced meals prepared from mostly-unprocessed ingredients, you can make meals that incorporate sensible portions and proportions (highly starchy foods such as potatoes should be 1/4 of what’s on your plate, not 1/2). That way, controlling your intake of calories doesn’t also make you hungry (which is what you’d end up with if you had the same number of calories from highly-processed foods).

    There is also the influence of regular exercise. If you manage to get about 20 – 30 minutes of aerobic exercise every day, your basal metabolic rate will increase, which means that the amount of energy your body consumes to maintain a steady state increases. That means that, unless your diet is hideously calorie-rich in the first place, you can lose body fat without making huge changes to your diet. And get fitter at the same time.

  38. Nigel Depledge

    Mitrax (34) said:

    Is it that hard to grasp that some people refer to ‘Natural food’ as not over-processed / over-refined / filled-with-pesticides food ?

    Yeah, that’s what you hope it means. Are you really that gullible? Let me know if you are, ‘cos I’ve got some alpha-wave-energised water going cheap. Only $79 per litre plus shipping.

    In fact, most governments have strict limits on pesticide residues in foodstuffs. I once worked for a contractor whose business it was to measure such things, and they regularly worked in the range of parts per billion. That processed foods contain large amounts of pesticides is simply a lie, propagated by the whole foods / organic movement.

    Yes the word is used as a marketing argument by some companies,

    Some? Yeah, if you mean “not quite all of them”.

    yes bird poo and cyanid are natural, but it saddens me to see people who care about what they eat and question what can be found in an ingredient list turned into ridicule, especially in a country where more than a quarter of the population is obese and something like 8% have diabetes.

    Yeah, well, maybe anyone who genuinely wants to know about what’s in their food should use more than one source, and should actually bone up on the science before they accept whatever their new-age guru tells them.

    In the UK, any old hack can call themselves a nutritionist, because the word is not a protected entity, unlike “dietician”.

    The advantage of using unprocessed ingredients is not about limiting pesticide intake, nor about “chemical” food additives. No, instead it is about taking control and making informed choices. Sadly, as that word (informed) indicates, it also means you have to do some homework to make sure you understand what you’re spending your money on.

  39. mitrax

    @Ashley

    Sure some marketers stick a “all natural” tag on some products, but anyone who cares a little and is not blatently stupid won’t buy into that and will look at the ingredient lists instead to make his / her mind… yes it may require some knowledge and anything with an exotic or chemical sounding name shouldn’t be seen as poisonous (as pictured in the cartoon), but i’d rather have more people concerned about what they eat than not caring at all and gobbling everything packed in plastic.

    “focussing on avoiding processed foods isn’t really the best option. You’re better to restrict your calorie intake and increase the amount of fibre you eat, irrespective of whether the fibre is more highly processed, or the calories less processed.”

    that leaves me almost speechless… processed food is known to contain very little fibre, and that’s precisely the problem, the less fibre the quicker any glucose it contains gets metabolized, leading to high glucose concentration in the blood that the pancreas has to regulate by producing insuline in large quantities, and over the years for some individuals that leads to insulin resistance or diabetes. Why do you think there’s more and more diabetics kids if it isn’t for processed food?
    Looking at calories intakes without taking glycemic indices into consideration makes absolutely no sense, and so is saying “avoiding processed food is not the best option” and “increase the amount of fibre” in the same sentence… Fibre are not some magical thing that you can eat on the side and that would cancel out any amount of almost pure glucose you’ve consumed through processed food, it doesn’t work that way, you can mix All-bran with ice cream it won’t change a thing…

  40. mitrax

    @Nigel

    “In fact, most governments have strict limits on pesticide residues in foodstuffs. I once worked for a contractor whose business it was to measure such things, and they regularly worked in the range of parts per billion. That processed foods contain large amounts of pesticides is simply a lie, propagated by the whole foods / organic movement.”

    Oh so it’s all a big lie ? And i guess Round-up is harmless too ?

