Food Fads and Facts


The One-Hundred-Percent Natural, Purely Organic, Cholesterol-Free, Megavitamin, Low-Carbohydrate Nutrition Hoax, by Elizabeth Whelan and Fredrick J. Stare, New York: Atheneum, 1983, 302 pp., $14.95.

A glassy-eyed, unshaven individual who believed in a conspiracy to manipulate and to poison him would be rushed off to a psychiatrist. Yet nutritionists of antiestablishment credentials are peddling just such delusions to the mass market, accusing the barons of industry of poisoning America. The motive: profit. By subtracting nutrients and adding chemicals to our food, they fatten their bank accounts as they cause aging, cancer, and even crime.

Elizabeth Whelan, director of the New York-based American Council on Science and Health, and Fredrick Stare, founder of Harvard University's Department of Nutrition, analyze the facts and the psychology of these claims, beginning with the motive. While donning the mask of the little guy who challenges the conglomerates, the hustlers are raking in the money, they note. The wormy apples at the corner health food store may cost twice as much as the more attractive ones at the chain supermarket. Bottled and filtered Pacific Ocean commands $1.95 a quart, only 10 miles from the shore. Royalties to the writers of fad diet books, containing much worthless and even harmful advice, total millions of dollars, with no deductions for malpractice insurance.

Though many ideas of the food faddists appear to be novel, Whelan and Stare show that salvation was thought to reside in brown grains and other wonder foods even in the last century. Sylvester Graham, who "preached the fear of eating the wrong food along with the fear of God" is immortalized in the Graham cracker. Today we worry about crime rather than sin. That junk food consumption predisposed the accused to crime has actually been argued in court (the "Twinkie defense").

In the near-hysteria over the alleged dangers of food additives, people often forget the real benefits. They fear cancer from nitrites more than the deadly botulism these compounds prevent, even though the single study that raised the suspicion of nitrites' cancer-causing capacity came to erroneous conclusions, prematurely released. A review showed that the rats that consumed the nitrite had fewer cancers. The nitrite controversy also illustrates how the panic-mongers tend to lose perspective; only 5 percent of our nitrite intake comes from food additives—the remainder comes from natural sources such as saliva and normal intestinal bacteria.

Although "artificial" additives are evil, naturally occurring impurities are assumed to be good. Anything white or refined (and hence more pure) becomes "empty calories." Actually, some natural contaminants are beneficial. Strict vegetarian Hindus suffer vitamin B12 deficiency in England—but not in India, because of the insect parts adulterating the food in their native land. On the other hand, the "natural" arsenic in kelp and the lead in bone meal are quite poisonous.

While condemning additives, the experts in health food stores offer many "supplements," labeled "natural" though obviously processed into pills. People are ordinarily outraged by the prospect of being a "guinea pig"—unless the experiment happens to involve an herb or a newly discovered "vitamin." The toxicity of megadose vitamins, not well publicized, is outlined in chart form by Whelan and Stare.

Some experimental evidence links diet to risk of various diseases, especially hypertension and coronary artery disease. After reviewing the studies, the authors conclude that drastic change in Americans' diet is not indicated. Although individuals at high risk may benefit from certain dietary modifications, factors such as smoking and obesity are far more important. Evidence that childhood behavior disorders may improve on special diets is conflicting and far from overwhelming. The crusade against sugar as an addicting cause of all varieties of misery is largely based on nonsense. Glucose is a physiologic necessity. Furthermore, the much-maligned presweetened breakfast cereal contains less sugar per serving (11 grams) than the average apple (17 grams).

Besides debunking the latest fads, including the Cambridge diet, the authors provide sound nutritional advice. Their book is an exemplar of rational scientific thinking, which must weigh risk and benefit and demand controlled, reproducible studies. The general advice on how to recognize a quack is timeless. I shall use this book as a resource for my patients and only wish it had an index in addition to the detailed table of contents. It deserves wide reading by teachers of science and home economics, as well as by the general public.

While "public interest" groups generally hail Naderite accusations against business, however unsupported the charges, Whelan and Stare's long-standing efforts to repair deplorable deficiencies in the public's knowledge of health matters have been rewarded with disdain and even legal counterattack. In December 1978 the National Nutritional Foods Association, a health-food trade group, along with several health-food store owners, filed a $1.3-million libel suit against Whelan and Stare, charging that their syndicated newspaper column, their previous book (Panic in the Pantry), and an article in Harper's Bazaar evidenced a conspiracy to harm the health-food promoters' reputation. The suit was dismissed in 1980, after much expense and disruption of the authors' work. Harassment and intimidation are the only weapons the health-food faddists could muster against the relentless logic of these scientists.

Jane Orient is an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine.