Nutri-BS #2

There is a vast amount of nutritional information bollocks in the world. Far more than I could ever comment upon. But in this series of posts, I am trying. If you haven't yet, head back and read my first post on this topic, in which I discuss low fat foods, the media, calorie equality, intolerance, and cleansing your insides. Most importantly remember that if you disagree I'd love to hear it, but I'd like to see some references.

Throughout, you will see reference numbers in [brackets], go to the post end to see where its from. I will be adding these over time.
"Abadiñoko uhazak" by Luis Angel Rodriguez - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Organics Aren't Any Better for You

Organics are a tricky one. Opinions range from the idea that eating non-organic produce is akin to sipping bleach off of a soup spoon, to the idea that organics is an expensive crock full of (near literal) s***. It is, however, the item on this list that'll you'll see me be least critical about, as my feelings are mixed.

In its most basic form, your decision on organics should come down to your fears about pesticides and sustainability. There is no convincing evidence that organic food is more nutritious or even more delicious [1][2]. It is more expensive and harder to create for sure. Those are not the same thing. 

When it comes to pesticides, whilst non-organics do have more exposure they are still well below the conservative limits set by government in the vast majority of sampling [3]. Organic does not promise that your food wasn't exposed to chemicals, just that they weren't exposed to non-natural pesticides deliberately. Natural pesticides have been implicated in some illnesses [4] and I view their use as another conflation of the natural-makes-it-healthy fallacy. I'd actually be a tad more inclined to trust the non-natural lot. They've been used longer and therefore their effects have been tested for longer. Trace pesticides, natural or not, can be much lessened by a good hard scrub. but I understand that's a touch time-consuming.

Organics are also often imports- its easier to in those conditions grow abroad. Is environmental sustainability and local business support more important than organics? That's up to you. I've talked before about welfare and the meat industry and it will come up again, but there is some suggestion that organic livestock could be better treated, and some contrasting evidence that they are treated worse, due to the banning of using certain medications. Organic proponents suggest treating ill animals with homeopathy. I'm sure you can tell what I think of that. 

What about GMOs? Genetic modifiation may sound like a Frankensteinian horror crime, but everything has been genetically modified including you, your food, and your designer dog. They're created in the lab, but pretty close to selective breeding. 

Sugar by Any Other Name is Still as Sweet

I also considered the title: 'You Cannot Have Your Agave Cake and Eat It Too'. You will see exponential numbers of healthy living blogs using agave, or maple syrup, as sweeteners in food recipes, particularly in healthified cakes. We already know that added sugar products are pretty bad for us, but this is healthy sugar... right? This is proper, smug, Gerson method* style sugar... isn't it?

Oh honey, I'm so very sorry. Lets go back to basics. Agave nectar or syrup is a sweetener derived commercially from a plant. Isn't that lovely and natural. I hope you have guessed by now that nothing is. Its created by either filtering, heating to break polysaccharides into simple sugars- mostly fructose), then concentrating that juice (not so lovely and natural)... or by using mould enzymes to convert it to fructose [5]. Either way, your result is flavoured fructose. More fructose per weight than high-fructose corn syrup has in it [6]. And that stuff has it literally there in the name. Arguably corn syrup is being more honest.

Again, like I commented in the last nutri-BS, the nature of calories then comes in to play. Once again these are sugars divorced from their fiber. That could damage your system in a multitude of ways. Moreover, these sugars have a lessened effect on satiety (or your brain's perception of satiety), so you wont even feel like you had a luxury food treat. Poor show, agave, poor show.

The Effects of Heat are Not Predictable

I covered this idea briefly in my blender post. The idea that cooking or heating food changes its nutrition. It does. Damnit Australia- first the terrifying spiders, then the igniting forests, now we have useless nutrition food due to your beautiful climate. Wait, don't go sobbing into your amazing Bondi-beach abs yet, the fact that food is changed by heating does not make it meaningless.

Again, like the blender chat it just isn't that simple. Heating tomatoes till they are tomato juice may increase their lycopene content, but only at certain temperatures and heating times [7]. Lycopene is one of those miracle nutrients- cancer fighter, pole vaulter, essential dietary aid [8]. You know the ones. In carrots and corn, beta-carotene rises as they are cooked [9]. A shame, as cooked carrots suck. 

Heat tends to break down structure, that can definitely destroy some nutrients (particularly those that are water soluble- vitamin C for example would plummet, so don't cook your oranges like West), but it can release others. If cooking stuff will make you eat your veggies, go right ahead. A couple of weeks ago I made a soup with 400g of spinach in it. Even if those nutrients are degraded, I would never have eaten anything over 100g of spinach in one meal ever. I bet 400g cooked could beat up the raw 100g (Popeye style... this is spinach after all). 

The Problem with Paleo

Paleo is not the be-all end-all diet bonanza that it has been pushed as. We should be inherently suspicious given how marketable paleo is for a start. I'll start us off by pointing out that cavemen weren't exactly the healthiest of folks. However, as we all know that is a scientifically fallacious argument (disease, hunting etc probably lowered their life expectancy quite effectively), so lets leave that be. Odd to build a diet theory on an evolutionary textbook about only one period of human history, mind.

Consider this though, Paleolithic people hunted and gathered through necessity, spending massive amounts of energy resource to collect food. Our food comes to our door in Tesco crates or from the boot of a car with 30 minutes worth of wandering around M&S. Maybe we don't need the energy they did. The nutritional content of animal flesh has also changed beyond recognition, given the corn-fed, factory farmed livestock. Do you hunt your wild deer for dinner? If not, you really aren't eating Paleo, no matter what Grr Caveman faces you make in the mirror. We need less meat than Paleo provides- both because that meat has changed and because we have changed

The high meat-grade, high vegetable-grade face of modern paleo also smacks of well, privilege. The privilege to afford all that quality meat and fish and vegetation. This huge, rich, sexy and muscled popularity based on people liking the goddamn marketing. 

I'm also highly skeptical of its random demonisation. No added sugar? I'm on board! Lots of vegetables? Go right ahead! No potatoes? ... ... Wait, what did potatoes ever do to you?! ... ... Why the legume hatred?

Most importantly for me, where are the big studies showing Paleo to be a preferred nutritional option? Because I cannot find any. 

Vitamin Waters and Other Fake Health Drinks

This is my ending pot-shot at a very easy target. Vitamin water (I don't mean the one brand, I mean all of them) is the biggest scam of nonsense I have ever heard in my entire days. Would you like some nicely flavoured water, with a tinge of added vitamins? Add some lemon, or some cucumber and ginger, or maybe some strawberries to the good old Loch Katrine tap water we are so blessed with in Scotland (sorry England, its tasty up here). Would you like some sugar water with a side dose of misplaced glow? Buy a vitamin water and feel the chemicals stream in.

Their sugar content is high, their chemical list long, the absorption of the included synthetic vitamins highly questionable. Moreover, taking those vitamins in a different way would be hugely advantageous. To me, the real evil in these is the marketing as an alternative to clean water. They aren't. Don't buy them. If you want a fruity junk drink, just own up to yourself and buy a fanta. 

That brings me to my last point. All this nutritional ranting makes it seem like I'm a nutrition perfectionist. Nothing could be further from the truth. What I am, however, is not into companies lying to me, and not into lying to myself. I eat things that are bad for me. But I know damn well they are bad for me. Some of them are completely worth it- that fudgey gooey brownie? Full of sugars, fats, artery choking. Worth it. Drinking half-flavoured water that is pretending to do me good? So not worth it. 


Any opinions?

Whats your favourite Nutri-BS?- I will try to cover it next time!

As always, if anyone has any scientific objection or addition, please do let me know!

* I cannot cover it with any proper attention here but the Gerson method is dangerous, poisonous snake oil science. It is literally completely The Worst.

7. Takeoka et al (2001).Processing effects on lycopene content and antioxidant activity of tomatoes. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 49(8), 3713–3717; Zanoni et al (2003). Modeling the effect of thermal sterilization on the quality of tomato puree. Journal of Food Engineering, 56, 203–206; Shi et al (2008). Effect of heating and exposure to light on the stability of lycopene in tomato purée. Food Control, Vol 19, Issue 5, pp 514–520. 
8. Nguyen and Schwartz, 1999 and Stahl and Sies, 1992


  1. I don't disagree with you but I can see how you could strengthen your arguments even further by referencing some studies, especially when you ask for counter-arguments to be backed up with "cold hard facts".

    1. Thanks for commenting! I completely and totally agree; and should really fill in the citations. Honestly? I'm just being lazy- I spend a lot of days citing stuff so I got lazy on the blog. I will fill some in tomorrow!

  2. Think you've highlighted the dangers of limited knowledge and lazy/reductive media really well.

    1. Thanks Jeff; yeah I really do blame the media, the lack of science accessibility and the seeming need to disect scientific findings down to catchy half-truths

  3. Another fantastic post! I knew vitamin water was a load of BS.....I just didn't realise HOW much BS. Some interesting facts about organic products too, now I won't feel as guilty for not buying them :-)

    1. I know, I always think oh god I never wash things, I should really buy organic. But from my reading it may not help. I may just need to remember to wash the dang grapes!

  4. That vitamin water shit is ridiculous, it is just sugar water, and don't get me started on agave- I think it's evil stuff! I am sure there was a recent study that came out that showed that organic food was actually more nutrient rich etc, but I would have to go back and find it.

    1. Ooh thanks Lauren, I will go give this a search!

  5. This is a really cool, well-written post. I particularly enjoy reading about how heat makes a difference to nutrients. Having never drunk any dietary kool aid other than 'eat less, do more' I'm not up to speed on why people do or don't cook things certain ways (or not at all) and what the claimed benefits (or otherwise are).
    I agree with the point Vikki made up top though - with actual studies cited for back up the post would have some real clout, and further reading on topics is always useful.

    1. Thanks Rhona. Heating/chopping and nutrition is actually super interesting and I'd love to look into it more.

      I agree with Vikki too. I will start adding refs to this and nutri BS 1!

  6. Lots of thumbs up from me for this post because I LOVE this kind of thing...I mean one of my favourite lectures at uni was about spirulina in a sports nutrition module, along the lines of "come on guys it's just pond scum"
    Unfortunately,not everyone has the time or can be bothered/actually knows enough about what nutrition should look like to make a valued judgement. So well done for summing it up!
    Actually, can you also do something about WHY SPORTS CENTRES ALWAYS HAVE CHOCOLATE VENDING MACHINES. This irritates me no end. Talk about targeting people at their most vulnerable 'ooh well I have just been to the gym' moment...flipping marketing and its cleverness.

    1. Yes! its so mean! And tillside treats in supermarkets too- advertising and accessibility are evil but super, super effective. Its crazy.

      I use Spirulina in some smoothies but I love that, "Come on, its pond scum" ha ha!