    A quick excerpt from a wikipedia article on pesticides:

    “A study published by the United States National Research Council in 1993 determined that for infants and children, the major source of exposure to pesticides is through diet.[66] A study in 2006 measured the levels of organophosphorus pesticide exposure in 23 school children before and after replacing their diet with organic food (food grown without synthetic pesticides). In this study it was found that levels of organophosphorus pesticide exposure dropped dramatically and immediately when the children switched to an organic diet.[67] ”

    but we all know wikipedia is full of crap right? oh btw this is from a peer reviewed paper… ( http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1367841/ )

    “Yeah, well, maybe anyone who genuinely wants to know about what’s in their food should use more than one source, and should actually bone up on the science before they accept whatever their new-age guru tells them.”

    Why the condescending attitude? do you think people who looks at ingredients all are too stupid to do research on their own and that their concern necessarily originate from some new age gurus? give me a break

  41. Ashley Moore

    @mitrix,

    Everything you say in the first paragraph is very reasonable. My point is that ‘natural’ doesn’t really mean anything. At best it means a number of different things and marketers exploit the various meanings. I totally agree that people should be concerned about what they eat and should look at the back of the back for nutrional information. The little nutritional info box on the pack is a meaningful indicator, the word ‘natural’ is pure marketing.

    “focussing on avoiding processed foods isn’t really the best option”
    Regarding this quote, maybe I wasn’t so clear, but when you quoted me you left out the ‘focussing’, which in my mind was the crucial point of the sentence. Yes, as a general rule it is better to eat less processed foods. But the processed/unprocessed metric is a lot less important than many other metrics (balance, complex carbohydrates, variety, fibre etc) when deciding what to eat, so focusing too much on it often leads to bad results.

    And I never said fibre was some magical cure for diabetes. I was just giving 2 examples of things that are better to look for if you are worried about obesity/diabetes.

  42. mitrax

    @Ashley

    alright, i missed the “focusing on” part, i admit i read that as a “nothing wrong with processed food”, glad we agree that it’s better to eat less of it, now regarding the processed/ unprocessed metric and the other metric you mentionned like complex carbohydrates / fibre, i think they’re tied, whole food (or unrefined, ‘whole food’ might refer to something specific in the us, i’m not american) contains lots of them, and to me, it seems harder to go wrong with that kind of diet, especially regarding diabetes prevention.
    Some comments that seemed to imply there’s nothing wrong with the food industry and that we shouldn’t question it and that those who do are just new age freaks just got me worked up :) Especially the “it’s all crap” attitude, which reminds me a lot of those claiming global warming is BS and that we shouldn’t bother or investigate, and keep our habits.

  43. Personally, my favourite is when people complain about “chemicals” being in anything.
    Water is a chemical. Checkmate.

  44. Beryl

    I was all ready to side with those saying that people mostly understand that “natural” is not automatically better, then I remembered a cookbook produced by a cancer support group that a relative of mine is in. It’s all full of recipes that approximate processed foods by adding lots of maple syrup or honey to things. Somehow, because these are natural products, they get a pass. Granted, they may have trace nutrients that aren’t in table sugar or HFCS, but they’re still nearly pure sugar, and honey in particular is, from what I can get from easily accessible sources, higher in fructose than any normal form of HFCS. So I guess there really are people out there who think the “naturalness” of the source negates the biochemistry.

  45. Bahdum (aka Richard)

    “I only eat organic foods because you never know what kind of nasty chemicals are in regular food,” said the lusty redhead as she took a puff of her third cigarette in that calm hour. “Oh, and that MSG. Why does it have to be in everything? It’s so annoying.”

    A blond passerby coughed as he passed through the redhead’s smoke.

    “Geez, some people have to complain about everything,” she said rolling her eyes at the passerby. “Don’t even get me started on high-fructose corn syrup….”

  46. Old Rockin' Dave

    Jeffersonian’s comment takes me back.
    I used to be a physician assistant and for a time worked in clinical AIDS research. Our patients were always coming in with the woo-woo therapy of the week, and often touted the latest by saying “It’s organic!”. To which I would always reply, “So is rattlesnake venom.”
    Another big one was “Chinese herbs”. I would often tell them how the little old white-bearded Chinese man with the dark shop full of little drawers and strange jars was DEAD; that the business was now a big factory with a smokestack in an industrial district and was being run by his grandson, who was too busy driving around in his Porsche talking to his broker on the cellphone to even look at the production line.

  47. John

    Meet Phil Plait. Nutrition Expert:

    blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2009/10/22/on-eating-in-the-uk/

  48. dave

    Taking the words “natural” and “organic” literally and then using that to argue against such foods is pretty unhelpful. True, any company can legally claim their product is “natural” or “organic”. However, there is an organic certification process. If you see the “USDA organic” label, it means that the food has been certified to live up to certain standards, including the amount and type of pesticides used. The certification is done by the government, and so has the same risks of lobbyists/incompetence that any government body has, but the point is that the term “organic” is not meaningless. With regards to food, it means a very specific thing (the actual standards are like 500 pages long). You can argue that the amount of pesticides in normal food isn’t enough to be harmful, but that’s no reason to scoff at people who err on the side of caution when it comes to how much poison is allowed in their food. I know we all have lots of great “dihydrogen monoxide” and “arsenic is natural” jokes ready to go, but you’re just showing that you’d rather make up an opposing view that you can easily refute rather than bother to learn the difference between “organic” and regular food.

  49. Nigel Depledge

    Mitrax (40) said:

    A study published by the United States National Research Council in 1993 determined that for infants and children, the major source of exposure to pesticides is through diet.[66] A study in 2006 measured the levels of organophosphorus pesticide exposure in 23 school children before and after replacing their diet with organic food (food grown without synthetic pesticides). In this study it was found that levels of organophosphorus pesticide exposure dropped dramatically and immediately when the children switched to an organic diet

    What you have not noticed is what is conspicuous by its absence. The actual amounts measured, and how these relate to harmful doses.

    Of course the “major source” of pesticide contact for most people is through diet. You act as though I should be surprised about that.

    My point is that the amount to which people are exposed is trivial. Non-organically-grown food is NOT “filled with pesticides”, which is what you claimed.

    Switching to organic food reduces your exposure to pesticides, from a trivial amount to an even more trivial amount. What’s the big deal?

  50. Nigel Depledge

    Mitrax (40) said:

    Why the condescending attitude?

    Because you were defending the use of the word “natural” in a way that renders it meaningless.

    do you think people who looks at ingredients all are too stupid to do research on their own and that their concern necessarily originate from some new age gurus?

    No, not too stupid. But most people are too lazy to do that research. If the packet says “natural” or “free range” or “low fat” or (the closest claim to an actual lie) “98% fat-free”, people will buy it thinking it is healthier or better for them in some vague and undefined way. If people didn’t buy into this crap, the marketers would give up and find another schtick instead.

    People are right to be concerned about what they eat. But that concern must lead them into finding enough stuff out that they are able to make informed choices. Otherwise the concern is pointless and they end up eating unhealthily while thinking they are eating healthily.

  51. Nigel Depledge

    Invader Xan (43) said:

    Personally, my favourite is when people complain about “chemicals” being in anything.
    Water is a chemical. Checkmate.

    Yes.

    Sadly, the UK’s Advertising Standards Agency does not agree with you. There was a fertiliser that was being marketed as “100% chemical-free”, which was an outright lie. The BA posted on this a year or two ago.

    However, the ASA rejected the complaints that were made because they support the bastardisation of the word “chemical” as meaning only “artificial substance”, rather than any individual substance.

  52. Nigel Depledge

    Beryl (44) said:

    So I guess there really are people out there who think the “naturalness” of the source negates the biochemistry.

    Absolutely, and this is the heart of the issue. If these people were few and far between, then marketers would cease to target them. But they seem to be in the majority, and the marketing strategies that target them work.

  53. Nigel Depledge

    Dave (48) said:

    Taking the words “natural” and “organic” literally and then using that to argue against such foods is pretty unhelpful.

    I’m not arguing against the foods.

    I’m arguing against a use of language that renders a word meaningless.

    I’ve largely given up on “organic”, mostly because its new meaning is at least reasonably clear. Organically-grown foods are purported to be better for you, and IIUC there is no evidence at all to support this claim. But I’ve mostly stopped arguing against the abuse of the word.

    True, any company can legally claim their product is “natural” or “organic”. However, there is an organic certification process. If you see the “USDA organic” label, it means that the food has been certified to live up to certain standards, including the amount and type of pesticides used. The certification is done by the government, and so has the same risks of lobbyists/incompetence that any government body has, but the point is that the term “organic” is not meaningless.

    In the UK, organic certification is done by the Soil Association, which is an industry body. It permits a food to be labelled organic as long as it contains at least 95% organically-produced foodstuffs. And they have some fairly clear criteria for what they will count as organic growing practices.

    With regards to food, it means a very specific thing (the actual standards are like 500 pages long). You can argue that the amount of pesticides in normal food isn’t enough to be harmful, but that’s no reason to scoff at people who err on the side of caution when it comes to how much poison is allowed in their food.

    You’re making a common mistake here, which is to assume that a substance that is toxic at a high dose is also toxic at a low dose. However, this is only true for a specific pharmacokinetic behaviour, which is for substances that accumulate in tissue and are not excreted or metabolised into excretable products. This behaviour is fairly rare among chemical substances.

    To give you an example, chocolate is toxic to humans. The dose required for it to be lethal is unfeasibly high, but it is nonetheless. At low doses, it is completely harmless. Potassium salts are another example. We need a certain amount of potassium in our diet, but too much is harmful.

    The same principle applies to nearly all of the pesticides used in agriculture. At high doses, they are toxic. However, at a sufficiently low dose, they are completely harmless. They are metabolised or excreted and cause no damage on the way.

    I know we all have lots of great “dihydrogen monoxide” and “arsenic is natural” jokes ready to go, but you’re just showing that you’d rather make up an opposing view that you can easily refute rather than bother to learn the difference between “organic” and regular food.

    Which shows you have not understood the argument.

    The word “natural”, when used of foodstuffs, is meaningless unless you redefine it in a very specific way. It is used as a mere marketing trick to fool the unwary and the gullible, and it works.

    To take a related example, google “Organics” shampoo and read the ingredients. This is sold by adverts that imply a “natural” lifestyle, yet it contains exactly the same chemicals as every other shampoo on the shelves. Only the colour and scent will be unique.

    Another commenter argued that people aren’t stupid enough to be fooled by the term “natural” on the packaging, but, for whatever reason, as a marketing ploy it works.

    And what better way to point out to someone that they have been duped by a marketing ploy than a little gentle ragging?

  54. mitrax

    @Nigel

    “My point is that the amount to which people are exposed is trivial. Non-organically-grown food is NOT “filled with pesticides”, which is what you claimed.”

    well alright, you believe the tolerance levels set by the FDA and USDA are low enough, and that non organically grown food is perfectly safe… i simply don’t (the same way i don’t trust the FTC to protect customers from frauds…), and i’d rather not be called an idiot because of it.

    “Because you were defending the use of the word “natural” in a way that renders it meaningless.”

    i was just pointing out what *i* think people have in mind when they use the adjective “natural” for food (or at least what i have in mind … but YES the word is often used a lame marketing argument, we agree on that, i never said the contrary).
    Words have different meanings depending on the context and insisting stubornly on the literal meaning with the “arsenic is natural” old joke is a poor way to argue against people who care about what they eat, as dave well expressed in his comment.
    No wonder the skeptics community is so often seen as a bunch of cynic hateful smart-asses if that attitude is so widespread among its members… I consider myself a skeptic yet i won’t chuckle at someone and call him stupid if he tells me he’s worried about “chemicals in his food”, i’ll know he refers to man made synthetical chemicals and i won’t go “water is a chemical too you tard!” (well i might, but as a joke, not as an actual counter argument).

