As I write, there is a severe heatwave in Europe – some parts have recorded temperatures of 46°C and today it is 37°C at home. With no air conditioning, I had planned a simple low-effort review of recent scientific research papers – but it turned out interesting news is unusually sparse this month.

Perhaps the best item is about how eating crickets can benefit health by promoting a claimed 570% increase of Bifdobacterium animalis in the human gastrointestinal microbiota, along with reducing tumour necrosis factor (alpha) in plasma fluids. But this is probably of not much interest unless you enjoy ingesting insects in the Gryllidae family.

An inconclusive paper from my old university in London suggested both mid-life alcohol abstinence and drinking more than 14 units a week increases the chances of dementia in old age. Also every extra seven units a week above 14 units allegedly raises risk of dementia by an additional 17%. Although the study covered 9,087 civil servants over a period of 23 years, it did not cover items such as hereditary and other relevant lifestyle factors.

Another paper investigated how treating mice with the drug, D-threo-1-phenyl-2-decanoylamino-3-morpholino-1-propanol (D-PDMP), helped them reverse loss of fur and skin damage due to very fatty diets. Apparently it is hoped D-PDMP may one day cure humans suffering from hair loss and blotchy skin developed from eating too much fatty food. Sigh.

What we think of when we think of food

However, D-PDMP made me think about why people often have odd food habits which lead to conditions which need garish cures. And this recalls an earlier article about how we make choices: “What we think of (when we think of food”.

In particular it reminded me of one curious response which is crucial in the dietary habits of people. If humans did not have this response, it would be impossible for many people to enjoy many foods. It is called denialism, and we are all affected by it in some way, especially as food is often marketed in ways to promote denialism.

denialism

Sure it’s fried now, but how were the chicken raised?

Without denialism, many people will find it difficult to eat meat. For the same reason, many people also find it difficult to eat only vegetables. It is a bizarre response – in the first case, people have to deny the existence of extreme animal cruelty in commercial farms, and in the second case, they deny that vegetables provide sufficient nutrition which does not need to be supplemented.

Perception

I am not pointing out moral inconsistencies as this is a science-based column. Denialism also exists in science, though the motives are usually financial and therefore science denialism is often sponsored. A classic example is the tobacco industry, which promoted denialism of lung cancer for decades, even though the evidence was irrefutable.

Anatomy of engineered denialism

So let us examine the formal methods for promoting denialism, for the same techniques apply to food and our lives in general. These techniques are normally used in various combinations and the impact can range from inconsequential to devastating.

Conspiracies

One method is advocating that a conspiracy exists to prevent you from having something beneficial. An example is to convince people to avoid proper cancer treatments, because there is some secret “miracle” drug which doctors do not want you to know about because “doctors would not make as much money”.

A variation is offering access to a “patented” formula or “unique” product unavailable to others who cannot afford to pay for such a special commodity. You usually see this technique used also to sell expensive, often pointless food supplements (or “ionised” alkaline water machines).

Unwarranted plausibility

The second method is false plausibility. Commercials often portray actors in pristine clinics dressed in lab coats nodding sagely as models gush about the wonders of some toothpaste, mouthwash, diet plan, etc. This plays on a curious trait in most people called the Agentic Shift, which is the propensity to shift our usual reliance on self-responsibility away to a person perceived to be in authority. That is why most of us often unquestioningly follow directions given by people in uniforms, or who we think have a higher authority or relevant status. This trait was investigated by Stanley Milgram at Yale in 1963 in an experiment which measured how far people would go to hurt another unknown human if simply ordered to do so by a “person of authority”. If you are curious, the answer is: Too Far (65% of test subjects would inflict a 450-volt electric shock on another human on command).

The use of fake experts is not unknown in promoting “scientific research” on whatever they are selling. It is common for several fake “experts” to band together in an association, group or a website address and validate each other’s dubious claims or results. An early example is the “Committee for Freedom of Choice in Medicine”, mentioned in “What lies in our diet – Part 1”. A disturbing trend is “astroturfing”, where vested interests create fake grassroots support for their abhorrent agendas under misleading names. The term astroturfing refers to the practice of laying false plastic lawns to replace real grass. Example is the “American Council on Science and Health” funded by fracking companies, sugary drinks producers, e-cigarette suppliers, chemical firms, etc, working together to create plausibility for things you should not want.

denialism

Does it really work?

Selective data

Yet another denialism method is selectivity. You are presented with beneficial research data about some product. You are not informed the data is 40 to 50 years old. The seller also omits to mention later research has comprehensively disproved the claimed benefits. A classic case is the Eskimo Diet, which some people believe even today because it is still heavily marketed. Read about this in “Give fat a chance”.

Another version is using “cherry-picked” results. As an example, test outcomes on a skin cream may report that a product resulted in improvement in 8% of test cases, no change in 88% and death in 4% of the total test subjects. The ineffectual and death rates are ignored and the compound is simply marketed as “clinically proven to improve” the skin.

Selectivity relies on the fact that people often do not have time to investigate every claim in detail.

As an aside (I hope this does not give too much away), many beauty creams are actually pointless compounds and scents incorporated into aqueous cream. I sometimes need moisturiser and a half-litre tub of aqueous cream costing €3 will last for many months – it can also be shared with my dog.

The impossible

Impossible expectation of proof is another technique to discredit valid opinions. Quite often used in science, an example may be, “How can you be sure about global warming today when thermometers did not exist 1,000 years ago?” The answer, by the way, is extrapolation from geological fauna data which indicated the conditions of life going back millions of years.

A variation is discrediting people more qualified to have an opinion. It often uses anecdotes, such as, “What does a doctor know compared to great-grandma who is 93 and completely healthy? So drink this boiled cockroach soup now!” If you think that is an unlikely example, it happened to me during an illness when I was young. Great-grandma died soon after.

Irrelevance

Years ago, New York City tried to restrict super-sized portions of profoundly unhealthy fast foods and sugary drinks in an attempt to reduce obesity, heart disease and diabetes. In response, the food industry got together and strongly marketed the message that such a ban is an unfair restriction of the right to make a choice on what to eat. Such a message provoked a denialism response against a well-intentioned and beneficial initiative, which was then perceived as a violation of the right to choose. The restriction was revoked.

You see this also portrayed in video or visual advertisements. For example, healthy-looking families with big smiles and slim bodies scrambling happily over a bucket of fried chicken, or some glamorous model suggesting you are worth the price for an expensive cosmetic you do not need – where is the relevance? The aspirational, pretty images simply distract from the fact healthy families do not often eat fried chicken and cosmetics have no influence over natural beauty due to genetics.

Back to food

So what do we deny most in our food? A lot – as without denialism we probably cannot enjoy our food so much.

Using the earlier example of meat, people have to deny extreme animal cruelty, especially when buying cheap meat (which is what is mostly sold). They also have to deny animal husbandry is probably the single largest human-related producer of greenhouse gases, which leads to global warming. Then they have to deny that cheap meats are usually contaminated with antibiotics and other chemicals, leading to possible health issues later. And so on. Most people can do this.

Also, despite all the information available, many people still deliberately maintain excessively calorific diets, hence denying the complications of obesity. But on the plus side, D-PDMP might one day help them look better.


Curious Cook appears on the second and fourth Sunday of the month.