  55. Ashley Moore

    Indeed, the people who make jokes about how the rest of the world is so much less enlightened than them because ‘organic’ has a specific meaning in chemistry need to learn how language works. Words can have different meanings in different contexts.

    As dave said ‘Organic’ has a specific meaning when talking about food, and many countries have accreditation procedures for using the word. You can argue whether organic farming actually produces better food, but the word actually does mean something.

    ‘Natural’ on the other hand, has no definite meaning and just makes deciding what foods to eat more difficult.

  56. Nigel Depledge

    Mitrax (54) said:

    @Nigel

    “My point is that the amount to which people are exposed is trivial. Non-organically-grown food is NOT “filled with pesticides”, which is what you claimed.”

    well alright, you believe the tolerance levels set by the FDA and USDA are low enough, and that non organically grown food is perfectly safe…

    As I have pointed out, I don’t know about in the USA, but I have experience of pesticide-residue testing in the UK, and the limits set in the UK are safe, as far as anyone can determine.

    I suppose I ought to point out, before you start picking at my use of the word “safe”, that I do recognise that there is no aspect of life that is without risk. In this context, I use “safe” in terms of “safe enough to not be worth worrying about”.

    i simply don’t (the same way i don’t trust the FTC to protect customers from frauds…), and i’d rather not be called an idiot because of it.

    Well, now you’re taking this personally. Go back and read what I wrote.

    Your arguments were inadequate, but I never called you an idiot. You are making statements about a situation where some of the other commenters here know more about it than you do.

    “Because you were defending the use of the word “natural” in a way that renders it meaningless.”

    i was just pointing out what *i* think people have in mind when they use the adjective “natural” for food (or at least what i have in mind … but YES the word is often used a lame marketing argument, we agree on that, i never said the contrary).

    But it isn’t a lame marketing tool. It is a very effective marketing tool. If it didn’t work, it wouldn’t still be in use. If people didn’t permit themselves to be manipulated so easily by the marketing industry, it wouldn’t make a difference to sales, and they’d have to try something else.

    Words have different meanings depending on the context and insisting stubornly on the literal meaning with the “arsenic is natural” old joke is a poor way to argue against people who care about what they eat, as dave well expressed in his comment.

    I was not insisting that “natural” have a literal meaning. I was insisting that is must have some meaning, as opposed to no meaning at all.

    Besides, Dave didn’t really understand the argument, as I pointed out in my response to him.

    No wonder the skeptics community is so often seen as a bunch of cynic hateful smart-asses if that attitude is so widespread among its members…

    OK, now you are resorting to name-calling.

    Please cite the exact paragraph where my comments were hateful.

    I consider myself a skeptic yet i won’t chuckle at someone and call him stupid if he tells me he’s worried about “chemicals in his food”, i’ll know he refers to man made synthetical chemicals and i won’t go “water is a chemical too you tard!” (well i might, but as a joke, not as an actual counter argument).

    Precisely. As I have already pointed out, some gentle ragging is a very good way to open the debate. And you can take it as far as you choose from that point.

    The fact remains that using the word “chemical” to refer only to synthetic chemicals betrays a complete absence of understanding. Certain organisations (advertisers among them) have an interest in propagating and perpetuating this misunderstanding, because it allows them to make claims such as “100% chemical-free” without being reprimanded by the authorities. Thus, advertisers may make the claim in full knowledge that it is a lie, yet they get away with it because of the alleged “popular understanding” of the word.

    So then you end up with a word that has two contradictory meanings. I know that advertisers revel in ambiguity, but I despise it.

  57. Gary Ansorge

    “Organically grown food” is an acronym for food grown w/o pesticides or inorganic fertilizers.

    Currently of the 59,000,000 Km^2 of land area on planet earth, 40 % is under cultivation and that is barely enough to feed a hungry world population of nearly 7 billion.

    “Organically grown” SHOULD be more cost effective than than”regular grown” food, because the farmers don’t have the expense of inorganic fertilizers and pesticides, yet “organic” food costs more. Wanna know why? Because “organic” growth only produces 40 % as much food per/acre as “regular” food.

    If the whole world went to “organic” food, we’d likely lose about 50 % of the world population due to starvation.

    I guess I’ll have to stick with “regular” food.(just doing my bit to help the hungry).

    GAry 7

  58. @mitrax:

    You’re having a very serious problem, in that you youself have fallen for the marketing gimmick. “Natural” simply doesn’t mean healthy, nor does “Organic” mean safe and/or sustainable.

    Whether something is natural or unprocessed is in reality unrelated to whether it is healthy or fit for human consumption. Human artifice is actually quite capable of producing foods that are tastier, healthier, and potentially even both than foods found in nature. You are employing exactly this sort of artifice when you cook. Meanwhile, some things that humans have been clever enough to use for food are actually full-on kill-you-dead toxic in their natural state. Potatos used to be, but have been genetically engineered not to be. Soybeans still are. Fortunately, the toxins of both decompose to harmless components with just a little bit of heat (processing.)

    Modern industrial agriculture is actually more sustainable than organic agriculture, and non-organic-label food is both safer and cheaper than organic food. If you’re making a salad, you’re better off avoiding the organic food section.

    You’re right to want to avoid high levels of sugar and trans-fat, and it may well be true that organic- and natural- label items are more likely to have this property. They’re still red herrings that simply serve to muddy the debate. You don’t want natural or organic. You want foods low in sugars and trans fats. It’s as simple as that.

  59. @57 it’s also worth noting that organic farmers sometimes get suckered into buying “organic” pesticides and fertilizers, which don’t work as well and cost more.

  60. mitrax

    @Nigel

    “Well, now you’re taking this personally. Go back and read what I wrote. Your arguments were inadequate, but I never called you an idiot. You are making statements about a situation where some of the other commenters here know more about it than you do.”

    the other commenters being… you?… :) I’m aware you didn’t explictely call me an idiot, and i wasn’t refering specifically to our exchange, if i’m pissed it’s by the arrogant attitude and self-rigtheousness that transpires from many comments (yours included alright) who stereotype anyone who’s a little suspicious about what he/she ingests as a “new age” or “woo-woo” person and goes into, imho, sterile debates about the literal meaning of words.

    “No wonder the skeptics community is so often seen as a bunch of cynic hateful smart-asses if that attitude is so widespread among its members…”

    that wasn’t intended as an insult, i’m not saying you’re a cynical hateful smartass, you made some very valid points, but the “i know better, you don’t understand” attitude really make you (among others) sound like ones :p

  61. mitrax

    @JediBear

    “‘Natural’ simply doesn’t mean healthy, nor does “Organic” mean safe and/or sustainable.”

    Did i say anywhere one should feel safe if he sees a “Natural” label on a product? Certainly not… I just said many people use the term “natural *FOOD*” to refer to non [over]-processed/refined food. That’s a fact, ask around you, it’s intellectual dishonesty to deny it.

    Regarding “organic”, when applied to food it has a very specific meaning, as dave pointed out…

    “and non-organic-label food is both safer and cheaper than organic food”

    cheaper, of course, it’s not new news, safer on the other hand, i wonder what you base that on, please enlighten me.

  62. Old Rockin' Dave

    I think a point is being missed in all this back and forth. People of all levels of scientific sophistication want their food to be, above all, food.
    I am old enough to remember Marshall Efron on TV reading out the ingredients of a factory-produced frozen lemon cream pie that contained no lemons, no cream and no eggs. I cook a little and I have never used a recipe that called for high-fructose corn syrup or polysorbate 60. Even if you know your chemistry, even if you know the safety profile of food additives, even if you understand the realities of food manufacturing, shipping and processing, even if you believe yourself to be perfectly safe in eating these things, you probably feel it is on some level wrong. When Phil drew all those comments on his English food entry, I am sure no one was thinking of TBHQ or xanthan gum. Something tells me that the president of Kraft doesn’t sit down very often to Velveeta “cheese”.
    The concepts of natural and organic foods as they are commonly understood touches a nerve. Sure, lots of us eat manufactured and highly-processed foods, but we all yearn for real home cooking and I think few people actively disagree with the “slow food” concept.
    I don’t think there is anything wrong at all with the desire to eat what we conceive of as natural and organic foods. Nothing at all.

  63. Benny

    This comic perfectly captures many of my friends, and I found it hilarious. It is exactly the kind of attitude I run into all the time. Thanks for the link Phil!

  64. Nigel,stop assuming people are stupid. You’re misrepresenting my comment like Deepak Chopra misrepresents skeptics.

    The third definition of “mercurial” is “pertaining to, containing, or caused by the metal mercury.”

    And I said “high fructose corn syrup.” If you think that’s the same thing as fructose, you need to do some serious fact checking. Similarly, monosodium glutamate is NOT the same thing as glutamate. You can’t just ignore the words in a chemical’s name that you don’t like.

    Of course being labeled as “natural” or even “organic” doesn’t automatically mean it’s good for you. It’s a straw man argument because NO ONE IS CLAIMING THIS. Palm oil is natural, and yet it’s chock-full of saturated fats and unsustainably grown, so guess what? I avoid that ,too.

  65. Nigel Depledge

    Mitrax (60) said:

    if i’m pissed it’s by the arrogant attitude and self-rigtheousness that transpires from many comments (yours included alright) who stereotype anyone who’s a little suspicious about what he/she ingests as a “new age” or “woo-woo” person and goes into, imho, sterile debates about the literal meaning of words.

    But I’m not making any judgements about you as a person.

    All I am judging is the quality of the argument you are making. I find it wanting, to be frank.

    And, in case you missed it first time around, let me reiterate something I said (56) in response to one of your other comments (54):

    I was not insisting that “natural” have a literal meaning. I was insisting that is must have some meaning, as opposed to no meaning at all.

    My point is that, in permitting advertisers and marketers to get away with sloppy and slack use of language, we end up with words that, yes, in certain contexts, have become meaningless.

    The term “organic”, in relation to food, at least has a definition. I don’t like it, but that doesn’t mean I can’t accept that the language evolves.

    The term “natural”, OTOH, has been rendered meaningless by repeated abuse, not just in the context of foodstuffs, but also in reference to healthcare, personal hygiene products and probably a few other areas that I can’t think of at the moment.

    I agree with you that avoiding heavily-processed foods is better (for a variety of reasons, some of which I have stated already), but that has nothing to do with the word “natural”.

  66. mitrax

    @Nigel

    “All I am judging is the quality of the argument you are making. I find it wanting, to be frank.”

    Sorry to repeat myself over and over again but the main point i was trying to make in my initial post is that most people use the term “natural food” (yes, natural FOOD, not just ‘natural’) to refer to unprocessed and/or organic food and that it’s dishonest to deny it, do a quick poll among regular people (‘regular’ as in, not the staff of a biochemistry lab) and see for yourself.
    I totally agree that the adjective “natural” has been abused, but i maintain that in the context of food it’s not at all “meaningless” in the mind of most people contrary to what you claim… unless you and me live in separate realities or something.
    It really doesn’t matter if it’s right or wrong to use the adjective that way, when a large percentage of people misuse a word there’s no point in pretending you have no clue what they mean, or worse that themselves have no clue what they mean, which is exactly what the over reaharsed “arsenic is natural” ‘joke’ is all about, if it were only used as a gentle ragging as you said it would be fine, thing is, in practice it’s really not.
    My second point was that people shouldn’t be laughed at because they care about what they eat, and that too often the reasoning from the skeptics community is the following: many people are into esotheric stuff (i.e “woo-woos”) are also into organic/wholesome food, conclusion => it’s all a big lie or a marketing scam and it makes no sense.
    Now, i admit you have brought some valid scientific arguments to defend your point of view, and thanks for that, still, i’d rather debate with someone who doesn’t act as a professor of truth.

  67. Nigel Depledge

    Old Rockin Dave (62) said:

    I don’t think there is anything wrong at all with the desire to eat what we conceive of as natural and organic foods. Nothing at all.

    I agree with most of what you said in your comment, up to this point.

    What does “natural food” mean to you?

    How much processing is acceptable? What kinds of additives are acceptable?

    Most synthetic food additives are merely replicating naturally-occurring substances by a cheaper and more efficient process. Are these acceptable? If not, why not?

    If you want to eat a more “natural” diet, you must first define what that means.

  68. Nigel Depledge

    Mitrax (65) said:

    most people use the term “natural food” (yes, natural FOOD, not just ‘natural’) to refer to unprocessed and/or organic food

    You may well be right but that doesn’t make the thinking any less woolly.

    How much processing is acceptable before food becomes “unnatural”?

    Go see my response (33) to Leander’s comment for a more detailed breakdown of this question.

    My point all along is that the entire concept of “natural food” is too vague and woolly. If you try to parse out a meaning, you end up getting nowhere, because no-one is able to define it. The term is genuinely meaningless.

  69. Phil wrote:

    “As I am fond of pointing out, arsenic is an element, one of the basic building blocks of all of nature. You don’t get any more natural than that, but I’d probably avoid buying any food with that on its label.”

    Yes, but arsenic isn’t ORGANIC.

    Now CYANIDE, on the other hand …

    But seriously, folks:

    I suspect that a lot of the objection to “artificial” foods comes from three things:

    1) The artificial FLAVORS first introduced in the middle of the century were not very good approximations of their natural equivalents. (We’re getting better at it, though.) And if artificial flavors taste bad, then artificial anything must also automatically be bad.

    2) There have been a few (VERY few) cases of synthetic food additives with big long scary-sounding chemical names that have had ill health effects — and several cases of questionably-supported health scares involving such additives. The more you hear on the grapevine that artificial ingredients cause cancer/impotence/near-sightedness, the more likely you are to believe it out of caution.

    3) Artificial ingredients tend to be less expensive than the ingredients they replace. Snobs that we are, we don’t want to sully ourselves with “cheap” food. We want expensive GOURMET macaroni and cheese, dog gone it!

  70. Old Rockin' Dave

    Nigel Depledge says:
    “If you want to eat a more “natural” diet, you must first define what that means.”
    The short answer is, no, I don’t have to, any more than I have to define pornography to know whether I want to watch it.
    He also asks:
    “How much processing is acceptable? What kinds of additives are acceptable?”
    The long answer is “it depends.” How hungry am I? What’s available and what can I afford? How much time do I have to prepare and how much to eat in?
    The short answer is “less is better”. To expand on that, the principle should be that on the whole fewer, and less of, synthetic ingredients is preferable. Less processing is preferable.
    I don’t need a definition of a natural diet to prefer a farmhouse Stilton to “processed American cheese food”, for example.
    I don’t make a cult out of it. I have been seen in Mickey D’s. I drank a Coke today, high-fructose corn syrup, sodium benzoate and all. I would miss them if they disappeared from the Earth tomorrow. There is even some value to having foods available that are predictable and identical from Bangor to San Diego. But I cannot for the life of me see them as better than or preferable to or even the equal of less-processed, less-standardized, less-manufactured products.
    Oh, and by the way, try making your mac and cheese from scratch with really good pasta and a sharp Vermont or New York cheddar. You can taste the difference.

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